Checkin’ in with…Robert Scarano, Brooklyn’s ‘bad boy’ architect

Starchitect Enrique Norten builds his dream house in Slope
TEN Arquitectos

For all the growth that has taken place during the last building boom, Brooklyn has nothing to be proud of, architecturally speaking, that is, claims one of the borough’s most prolific and controversial architects. Robert Scarano cashed in during the boom, saying he netted 600 commissions per year at its peak. Now in the midst of the bust that leaves him with no new jobs on the horizon, Scarano checked in with The Brooklyn Paper’s Mike McLaughlin and unloaded on everybody — the tasteless builders, the untalented architects, the whiney neighbors and, of course, Bruce Ratner.

Mike McLaughlin: Other architects in Brooklyn are in the news — namely Frank Gehry — but you haven’t been at the center of the storm. How is business going?

Robert Scarano: We went from booking 600 jobs a year in 2006 and 2007 to basically doing zero.

MM: No wonder I was able to get you on the phone. So what do you think of Frank Gehry’s dismissal from Atlantic Yards and the Kansas City firm Ellerbe Becket, the architect replacing him?

RS: Why can’t we get a guy from New York to do it? Gehry’s designs, as magnificent as they are, are not for the faint of heart. They’re only for those with an unlimited budget. When they’re wildly overpriced to begin with, the real drama comes later when there are 80 percent cost escalations. [Forest City Ratner] brought him in to be the main star guy and he had a shelf life, as did Daniel Liebeskind at the World Trade Center. When that shelf life was up, they let him go.

Architecture “bad boy” Robert Scarano.

MM: OK so its no Gehry, but will Ellerbe Becket’s arena be a notable addition to Brooklyn?

RS: It’s a much simpler building. It’s a more buildable job. It has some aesthetic qualities, even though critics already dubbed it the airport hanger. One problem is the arena building will be in the foreground [of Atlantic Yards]. It’s not a great anchor, because it’s a lower-scale building.

MM: What are its aesthetic qualities?

RS: It’s not so obvious how the interplay of the façade materials will interact with the pedestrian space — that’s where the action’s going to be before and after the games. If they could speak to that scene, it could bring some life to the street. Fortunately, it looks quite open. Gehry did this in a more glorified version. This design speaks to the criticism people have of the “new” Fourth Avenue where they put up solid street walls and no storefronts. They isolated the street scene from the buildings. And that had been the case with some of the buildings in Metrotech [another Ratner development]. It creates a sterile environment of blank walls and no activity.

MM: There’s been a lot of other high profile construction near the Atlantic Yards. What do you think of the Downtown boom?

He loves the Toren…
Skidmore Owings & Merrill

RS: The Oro [on Gold Street] is a typical 1980s design and it doesn’t speak well for the skyline. But the Toren

[on Flatbush Avenue Extension at Myrtle Avenue] is not a bad job.

MM: You don’t like what you’ve seen on Fourth Avenue or in Downtown Brooklyn? Has anyone built any architectural marvels in Brooklyn in the last 10 years?

RS: Unfortunately, I don’t know if we got anything. The Enrique Norten building [a proposed performing arts library] that they never started would have been a good project.

MM: Norten’s other project — a residential complex in Park Slope is on the rocks, too.

Of course, he loves his own buildings (like this one on Richardson Street in Williamsburg).
Scarano Architects

RS: That design is as non-contextual as you get when you look at the way it’s towering over the brownstones and its fenestration patterns. And now the developer is asking for permission to build three extra townhouses on the site, because it’s unprofitable without them! That’s the problem you have when developers take on these noted architects who have the luxury of designing whatever they want. They’re bringing their customers [the developers] down a road that has no end. In this case, it doesn’t make sense financially. I was criticized for trying to make my buildings 20-percent bigger and this guy is trying to get three extra buildings! Still, I don’t necessarily disagree with what they’re doing. You have to move the neighborhood along. Richard Meier tried to do that [with his On Prospect Park tower]. Not that I’m a tremendous fan of Meier’s either. There’s a tremendous slavery to Modernism in what he’s doing. But at least they’re trying to raise the bar and that’s what we’re trying to do, too. We want to take these mundane little lots and put some jewels on them.