Elizabeth A. Harris's New York Times piece today asks the question everyone else forgot to ask: Why is the Barclays Center, home of the relocated and rebranded Brooklyn Nets, covered with rust?
The material is Cor-Ten, a brand name of "weathering steel." Construction companies have mentioned the steel in their press releases, and a few sites covered the bankruptcy of the steel fabricator. But mostly nobody has paid attention to the corroded exterior. Leitch gave the building its most thorough examination yet in last week's New York, and he said of the place only that it was "hardly architecturally distinguished."
Yet weathering steel does distinguish the building. It plants it firmly within a dated and troubled architectural tradition, one that since the '70s has left a landscape of failed structures.
The material is supposed to be counterintuitive: What looks like neglect and damage is really a protective coat of corrosion. The otherwise unprotected steel naturally builds up rust on the outside, which keeps further oxidation from happening on the inside. Spreading across the pure, monumental curves of a Richard Serra sculpture, the rust forms a tough, stable, richly colored surface.
But when used on something more complicated and functional—such as a sports arena—this simple, natural material is incredibly finicky and unstable. Where the steel is welded together or there's space to catch water, the protective rust has a way of turning into regular old destructive rust. Atlanta's Omni Coliseum, which opened in October 1972, had a weathering steel frame. The structure never stopped rusting, the elements bored holes in the roof, and the city had to replace the building with Philips Arena 25 years later.
Things were even worse at the New Haven Coliseum, which opened in September 1972. I got to see it from the inside in 2001, because my youth hockey team was practicing there. That's how bad it had gotten. Within a little more than a decade of its opening, the steel in the parking garage had rusted to the extent that the concrete it supported would crumble and fall on the street below. The rusty runoff also stained the glowing logos on the building's front, the ones you could see from Route 34.
By 2002, the building—which had once hosted AHL teams, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Queen, Van Halen, WWE, and scores of other superlative guests—was closed. It sat empty five years, until the city could find the money to demolish it. In its place now sits a parking lot. Sure, economic factors and new competitors helped do the Coliseum in, but the architecture was so bad and dated that New Haven decided it'd rather go ahead without an arena. A New Haven Register columnist said that the place had "a face only a steel worker would love."
There are troubled non-arenas too. Pittsburgh's U.S. Steel Tower, which opened in 1970, was built to showcase the stuff. It turned all the surrounding sidewalks (and a few neighboring structures) brown. The company tried power-washing the stuff off, but they couldn't make it all go away. A large, complicated public sculpture from 1967 was crumbling by 1991. Here's the sculptor:
The steel companies are the villains ... they have been guilty of flagrant misrepresentation about what they characterized as 'the enduring qualities' of weathering steel. And they disavow responsibility for its failures.
In 1986, The Nation called the material that framed the parking garage at La Guardia Airport "a triumph of metallurgy." By 1991, the same structure had to be painted over "because its rusty surface had become unsightly." Cor-Ten railroad cars appeared in the 1970s and rusted right through.
The Barclays Center isn't counting on the rusty stuff for structural support. But the design still trusts it to behave itself, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.
You'd think weathered steel would be the eight-track tape of metals, something we had ditched by the 1980s because we had better options. But the Nets are in Brooklyn now. In the land of fixed-gear bicycles and safety razors, outmoded mud-colored steel won't feel so alone.