BY BRIAN LIBBY
Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Amy Freed's play "The Monster-Builder," now showing at Artists Repertory Theater in Portland, is a farcical comedy about an out-of-control architect who will do anything to get a commission, whether it's murder or betrayal or seeing a historic landmark razed.
One doesn't need to be an architectural afficionado to understand the play, for its exploration of unchecked ego is universal. But Freed, as she showed both in the play itself and in a recent conversation, is exceptionally knowledgable about design and the role it plays in our lives. She's also very critical of some of the most acclaimed architects of our time, challenging the worship of "starchitects" and especially the era of deconstrutivism that names like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel represent.
Below is the first half of a recent interview with Freed, and this Sunday I'll also be hosting after a matinee showing of "The Monster-Builder" a panel discussion about the play (at approximately 4PM), with panelists including Restore Oregon executive director Peggy Moretti, AIA/Portland board president (and THA Architects architect) Stefee Knudsen, Portland State University architecture professor BD Wortham-Galvin, designer-developer Kevin Cavenaugh, and Artists Repertory Theater artistic director Damaso Rodriguez.
Freed began our conversation by bringing up the Portland Building, which has recently been threatened with demolition despite its oversized place in history as the first major work of postmodernism.
"I can understand why people might hate working in it, but I think it’s more satisfying than I would have guessed," she said. "It’s got crazy oversized terra cotta and tile. It’s very tactile. And it's so unusual these days to see that kind of lavish attempt at some kind of…it’s like arts and crafts on steroids. It’s crazy but it’s not uninteresting. I hope it’s preserved. You can read the past in it and it’s meaningful in its way. Whatever goes up instead of it would be a crapshoot."
At the same time, Freed's play is largely a send-up of ego-driven architecture without practical consideration. That the Portland Building is largely disliked locally perhaps exemplifies the city's general distrust of trophy buildings and ego-driven architecture.
The conversation flowed from there...
The East Coast has so much more historic architecture than we do, so I feel like preservation is all the more important here as a result. And the combination of the Portland Building and Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building really act as bookends for modernism between the end of WWII and the rise of postmodernism. But it’s harder to see the innovation or uniqueness in the Equitable because its language became commonplace.
And its kind of functionalism was ubiquitous by philosophy anyway. So the argument for preserving stuff like that is less because they were designed by be these replicants of each other anyway, to an extent. But these sort of big mistakes in thought are interesting to hold on to.
For me the Portland Building calls for some kind of hybrid solution that preserves key aspects of the original but, because of problems inherent to the building from the beginning, there might be more impetus to take liberties and do a true hybrid of old and new.
Brian, that’s “façadism,” isn’t it?
I don’t necessarily think façadism is a bad thing.
I don’t either. But did you read Elizabeth Diller’s comments about MoMA and the American Folk Art Museum? What she was saying [that retaining the former museum’s paneled copper-bronze façade when the Museum of Modern Art guts the rest of the building would amount to “façadism”] made no sense to me. Wouldn’t façadism eliminate the baroque and a bunch of other major movements? It was an insane thing to say.
Absolutely. They can save the American Folk Art Museum and they just don’t want to.
But it’s like the Portland Building. There’s something textural about it that is going out of the world right now. I think that’s an important preservation measure that we ask: can it be built again, ever? Will we ever see these again?
I hadn’t thought about it before, but there is maybe a touch of postmodernism to the Folk Art Museum, or something different from traditional modernism. Or maybe there is more similarity between postmodernism and deconstructivism than I ever quite realized. And in both the case of the Portland Building and the American Folk Art Museum building, there’s a rush to demolish before these buildings live more than a few decades.
It’s expediency and the drive of greed. But speaking of letting architecture stand the test of time, it’s interesting: I thought I would hate brutalism as I started getting more obsessed it, but when I went to the Barbican Centre [in London] I found it surprisingly humanist compared to what we build now.
Well, there are certainly some disasters. But you’re pouring concrete and looking at the material and seeing traces of the people that made it. And just on a private human level, without having to read the building you feel the building.
While I’m not necessarily a brutalism fan, I associate it partly with the great Louis Kahn, in the idea of taking masonry, something other than steel and glass, and making it modern, yet while maintaining that tactile, timeless quality.
