“Don’t be afraid—it’s only Brooklyn.” That was Jay-Z’s shouted message to the Barclays Center crowd one night during his run of sold-out shows scheduled to celebrate the opening of the new arena. It’s unclear which aspect of the booming, ever-more-gentrified borough he thought might scare the audience; the lights were all killed at the moment he spoke, and the interior as designed by New York’s SHoP Architects is black-on-black, so perhaps it was just the dark? But in the context of that building, on that site, the implications of the remark felt much broader.

Fear has been a constant at the Atlantic Yards, an enormous development-in-progress that spans the open cut of a rail terminal at one of Brooklyn’s major crossroads. Since 2003, when the block-closing, eminent domain–wielding, multi-use project was first unveiled, there has been constant, litigious, and at times very effective resistance, principally from spooked residents of Fort Green, Prospect Heights, and Park Slope—the neighborhoods adjacent. There was fear that their houses and businesses would be demolished (some were). There was fear that the original designs proposed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, would be out of place (he’s only involved in a planning capacity now, so we’ll never know). There was even fear that mainstream glamour at the scale proposed—an alien zone of towering condos with a shiny new basketball arena at its heart—might undermine Brooklyn’s hard-won reputation for leafy, laid-back cool.

The developer, Brooklyn’s own Bruce Ratner, had his fears too. In 2009, with filing deadlines to meet and an expiring tax rule looming at the end of the year, he began to worry that the competent but mundane arena proposed by Ellerbe Becket (now AECOM), would not make it through the then fully politicized public approvals process. “Ellerbe is the expert in stadia, arenas,” Ratner said when I spoke to him in October. “They’re not design architects.”

So Ratner called a friend for advice. “When I sat in the arena the night Jay-Z opened and I thought of everyone who had been a part of this,” he said, “the name that kept flashing in my mind was David Childs.” Childs, FAIA, had surprised Ratner by suggesting SHoP, a respected firm then and very well known, but sometimes still thought of more as promising than accomplished. Ratner was skeptical. “I didn’t know if they were large enough or experienced enough to do a civic project of this magnitude,” he says. “We took a chance.”

Despite some early reports likening the Barclays Center to “an angry clam” or “a rusty alligator skull” (The New York Times requested and received dozens of nicknames from readers), Ratner’s gamble has paid off in a decidedly un-fearsome building. Architecturally at least—the jury is still out on local crowding and post-game mayhem—it is a very good neighbor. The sidewalks are partially sheltered and lined with benches and new retail, including a cross-branded flagship for Jay-Z’s Rocawear and a brand standards–busting Starbucks cleverly detailed in repurposed gym flooring. Not very New Brooklyn, perhaps, all that mainstream branding and re-branding. But inside the Barclays Center, the concessions are rich in the precious local fare. And the building is bringing big entertainment (Leonard Cohen! Barbara Streisand! Rush!) and two pro teams (the Islanders recently announced that they would join the Brooklyn Nets there; the arena has the capacity to transform into an ice hockey rink to support them) to a Manhattan-averse populace who would otherwise have to brave a trip to the enduring awfulness of Madison Square Garden.

Even the aggrieved neighbors may come to admit in time that this smart new building is better than a big, dumb hole in the ground. And the smartest, most neighborly move of all? The pre-weathered raw-steel exoskeleton that wraps the body of the arena—the feature that had observers reaching for dramatic similes in the first place.

It is, at its roots, a deeply functional structure. Not in the usual sense—it doesn’t keep out the rain; it doesn’t hold anything up—but in terms of psychology, experience, and urbanism. The bones of Ellerbe’s arch-roofed stadium, a design derived from its Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, were largely a given when SHoP first got the job: The steel had already been ordered. Ratner, to his credit, recognized that the bland brick exteriors (also harkening back to Indianapolis) wouldn’t fly here; a retail development across Atlantic Avenue had gone the banal route decades earlier and has been loudly detested since. So he asked Childs, and then called SHoP.

Over the life of the job, SHoP’s purview came to encompass the whole interior—the building reads and performs as an organic whole—but at first the firm was a little hamstrung by the arrangement. So it made the steel exoskeleton do everything—create a suitable identity for the arena, manage its scale, turn inside as a soffit that gives the major concourses an urbane character and a strict structural meter that really classes up the joint. And then finally (adding new steel that Ellerbe never dreamed of) reaching out away from the mass of the building in a prodigious cantilever, 225 feet wide and 85 feet deep, at the entrance.

