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Homa Taj In Conversation with Art Dealer LOUIS K. MEISEL

Bernardo Torrens, Jesi I, Acrylic on canvas, 20 ” x 20 ”, 2008

In Conversation with Art Dealer, Louis K. Meisel

Homa Taj Nasab – How did you get into selling art?

Louis Meisel – Ok, that’s an easy one. Every junky ends up selling the stuff to support his habit. Arts, antiques, drugs… they are all the same. I started to collect comic books and used to buy 3 and sell 1 to pay off for the other two. And, when I studied architecture in college, we had to take painting classes, but at the end of the term, everyone would throw out their canvases. So I decided to take them instead to the fraternity houses and convince them that instead of buying posters they should invest in original works for $25 each; I sold everything. My friends/ students got $15 each for their paintings and I got $10.

Formally speaking, though, back in 1964, I bought a $600 painting from the Greek-born first generation Abstract Expressionist painter, Theodoros Stamos, and had the opportunity to pay him off in weekly $5 installments. One day, my parents brought an art collector to my apartment to teach to me that I should not be wasting my money on something that I didn’t know. Well, it turned out that the collector loved Stamos’ work and they ended up buying a couple of paintings from him. After that, I sold a few more Stamos, and, in return, he relieved me of the remainder $550 debt that I owed him for the painting that I had originally bought from him. However, at some point, he had run out of paintings to give as commissions so he gave me $1000 (advanced commission) that covered my rent for six months.

HTN – When did you start to collect? Which came first, dealing or collecting?

LM – When I was around 5 years old, my parents would take me on trips to Canada & New England. My mom was an antiques collector so as I accompanied her on buying trips, I would look for scuttle cups that are these English and German shaving mugs. Later on, I have moved on to collecting Tiffany glass which then cost around $10-15. When I was 12 years old, in 1954, I had found a Tiffany decanter which cost $25 dollars; my dad thought that it was too much money but I took all my savings – allowance and snow shovelling moneys – and bought it for myself. I still have it. Of course, the inspiration comes from my mom and her taste in art.

HTN – You are a great collector of …a great number of collections. What are some of your most prized collections – on personal as well as art historical levels.

LM – My number one collection is comprised of Photorealist watercolours which is the finest in the world. It includes 3 of the very best works by each of the top 15 Photorealists. But I have about 115–20 different collections. I donated 7 (different collections) to The Southhampton Historical Museum, last year, including: decoy ducks, children’s chairs and others. I have, also, sold off complete collections such a Fiestaware.

Other more fun (minor) collections include 19th Century ice cream scoops, 1940s’ Moderne, Tin Toys, and Art Deco statues.

But, of course, the paintings are the most important to me!

HTN – You also collect, of all things, trees. Beech trees, to be more specific. How did you get into collecting naturalia and are there other living things that you collect? Do you share your collection with other collectors (do you sell them, etc.)?

LM – When I bought my house in the Hamptons, in 1984, I found out that you can buy trees and since my wife (Susan Meisel) & I are collectors by instinct, we began to research all kinds of trees to plant. Ultimately, I narrowed down our options to  Beeches since there is a wide range of variety in this species. Also, they are pretty sturdy against hurricanes… & not susceptible to insects and diseases. So we have about 30 different kinds and over 100 individual Beeches.

HTN – Do you see a conflict of interest in collecting what you sell?

LM – In my earliest years, I had the greatest respect for dealers who invested all their time and energy to learn about and collect the art they were dealing in, these included: Ivan Karp and Allan Stone. I was very interested in their connoisseurial dedication… So No. I don’t think that there is a conflict of interest and people who buy from me like the fact that I am intellectually and emotionally invested in the works that I am selling.

HTN –We have talked about this before: there are thousands of art buyers – including ones with comfortable (but not huge) bank accounts who can afford to buy works valued at $100K+ – but there are extremely few collectors. How do you define ‘a collector’?

