The Monster-Builder

The Monster-Builder is a new comedy by Amy Freed that is having its world premier in Portland, OR, January 28 – March 2, 2014, amid rave reviews, (herehere, and here) interviews, and serious discussions about the impact of architects on our lives. The play begins as a farce, and happily transports the audience into the realm of hilarious fantasy. But as you leave, still laughing at the ludicrous lines and slapstick situations, you shudder at the truth that lies just below the comic surface.

I recently talked with Amy about her play.

Suzanne:        In your new play, The Monster-Builder, the protagonist Gregor Zubrowski is a villainous “starchitect” who has a malign impact through his buildings, and a devilish influence on other architects.  One of the buildings of which he is proudest,  for instance, is the dementia wing of a hospital in the form of a maze.

Amy:   I have only written comic plays. It just happens that way, because of my disposition, my turn of mind. I think comedy is how you protect yourself from pain. Every play deals with a theme that distresses me, or outrages my sense of justice, and I impose order or wage war through comedy. I think comedy can give enough pleasure – there is release through laughter – that one can then think about and talk about a subject that would otherwise be distressing.

My favorite silly line in the play is when the innocent young architect asks Gregor, “Where is your staff?” and he replies – “In the closet with my cape.”  Even though I wrote it, it still makes me laugh.   

Suzanne:        You've recently said you're concerned about a “scary assault on livability everywhere.” We in the International Making Cities Livable movement could not agree more.  What are the issues that worry you most?           

Amy:   Urban environments that breed class stratification,  and visually reinforce alienation and powerlessness.  Cities that become unlivable for children and families,  the poor, and make no provision for the elderly, or aging in place.  Cities becoming completely impossible for the working class, and further destroying the middle class.  In this sense, the machinery of the city itself destroys the connective tissue of human existence.  The utter loss of beauty and the aspiration towards beauty or joy in building.  The garish and thin product-design esthetic that pervades so much of modern building. 

The vast wealth of corporate empires that are building ever-taller skyscrapers in our cities also need to be examined.  This is a new hegemony of dismaying global market forces towering over the population. They are, as others have called them, “monuments to a new feudalism”, cowing people into submission. I think they are anti-democracy and belligerently fly in the face of honoring the human spirit.

I am dismayed by what is happening in NY, with the consolidation of huge personal fortunes into skyscraper fortress condos.  They are insanely expensive, and many are empty real estate hedges for global investors who never actually live there. These buildings empty out neighborhoods and make it impossible for the small businesses, artists, neighborhood stores, small cafes, local services, etc. -- all the rich diversity that a living city needs -- to survive.

Suzanne:        How do you come to know so much about the world of architects?

Amy:   It's more about love than knowledge.  Old cities, old buildings, old natural environments.  The particular beauty and complexity and mystery of places is a life-long pleasure for me.  I am an Amateur with a capital A --.  I've read a lot in order to try and understand why the destruction of the substantial, mysterious, and beautiful around the world throughout my lifetime has seemed like a deliberate campaign. 

Suzanne:        Do you think that most people underestimate the degree to which the built environment affects their lives, the way they feel, and how they interact? Do you find buildings and city design have a big impact on you?

Amy:   I think all people feel the impact of environment though they may think about it differently.  People don't have time to develop elaborate language by and large.  But whether someone says they just want to live somewhere "nice" -- or whether they have more fully elaborated language to critique -- we all know when things are dreadful.  And we see when things are going well.  First-time visitors to old European cities sometimes burst into tears. . . I know I did -- at what's missing in the new city.

Suzanne:        Your protagonist, Gregor, like many artists and edgy modernist architects (and I notice he compares himself to the artist Richard Serra and architect Peter Eisenman), states that the purpose of great art must be to disorient and disturb people. Do you agree that an architect should try to do this? And if not, who has the right to stop him?

Amy:   I think it is unfair to say the purpose is to disturb, provoke and disorient, and then go hiding oneself away so the mob can't come after you and personally express to you their degree of disturbance and provocation.  That hardly seems sporting. . . more like hit and run, I'd say.   Academic or sociopathic, or an unholy marriage of both.

Starchitects are a very legitimate target. They have talent, artistry, a sphere of influence, and a platform to become thought leaders. Gregor is brilliant so he bears a bigger share of responsibility than the other characters in my play. Starchitects would do better to donate their talents for the ages as humanists to improve, rather than destroy the city.

It is a conundrum why are they drawn to imposing their buildings on the remaining livable cities. Portland, for example, is still a livable city for its residents and a pleasure to be in. It has complexity, diversity of old and new buildings, a connective urban tissue, a mix of living and working and shopping. In this economically diverse fabric, the less wealthy and creative artists can function as living, breathing components, which they cannot do in a city dominated by corporate interests or global investors. Yet these global architects and developers smell desirability and squash it. The issue merits overstatement, as in my play.   It is interesting to me that no one that I know has ever claimed a city as world-class that doesn't have a great core of old neighborhoods, and historic buildings, both grand and vernacular.  That should tell us something.  We are losing buildings and neighborhoods of substance, beauty and charm from urban fabric, and we don't seem to be able to create them.   That's an enormous creative failure.  At least let's not smother what's left. 

Suzanne:        Are you hoping that this play will stir up a debate about the validity of current trends in the architectural world?

Amy:   A public debate would be great.  I am appalled that the public is excluded from the debate about what should be built in their city. I know there are planning boards and land use committees, but most people feel decisions are made over their heads. What are the remedies? I know they are not simple, and the starchitects are the tip of the iceberg. But they are, I think, a valid target. Their reputation is hatched academically, away from any discussion with the potential users of their buildings.  

I think we are way overdue for public debate and strategic planning for what interventions in our cities would be meaningful and beneficial for our quality of life.