BY BRIAN LIBBY
I guess you could say Amy Freed and I hit it off. We talked for more than two hours about architecture, and for most of it I even forgot to touch upon her excellent play, "The Monster-Builder" at Artists Repertory Theater. Though by its final act the play veers from light comedy to supernatural romp, Freed gives us food for thought about the nature of architecture, clients, money and integrity. And given that "The Monster-Builder" is largly about the hubris of starchitecture and latter-day deconstructivism, both of which Portland has mostly eschewed, even as absurdist satire Freed's work may give the city's architectural community a boost of confidence.
Below is the second half of our conversation, with the reminder that I'll be hosting a panel discussion on Sunday afternoon at ART after the matinee showing of the play, featuring local representives from the AIA, Restore Oregon, and the theater itself.
Portland Architecture: Much of the play is set inside a glass-walled beach house, which becomes a kind of fish bowl for the characters. How did that idea develop?
Amy Freed: There was an incident in San Francisco that was the idea for the play, a crime that took place involving an architect and somebody in a transparent glass house in the Oakland hills. I thought, ‘Oh my God, they never think about domestic violence when they build these things!’ That’s how kind of low-down my impulses were. That was three, four years ago. I wrote a completely different play, but on a primitive level it was sort of about the same things: the reality of people, what they are, what their drives are, and these kind of uber-ideas that never quite work out in practice.
I enjoyed how the farcical comedic tone counter-balances the intellectual ideas about architecture the play also explores.
My interests, like yours, are hugely consumed by this, but I know that’s not where people come in from the street. So how can an audience that presumably has no interest or no awareness that they are in the crosshairs be brought into this conversation, which should be more than just a conversation?
It seems like there would be lots of universal ideas that the audience can identify with: big plans conceived at the expense of everyday realities.
To do what’s required well is a very wondrous thing. It’s like any form of proficiency: it isn’t always sufficiently appreciated because when it works well you don’t see it. I think we’re drawn to…why do people do so well just building out of pattern books? What happened when an architect intruded? I don’t know a lot about it but I’m interested in learning more: what the geometries were, what the conventions were. It’s not to bring back bad imitations, but why did some of those old and simple buildings done just by itinerant builders, like those all over the east coast, if it didn’t take 12 years in grad school, where did it come from?
I can see how that investment in grad school would prompt one to be less of a humble problem solver as a designer and more inspired to make a statement.
There certainly is a lot of crazy competitive ego in it. It’s sort of taken over feudal structures. It’s like the new lords of the manor and lords of the skyline. It’s kind of insane. It’s always exciting to see something of scale that you can’t quite identify. What do you think of Robert Stern and his kind of work? He’s sort of a little bit of a traditionalist or a neo-classicist.
It’s something I’ve wrestled with over the years, not specifically Stern but the question he may represent. It makes me think of a house in my neighborhood, Ladd’s Addition, which is full of wonderful old craftsman and foursquare houses. A couple years ago one was built from the ground up to look like those old houses. I hated the idea of it. It seemed like Disneyland architecture. But now that it has been completed for a few years, I’m more used to it because of how it’s compatible in the neighborhood, whereas the kind of house I would have built, something modern with a flat roof, never would have been.
I’m amazed at the proliferation of the same clichés. Does no one realize this is dated the day it goes up? Now it’s this obsession with horizontal wood paneling inserts. It’s egregious. It looks cheap and it won’t last. Why is it the slums of New York built in 1920 hold up better?
It makes me think of a local condo whose architects were sued over the weathered steel façade failing after just a couple years. Maybe architects try too hard sometimes with materials or other choices to make their own visual impact when they’re being restricted as designers otherwise. There are a lot of things that get decided for architects when they’re doing certain types of projects. With condos, for example, there will be prescriptions from the bank about how you configure the building and many units you fit on each floor and how that’s made to happen, and prescriptions from the developer. And yet all you’re building is a box, a shed to decorate on the outside. I can look at that case with the weathered steel lawsuit and just see it as how they decorated the shed. It was one of their only chances to enliven the form.