LM – Again, people like Karp and Stone who intellectually pursue amassing a group of objects that inform and teach others about them. This includes the pleasure that these objects bring to people’s lives. My wife identifies, say, 10 categories of collecting each year but I narrow them down to 1-2 possible fields based on rarity, availability, aesthetics, and, basically what it’s all about. We like to collect things that others haven’t, yet, discovered and then set out to learn as much about them as we can. The ultimate goal is to publish original material that enhances the scholarship on and appreciation for that particular genre. One example, is our groundbreaking work on Clarice Cliff.

HTN – Needless to say that I have three dozen different questions about the topic of Photorealism… but let’s just focus on your forthcoming book onPhotorealism in the Digital Age…

Photorealism in the Digital Age expands on the foundations that were set by my last three books on the subject, including: Photorealism (1980), Photorealism since 1980 (1993) and Photorealism at the Millennium (2002). All these titles were published by Harry N. Abrams but I’m not sure about this one. The book’s objective is to explore the rapidly growing technologies in: photography, computers, Photoshop and other programs that are used by the newest generation of Photorealist artists. Like their predecessors, they use the camera to gather information… except that now, they are employing technologies and instruments that have the capacity to capture images in huge megapixels and transpose them onto potentially equally powerful computers. They, then, can actually paint photographic images that someone like Richard Estes would have never been able to do. So the basic premise is that “If we can see it, we can paint it,” then, what happens when we see a whole lot more than the previous generation of artists! For example, today, there is technology developed by NASA that practically gives us the same visible ability as someone going up on a satellite and being able to read a New York Times that is being held on a corner of Madison Ave.

HTN – Tell us me some memorable stories about collectors whom you have advised? (Names may be withheld to protect the guilty!)

LM – During my early years as a dealer in Soho, in about 1972-3, a young British collector named Charles Saatchi came to me. He was a very inspired and aggressive collector who when told something was not for sale would find the owner and offer them more money than they could ever imagine getting for a work in their possession. Saatchi tracked down a great Malcolm Morley Ship painting with a major collector. It took him a lunch and a lot of money, but he got the painting. Saatchi then went on to build the best collection of Photorealist paintings outside the United States. The rest is history.

Hubert de Lartigue, Petit Sourire, Acrylic on canvas, 35” x 51”, 2010 –

Morten G. Neumann who started buying from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, among others, in the 1930’s, is another memorable character with whom I have worked. I met him in 1969-70 on Madison Ave… and, he told me that it had been almost 30 years since he met a dealer to whom he could relate in the way that he related to Kahnweiler. He went on to amass a Photorealist collection from me and a few others. So, Saatchi started his career as a collector with me and Newman concluded it.

HTN – How did you meet Frank Bernaducci? How long have you been working together?

LM – In the late 1980’s, there was a conglomeration of galleries in East Village and it was sort of the next place after Soho, but the whole thing only lasted about 3 years. The place was vibrant and exciting and Frank was a part of it. When that collapsed, he moved to Broadway and Prince Streets in Soho and was more interested in Photorealism than other dealers, at the time. He began to borrow works like Charlie Bell’s paintings from me, regularly. Frank, then, worked as the Director of Tatistcheff Gallery on 57th Street for a good few years, and then as Director of Fischbach for four years, and got great experience in these two realist oriented galleries. In 2000, he approached me and told me, “I am ready to open my own gallery again and I want you to be my mentor and advisor or anything you  want to assist and maybe work with me.” After 6-7 weeks of the four of us – Frank, Mary (his wife), Susan & I – hanging out and brainstorming, we decided to open a new gallery called Bernaducci Meisel. I agreed to put up the money for the first 2 years and told him, “Your job is to put in 100% of your time and energy into making this a success.” Now, our artists and collectors like Frank and it has been a very satisfying partnership. And, on September 30, we re-open Bernaducci Meisel on 57th Street doubling down the size from 3000 to 6000 square feet.

HTN – Why did you decide to open a new gallery in a different location?

LM – The bottom line is that Ivan Karp, Paula Cooper and I basically started Soho. Ivan & I are the only ones that are still here… As long as people come to Soho, they will come and be able to find at least one vintage gallery… MINE. New people (dealers) are in Chelsea where I am not interested in moving to. But 57th Street has remained the centre of the art world since I entered it in the late 1950’s.

