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The Bilbao Effect: a theatrical satire, with a starchitect, a megadevelopment, and some AY echoes

No, The Bilbao Effect, Oren Safdie's highly entertaining satirical play, isn't about Frank Gehry, even though the title takes off from the well-known phenomenon of enlisting a starchitect to create a signature civic building, like Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

After all, the protagonist is arrogant Swiss starchitect Erhardt Shlaminger, a man convinced of his own genius, while Gehry can get self-deprecating and defensive.

Nor is it about Atlantic Yards, though it is clearly inspired, in part, by the project. After all, the official blurb that states it "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 [sic] into an architecture-star mega-development."

Architecture on trial

The play, staged appropriately at the Center for Architecture in Greenwich Village, takes the form of a mock trial of Shlaminger, held by the American Institute for Architects (and subject to the unreliable judge's caprice).

Why? His project--well, the architectural imperfections that reflect extreme heat (read Gehry's Disney Hall) and falling ice (read Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum)--is supposed to have caused a woman's suicide.

The hearing officer, who has his own mishegas, is unable to enforce judicial procedure. That means leading questions, testimony well beyond the scope of the issue, surprise witnesses, and surprise accusations. (One reviewer thought the melodrama upstaged the message while another dismissed it all; I thought the melodrama got silly but I still was absorbed.)

Safdie, an architect and playwright, is son of the famous Montreal architect Moshe Safdie. ("I think my father’s concern was that the play will reflect on his relationship with Frank Gehry," the playwright told The Villager.)

Some parallels


It was hard not to think of Atlantic Yards. Consider the over-the-top architectural model (photo) for the 1200-acre, multi-phase "Staten Island Downtown Waterside Urban Renewal Development." (Of the promised late-phase goodies, Shlaminger exclaims, "That will come in time!" Sounds like... affordable housing and open space?)

The model looks like a mash-up of some biologist's DNA experiment, combined with the work (as one reviewer suggested) of multiple starchitects. One roof--tilted considerably--seems inspired by the 2008 iteration of Gehry's Atlantic Yards arena design.

Consider that the development includes not only the deliciously-named "Museum of Contemporary Contemporary Art" but also a new 22,000-seat arena with 168 luxury boxes. (The number of luxury suites for the AY arena was originally 170.)

Consider that architect Shlaminger--reportedly involved in 71 projects on six continents--is terribly overstretched, as was Gehry, at least for a while. ("You plagiarize yourself?" Shlaminger is asked. "Like all great artists," he replies haughtily.)

Consider that the central question--in AY and many others--is whether the architect has given any thought to the building's neighbors. (Gehry has managed to escape any nagging questions about a master plan that delivers a massive interim surface parking lot next to a historic district.)

And consider that Shlaminger, challenged to defend his work in places like China, responds, "If I were to involve myself politically in every project, I'd never get anything built." Gehry, we might recall, pronounced himself politically sympatico with Bruce Ratner and said he'd walk away if the project got "out of whack" with his principles.

"Brutally weird" reality

In some ways, actually, the broad satire can't touch some "brutally weird" aspects of the Atlantic Yards saga. Indeed, Shlaminger's defense lawyer assures the audience that the project has been passed by the City Council--a layer of government absent, of course, when the Empire State Development Corporation approves a project like Atlantic Yards.

And the development project, rather than sweeping aside all buildings in its path as with AY, actually includes some preservation, though the "old brick factory" is "pinned" with metal poles to establish the architect's mastery.

And, in making Shlaminger the villain, Safdie puts aside the role of the client who hires the architect and constrains or enables his plans. After all, Shlaminger declares, "My only obligation is to the client who pays my salary."

(In an intriguing parallel, upstairs at the Center for Architecture is an exhibit on The New Domino, a megadevelopment planned for Williamsburg. The architectural plans by Rafael Viñoly are impressive, but silent partner Isaac Katan, he of questionable reputation, goes unmentioned.)

At issue

"It is illegal to legislate taste," declares the lawyer for Shlaminger, whose claim to fame is a museum at Timisoara, a Romanian city with enough vowels to rival Bilbao.

Their antagonists are chiropracter (and widower) Paul Bolzano, a salt-of-the-earth neighborhood guy with a bit of The Sopranos in him, and his lawyer Mitsumi Yoshida.

Did Shlaminger respond to Bolzano's complaints? "Something about balancing the sorrows of one tenant with the rejoicings of the whole city" is the summary of the architect's letter, which sounds not unlike the carping about those pesky AY neighbors and the people who managed to live in the footprint well after they were supposed to leave.

A Times critic

An entertaining witness is one Alexandre Nusinovitski, a former architecture critic for the New York Times (whose name, though not demeanor, has hints of current critic Nicolai Ourousoff), who reveals that there was, indeed, a conspiracy to launch starchitecture on the world's cities.

"How high does this go?" he is asked.

"It is the whole system," Nusinovitski responds gravely.

In the balance

Shalminger via Safdie gets some licks in defending himself. After all, the Sydney Opera House went 1400% over budget but turned out to rebrand the city.

But when Shlaminger claims he's building "for the children" and that he wishes he could design a building "that wouldn't have to have any people in it," you not only laugh, you think that starchitects should get out more.

After all, Frank Gehry said he wanted to meet with residents who lived near the site of the Atlantic Yards project. It's just that his bosses wouldn't let him.

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