Frank Gehry, Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn, N.Y.
In developer Forest City Ratner's proposal for Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., six square blocks would be transformed into a sports arena; office, hotel, and retail space; and 6,400 units of housing-all of it designed by Frank Gehry. The $4 billion development has provoked litigation from community groups upset by its scale and a top-down decision-making process.

Frank Gehry, Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn, N.Y. In developer Forest City Ratner's proposal for Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., six square blocks would be transformed into a sports arena; office, hotel, and retail space; and 6,400 units of housing-all of it designed by Frank Gehry. The $4 billion development has provoked litigation from community groups upset by its scale and a top-down decision-making process.

Credit: Atlantic Yards and Forest City Ratner

THE DISCIPLINE OF URBAN DESIGN that emerged in the 1960s was, as already suggested, a reaction to the hubris of modernist master planning, yet the New Urbanism's pedestrian-scaled townscapes punctuated by static civic monuments have hardly been less doctrinaire in their imposition of an overall formal order (notwithstanding the rhetoric of community and pluralism dissembling their basic strategy of standardized diversity). In contrast, the recent urbanism is computer-driven and emphasizes fluid connectivities, organic or self-organizing urban processes, and network thinking. (For a thoughtful overview of the field, see David Grahame Shane's recent book, Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modeling in Architecture, Urban Design, and City Theory.) In the hands—or on the screens—of many of the vanguard designers today, the urban aesthetic tends to be characterized by topologically distorted surfaces, giant landforms inspired by 1960s and ‘70s earth art, the literalization of map vectors, and the like. Yet for all the new formal and technological sophistication, the aphasia between architecture and urbanism remains unresolved. In the case of Peter Eisenman's City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, for example, a 173-acre project whose first phase is under construction, it's all or nothing: Rather than the antiformalism of Koolhaas, everything urban has become architecture.

What is clear, however, is that the master plan is very much back today, if in a markedly different ideological setting from its 20th century origins. Koolhaas himself is currently working on various master plans for cities, from England, Belgium, and the Netherlands to Latvia, Singapore, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Obviously, there are significant cultural and historical differences among places, and “planning” in, say, Europe and the United States still has different implications with respect to the roles of the public and private realms. But in the context of global capitalism, the idea of “large-scale” is increasingly bound up with that of “upscale,” and the use of publicly underwritten gentrification has become the preferred neoliberal strategy for urban renewal.

In the case of idealistic architects who are able to push back against purely economic calculations, this strategy may be one, as its proponents claim, that can lift all boats. In 2007, the National Building Museum recognized Related—which has worked with, besides Gehry, Richard Meier, Starck, Stern, and Arquitectonica— for its “commitment to design excellence, affordable housing, urban revitalization, and innovative mixed-used development.” A more jaundiced view is taken by critics like the Marxist geographer Neil Smith, who has condemned the contemporary nexus of large-scale real estate development, public subsidies, and elite architecture as a “revanchist” conspiracy against the urban poor. The battle will probably play out once again in the near future in Jane Jacobs' own backyard, Pier 40 in the West Village in Manhattan, where Related is proposing to build a $600 million entertainment complex designed by Arquitectonica, Elkus Manfredi Architects, and the Rockwell Group that its opponents in the local community have dubbed “Las Vegas on the Hudson.”

Beyond the economic impact on cities, the new scale of architectural work also has important geopolitical dimensions. Clearly, the current crop of projects reflects a concentration in the hands of the few of not just great wealth but also great power. In places around the world where a royal family or a single political party is in control, it is possible to implement a monolithic vision by bypassing any semblance of democratic decision making. Elsewhere, efforts by developers and urban administrations to impose spatial order upon larger and larger pieces of territory appears a kind of defense mechanism in the face of the global phenomena of rampant urbanization, sprawling megalopolises, and free-flowing boundaries. An event like the 10th Biennale of Architecture in Venice in 2006, titled “Cities, Architecture and Society,” dominated by wall-to-wall statistics and digitally generated urban analyses, was primarily notable for denying any viability to its middle term and largely followed the apocalyptic scenario put forward by Koolhaas in S,M,L,XL and his subsequent Harvard Project on the City. Against this vision, the commissioning of architects today to give aesthetic identity to gated communities, self-contained office parks, and security-conscious culture and entertainment complexes may be understood as a reaction-formation.

If all these issues raise profound questions for both public policy and the culture of architecture, there is, finally, the matter of the desirability of having a single architect put his or her stamp on such a wide swath of our everyday landscape. Roland Barthes wrote of the Eiffel Tower that the only way to get away from its dominating presence in Paris was to be on top of it looking out. If not just the museum and the office tower but also the corner grocery and the street lamp are designed by Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, will we become true prisoners of architecture?