My (Meisel) Gallery on Prince St. will remain intact where I can show larger works that we won’t be able to get into the 57th St space. More prolific artists who can fill both galleries will be shown in both. The Prince St. Gallery will serve as a place where we can show a diversity of artists at once, something like an open book museum!

HTN – I meet numerous (!) Photorealist and Hyperrealist painters who would do just about anything to be represented by you. What advice would you give them… if only to become great artists?

LM – Since the original 13 Photorealists and 15 peripheral ones, I find about 5 artists per decade. There is nothing that I can tell any body; every artist has to develop on their own. Not that I am the end all and be all of it but I do have my standards. I cannot tell anybody what to paint. I don’t even tell my own artists what or how to paint anything. Who am I to second guess the artists in whom I believe?!

HTN – …OH, wait…  I cannot let you go without talking about “The Waiting List”! What’s the story behind ‘some’ dealers inventing a Waiting List for their artists…?

LM – Not too long ago, I read about a collector who was suing a contemporary artist (& the dealer, I believe) for not selling him artworks. When I began to work with Photorealists, they would do 5-10 paintings a year and there were hundreds of people who wanted their work. Now if you were a smart dealer you could pick & choose the real collectors: those to whose collections other collectors would look up and that inclusion into their collections would do a lot to advance the artist’s career. I guess it sounds elitist, but that’s my job… Also, (as a dealer) you can choose people who had lent or donated works, or money, to museums. Rare exceptions include a great collector like Morton Neumann who was never good at doing that.

So there was a lot of stuff to think about. And, for example, to this day, if any buyer would even utter the word ‘investment,’ you know that s/he is the type who would turn around and sell the piece(s) as soon as their value rises, in a couple of years. And, then, there are those who show up with their interior designers… Forget it. I work with collectors who are as serious as I am about collecting. I want collectors who want to buy works for the pleasure(s) of enjoyment, and connoisseurship. Of course, there always are deaths, taxes and divorces… but that is a whole different story. Before Warhol left 30,000 works behind, it used to be much easier to manage an artist’s career. The same goes for a graffiti artist who produces 100 works a week… yet his dealer turns around and establishes a Waiting List for him just to make the pieces appear dearer to collectors. That is something that I don’t do. It’s something that I have never had to fake!


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Homa Taj In Conversation with Marc Bouwer on Dressing Angelina, Beyonce, Charlize, Halle & Co.

Angelina Jolie in Marc Bouwer @ The Academy Awards, 2004

A typical question for Tinseltown’s favourite Couturier is not whom Marc Bouwer has dressed? It is more like, which superstar female celebrity is queueing to parade on the Red Carpet in her Bouwer. A select list of his close friends and clients include: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Whitney Houston, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock, Lydia Hearst, Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump, Toni Braxton, Iman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Catrall, Mariah Carey, Nicole Kidman, Emily Blunt, Kim Kardashian, Angie Harmon, Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, Ciara, Eva Langoria, Heidi Klum, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Simpson… for starters…

 

Homa Nasab – You were born and raised in South Africa. Who /what were the biggest influences on your choice to become a fashion designer?

Marc Bouwer – As a child I loved the clothes worn by women in all the old Hollywood movies. I was definitely influenced by some of Hollywood’s best designers, like Adrian, Edith Head and Givenchy. Then as I grew older, I became more influenced by more modern designers like Halston and Thierry Mugler. I love the easiness of Halston’s draping and his sexy sporty-ness, but also loved the heroic strong women that Mugler presented. Somewhere between the two, I found myself.

HN – Where do you find inspiration for your designs?

MB – I find inspiration everywhere, it can be the yellow and black taxi cabs whizzing  by me in NYC or the rainbow of lights reflected in a muddy puddle on the streets of Manhattan after a rainstorm. It can come from anywhere and at any time, I’m always on the lookout and know it when I see it!

HN – Do you collect art – what, how, etc…?

MB – I love art and try to collect as much as I can. I collect more obscure and unknown artists, often things you find being sold on the street or at benefit auctions. I am a painter myself and have some paintings of my own hung in my apt.

