Volume 79, Number 48 | May 5 - 11, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Written by Oren Safdie
Directed by Brendan Hughes
Enters previews May 12 towards a May 16th - June 5th run
At the Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Place)
For tickets ($18), call 212-352-3101

Starchitect on trial for creating monstrous ‘toaster on steroids’ 
Safdie delivers ‘shrewd, intelligent’ examination of the WOW! factor 


Nowadays they call them “starchitects” — the rock stars of architecture. 

An earlier version of the breed was Henrik Ibsen’s Halvard Solness, the Master Builder who — egged on, by a beautiful young woman — climbed higher and higher up the tower he was erecting until he took just one step too many. 

There is no more glittering star of the profession in our own day than the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Foremost among his global triumphs is the late-’80s semi-freeform Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — which has transformed what was a drab, rundown port city into a thriving, red-hot international tourist attraction. That a phenomenon has been dubbed “the Bilbao effect” — and wishfully pursued by other such cities around the world. 

“The Bilbao Effect” is also the title of a sharply intelligent and stimulating new play by Oren Safdie, the Canadian-born son of world-famous architect Moshe Safdie — who created the Montreal Olympics’ Habitat 67 — a nested, interlocking riverfront apartment complex in which son Oren spent a number of his own earliest years. 

There is a nifty little theater inside New York City’s Center for Architecture. It is the same LaGuardia Place premises where Oren Safdie’s “Private Jokes, Public Places” (also dealing with contemporary architecture) was a big Off-Broadway hit in 2003. 

Which brings us now, in this new work (the second lap of a projected trilogy) to carefully-worded Canon I of the Code of Ethics of AIA — the prestigious and powerful American Institute of Architects: 

“Members should thoughtfully consider the social and environmental impact of their professional activities.”

In “The Bilbao Effect”  it is international starchitect Erhardt Shlaminger (actor Joris Stuyck) who, in an AIA hearing that much resembles a courtroom trial, faces charges that he violated — or, at the very least, ruinously neglected — the above Canon in his conception and construction of a new, ultra-modern Museum of Contemporary Contemporary (that’s right!) Art — which is topped by three high-rise residential towers on, of all venues, Staten Island. 

It must have been an Off-Broadway press agent up in the sky who, a week or two ago — just before the opening of this play — hatched the headline that Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill was now on the verge of being converted into a glorious world-class greensward five times the area of Central Park. 

“I set it in Staten Island because that’s the most beaten-up borough in New York. Could also have been Queens, though. It’s funny,” says playwright Safdie, “When I was growing up in Habitat, there was a huge garbage dump up the river that they were turning into what was to be a great international airport. But the runways kept popping up from the garbage gas underneath, and in the end they had to abandon it.” 

To hot-and-bothered solid citizen Paul Bolzano (Anthony Giamo), the new titanium-clad, heat-beaming museum complex — directly across the street from where Bolzano and his troubled wife had lived for many years — resembles nothing so much as a monstrous “toaster on steroids.” 

“Paul Bolzano’s voice is the way I approach this play,” says the man who wrote it. “I see everything through his eyes. People feel intimidated by architecture, but he’s quite blunt and questions everything.” 

It is Bolzano who has brought charges against architect Shlaminger, and it is Bolzano who is now being questioned as follows by Mitsumi Yoshida — a tenacious young law student serving as prosecutor: 

MITSUMI YOSHIDA; But if you had wanted to, could you have moved to a comparable neighborhood? 

PAUL BOLZANO: How do you compare a neighborhood where you have lived all your life? The small park around the corner that has your grandparents’ initials carved in a cement block. Gus Jr.’s barbershop, where his father cut your father’s hair. Besides, it took me years to build my clientele. I’d either have to commute or start all over again. I’m a chiropractor. 

YOSHIDA: Would you like to tell us what happened on June 16th, 2007? 

BOLZANO: They completed Phase One [the Museum itself] and my wife committed suicide. 

M. J. Kang was originally set to play Mitsumi Yoshida — but chose to leave because she was finding it difficult to balance the role with her duties as a new mother. Ann Hu replaces her. Kang, who had a key role in “Private Jokes, Public Places” seven years ago, is in fact Korean-born Myung-Jin — or Mrs. Oren Safdie. 

How’d they meet? “At La MaMa, of course. I was there with my ‘Jews and Jesus’ and she was there with Pan Asian Rep.” They now live in Santa Monica and are the parents of two-year-old Mia. 

So what about Habitat’s Moshe Safdie, father of Oren and longtime friend and colleague of Frank Gehry? 

“I think my father” (now in his 80s in Cambridge, Mass.; Oren’s mother still lives in Habitat) “is busier than he’s ever been.” 

Then, picking the words carefully: 

“I think my father’s concern was that the play will reflect on his relationship with Frank Gehry.” 

Pause; then: 

“I think it’s safe to say my father’s views of things said in this play are not his views.” 

So be it. What Oren Safdie has here given us is a shrewd, clear-eyed up-to-the-minute exegesis on the hubris of a profession more sacrosanct in some ways than the medical; and more vulnerable — as when what seemed like all of Brooklyn rose up against the Atlantic Yards. Not to mention the ongoing nine-year fiasco of what was supposed to rise like the Phoenix from Ground Zero. 

The Bilbao Effect in reverse, so to speak.


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