It’s an acknowledgement of human construction and an elemental material. Have you been in Kahn's Yale University Art Gallery? It’s like a temple. I just got tears in my eyes, thinking, ‘He cares. He feels. He understands.’ And I didn’t even hate the Paul Rudolf building there. Things have gotten so much worse in terms of attempt to integrate the user experience.
And this is part of the territory “The Monster-Builder” touches upon.
There are issues that are much bigger than the play I’m working on that are mostly about money. I don’t touch that in the play. It would be a great spinoff panel. My hope for the play is to generate more interest in the non-architectural community about speaking up and talking back. Because the cities are such a mess, and we’re leaving a legacy of such ugliness, and such harshness, and such social dysfunction, and such class division. And it’s happening so fast and it’s happening everywhere.
And the buildings that get the most press are often public buildings or one-off houses that seem to be about catching attention rather than serving the users or client.
These buildings, especially for the arts in America, are having a very deforming effect. There’s a trend in theater building to do huge signature buildings, and the theaters are stuck with the cost of maintaining these institutions. If you look at the money that’s going to the building versus the money that’s going to the art-making, or if you look at the money that’s going to the university’s signature building while they’re cutting adjunct faculty, it’s monstrous. And it’s much bigger than architecture: it’s consolidation of wealth, ego. It’s all of that stuff.
And if you don’t hire a starchitect, it shouldn’t have to automatically have to be something oppressive. Can’t signature architecture be thoughtful?
This is to me what is truly to me the challenge for the designer today. But it seems to me that the way the Kool-Aid is circulating in the design schools there’s not room for it. It’s not a matter of radical thinking or world’s fair creations, buildings that look like they should be taken down once a year but stay to haunt the lives of future generations and depress the spirit of mankind. It’s a big issue, but I think my work in this is only to provide some vocabulary for the intimidated. I think intimidation factor is huge, that and secrecy and backroom deals and bribed mayors, all that stuff. That’s another part of it. But the thing I’m concerned with as an aesthete is the language of deconstructivism, because that has impacted not just architecture but so much of art, religion, everything.
Clearly you’re no deconstructivism fan, but are you an admirer of certain periods or genres or architects’ work?
No, because things work so eclectically and haphazardly. I was so surprised, like I said, by experiencing some particular brutalism, which I was prepared to hate universally. Of course these are language, which in the hands of different people do different things. I’m certainly a fan of the human race and social democracy and a form of, if not religion, a secular sense of grace and possibility. A philosophy that decries it and is antagonistic in its core and purpose I think should be called out. Because I think we’re in terrible trouble with certain trends that are colliding. Anything that is an elitist celebration of dislocation and anxiety masquerading as artistic expression and abetted by the forces of greed, it enrages me.
I remember growing up in New York CIty poor as a self-starter, working as a waitress and supporting myself while I got into theater, living in a tenement on First Avenue and enjoying access to the rooftop. Why are the tenement rooftops of New York beautiful and comforting to see? I have no idea. Why are Central Park and the old un-resurrected docks places where one felt some sense of power and freedom and discovery? To watch it all get swallowed is not good for the creative classes or young people. I think beauty is very unexpected and grace is not possible to define, but lifelessness is something one can define.
Midtown Manhattan and Central Park (photo by Brian Libby)
Aren’t some of these conversations not so much about individual buildings as scale and our relationship to public space?
Do you know Nathan Glazer’s From A Cause To A Style? He’s a really nice architectural writer. One of his pieces in the book was about a fairly recent competition put to architectural and design students to redesign Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside Park. The young students had been indoctrinated to decry the “Olmsteadian vision” – it was treated as a dirty word. My play kind of parodies this a little bit. The kids were all doing twisted glass shards and spikes and embedded monuments to, you now, exterminated Indian tribes, but trying to replicate in the user the sense of edge and loneliness and anxiety. I thought, ‘When did that happen, that replication of neurosis and displacement rather than solution?’ And then I read an interview with [Peter] Eisenman and he said exactly that. I thought, ‘You’re a freak! You’re an evil freak with money. Who could even think that way? There are people working, struggling, looking for answers from you people. You’ve got the education, you’ve got the talent. So have the backbone.’
Architecture, like a lot of artforms, can become so self-referential it sort of eats itself. But what’s interesting about architecture compared to paintings or books or movies is that it has to be functional and it has to treat people generously.