HN – What is your favourite museum? Do you have a favourite artist(s)?

MB – It’s hard to say that I have a favorite museum, because I’ve been to and seen so many great ones. As a New Yorker, I guess the MOMA and the Whitney come to mind, and I visit them often. I have several favorite artists, in fact 3 of them were the inspiration for this particular collection (Spring 2011):

-Aubrey Beardsley, for his fantastic black and white drawings.
-Alexander Calder for his incredible sculptures and mobiles.
-Wassily Kandinsky for his marvellous use of primary colors in conjunction with black and white.

 

David Bowie, Iman, Marc Bouwer & Petra Nemcova

HN – You are best known for your Red Carpet super glamorous gowns. When was the first time that you dressed an actress at the Academy Awards (The Oscars)? How did that feel to have a billion people (give or take a couple of million) around the globe see your design?

MB – I would say my most memorable dress that I have designed was the one worn by Angelina Jolie, to the 76th Academy Awards, in 2004. This was a turning point, both for Angelina, as well as for me. I suddenly became a household name, after many years as a working designer. Seeing her step out onto the Red Carpet, saying my name, being viewed by millions of people watching around the globe, was a surreal out of body experience for me! Even though I had dressed many famous women before Angelina, this was the one that put me on the map.

HN – One of the primary elements of your design philosophy that I find truly awe-inspiring is your almost militant discipline not to steal the show from your clients. Honestly, if I were dressing someone for an Academy Awards Ceremony, I can’t guarantee that I would not go for that Va Va Voom gown which everyone would talk about the next day. I can totally imagine editors running around, asking, “Wait, does anyone remember WHO wore That Nasab (Bouwer!) Gown, …again?” …

 

MB – I guess my philosophy for designing for glamorous women are clothes that skim the body, enhance the female form with deceptively simple cuts and architecture. Clothes that look effortless, but always sexy, empowering a woman with clean lines and bold shapes. Every celebrity has their own personality and style, and as a designer it is my job to enhance and frame who they are.

HN – When did you introduce GlamIt! and what is your design philosophy behind it?

MB – I introduced  GlamIt! about 5 years ago, and this was to expressly reach a wider audience, by having a similar design philosophy to the couture,  but being more affordable in that it is produced on a larger scale as apposed to the limited editions of the couture.

HN – Re: GlamIt! How do you make money designing such classic shapes? Seriously! Fashion is about change… so, every season, women are made to feel perfectly inadequate until we buy the next hot thing …and, then, we are redeemed. But with a collection like this, a woman buys half a dozen dresses and she is set for the next 5-7 years?

BM – Again it is my design philosophy that takes classic shapes and reinvents them in more modern and edgy incarnations, that has driven the success of GlamIt!

 

HN – How long ago did you introduce M by Marc Bouwer on QV? Other top designers whose collections are shown alongside include Isaac Mizrahi, Pamela Dennis and Melania Trump. However, let’s be honest, QVC doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the most fashionable of venues…

MB – I introduced M by Marc Bouwer for QVC about 6 years ago. I was one of the first in a group of younger, more modern designers QVC took on. The QVC of today is a very different place than it was years ago. It has a much more modern approach to apparel and host’s some of America’s top designers and celebrities on their roster.

HN – By the way, do you only show on QVC America or their UK, German and Japanese channels too? If all four markets, how do responses to your designs differ from country to country?

MB – As of now, we only sell QVC America, but have been asked by many of the international QVC channels to participate and will probably do so, fairly soon. However for now, my three different collections keep me very busy!

HN – Let’s talk about your models: Candice Swanepoel & JP (Jennifer Pugh) – Aside from the fact that they are both drop dead gorgeous, what qualities about them attracted you the most?

MB – Fall 2010: Candice like myself is a fellow South African, but aside from that, she is one of the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever worked with; she has an incredible trained dancers body and the most beautiful blue eyes.

For Spring 2011, we used IMG supermodel JP. I was attracted to her incredible ability to move and act in front of a camera and transform herself into the essence that embodies my new collection. With her large expressive eyes and her pouty sexiness, she became my muse for the new collection. I, especially, think that she embodies the spirit of an edgy modern day Brigitte Bardot!