The gesture is appropriately monumental. Through it, the building becomes a celebratory civic icon in the grand manner, especially when the construction is seen from below as one emerges from the matching subway entrance on the far side of a broad new public plaza. It also stretches one’s impression of the massing, easing it into the gently sloping hillside site. From afar, the shadow-banded, rust-brown exterior serves to further undercut the arena’s bulk, letting it settle, in color as well as scale, into the predominant fabric. The huge LED sign lining the interior faces of a basketball-court-sized aperture in the cantilever plays the same game: It lords over the plaza, a little Times Square sizzle for a corner of Brooklyn that can take it, but it recedes from view, largely concealed behind the raw steel façade, at the neighborhood scale. “We were trying to match the tonalities of Brownstone Brooklyn in a gritty, natural material,” SHoP principal Gregg Pasquarelli, AIA, says. “Why should an arena have to look like a glitzy shopping mall or an airport?”

Judging from the proliferation of nicknames, the public fear of Barclays’s grit may still be out there. (“What’s a piece of architecture if people aren’t talking about it?” counters Jonathan Mallie, a firm principal and managing director of SHoP Construction.) But Bruce Ratner’s fears are long gone. Any lingering anxiety vanished during the construction process as SHoP deployed well-integrated data systems, including a proprietary iPhone app that allowed delivery and installation progress to be rendered and tracked in real time, to marshal the 12,000 unique façade panels into place. “They know how to make technology work for them: I would sit there and watch their app all the time,” Ratner says. “We got a firm that was extra­ordinary, and we got them at a time when they were blossoming.”

Barclays Center
Project Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Client Forest City Ratner Companies 
Architect SHoP Architects, New York—Christopher R. Sharples, AIA, William W. Sharples, AIA, Coren D. Sharples, AIA, Kimberly J. Holden, AIA, Gregg A. Pasquarelli, AIA, Jonathan Mallie, AIA (principals); Ayumi Sugiyama, AIA, Nadine Berger, Christopher Lee, Adam Modesitt (project managers); Sean Bailey, Assoc. AIA, Zach Downey, Rajiv Fernandez, Dickson Fogelman, Youngmoo Hur, Isaiah King, Jan Leenknegt, Tim Martone, Paul Miller, Krista Ninivaggi, Anabelle Pang, Gene Pasquarelli, Daniel Plonski, Brandon Quattrone, Mariano Recalde, Ryan Salvas, Lisa Schwert, Todd Sigaty, Zack Snyder, Tiffany Taraska, Maria Wong, Georgia Wright, Wontae Yang, Bill Yeung (design team); SHoP Construction, New York—Brian Sweeney, John Cerone (project managers); Peter Adams, Tomek Bartczak, Lindsey Cohen, Jon David, Russell Davies, Adham ElGhatit, Jesse Embley, Adam Gerber, Alexis Gonzalez, Konrad Graser, John Gulliford, Kyla Farrell, Asmita Jani, Julie Jira, Emily Johnson, Taek Kim, Mathew Kirkham, Alexis Lenza, Steve London, Tom McInerney, Mark Ours, Ildiko Ozavath, Mark Pollock, Joseph Reyes, Jason Roberts, Luke Smith, Foteinos Soulos, Hashim Sulieman, Assoc. AIA, Caroline Young (team)
Architect of Record AECOM; Ellerbe Beckett
Design Builder Hunt Construction Group
Structural Engineer Thornton Tomasetti; Stantec (plaza)
M/E/P Engineer WSP Flack + Kurtz
ADA Consultant McGuire Associates
Acoustical Engineer Acoustical Design Group
Audiovisual Parsons; WJHW
Code Consultant FP&C Consultants

Façade Consultant ASI Limited; SHoP Construction
Façade Steel Monitoring Admetco; Dissimilar Metal Design
Geotechnical Langan
Graphics/Signage/Wayfinding Pentagram
LEED Consultant e4
Lighting Goldstick Lighting; Tillotson Design
Vertical Transportation VDA/Lerch Bates
Size 675,000 square feet
Cost $675 million