How the New Atlantic Yards Could Be Built in Two Days: A Prefab Primer

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Forest City Ratner, the developer behind Brooklyn’s controversial Barclays Center, is breaking ground tomorrow on another equally polarizing Atlantic Yards project. The B2 Tower is the first of 15 mixed-use high-rises that holds the promise of affordable housing for Brooklynites who have been edged out of the other already yuppified neighborhoods along the East River. At a public meeting a few weeks ago, New York-based SHoP architects announced to much fanfare that the B2 would be built with prefabricated modules, ensuring a quick, efficient construction process to minimize the usual building brouhaha, among other things.

In honor of Brooklyn becoming home to the tallest prefabricated building in the world, we thought we’d take a look at what that really means, and whether it really matters. Click through to learn more about the LEGO-like design popping up in Prospect Heights and give us your two cents in the comments. What do you think about the massive development project that’s been touted as a corrupt land grab and a complete failure of democracy?

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What is the Atlantic Yards Project exactly?

In case you’ve been living under your blissfully removed Brooklyn rock and didn’t know that anything worthy of your liberal NIMBY opposition was happening, here’s an overview of what’s up on Flatbush Ave:

According to the project’s vapidly happy website, Atlantic Yards will combine the new home of Jay-Z’s beloved Nets with “a public plaza, eight acres of landscaped open space, more than 6,400 units of affordable, middle-income and market-rate housing, ground-floor retail space for local businesses and office space that will create a vibrant addition to a thriving borough.”

If the above renderings are any indication (and they are) of said vibrant addition, then let us be the first to point out that the Photoshopped collaged community looks more like some scary, sterile strip mall in the O.C., anchored by a Ross Dress for Less, than anything we’ve ever seen in said “thriving borough.” Let us also point out that no one living anywhere near Prospect Heights or Fort Greene would ever be caught dead in khaki cargo shorts or a black midriff baring tube top. Who are these people they’re wanting to import into our diverse, creative, carefully curated local scene?

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What is prefab anyway?

If you can get past the seemingly fallow design of a retail environment that embodies everything staunch Brooklynites love to loathe, then this project’s saving grace is the self-proclaimed revolutionary building technique.

According to Forest City Ratner’s prosaic Powerpoint, modular construction, aka prefab, “is a process by which full sections of a building are built in a fabrication facility and then delivered to a project site where modules are connected and buildings are erected.” Despite all of the publicity about this seemingly shiny new design trend, the building practice has actually been around for hundreds of years.

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The fine folks over at GOOD put together a handy timeline that tracks prefab’s evolution from the shipment of the first known prefab in the late 1600s to the introduction of IKEA’s minimal D.I.Y. mansion and MoMA’s landmark retrospective of houses delivered to your future home(site).

That being said, we’ll give the folks behind this new iteration some credit: the B2 Tower at Atlantic Yards holds the promise of being the tallest prefabricated building in the world, or — to the laymen — the tallest kit skyscraper. A 25-story dorm in England holds the current record, and according to a great Gothamist article, a 15-story modular hotel went up in just two days. As terrifying as it is fascinating, thinking about how a sizable skyscraper could be built in less time than it takes to hit your favorite upstate B&B for the weekend boggles the mind. But it seems like things won’t be so sudden for Atlantic Yards — the architects responsible for the B2 Tower estimate that it will take about five months for on-site excavation, three months for prefabrication, nine months for the modules to be erected, and then another four months to close out. From start to finish, that means total construction time is just shy of two years. For comparison’s sake, the Empire State Building — some 32 stories taller than the B2 — took about 13 months to build. And that was back in 1929. It has us wondering what the advantage of this whole modular thing is really supposed to be. Maybe it’s just a publicity stunt?

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Wishful thinking

The reactions to the first phase of this massive development have been mixed. Architect Gregg Pasquarelli recently described the arena to The New York Times as what might happen if “Richard Serra and Chanel created a U.F.O. together.” A New Yorker article justifies the complete lack of respect for the all-important neighborhood context by stating that the arena’s architecture should not relate better to the context: “The immediate context is the developer Forest City Ratner’s two cheaply clad, faux-historicist malls across Atlantic Avenue. The larger context is the lowrise brownstone neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. To relate to the first would be depressing; to relate to the second, impossible.”

Is it really so impossible? Similarly creative enclaves around the world are creating new mixed-use experiences that not only pay their respects to a vibrant heritage, but also foster and inspire so-called urban pioneers to put down roots, not — as the Forbes writer observed — inevitably move on. The Richmond Weekender in Australia is a prime example. The High Line in our own backyard another. The Designed in Hackney movement in London yet another. It wouldn’t take long to compile a sizable list of inspiring projects that do what The New Yorker claims is impossible. Viva le vernacular!