HN – You don’t use any material that is derived from animals – fur,leather or wool. I understand that this philosophy encourages you to discover new types of textiles…

MB – Technology today gives us the ability to recreate the look and feel of fur and leather, without the cruelty involved. So for me there is no reason to use the real thing, when there is a cruelty free alternative.

HN – So, have you directly worked with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)?

MB – PETA has sponsored 3 of my past collections and actually made history by me being the first designer to be sponsored by PETA.

HN – Are you a feminist?

MB – Am I a Feminist? Yes, definitely!

–All photos courtesy MARC BOUWER


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Homa Taj In Conversation with Oren Safdie on Staging THE BILBAO EFFECT

Guggenheim-Museum-Bilbao-Oren-Safdie--1024x826

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Photo courtesy: David M. Heald SRFG, New York

Canadian-Israeli-American playwright and screenwriter, Oren Safdie, has architectural genomes running through his blood. The son of the internationally acclaimed Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie, Oren grew up in one of the greatest architectural heritage sites in the world, Habitat ‘67, in Montreal, Quebec. He attended the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia University before turning to writing. Oren is a playwright-in-residence at the prestigious NYC theatre, La MaMa E.T.C. and until recently was the Artistic Director of the Malibu Stage Co. in L.A. It was at the Malibu Stage where his now famous Private Jokes, Public Places first debuted before running Off-Broadway. Safdie’s next play, The Last Word, ran off-Broadway in 2007 and starred two-time Emmy Award Winner Daniel J. Travanti (“Hill Street Blues”). His other plays include West Bank, UKJews & JesusFiddler Sub-Terrain, Smothers; and LA Compagnie which Oren developed into a ½-hour pilot for CBS. As a screenwriter, he scripted the film You Can Thank Me Laterstarring Ellen Burstyn and the Israeli film Bittersweet. Oren has written for MetropolisDwellBeyond andThe New Republic. His most recent play, The Bilbao Effect, opened in May 2010 at the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Centre, in New York City.

 

In the ”The Bilbao Effect,” Oren Safdie tackles the architectural myth – or is it reality? – inspired by Frank Gehry’s 1997 masterpiece: one of five branches of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Basque County, Spain. Gehry’s creation transformed the poor industrial port city of Bilbao into a must-see tourist destination. The success of Guggenheim Bilbao spurred other cities into hiring famous architects and giving them carte blanche to design even more spectacular buildings in hopes that the formula could be repeated. In The Bilbao Effect – the second play of a planned trilogy focusing on contemporary architecture — Erhardt Shlaminger is a world famous architect who faces censure by the American Institute of Architects, following accusations that his urban redevelopment project for Staten Island has led to a woman’s suicide. The play confronts 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 Bilbao Effect 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.

Homa Taj – You were raised with architectural genome running through your veins. When did you decide to deviate from the practice of architecture and become a writer?

I was in my last year at Columbia, and the University encouraged graduate students to take a course outside their discipline. For some reason, I took a playwriting course and won a competition for a short scene I wrote. But, perhaps, the seeds were planted in the summer in my second year: I had to write a paper for an architecture history class about the father/son Saarinan’s. For some reason, I flipped to the back of my notepad and started writing a train-of-thought rough novel about my childhood. I found power in the written word as a way of expressing what I wanted to say – more than design – and once I saw the words up on stage read by actors, I was won over.

HT – Academically speaking, you were trained both as an architect and a playwright. When visualizing your plays, do you envision them primarily in textual or spatial form?

It’s important to be able to use all the senses in theatre – to know when to call up those tools in order to give the play what it needs – but my plays do tend to be heavy on dialogue, which, hopefully, makes the physical moments all that more special and important.  But I would say that playwriting is more like writing music to me.  Words are notes, there are rhythms to spoken word and the back and forth banter, and if your ear is in tune, there are things that just don’t sound right.  In fact, when I attend my own plays in previews, I sit behind the wall and listen to the words rather than watch. I can identify problems in the text or the acting a lot better that way. I think it’s what separates a playwright from a screenwriter or even a novelist. It’s different muscles.

