There is no shortage of drama in architecture. In a constellation of anticipation and suspense, developing design projects—particularly large works planned for the public realm—are keenly followed and critiqued, both eruditely by architecture's opining class of professional critics and casually by the hoi polloi. Buildings then emerge unashamedly in full public view, like weary exhibitionists whose once dare-devilish exploits have long since become a dull routine. And occasionally, even the destruction of architecture signals a kind of performance. While the recent tragedy at Notre Dame was not quite what Hugo had in mind, that conflagration's rapid dissemination through print and digital media underscores the 19th-century novelist's insistence on architecture as an endangered—yet formidable—protagonist. This histrionic capacity of architecture unsurprisingly extends to—or perhaps emanates from—the academy. In a fashion of education quite unlike most others, students of architecture are constantly engaged in a highly choreographed presentation of their work, resulting in a highly public (and sometimes traumatizing) cycle of humiliation and praise. The dramatics that unfold in the architectural academy are well known to playwright Oren Safdie, who, before embarking on a writing career that has spanned nearly three decades, earned a master’s degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And while pursuing these studies may have initially been an endeavor to maintain ties with the family business (the playwright's father is Moshe Safdie), Oren's experiences in architecture school clearly impacted his writing. Indeed, one of Safdie's earliest plays, Private Jokes, Public Places, detailed a young architecture student's final presentation which, thanks to the presence of some big and obnoxious egos on the jury, spiraled horrendously out of control (staging the play has become a kind of annual tradition at architecture schools around the world). Some years later, in The Bilbao Effect, Safdie's satirical pen revisited architecture, this time with a decidedly more macabre stroke. In Bilbao, we see the fallout that occurs when the play's starchitect-protagonist, Erhardt Shlaminger, is blamed by a Staten Island resident for the death of his wife, who—unable to reconcile herself with the formal qualities of a new Schlaminger tower in her bailiwick—is driven to suicide. Safdie's latest project, Color Blind, returns once again to architecture and its potential for drama and (perhaps unwanted) spectacle, but this time in the context of race. The play, which was debuted in a read-through at the University at Buffalo, is a fictionalized account of the jury deliberations surrounding the selection of an architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., Designed by David Adjaye, the NMAAHC was completed in 2016. Color Blind, on the other hand, is very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, the early drafts are further evidence of Safdie's acute awareness of the tensions and contradictions that underlie architectural culture and production, and the ability of these to yield highly theatrical—and sometimes excruciatingly uncomfortable—moments. The play invites its audience into the usually sealed-off space where critical decisions about architecture are made. There, we are introduced to six fictional jurors who will decide the shape of the first institution dedicated to African-American history on Washington's National Mall. This motley crew is composed of a diverse set of players whose exchanges hover between guarded diplomacy, heartfelt confessions, and downright acrimony. The imagined jury includes the future museum director and his assistant, both of whom are black. The former is the staid elder statesman, the latter, a fiery and plainspoken woman who speaks her mind. Also present is the museum's Korean-American treasurer, who is meek and wise. Rounding out the committee is a highly neurotic community organizer (Jewish), as well as a pedantic architecture critic, and a folksy but established starchitect (both of whom are white). The racial and ethnic backgrounds of the characters are worth noting because they foreground the competing experiences and prejudices that contextualize each juror's vision for the museum. In this sense, Color Blind is aligned with Private Jokes, Public Spaces, and The Bilbao Effect; all three recognize architecture as not just a silent protagonist, but as a dramatic vehicle for exposing broader contradictions and conflicts embedded in architecture—some, occasionally, not too deep below the surface. Color Blind relies heavily on popular stereotypes about race and ethnicity—and the conflicts these imply—to drive its plot forward. As such, scattered throughout the jury's deliberations over the six finalist museum proposals are somewhat formulaic monologues: an emotional harangue on the experience of being a single mother on welfare (black assistant to the director); a frenzied, confessional tirade riddled with liberal guilt (Jewish community organizer); and a demure complaint—in broken English—about the perils of over-achievement (Korean-American treasurer). These cliches render Color Blind's dramatic trajectory for the most part predictable, and Safdie's later drafts would certainly be helped by the addition of nuance and moments of surprise. Still, the play's overall agenda deserves our attention. In a profession that maintains a track record on inclusivity that is shameful—about 2 percent of registered architects in the U.S. are black—and in a nation where xenophobic and racist hostility in both discourse and action appear at alarming levels, the play's vision is both timely and telling. With Color Blind, Safdie's desire to lift the veil that renders the process of architectural production bewildering to outsiders, and his portrait of the conflicts that lie just beneath the veil's surface could, in the end, do more than give credence to the dramatic possibilities latent in architecture. When finished, the new play has the potential to instigate a critical dialogue about uncomfortable issues that extend far beyond architecture but are undeniably relevant to the field. Mustafa Faruki was the 2018-2019 Peter Reyner Banham Fellow at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. He is the founder of theLab-lab for architecture. Color Blind was presented by undergraduate students at the school in a live reading. The event was followed by an informal discussion with Safdie and was held in connection with The Whiteness of American Architecture, a day-long symposium examining the racial discourses underlying "American Architecture" movements from independence up to the first decades of the 20th century. Color Blind has been selected as a finalist in the Kernodle Playwriting Competition at the University of Arkansas and will be presented again in a staged reading by the Architecture Foundation in London this fall.
