May 18, 2010
by Kristen Richards Hon. ASLA Hon. AIA

Event: “The Bilbao Effect” by Oren Safdie
Location: Center for Architecture, through 06.05.10
Cast: John Bolton, Marc Carver, Anthony Giaimo, Ann Hu, Lorraine Serabian, Joris Stuyck, Jay Sullivan, Joel Van Liew, Tommy Biggiani
Organizers: Brendan Hughes (director); Center for Architecture; Jacqueline Bridgeman; Fritz Michel; Les Gutman; Canada Council for the Arts; Quebec Government Office — New York


(L-R): Ann Hu (Mitsumi Yoshida), Marc Carver (Bill Watertsand), and Joel Van Liew (Alexandre Nusinovitski) in Oren Safdie’s “The Bilbao Effect.”

Carol Rosegg

Playwright Oren Safdie has archibabble and legal-speak down pat — and takes both to task — in “The Bilbao Effect,” a one-act, biting satire that pits starchitecture against the good of the common man. The setting is the Center for Architecture — at the Center for Architecture. The premise is a trial of sorts: the defendant is world-famous architect Erhardt Shlaminger (played by Joris Stuyck with proficient pomposity). The plaintiff is chiropractor and third-generation Staten Islander Paul Balzano (Anthony Giamo), an Every Man and the only non-intellectual in the room. Shlaminger is accused of violating a canon of the AIA Code of Ethics for architects to “thoughtfully consider the social and environmental impact of their professional activities” in his design for the 1,200-acre Staten Island Waterside Urban Renewal Redevelopment project. Any similarity to urban mega-projects, living or dead, is purely intentional.

Ice falling off roofs and heat-repelling curtains figure prominently. As do an outrageous — in a good way — model of the project itself, and a lot of name-dropping (“What’s a Libeskind?”). Balzano claims that two Shlaminger-designed structures, the Museum of Contemporary-Contemporary Art (no, that’s not a typo) and an extremely angular, titanium-clad “toaster-on-steroids” apartment tower caused his wife to commit suicide. The thoroughly ego-centric architect, charged with being a “new breed of urban renewalist” who puts design above human need, calls the hearing a “ridiculous witch-hunt — the likes that haven’t been seen since Galileo.”

The proceedings are overseen by a more than slightly scattered chairman of an AIA Ethics Committee (Marc Carver). The two attorneys (Ann Hu and John Bolton) are architecturally knowledgeable in arguing both sides of the issue at hand: freedom of artistic expression vs. “society’s right to be protected from people who abuse those freedoms.” Witnesses include the architect’s pediatrician-mother (Lorraine Serabian), who has a tendency to over-medicate and lives in a house designed by her son, where nothing is where it’s supposed to be (having the bathroom in the kitchen — “I assure you, it’s all very sanitary” — apparently saved a boy’s life). A snobbish, jittery — and once-notable — critic (Joel Van Liew) has his own odd back-story for why he now denounces starchitecture, verbose and bathetic tirades included. And a Belgian furniture designer (Jay Sullivan), who worked with Shlaminger on the Staten Island project (he hit big at the Venice Biennale with a barbed wire wheelchair), shows up as a surprise witness.

Though the characters are more than a bit exaggerated (never mind the model), and much of the rhetoric is more than familiar, inducing audible groaning giggles from the audience, Safdie clearly has a way with words. The debate concludes with no clear winner, but should spark conversations among professionals and lay people alike. Would that the real discussions and debates that go on at the Center, though often thought-provoking, were as amusingly entertaining. Well… some have been known to be…

Tickets: $18; click here to order.

Kristen Richards, Hon. ASLA, is the Editor-in-Chief of OCULUS and In a previous incarnation, she was a founding member of the Impossible Ragtime Theatre in NYC.