HT – As with an architect, a playwright constructs a world which his or her characters occupy. Though architecture is, often, the manifestation of an ideal world… the space of a play is designed to accommodate the narrative, conflict and resolution of a story. Where do you begin?

I begin with characters, usually based on people I know.  It’s then important to identify what it is each character needs. The needs from opposing characters should conflict. InPrivate Jokes Public Places it was a young student needing to convince the jury that she should be taken seriously. For the jurors, their needs became evident when the proposed design threatened to undercut their prestige, and so they became defensive and tried to take her down in order to maintain their status.  Once I set up strong dynamics and interesting characters, I try and get out of the way and let the story tell itself. That said, unlike architecture, which has to deal with a specific site, I have endless possibilities, and I sometimes find myself imposing certain constraints to generate imaginative solutions – even if I end up breaking them. It also doesn’t hurt to choose a topic that you feel you desperately need to address. For me, hypocrisy is my target of choice.

HT – Many people that are raised under the shadows of powerful parents are often overwhelmed by their identities. So, they either run away from their influence or totally rebel against. You, however, seem to have taken inspiration from your father’s work …

It’s true that Private Jokes, Public Places owed some of its philosophy to my father’s writings, but the essence of the play was from my own experiences in architecture school and, I suppose, from growing up surrounded by architects and architecture where it’s in your face morning, noon and night. (We even lived in his building.) But if one looks at my next play The Bilbao Effect, or the third play in my architecture trilogy, which I’m presently writing, I think I approach the profession as both admirer and critic – some of which is agreeable with my father and some that conflicts with his beliefs. Now, if I write something that my father finds disturbing, does that mean I’m being rebellious? I would hope to think – and maybe I’m wrong – that I’m past the point where I am trying to do something other than express my feelings about something that moves me. But did it move me to see my father moved when he saw Private Jokes, Public Places? Of course. Likewise, I probably got a bit of a charge out of his negative reaction to The Bilbao Effect. I’m only human.

HT – What was it like to grow up in a contemporary heritage site – Habitat 67 (Montreal, Quebec)? And, what are your fondest (or remarkable) memories growing up there?

Growing up in Habitat ’67 was in many ways like living in a regular house – that is the feeling you got when actually in you’re apartment. We had three terraces, views of the city, St. Lawrence River and the old Expo ’67 site. These abandoned buildings served as our playgrounds. We’d bike over the bridge and scavenger through the old pavilions of the various countries. (The buildings weren’t torn down for some time as Montreal looked for ways to revive the Expo site.) Other than that, living in Habitat had mixed appeal. There was no other infrastructure in our area (shops, restaurants, schools, etc) as Habitat had to be scaled back from its original plan that envisioned it ten times the size. But the isolation also created a very strongly knit community. As the building’s paperboy – and the unofficial tour guide when my father was out of town -, I got to know every inch and everyone one in the building.

HT – It’s interesting that the title of Expo ’67 was based on Antoine de Saint Exupery’s autobiographical Terre des homes or “Man and his World” (1939). So, would you say that in some ways, the building embodies a double literary significance; that it is (i) the (auto)biography of (ii) a writer/philosopher. When growing up, were you aware of this literary (non-tangible) heritage – in addition to the monumental (tangible) heritage – of your ‘home’?

To be honest, I never heard of this inspiration for Habitat before. I always heard – and it is not hard to see – that Habitat was my father’s way of recreating his childhood home (Haifa, Israel) as he was torn away at a young age, after my grandfather decided his business prospects were better in Canada.  The terracing, gardens – even being on the water – call to mind a Mediterranean city. Take an Israeli kid of 15 years old at the height of Nationalism, and tear him away from his friends and plop him down in snowy Canada, and something’s bound to happen. Longing for home is a powerful motivator.

HT – The first play in this trilogy is a comedy of academae – a favorite subject of mine! Private Jokes, Public Places premiered nearly a decade ago… Can you say a few words about it?