There really has to be that sort of humanity in the work. And then there’s people who are geniuses in the profession and they don’t resemble each other, you know, through the centuries. But I think there’s commonality in what they’re responding to. I mean, a lot of our architects are marvelous writers for whom it’s not so good on the ground.
Like Eisenman, whom you just mentioned, or the Portland Building’s designer, Michael Graves.
Anybody coming out of that mid-’80s era. Every other forward-thinking field constantly revises its mistake. Why can’t we acknowledge a mistake? To cling to things that I think are dead ends and deadening ends without common sense or humility, to say, ‘This doesn’t work.’
What are your impressions of Portland so far, and what are the differences you see here compared to San Francisco, where you live?
Portland’s amazing. I’m so attracted to the city. I think there’s a lot of energy and focus around Portland right now. The creative communities from coast to coast, there’s a lot of talk about Portland in my world. San Francisco is under assault right now, with many wonderful things happening to a lovely city. How is the highrise issue playing out here, the tower issue?
A lot of the development in the city over the past decade has been in neighborhoods like the Pearl District and the South Waterfront, where the height limits were a little higher. And some neighborhoods like Boise-Elliot have a problem with five-story condos and apartments abutting blocks of single-family homes.
It’s really serious because there’s no going back once they start. One of the things that’s nice about the rhythm of Portland now is you’ve got a kind of peaks-and-canyons feel. And Portland’s character is what makes it magnetic. San Francisco has seen this. But once it becomes magnetic and the development money moves in, it will kill that for good.
The other thing that happens when development takes on that scale is first of all the street life goes. Jane Jacobs was right: there goes the neighborhood in terms of life. It’s no longer appealing. These are such fundamental questions of human behavior. San Francisco’s per square foot real estate cost doubled within a year a couple years ago. The arts are fleeing, once more. So Portland’s very attractive to serious creative types. That draws life to a city, makes it trendy, makes it attractive, and the development follows.
Traditionally there’s been a lack of wealth here compared to San Francisco or Seattle.
Top-heavy accumulations are not good. I think that’s our great struggle beyond our discussion. There’s a strange vacuum there. There needs to be a loud and clear civic common sense.
You teach drama at Stanford, a school better known for the tech-industry giants it has produced. Do you see hope for future generations?
I’m in a tiny theater department, surrounded by the hyperventilating entrepreneurial class, and they’re all five years old. They don’t have experience with the impacts of ideas. They don’t take history and they haven’t heard of World War II. It’s shocking how little humanities context or historical context seems to be curated anymore for our next generation. So the theater is a diminishing iceberg, trying to stimulate thought and talk.
People in theater tend to be acutely susceptible to the staging of life as it happens. You realize it’s not just theater. It’s all the time. And architects are kind of the set designers, the stagers, of human life.
"The Monster-Builder" centers on the question of restoring an old public building (a boathouse) or tearing it down for a new structure. Why do old buildings captivate us?
It’s really interesting, back to our earlier wondering about why things that are so unlikely can be beautiful, and why those things that were probably satanic-looking when they went up are meaningful now. Because of the legibility of the past and the narrative of a place—not to sound like a kitschy German romantic painter—but to see those things is…because it has meaning. The meaning in the beauty, even if it’s edgy or ugly or has decay or fear in it, seems to me what is important to understand.
One can see that historic architecture has been imbued with time. And that is even truer with ruins, which I love having maintained as part of an urban context. I can look at the ruins of Bethlehem Steel when I visit my in-laws in Pennsylvania, for example, and not just admire the sculpture and patina of the old smokestacks but also know this plant produced steel for the Golden Gate Bridge or America’s war arsenal for WWII.
Have you seen these ruin-porn pictures that are coming out of Detroit? They’re not without majesty. To rebuild a city with some vision and poetry and skill as an artist, as people in architecture often aspire to be, would be to maintain these records of things that have happened: to not necessarily restore them but to allow the destruction to show. If everything turns into facelessness, that’s really where are spirits shut down and die.
That’s one of the arguments I try to make here in Portland about preservation, but one that also could apply to new buildings if done well: that having a sense of place has an economic value.
