The Monster-Builder: A Portlandian view of architecture?


Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist's Repertory Theater's production of The-Monster Builder. Photo: Owen Carey

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist’s Repertory Theater’s production of The Monster-Builder. Photo: Owen Carey.

Editor’s note: Portland Architecture’s Brian Libby has long been one of Oregon’s most insightful writers on architecture, and has interviewed many of today’s most prominent architects. OAW’s Brett Campbell, who’s also written about contemporary architecture, chatted (via e-mail, since our planned in-person discussion was sidetracked by snow) about Amy Freed’s new play, The Monster-Builder, now playing at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre through March 2. We managed to talk about local subjects like the again-controversial Portland Building, Memorial Coliseum, and even the zombie Columbia River Crossing. If you want to know more about the play itself, you can read Bob Hicks’s OAW review here.

BC: OK, Brian, assuming you made it home safe from snowpocalypse, let’s talk monsters and builders!  Do you agree that The Monster-Builder is trying to dramatize the conflict between characters who embody (or caricature), respectively, high modernism’s art-trumps-all-attitude, and the New Urbanist idea that buildings should serve people, community, etc? If so, do you think it does so in a way that actually enhances our understanding of those philosophies?

BL: I think of the conflict in The Monster-Builder as one that embodies the central push-pull in nearly all of architecture: one between idealism and pragmatism. I used to be a movie reviewer before I switched to the architecture beat, and it always struck me that both are expensive, multi-million-dollar endeavors that on one hand have a creative author (an architect or director/screenwriter) trying to push the artistry of the medium but on the other hand come with a set of pragmatic realities, be it the overall cost or the needs of the consumers (either a building’s occupants or a movie’s viewers). In The Monster-Builder, Amy Freed does an excellent job of juxtaposing this very real and universal friction against a farcical comedy.

Although showy architecture exists in every era, I think Freed’s play is more critical of deconstructivism than it is of high modernism. The billowing titanium buildings of Frank Gehry, deconstructionism’s poster child, exist as sculpture over function in a way that even the most pristine classical modernism doesn’t. Locally, for example, I think of Memorial Coliseum, the building I’ve been trying for years to help save, and how that building’s transparency makes it so democratic: a people’s building that’s all about bringing people together.

The best modernism, to me, possesses a transparency that trumps any ambitions of monumentalism. But deconstructionism, like postmodernism before it, is more about the architect’s ego. It’s perfect timing that the Portland Building’s fate is in question here, because I think its architect, Michael Graves, is Gregor, the evil starchitect at the heart of the play.

BC: We’re having a similar discussion in Portland now about the Portland Building (which ironically is actually one of the country’s first post-Modern, not modernist, buildings.) I’ve visited friends who work in that building, and I’ve even given a presentation there, and it just seems so dysfunctional, although it’s complicated by the budget constraints that Graves blamed for many of its problems. Does this play give us any insights into that debate here and now? 

BL: It struck me as I was watching The Monster-Builder that Portland would seem to be a particularly receptive audience to a play about the dangers of rampant egotism in architecture. Even though we’re a city with an esteemed design reputation, we don’t really build trophy buildings by starchitects. Or in the rare occasions that we do, they tend to stand out like a sore thumb, as the Portland Building does.

The fact that we’re having a conversation lately about the fate of the Portland Building (due to an estimated $95 million repair bill for what’s only a 32-year-old building) is great timing for Freed’s play. The “Monster” of the play is an architect for whom making bold statement trumps serving the needs of a building’s occupants. In the play, one character talks of her father dying prematurely at a hospital designed by the protagonist-architect, Gregor, prompted by the bold yet wildly impractical design. It’s all too real a comparison to the sick-building syndrome that City of Portland workers in the Portland Building have experienced — there’s a higher rate of sick leave for these employees than for employees in any other city building.

