When I was 24, I landed a job as the photo archivist for an architectural firm called Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. HHPA, as it was known, was a curious spot for me to land, knowing little to nothing about architecture and probably far less about the art of photography — or the art of preserving and cataloging photography — than perhaps I should have. Ah, what glories await those who are 24.
The position was equally curious, in retrospect, because Hugh Hardy, Malcolm Holzman and Norman Pfeiffer were in so many senses the self-styled bad boys of American architecture, radicals and rabble-rousers running roughshod, if possible, over the received wisdom of American design. They strove for it consciously, peacocks with their fingers in the faces of anyone questioning their brilliance. Of course, they were brilliant, so they knew they had a trump card. In architecture, I learned, it’s the strut that makes the builder. Talent is assumed.
As for me, relatively freshly armed with a degree in theater, discovering architecture was like leaping into a parallel universe. If there was such an agency as the Centers for Ego Control, the theater would hold a low priority beside the titanic forces of architecture. Had I not chosen to remain in the theater (cue small violins), I might have liked to be an architectural critic, not a member of the, shall we say, architectural laity. But it’s the latter than I am — a cornice game hen. (Architects, I found, hate my puns. What can you expect from a bunch of draft dodgers? Think that through.)
As a theater person, meanwhile, what always eluded me is why architecture, that most singular and public of creative experiences, seems so difficult to turn into drama. Plays about architecture — as distinct from plays with characters that happen to be architects — are rare. Perhaps it’s too difficult to capture the drama in the race between the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall, in 1929 and 1930. Perhaps it’s too esoteric to illustrate how the Arts and Crafts movement (three cheers for Charles Rennie Mackintosh) was at once whimsical and wise. We react to architecture, after all, in the theater especially — the shape of the house, the aesthetic of the set.
Coming across a recent press release from publicist Joe Trentacosta, then, I was keenly interested by what Resonance Ensemble is currently up to. Their project is called “Building Characters” — a repertory of The Master Builder by Ibsen (directed by Resonance artistic director Eric Parness), and The Glass House, a new play by June Finfer (directed by Evan Bergman). Meaning no disrespect to the great Ibsen (or the fine Parness), the latter reeled me in: a new play that puts two foundational designs of the 20th century — Mies van der Rowe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House — at the core of the action? Holy fenestration!
The description of the two plays — “architects whose personal and professional life become dangerously intertwined as they struggle to balance idealism and integrity with functionality and finance” — certainly feels apt. I wanted to include Finfer — who writes and produces documentaries, plays and musicals about architecture, it turns out — in our ongoing 5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked series.
“Building Characters” begins previews on Sun., May 9. The plays open on Sun., May 16, running through June 5, at the Clurman Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.). For a complete schedule, visit the website of Resonance Ensemble. For tickets to either or both plays (and honestly, if you’re seeing one, see both — understand the “resonance”), call 212-279-4200 or visit the website of Ticket Central.
And now, 5 questions June Finfer has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“What’s the connection between architecture and writing plays?”
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How long did it take you to write this play? Do you make any money doing this?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Did all this really happen?”
4) Some say architecture is one of the least understood creative arts. Would you agree? How does The Glass House demystify the art of architects?
Everybody thinks they know what it takes to plan a house. Mies van der Rohe believed that people understand very little about what they want, and less about what is possible. I think it takes both sides of the brain to create something useful and beautiful. It takes an imagination and a good mind. The Glass House may not demystify the art of architecture, but I hope it reveals some of the ideas and the process that went into the creation of an entirely new structural idea. And it deals with the cost of such ambition to the architect and to the client.
5) If you had a choice to meet Mies van der Rowe or Philip Johnson, who would you choose and what one question would you ask? Would you have believed their answer?
I would have liked to meet Mies van der Rohe. I would ask him if he’d like to go out to dinner with me. I’d just like to get a better sense of the man. His work speaks for him.
Philip Johnson would be fun to meet, but I don’t think I’d believe anything he had to say, he was such a poseur.
6) Could modernism as van der Rowe and Johnson espoused it make a comeback today? What was the modernism’s greatest flaw? Does it affect the drama in your play?
I don’t believe that “modernism” has ever left the scene. The expression of structure and the clarity of glass are used and misused in commercial buildings all over the world. Mies achieved greatness because he demonstrated the powerful and beautiful use of the technology of our time. As he said, “You can’t invent a new architecture every Monday morning.” What is happening now is a continued exploration of his main concepts.
Modernism’s greatest flaw? It looked easy to do, and it was done badly by others. Also, it provoked a response that was called postmodernism, that was too often a flailing around for personal expression and identity rather than a serious effort to build something new. Mies said, “God protect me from my disciples. My enemies I can take care of myself.”
My play does not deal with the aftermath of Mies’s work to our time. It deals with the effect of his idealism and determination on his client and others. It deals with the cost of ambition and vision to everyone involved, especially if they go out to dinner together. I’m being facetious — the cost to all involved if their ambitions and emotions get tangled up with someone like Mies, an artist who lives for his vision. Although he was charming when he wanted to be, he was formidable and unrelenting in his values and goals. In a sense, my play is a morality play.