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For those architects with an interest in theater, Wednesday was the West Coast premiere of Oren Safdie's newest play, False Solution, at the Santa Monica Playhouse (tickets may be purchased here). Safdie earned an M.Arch at Columbia University and is the son of architect Moshe Safdie. He has now written three plays inspired by contemporary architecture, including The Bilbao Effect and Private Jokes, Public Spaces. False Solution, which also played in New York last summer, follows Anton Seligman, a successful architect whose latest commission, a new Holocaust museum in Poland, is aggressively challenged by one of his new interns, Linda Johansson. She also confronts his beliefs in himself, his career, his profession, and much more. On May 1, AN will host a panel discussion at the Santa Monica Playhouse moderated by West Coast Editor Sam Lubell. Panelists include Safdie, the show's stars Daniel J. Travanti and Amanda Saunders, and architects Craig Hodgetts and Hagy Belzberg. False Solution runs through May 11. Last week Lubell sat down with Safdie to discuss the play, its challenges, and the arc of his career. Read the interview below. Sam Lubell: I was talking to one of the actors about how False Solution really has an impact on many levels and holds together well. One thing I noticed was that there are a lot of specifics that come up, and I’m wondering, did you have any real life inspirations for any of these characters or situations? Oren Safdie: It’s an amalgamation in some ways, but obviously there are references that are made that I think more people in the architecture community will get. Not necessary the characters as much as the building referenced in the play. It derives from two different philosophies in two different Holocaust museums that I used as my model—one based on the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind in Berlin and one on my father’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I always noted that they took completely opposite approaches. One being the extreme—trying to express as much as one can in a building about the Holocaust—versus the opposite approach that pretty much eliminates any architectural expression and tries to void the building and allow the exhibit to stand by itself. I try to let these two philosophies bleed into the characters and then create tension between them. It’s not just a subtle allusion. Each one of those is clearly represented. Yes, definitely. You can’t forge the reality. But in terms of the characters, they are parts of different characters. This architect is not based on Libeskind and the young female student is not based on my father. They are just the characters and you just infuse those philosophies into their characters. In many ways it's interesting that the struggles to design a museum reflect the struggles in these characters. Being in the architecture world I don’t often get to see a side of architecture that reflects inner turmoil or inner struggles, so I think that is a very powerful technique. I think where I started from, more than focusing on a Holocaust museum, was focusing on an architect who is at the pinnacle of his career and who is adored by the public and by the press. Yet something within him has doubts—debating if he’s a fraud or not. What would it take for somebody to prick that balloon and let all the air come out? A young, attractive, intelligent first year architecture student certainly is capable of that. Which brings up another interesting aspect of your work: You’re not afraid to pull punches. You’re willing to criticize the profession of architecture. Well I think I’m in a position to do that because I won’t lose any jobs if I do. I think having a foot in architecture and being in architecture school gave me an in-depth knowledge. I never really practiced, but I can sort of do things and not really worry about that. Not to say that people don’t get upset, but for the most part I think people have responded well. But sometimes you read some architecture critics and they can be equal to those theater critics that bring out the knives. Certainly there was a very direct criticism of Libeskind and the sense of making people queasy with architecture. I don’t know that’s the way you feel about it but it was a very specific critique. I don’t know if it was a critique? I put it out there and maybe you see it like that and other people may see that. Hopefully I didn’t make a judgment on it. I think you mentioned once that Frank Gehry was mad at you for a little bit. Well I don’t receive personal phone calls from him, but I heard through the grapevine that he did not like the fact that I used the Bilbao Effect for the title of one of my plays. It was a fictitious look at the Brooklyn shipyard project, but was set in Staten Island. Really it was high satire. It was a court case involving a member of the public who was bringing a lawsuit against the architect because he blamed his wife’s suicide on the architect. It was always a far-fetched scenario. After architecture school, what made you decide to veer off into playwriting? It was pretty instantaneous. In my last semester in architecture school I took a playwriting course, because Columbia encouraged us to take a course outside of Architecture and Art History. I wrote a 10-minute scene based on