I do have to say that after watching The Monster-Builder, I felt a greater sense of acceptance about the Portland Building potentially being torn down. It is very historic and important as the first major postmodern building in the world, but Freed’s play reminded me that it’s Memorial Coliseum that emerges out of this question of architectural ego versus honest functionality: it’s a union of both, whereas Pietro Belluschi’s famous quote about the Portland Building seems truer than ever: “That’s not architecture. It’s packaging.”

The Monster-Builder by Amy Freed. Directed by Art Manke from Artists Repertory Theatre on Vimeo.

BC: I remember when the architecture critic Paul Goldberger, then with The New Yorker, was here a few years ago and pointed out that what makes central Portland so appealing isn’t its trophy buildings, because we really don’t have any, but rather its inviting streetscape, walkability and so on. So is Gregor the perfect villain for Portland, and would he actually be a hero in, say LA?

BL: There’s probably a good chance Gregor would at least be less of a villain in Los Angeles. He’d probably be perfect for China or one of the former Soviet republics: third-world places (or those recently so) with newfound wealth. Perhaps it’s a question of what places have the biggest intersection of new money and insecurity. I don’t mean to say that all bold architecture is an expression of insecurity; but to be great, boldness has to be accompanied by integrity.

I remember once reading an interview with Portland State University urban studies professor Carl Abbott talking about the differing architectural personalities of Seattle and Portland. Ocean port cities like Seattle, Abbott argued, traditionally are motivated to show the world through their architecture how big, ambitious and important they are. And you see it in the Space Needle and in the collection of buildings by famous architects like Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Stephen Holl.

Portland, on the other hand, Abbott said, embodied river cities, which tend to be more insular yet also more comfortable in their own skin. I know cities like London and Paris defy the quiet-river-city hypothesis, but it really fits for Seattle and Portland. While our neighbor to the north is more about trophy buildings by the kinds of architects The Monster-Builder‘s Gregor is based on, Portland tends to place more emphasis on its pedestrian-oriented urban planning, its parks, and its historic buildings. Just a comparison of downtown libraries alone says it all: Seattle’s Koolhaas-designed library is a gem, but I’m not sure it’s very cozy or much of a people-magnet so much as a beautiful monolith. Portland’s historic downtown library is an old Georgian beauty by A.E. Doyle, but its best quality is that it’s a kind of family room for the city.

Starchitects or Startifacts?

BC: In The Monster-Builder, the problem is that the balance in the power equation has shifted to the starchitect, who gets to dictate the terms because of his star power. You and I have both interviewed starchitects, and one I wrote about, Thom Mayne, who built LA’s fearsome transportation HQ (nicknamed “The Death Star”), resembles Gregor superficially. But even Mayne told me that he thought of his work as a partnership with clients, and his later buildings, like the federal courthouse in Eugene, seem quite a bit friendlier and practical. Locally, Brad Cloepfil is a disciple of modernist Louis Kahn, but his buildings seem people friendly to me. 

So, do you think that the backlash against the excesses of modernism (and later deconstructionism) has made figures like Gregor (who seems to resemble someone like Philip Johnson more than any current starchitect I think of — maybe it was just the glasses) really more historical star-tifacts than real 21st century starchitects?

BL: In fiction, of course you can make things seem more black and white, which The Monster-Builder does to entertaining effect. The difference between Gregor and a real starchitect, I think, is that even starchitects aren’t making a pure choice between function and form. Whether it’s Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne or Rem Koolhaas, they’re sincerely trying to make their buildings as functional as possible even while they create bold forms. It’s just that in their hearts I think these designers are about forms first and function second — even if the function gets wrapped up in the form. Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library, for example, is almost completely transparent on the facade to bring occupants plenty of natural light, and its interior configuration is based around the idea of a continuous card catalog that guides visitors up its escalators as an intuitive trip through the collection.

I think where real starchitects run into trouble is that they often will favor outlandish forms or expensive showpieces in order to expand and transform what otherwise be an ordinary experience when it doesn’t need to be. The reasoning seems to be that if you hire one of these guys, it’d be a waste if they design something that doesn’t call lots of attention to itself. I think this is especially true of the deconstructivists, for whom the functions inside a building are perhaps just a box to check off, or a means to an end: a chance to create sculpture on an architectural scale.