This play grew out of a ten-minute play I wrote while I was in architecture school. The architecture review at Columbia’s school of Architecture in the early 1990’s was particularly daunting as it was not unlikely to have Steven Holl, Kenneth Frampton, Robert Stern and/or Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas or a number of other titans sitting on your jury. It was a spectacle, and I always felt it lent itself to drama – especially when a student didn’t go quietly and roll over. (That was me!) But it was also interesting in that the jury became less about the project, and more about the famous architects doing battle amongst each other, and strutting their stuff to a public that was invited to come and watch. Another element that prompted me to pick up my 10-minute scene many years later and extend it into a full length play had to do with my own negative reviews I received for a spoof I wrote on Fiddler On The Roof called Fiddler Sub-Terrain, set in contemporary Montreal in the backdrop of Quebec politics. It brought back the feeling of putting something out there and being judged. (Also around the time, I received an alumni newsletter from the GSAPP and couldn’t understand any of the archi-babble language.) So, all these elements coming together at a specific time made me write Private Jokes, Public Places in 10 days. (I barely remember writing it – it was pure emotion.)

HT – Academic/institutional reform has been one of the main themes in your plays – at least the first two of this trilogy …

I see my three plays on architecture touching on different aspects of the field. Yes, Private Jokes, Public Places was about academia, and the notion that despite being an entity that should be open for learning and debate, it’s often very rigid and uncompromising. But, for me, The Bilbao Effect is about the professional practice of architecture and its moral and ethical responsibilities to the public. My next play, A False Solution, will tackle the creative side of architecture, exploring what influences an architect to design a building as they choose, including the politics, sex, ego and all those fun things that, hopefully, make a drama. With all these plays, architecture merely plays the background in dealing with societal issues. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be very exciting to watch. The Bilbao Effect was criticized by some for being a little to architecture-centric, and I’ve taken that criticism to heart in writing my new play. (I can’t ever forget that I’m a playwright first.)

HT – The Bilbao Effect, too, deals with issues that relate to the institution(s) of architecture. As a matter of fact, it literally takes place at the American Institute of Architects. Which came first, your desire to critique the institution (not the Institute) of architecture or was staging the play at the AIA an after thought?

The Bilbao Effect started with my series of satirical interviews I wrote for Metropolis Magazine, but also came about with my on-going question of whether architecture is following the right path – has it become too much of an art form without the art growing out from the design, much in the way a spider’s web is built for function, but is unequivocally beautiful in its structure and technology. (I suppose, I’m at heart a Frank Lloyd Wrightian.) So, how to deal with all these issues and bring in some of the characters I was working with in the magazine?  A court trial seemed perfect. As Private Jokes, Public Places had moved off-Broadway and ran at the AIA Center in New York, I thought of the AIA New York site because I was familiar with the space, but it also represented an institution of authority and power. (I couldn’t really justify a court trial like this as a legal hearing, so it’s an internal hearing that’s been opened up to the public. ) I also went to their web site and looked up their code of ethics, and what is the procedure when one wants to file a complaint against an AIA member architect. From there, the imagination had to work out a way to make it a court trial open to the public – much in the same way the public was invited to be part of the proceeding in Private Jokes, Public Places, so I surmised that due to public pressure, the AIA has had to change their closed door policy and open the hearings to the public.  Once the rules started getting stretched, it became part of the play where the structure and formality disintegrate until the proceedings resemble the Deconstructivist building that’s actually on trial.  As the proceeding unravel and become more absurd, hopefully the audience begins to understand that the same level of absurdity in the architecture is being passed off as genius.

HT –At the heart of The Bilbao Effect lies the importance of challenging tradition – that is, not accepting it at face value but to examine it critically before accepting or rejecting it…

I’ve always been skeptical—hopefully in a positive way – that makes me research all sides and come up with my own conclusions rather than relying on “experts” or what is reported in the news from one side or the other. In any university, there is an overriding philosophy, whether you know it or not, and it just so happens that when I came into Columbia’s School of Architecture, there was a changing of the guard from one dean to the next. I didn’t exactly fit in with the new philosophy, and found that my approach was not celebrated because I was not creating structures and drawings that were as “fantastic” and acrobatic as some of my classmates. When you’re in the milieu of a trend and everyone else is going the other direction, it’s difficult to stick to your guns, especially when you’ve come to school to learn from experienced professors. But perhaps that was my real education in architecture school.