my experience of juries in architecture school, which became my first architecture play, Private Jokes, Public Places. I guess while other people were really focusing on buildings I was just amazed at the drama that took place during student pin-ups. I didn’t turn back after that. You're not afraid to get technical. Being in this arena and not being an architect, I appreciate that you obviously know the talk. But it’s not to the point that laypeople can’t understand it. Right. If the story doesn’t have an inner tension—in False Solution it’s about this older man and younger woman—then I think you lose them as well. I remember going to see Tom Stoppard, a British playwright, who wrote the Invention of Love. It was all references to something I did not understand. In fact, I probably only understood 50 percent of the play. Yet that play has stayed with me, because the moments in between all the dialogue that I could understand were very heart wrenching and memorable. So I see the technical stuff as background music, and every so often the story is punching through and you’re following that. Obviously the emotions and human drama are the things that hit you the hardest. Hopefully. You do have to follow and you do have to work for it. Its not the kind of play that you’re going to come in and sit back and relax. You have to stay alert and follow these things. It’s a workout for the brain. I have to mention the fact that your father is a very famous architect. Is that something that you struggle with? A pressure to be compared to your father? Well it’s a double-edged sword really, because I sometimes I feel that it’s given me a foot in. Some people might say. "Oh, well I’ll go see this because he’s the son of... maybe there would be something interesting." It’s also worked against me in some ways in which people dismiss me and say, "Well the only reason he’s gotten there is because..." I think getting away from architecture or being a practitioner was probably a healthy thing for me to do. Theater is a world quite far away from architecture, and yet these plays are a way to participate in the debate.
False Solution, the final play in Oren Safdie's trilogy (Private Jokes, Public Spaces and The Bilbao Effect) on contemporary architecture is finally set to take the stage on June 13th in New York City. The play will be followed by an official press opening on June 16th at the off-Broadway experimental theatre, La MaMa ETC in Manhattan. Oren Safdie, son of internationally esteemed architect Moshe Safdie, is a Canadian-American-Israeli playwright with a strong background in both architecture and fictional writing (he graduated with a Master’s in both subjects from Columbia University). Even after having turned to a career in writing it was clear that architecture would remain flowing through Oren’s blood. Both of Safdie’s earlier works Private Jokes, Public Spaces and The Bilbao Effect enjoyed great success off-Broadway and received positive acclaim from play-goers and the press. His latest work False Solution tells the impassioned story of a German-Jewish architect who is tasked with the job of designing a new Holocaust museum in Poland. His clear vision for the new institution quickly unfurls as he spends an exhilarating night with his bold and striking intern, a first-year architecture student, who exposes him to a whirlwind of ideas and drives him to entirely rethink his design approach. As a result of their intimate night together the architect finds himself questioning everything he stands for and is inevitably forced to reflect on the roles that religious identity, sexual politics, and the effects of war play in the creative process.
Tweeting Seat. Imagine if the public realm was able to reach out digitally and interact through the internet. Yanko Design spotted just such a bench by designer Christopher McNicholl which tweets about people sitting on the aptly-named @TweetingSeat. Two cameras -- one watching the bench and one looking outward -- continuously let curious people all over the world who is taking a break. Second in Line. The Wall Street Journal spoke with an anonymous philanthropist and architecture fan from Iowa who is looking for the world's second most famous architect. According to the story, the donor is willing to pony up $300 million to any city that does not hire Frank Gehry to design its art museum. "Don't get me wrong, I like iconoclastic, swoopy structures that look like bashed-in sardine cans as much as the next guy... I'm just saying we should give an architect not named Frank Gehry a chance." Ouch. Presidential Pritzker. Blair Kamin reports that President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will be in attendance at the Pritzker Prize award dinner for Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. It's the first time a president sat in on the ceremonies since the Clintons dined with Renzo Piano in 1998. Also check out AN's exclusive Commentary and Q+A with Souto de Moura. Safdie's False Solution. Oren Safdie, playwright and son of architect Moshie Safdie, is making progress on the third part of his trilogy of architecture-themed plays and will be conducting a reading this evening in LA. A False Solution tells the story of of a Jewish-German architect whose resolve is shaken by a young intern after winning a Holocaust museum in Poland. (Via ArchNewsNow.)