The other thing I find extraordinary is the destruction of the window as a unit, the awfulness of windows. I’m obsessed with this because I just replaced the windows in my 1937 house on the ocean side of San Francisco. I’ve been living for years with horrible aluminum sliders that the previous owner had installed. I went broke replacing the windows with actual divided light panels. It’s hard to find someone to do those. Because now what they do is take sheets of glass and overlay a grid. I don’t know why people don’t see this!
There are so many ways that have been created to do something on the cheap. I feel like I can’t come close to affording a real Eames chair, for example, so I buy something cheap at Ikea. But an Eames chair is the same cost relative to median income as it was 50 years ago. We’ve just come to expect cheaper alternatives and have come to live with the inferior quality that comes with it.
When something is built by people and it’s built well, and if the material investment is not the cheapest thing on the block, I think that bodes well for longevity. You sense the quality of materials and the quality of labor. And you feel a kind of richness.
I think there’s also something to be said for small gestures of compatibility. A pitched roof on a modern house can do a lot to make it congruent with a neighborhood of traditional homes.
I was just reading an interview with Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman. Alexander said he’d given his students an assignment to design something with a pitched roof and they went into tailspins of anxiety. They were forbidden to think in those terms because of their training. Eisenman offered that pitched roofs are psychologically and symbolically the vertebrae of the house. They’re organically attractive to human beings because it’s like a strong backbone is guarding you. We read the house as a creature. He said, because our goal is dislocation they are not allowed in the vocabulary of modernism, so that elimination of the pitched roof is actually poetically important from modernism on because the dislocated sense of lack of safety acknowledges the age of anxiety.
It’s such over-thinking.
They’re over thinking, and what they’re thinking is wicked.
Actually that gives me some pride in one of our best types of architecture here: Northwest regional midcentury modern houses designed by architects like Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon. Those architects combined International Style modernism with local vernacular traditions, with some additional influence from Japan and Scandinavia. These are modern houses with open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling glass, but with pitched roofs. I think they did it in part because the rainy climate here makes flat roofs more impractical: They leak. But it also became a more thoughtful fusion of what’s good about modernism and what’s good about traditional forms.
Are they like Eichlers or Frank Lloyd Wright, in that idiom?
Maybe a little, but they’re pitched-roof, largely for practicality reasons (the rain) but also in combination with large overhangs that, in combination with the ample glass, bring in lots of diffuse light.
You know what’s strange about the floor-to-ceiling glass thing? Northern California is beautiful and I go there and there’s a lot of glass vacation houses and stuff like that. But Humbolt County has been really impacted horrendously by the economic downturn. So the biggest business up there is pot and meth. And there are lots of break-ins, lots of rural poverty. So you got these vacation homes with floor-to-ceiling glass; at nighttime they’re terrifying. Because you feel like the eyes of the woods are watching. It’s interesting.
Tell me about the play. Do you feel like farce or comedy is a good way to balance the deeper issues it brings up?
It’s a little preservation war that is the trope of the story. But you never know what will hit people. And theater is in a state of siege. Finding an audience is so difficult. And what is a right audience? What is a general audience? Who are you pitching a play to? It’s why my back has been in spasm for a week. You just never know. The play of mine that was most successful was about the questions of Shakespeare’s authorship. I got nothing but discouragement from any producer. And surprisingly, everywhere that play went—and it went all over the country—everybody was tuned to that issue, except the theater producers, who hadn’t anticipated that it would be an area of interest. So you never know what is in the zeitgeist and what people care about.
I think people will see that the buildings of the age of starchitecture have a very mixed response with people. How much does Seattle really love the Experience Music Project, other than some of the guitars inside? It looks like a titanium turd.
Did you see the Zaha Hadid museum in Rome? [The National Museum of Twenty-First Century Art] Every time I see these things it’s like I get a physical pain in my body. It’s like, ‘You have created another death zone.’ And I know I’m not the only one, because the spaces don’t get use. It’s like the Moscone Center in San Francisco: a disastrous downtown square. Lots of money, convention center, this that and the other: it’s infinitely less inviting than the simple warehouses that preceded it. So it just seems like if it’s such a huge public mistake, why aren’t we learning from it? Why aren’t we talking about it? And it’s doing lots of social damage.