HT – It’s hard to read about architecture without thinking of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (pub. 1946). Have you read the book, and if so, is there any correlation between Howard Roark and Erhardt Shlaminger?

Yes, I read the book quite a while ago, and also saw the movie. I think the two protagonists are quite the opposite though. Roark was loosely based on FLW, and he was an architect obsessed with design as a social statement. I don’t think today’s architects possess the same motivations, nor do I feel they would go the distance to protect the integrity of their design. It’s a sign of our times. But it’s also a comment on society. People have become too comfortable. I blame TV.
HT – Did you go to Bilbao to visit the Museum? (Whether yes or no:) How else did you study this ‘Effect’? In other words, what inspired you to write a play about this particular phenomenon?

I have not been to the museum, but I have been to various other new Deconstructivist museums, opera houses and concert halls. (I know Mr. Gehry doesn’t like being labelled as a Deconstructivist, but I’m not sure what else you’d call it.) But I suppose the Bilbao Effect became very evident to me when I was living in Toronto – a city desperately trying to find an architectural identity, and so insecure about being a world class city, that they totally fell into the trap, trying to lure name architects with splashy buildings in order to highlight the city. They’ve ended up with Libeskind’d ROM – one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen.  But another thing tipped my off while I was in London. It was reading a review in the Guardian of a new addition to the Denver Art Museum, also by Libeskind, and was struck by the praise for the building even though the architecture critic admitted that the building was probably terrible for housing any art. Then, of course, one only has to be in touch with the public and feel their resentment to all the new buildings coming up. They’re powerless to do anything about it.

HT – Have you ever met Frank Gehry? Also, do you know if Gehry or anyone from The Guggenheim has seen the play? If so, what are their responses?

I’ve met Mr. Gehry briefly. No, I don’t think he saw the play. But I also think it’s important for me to correct a misconception. Although The Bilbao Effect had many similarities with his Atlantic Shipyards project, and take the title from his building, it is much more critical of architects who have tried to imitate what he did. One of my favourite buildings is his Fred and Ginger building in Prague. But I do think when you blow up the scale of what he’s doing – such as the Atlantic Yards, or even M.I.T., it becomes irrational slice and dice for the mere pleasure of being different without philosophically justifying itself. When I was in architecture school, I also attended a lecture of Frank Gehry, before he got really really famous. He showed a highrise building that he was designing, and on the top was something that looked like a fold out newspaper. Asked how he came up with it, he explained that during the creative process someone put a folded up newspaper on the top and it looked interesting. I was a little struck by that – and not in a good way.

HT – What do you think of Gehry’s 2008 statement in which he declared that the notion that a single building can alter the fate of an entire region is… “B.S.”?

I tend to agree. I think the problem arises when a city or an architect sets out to transform an entire city with one building. That said, buildings are tourist attractions, and I’m not sure as many people would go to Pisa if the leaning tower wasn’t leaning.

HT – What did your father think of The Bilbao Effect? Moreover, what does he (&you) think of today’s Starchitects?

You’d have to ask my father, now that he’s seen the play. After he read it, he wasn’t very pleased. He was disturbed. In terms of today’ starchitects, hopefully that definition will change as more firms are becoming a collection of young architects. What came out of the field before the recession had a lot to do with our economic times, and the field’s need to put out recognizable figures to augment their profession. But hopefully, that has changed and we will not have the “signature” architecture where a city wants to get a “Gehry” or a “Hadid” as if they’re collecting art. Still, I do worry that as we go forward, and architects feel they have to stand out from the pack, we will continue to see projects that make a mockery of their surrounding and place importance on themselves. Instead of fitting in, recent architecture has been about standing out.

HT – What’s next in store for The Bilbao Effect? A Screenplay?

I don’t think this play would make a good film. But maybe a television series where architects have a secret plot to control the world. You’d need a super hero to counter them though, and I’m not sure that exists.


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