5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Oren Safdie


On May 16, not only will one play about architecture open Off-Broadway (June Finfer’s The Glass House, which we wrote about here), but, in fact, there will be two. The second is Oren Safdie’s The Bilbao Effect, which, according to press notes, “puts contemporary architecture on trial.”

Would that American architecture actually be so lucky.

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Then again, if a working playwright today possessed the wherewithal to place contemporary architecture through a kind of dramaturgical judicial review, it would be Safdie, who was not only schooled in the skill and craft of architecture but is the son of the talented, legendary architect Moshe Safdie, who has been a design macher for well more than 40 years, and whose Habitat ’67 — a kind of deconstruction of population density located in Montreal — remains a landmark in late 20th century architectural thinking.

The title of Safdie’s play, of course, is also a term that came into vogue with the opening of Frank Gehry’s extraordinary Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao. It has come to symbolize the manner in which particular kinds of “starchitecture” can transform otherwise moribund local economies, creating a destination points out of transit points or way-stations.

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In Safdie’s take on the idea, a world famous architect faces censure by the formidable American Institute of Architects — which is more or less like L’Académie fran√ßaise for the world of architecture — after accusations surface that an urban redevelopment plan for Staten Island led to the suicide of a woman. It’s an intriguing notion: What are the limits to which design can affect the human mind, heart and soul? If an urban purist should visit Astor Place and realize, for example, that Charles Gwathmey’s Astor Place Tower is a not just a critical misstep but a stab in the eye, who is responsible if the purist in question should off themselves in abject horror? It’s not inconceivable melodrama: The Bilbao Effect, the press notes continue, “tackles controversial urban design issues that New Yorkers have recently encountered in Brooklyn as a result of the hotly debated plans to redevelop the Atlantic Yards into an architecture-star mega-development.” The play, the press notes conclude, “explores whether architecture has become more of an art than a profession, and at what point the ethics of one field violate the principles of the other.”

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Directed by Brendan Hughes, The Bilbao Effect is being presented by the Center for Architecture in association with Jacqueline Bridgeman, Fritz Michel and Les Gutman, was commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts, and was developed, in part, through a column that Safdie formerly wrote for Metropolis magazine. Safdie’s prior plays include Private Jokes, Public Places, which ran Off-Broadway in 2003, and The Last Word, which starred Daniel J. Travanti and Adam Green and also ran Off-Broadway, in 2007.

The Bilbao Effect begins previews on Wed., May 12; opens Sun., May 16; and runs through June 5 at the Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Pl.). For more information, click here. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Oren Safdie has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
This wasn’t asked directly, but defines what I strive for. The seed of this play, The Bilbao Effect, grew out of a column I wrote for Metropolis magazine, where I created and interviewed a fictitious architect much in the way Deborah Solomon interviews well-known personalities in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The characters were takeoffs on well-known architects, but were exaggerated and satirical. After the first interview was published, the editor contacted me and said that several architects had called him to inquire why they had never heard of the famous architect.

2. What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Being from Canada — but only having had one play produced in Toronto — several reporters have asked me why I don’t get more of my plays produced there? (As if this is by choice.)

3. What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
From a well-known architect: “Isn’t it hypocritical of you to title your play The Bilbao Effect if you’re criticizing the profession for being sensational?

4) The Bilbao Effect asks if “architecture has become more of an art than a profession.” Given how the play tackles the controversial Atlantic Yards project, among other topics, isn’t it really a matter of whether architecture has become the nymphomaniac whore of real estate developers?
It’s clear that real estate developers — as well major cultural institutions and governments, for that matter — have hooked onto the idea that superstar architects, like A-list movie stars, can help finance and sell a project to investors and donors. The play argues that, in fact, what has happened, consciously or subconsciously, is that developers and their architects feel the need to make every new building a major “statement” that will capture the public’s imagination with less thought about how the building will function or be used after the hoopla dies down. Look at the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium in Beijing: It has become nothing more than a tourist attraction and has done nothing to enhance the area or answer the sporting needs of the city.

But the play also cautions against trying to regulate a free-market system by imposing committees that could lead to bland architecture. I suppose developers will always be developers, but if architecture is a true “profession,” there should be more of a sense of social responsibility. If that is too much to ask due to financial pressures, perhaps there should be more stringent regulations that protect the character of a city, much as there are in many European cities. Sometimes this means cutting back on density, but in the long run the results are better for everyone.

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5) With the exception of the Robert Moses-Jane Jacobs battles, it seems the mid-20th-century was a time in which progressive, experimental concepts in urban design and development could attract public support. Now it seems there’s a dividing line between the public interest and whatever private capital can buy. Do you agree? How do you turn issues in contemporary architecture into something with a true dramatic pulse?
Regardless of whether the massive urban-development projects of the 1950s and ’60s were successful or not, the intentions were driven by solving large social issues that arose with the expanding city. Mass immigration, industrialization and the baby boom that followed World War II led the Robert Moses’s to try and create a situation that would benefit the public. In hindsight, it woked better in theory than in practice, as mass production of cookie cutter, nondescript modern buildings created oppressive environments. But I don’t believe intentions were ego-driven or based on artistic and/or abstract theoretical notions.

Today, how many famous architects are devoting themselves to public housing? Schools? Hospitals? Nobody can afford the fees. And, unlike the legal or medical professions that routinely have engage in pro bono work, architects do not have that tradition as in the past; they couldn’t afford to do so. But aside from that, most famous architects are driven by high-octane projects such as museums, opera houses and signature luxury condominiums. These usually come about through competitions, and no doubt they feel the need to stand out from their peers in order to land the commission. Subtlety is all but dead.

Bonus question:

6) As a playwright, former architecture student and son of a famous architect, what moral responsibility do you have, if any, toward historic preservation in New York City?
It can be an advantage to have one foot in the profession and one foot out. Hopefully, I’m able to bridge the gap between architects and the public. Theater — and comedy in particular — is a very effective tool in getting everyone on the same page. Real-flesh characters standing right in front of you have a way of penetrating the conscience more effectively than if, say, I wrote an essay. It also gives me a larger canvas to portray varied opinionated characters ranging from an embittered architecture critic to a Staten Island chiropractor living across the street from a new urban-development project. Regarding New York, I lived here for many years and feel a definite kinship, but the city has failed to protect its unique character.

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Presently, I’m subletting an apartment in Park Slope. Its charming streets and mom-and-pop stores and restaurants make you feel like it’s more “New York” than New York. When I stroll down to the East Village, I’m amazed that well known architects can build so recklessly, flagrantly disrespecting the character of the neighborhood. I think this frustrates many New Yorkers, but they feel helpless. (Just look at what Trump was able to get built along the west side.) But more importantly, I have real concerns about contemporary architecture that competes for our attention every step of the way. Will the human condition improve or lead to a sensory overload? It’s fair to ask whether “old-style” architecture — in every context — is preferred for reasons of nostalgia, or is there just something so right about walking down an old street, with old buildings, in the old part of a city?

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