By contrast, I think a lot of the pure modernists, be it those of the mid-20th century or those working today like Portland’s own Brad Cloepfil, seem to more sincerely embrace function. Cloepfil’s museums in cities like Denver (the Clyfford Still) and New York (the Museum of Art & Design), for example, both have eye-catching facades. But artists and curators have often said Cloepfil makes great spaces for exhibiting art.

Memorial Coliseum, to cite a mid-century example, has a stunningly pure and simple concrete-bowl-in-a-glass-box design, but the openness engenders an unmistakable pleasant response to the occupants: you can see from your seats in the arena bowl outside to see the skyline and the river. There’s nothing overly cerebral or ironic about it: it’s just great design.

BC: Those of us who see Memorial Coliseum (if properly maintained and contextualized by the surrounding environment) as successful know that modernist ideas don’t necessarily preclude sensitivity to people. And there are other examples: I think of Gehry’s Disney Hall, for example, which for all its drawbacks has really helped energize LA’s arts scene, mostly because of his vision and the way it fits that city’s ideas of what it wants to be.

On the other hand, look what happens when we have architecture without aesthetic ambition, like in the new transit bridge and proposed (and we hope deposed) Columbia River Crossing, and the proposals to tear down Memorial Coliseum. I imagine there’s a big contingent of Oregonians that would say not to spend a dime of public money on beauty, even while they admire the St. Johns Bridge and the legendary Portland architects Pietro Belluschi and A.E. Doyle’s best work. So, don’t we need Gregor-like visionaries in architecture? 

BL: There’s no doubt we need great design in our lives, whether you call it the work of visionaries or not. The Columbia River Crossing was/is a perfect example. You’re building a span over one of the great rivers of the west, where Lewis & Clark floated to the Pacific, and you’re just going to put down an ordinary slab of concrete highway bridge?

While any design has to be rooted in function, certainly there’s something to be said for design’s ability, and need, to express some larger desire or ambition. And studies have shown that quality design has a positive economic impact: we want to spend time in memorable, attractive places. What if San Francisco had built something less beautiful and timeless than the Golden Gate bridge? A part of the city’s soul would have been lost, and with it the inspiration that has brought millions of people to the city.

BC: It reminds me a bit of Steve Jobs, who famously did no market testing, insisting that the audience/client couldn’t really know what they wanted until they saw it. He would cite Henry Ford, who supposedly (haven’t been able to confirm this) said that if he’d asked customers what they wanted, they’d have said “a faster horse.” (Of course, Jobs also proposed, with Norman Foster, Apple’s upcoming Gregor-esque campus.) So is The Monster-Builder perhaps unfairly dismissing the role of individual vision in architecture and the arts? 

BL: I don’t think Freed’s play is unfairly dismissive of individual vision. It’s a farce, a comedy, so naturally the story and characters are going to be painted with broad brushstrokes. More importantly, though, I think what Freed is really dismissing is unchecked egotism. Perhaps in some cases, if I may paraphrase Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, ego is good: sometimes in art, or design, one needs the confidence to believe that what one is imagining — be it an iPhone or a Model T — will catch on even if the public hasn’t yet caught on to or developed that need yet en masse. In other words, it takes some ego to be ahead of the curve.

But like anything, ego that goes unchecked and grows oversized is one of the main ingredients in villainy, be it fictional or otherwise: be it Gregor or Bernie Madoff. And ego doesn’t just have to be kept in check; it has to be in service of people and their needs. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs were probably both arrogant, self-centered jerks, at least based on the testimony of people around them. But the cars and computers/mobile devices they created were brilliant because of how they changed our lives.

Allison Tigard stars in ART's The Monster-Builder by Amy Freed, directed by Art Manke. Photo: Owen Carey.

Allison Tigard stars in ART’s The Monster-Builder by Amy Freed, directed by Art Manke. Photo: Owen Carey.