It makes me think of how many of the most successful architecture projects in Portland over the past 15 years or more have been renovations. There are lots of examples, but the best is the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters. Every time I go in there, I still go, ‘Wow.’
Do you think there’s something to this idea that Christopher Alexander and the other theorists on that side of the of the spectrum talk about: that there are lines of regulation in any structure, and that ornament, if it’s properly used, reflects and extends those geometries in a way that resonates with it biologically?
There has to be at least an element of truth to that.
Or at least that deliberately irrational distortion to create discomfort is what we’re seeing? And carried out by mediocrities that have half-assed inherited some kind of loose theory and then turned pure evil deconstructivism from at least pure evil into a kind of a mediocre enactment? Then you get a lot of press that’s following, to say that the turd looks like leafs blown sideways, when everybody’s calling the turd the turd? I mean, do you think that’s true or is it hysterical?
It’s a fair criticism of certain architects out there, but I also meet a lot of architects who sincerely want to serve their clients, and who want their buildings to be pure expressions of form. I’m not sure deconstructivism has ever become that big a part of the everyday reality of the majority of architects in the trenches. I feel like an aspect of classic modernism has continued to endure through both postmodernism and deconstructivism.
I mean modernism never offended me the way the ‘90s have assaulted me. My dad used to talk about how Mies Van Der Rohe would come to Skidmore and he would be there with a micrometer or whatever the measuring tools were: obsessed with a thirty-second of an inch. There was a purity about it, and a beauty to the ambition. It was a cause. It was a socialist cause that initially wore upon ornament.
Yes, it was the idea that the age of monarchies was over, and that language of ornament was strongly associated it. Building functional buildings that took their inspiration from the machines of the emerging industrial revolution in a way that represented a kind of democratic ideal and aesthetic purity.
It was extreme and I think it was wrong. I read Ornament And Crime [by Adolf Loos] and some of the other anti-ornament diatribes. They’re interesting and misguided but you understand what the philosophy was. But it seems like the monarchy has come back in a new form since the 1980s.
It seems to me that deconstructivism was less an idea or philosophy that was forwarded than a power that was gained. Frank Gehry talks about an “aha” moment of learning that computer technology allowed him to create buildings in sculptural shapes.
Yes, the ability to create these complicated algorhythms that will allow something that doesn’t look possible to be there.
But to what end?
To what end. Because it has curves it somehow is humanist? I don’t get that. There’s a really horrendous thing on New York’s west side right now. Jean Nouvel has an apartment building, and Gehry has the IAC headquarters. The IAC is completely spray-frosted on the street level. You can’t see in, you can’t see out. And Nouvel’s got his sort of irregular-window signature thing. I’m going, ‘God, this is an awful corner. But that’s a nice building. What is it? It turned out it’s the old Women’s House of Detention, standing there as a nice old building minding its own business.
It’s a classic case of the one percent of the ninety-nine percent next door to each other.
It just turns people into depravists on the street. I saw this horrifying quote by Schumi comparing architectural shape to S&M: the greater the bondage, he said, the more the pleasure. I’m going, ‘This guy should be stripped of his license and put in a straitjacket!’
It reminds me of the late Australian critic Robert Hughes’s argument that modern art was ruined by its move to the academy.
They’ve always been hostile to artists. Because artists are intrinsically, deeply human. They were painting on caves 25,000 years ago with enormous grace. It’s a gift from somewhere. We don’t know where it comes from. And academics have hated that forever. There’s a jealousy and a desire to destroy things that come from intuition, because intuition is not explicable or teachable, and it’s not universal. Some people can do it, and some people can’t. But we’ve got training academies and theorists that substitute for that God-given thing.
You need soulfulness.
That doesn’t exist. Haven’t you heard?