Look at Barcelona. I went there for the first time last year and saw the Sagrada Família church. Of course there’s a billion people there all the time. It’s a tourist destination and you can’t feel it as a cathedral because of that. But I think part of the huge draw is it has been an ongoing project for so long. There’s this sense of people coming together and volunteering to do this. It’s a rebuttal of the idea that people can’t do that. It’s the work of many, many artists.
And talk about having a non-monolithic quality. It feels otherworldly.
It feels otherworldly, and yet it relates to the first sacred spaces coming out of the caves of Spain and France. Its roots are very deep. You don’t have to be a scholar to feel it. And that’s art. That is the skill of art. I just feel like if people are not capable of grace or beauty or humanity or compassion, then they justify their actions by going to the roots of those concepts. I feel like that’s been the complicity of academia. It’s like, ‘If we can’t do it then it must not exist.’ That doesn’t allow the people who can do it to rise to the top of their professions.
What you say about the Gaudi church makes me think of my obsession with Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a tourist spot more than a working cathedral. And yet every time I go there I’m profoundly moved in a way that I am by no other architecture. Part of it is the scale and the design, but a lot of it is also the story of what Englanders went through to keep that building from being destroyed in WWII: people standing inside with buckets of water at the ready every night. And I love the dialogue St. Paul’s has with Tate Modern directly across the Thames.
The Tate is fantastic. But I was horrified when they [Herzog & DeMeuron] did the DeYoung Museum rebuild in Golden Gate Park. I hate it. I was devastated when that went down. It’s like MoMA in New York. It’s all the most mediocre-looking foam core on the inside. Or the Holocaust Museum in Berlin: talk about façadism. All the money goes to the outside. As opposed to the force and flow and logic and rationality and user centrality of the space dictating that. The Kahn library is hugely successful that way, in directing attention to centrality. It’s like a yoga class: you just feel good about your day, and you feel like you live in a great country.
I just remembered the reason I mentioned St. Paul’s: it’s no longer the tallest in London. It used to tower over the skyline, and now it’s dwarfed by taller building’s like Norman Foster’s St. Mary Axe (the “Gherkin Building”) and Renzo Piano’s Shard.
One of the things I find so awful and obvious that nobody says about this is when you’ve got something like Norman Foster’s Gherkin there, right? These buildings, you can scan the idea in less than a second. And I know Norm Foster’s a genius, and they’re all geniuses. His work in Berlin I think is quite good, on the Reichstag. But he’s got the Reichstag original. It’s built over the original. But if you can scan what the London Shard is, you can scan the London Eye, you can scan the Gherkin and get it and it’s over. I mean, that seems to me one of the great troubles. I read architectural criticism like Kimmelman in the New York Times, doing this big apology for something Columbia did up in Morningside Heights, talking about its wonderful complexity, which is shrink-wrapped ribbon crisscross. I go, ‘Do they really not know better, these writers, or do they crumble?’ But Kimmelman has earned himself back in my estimation by his writing on MoMA. I thought his writing was really strong and potent. He called the new MoMA a mall. I was horrified with the new MoMA remodel.
Your father was an architect, right? Was he a big influence on your thinking about architecture and your taste?
Yes, my dad was a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill guy. And we lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago. He eventually hopped around to various firms. What I understood from him was more the terrible struggles of the profession itself. So that is very real to me. He tried to start his own firm briefly in Pittsburgh. It’s like being any other kind of performing arts person or anything else. There’s so much social wheeling and dealing, and so much of the success depends on your particular ability in that mode and dealing with donors and clients. There’s so much politicking, and so people who tend to triumph are people who can do that.
How much of “The Monster-Builder” draws from your father’s career, or other architectural experiences you’ve had?
My work on this play didn’t start out to be about all of this. Every play is about basically some kind of human situation. But growing up we lived not too far from the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian development in Westchester, New York. It was an experiment like the Eichlers in California were, in making modern design available to the commuter class. We lived in a little row of houses designed by a student of Wright’s, so it was kind of a low-rent immitative Usonia set into a hillside, this kind of conceptual house that had the worst water and mold problems. There were skylights that leaked and the house always smelled like mildew. And my parents’ marriage broke up there. It was just like the scene of this disastrous domestic malfunction. And it was the “Ice Storm” years. So in my playwright’s head this turned into messy human lives in designed environments. That’s where the play began.