BC: You spoke of architecture’s requirement that design meet the client’s needs, which seems to temper that “rampant egotism” you mention. In the performing arts, the analog is the constant and productive tension between composers/writers/painters pleasing the audience and following their muses. In classical music and jazz, for example, we’ve seen the downside of what happens when composers stray too far from audiences, especially during the midcentury modernist period that spawned a postmodernist backlash that included the minimalism of Steve Reich/Philip Glass/Terry Riley and the world music of Lou Harrison, a return to tonality in composers like Jennifer Higdon and John Adams, and so on. That music tended to appeal to audiences beyond the hardcore niche modernist crowd, who seemed to be writing mostly for each other and a few academics. 

Is the kind of New Urbanism we hear about in The Monster-Builder part of a similar backlash (or thesis-antithesis-synthesis) in architecture, more than the post-modernism of Graves and others? 

BL: I think there’s always been a degree of skepticism about New Urbanism, but not because it has strayed too far from its audience. I think the skepticism comes more from architects themselves. New Urbanism is about planning first: creating walkable, pedestrian-friendly communities. That gets generally high marks. But the architectural style of these communities has always been strongly rooted in nostalgia. New Urbanist developments like Celebration, Florida feel like a Hollywood movie set in the 1950s, with white picket fences and traditional split-level style. The mainstream public seems to enjoy this, and it’s backed up by the fact that single-family home design in the United States overwhelmingly relies on pastiches of historic styles like Victorian, Queen Anne or Craftsman.

It’s actually contemporary architects who rage against this the most, be it traditional-style architecture in New Urbanism or the garden-variety exurb. That said, New Urbanist architecture doesn’t go for the cartoonishness of postmodernism. For better or worse, it seeks to be a faithful recreation that’s about behavior more than style: houses with front porches that face houses with other front porches. The planning is good, and while faux-historicism isn’t to my taste, there’s nothing wrong with it per se. After all, I personally wish contemporary automobiles looked more like they did in the 1960s. I guess the underlying truth here is that all architecture today is just a box that you decorate in different styles.

BC: The Monster-Builder doesn’t have a whole lot of good to say about contemporary architecture. Many clients have no taste, starchitects ignore human needs, architects make Faustian bargains all the time, etc. The only “good guys” are the historic preservationists. Do you agree with the play’s implication that preserving and restoring built history is a counterweight to the twin evils of contemporary architecture: the Vegas-style fake “Paris”/McMansion vision, and Gregor’s unlivable “Final Solutions” (love that fictional firm name!)? 

BL: It’s worth saying that the roles in Freed’s play could be reversed in real life, at least hypothetically. In other words, it’s possible for a renovation project to have too much ego and for a contemporary building to have more integrity than an old one. But it doesn’t usually work that way. Common to all societies, I think, is a desire to preserve architecture of yesteryear as a reminder of our continuity through the generations.

My favorite cities, such as London, are the ones where you can see the contributions of many different eras: Tudor, Victorian, Georgian, modern. It’s not that we want our cities to be architectural museums where old forms trump new functional needs. We have to adapt old buildings to contemporary realities. But when we do, old buildings have a visceral power that’s possible to achieve in new architecture but happens less commonly.

It’s powerful to be able to see architecture in a historical context, to go inside, say, an old warehouse and think of the industrial traditions of old, before we were such a white-collar country. And old buildings used more durable materials like stone and brick than many of the architecture of today, when many of the construction industry’s innovations are about being able to build on the cheap.

All that said, however, we can’t let ourselves only love old buildings and never appreciate the best of our own time. Otherwise, our grandchildren won’t have any old buildings to appreciate.

Portland writer and photographer Brian Libby writes the Portland Architecture blog and has contributed to The New York Times, Architect magazine and Dwell, among others.

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One Response.

  1. Kate R says:

    A morbid thought: if San Francisco had built something less beautiful and timeless than the Golden Gate bridge, perhaps fewer people would be jumping from it?

Comments are closed.

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