A new play by Oren Safdie will receive its first public reading at Urban Stages in New York City on April 16. This one, titled Façade, dramatizes the recent expansion of MoMA and the controversial decision by its architects to demolish the highly regarded Folk Art Museum next door. A fiction, it imagines what may have transpired between the designers of the expansion—Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio—and their friends, the designers of the unfortunate monument in the path of their ambitions—Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. This dramatic action is set within the context of the intense scrutiny the project received from the architectural profession, the New York press, and the public at large.
“This is definitely a comedy,” Safdie told AN, “more about the cutthroat nature of the profession. So, hopefully architects will cringe as much as they laugh.”
Safdie, the son of Moshe Safdie, studied architecture at Columbia before turning to playwriting. This is his fifth play centered on the world of architecture. His previous works in this area include Private Jokes, Public Places; The Bilbao Effect; False Solution; and Color Blind, which was previously reviewed in AN. He has also made films, including You Can Thank Me Later and the soon-to-be released The Sunflower. Safdie is currently an assistant professor at the English Department of St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
The debut reading of Façade will take place at 7:00 pm on Sunday, April 16 at Urban Stages, but you can get a taste of the comedy that will ensue with the following excerpt. In it, Alejandro and Ella, Safdie’s fictional designers of the MoMA expansion, discuss what they should do with the Folk Art Museum, which, in the play, was designed by their friends, Lilly and Thomas:
Alejandro and Ella stand side by side over a tabletop, drawings spread out, studying them.
ELLA: God-damn-it, Alejandro, our design is better without theirs – isn’t that enough?! To leave it in place is to deny the natural course of evolution. A giant leap backward for mankind. Is that how you want to be remembered? Because a hundred years from now, when we’re nothing but calcium phosphatem, six-feet in the ground, it’s what we will leave behind that people will remember us by – not some friendship that’s been teetering on the edge ever since we beat them out for that dinky boathouse in Connecticut.
ALEJANDRO: All I’m saying –
ELLA: Is not worth the words you’re trying to formulate.
ALEJANDRO: Because you’re not letting me –
ELLA: Break it down.
ELLA: Start with the interior.
ALEJANDRO: There are some interesting elements –
ELLA: It’s mannered and poorly conceived.
ALEJANDRO: Okay, so perhaps it’s a little fussy. –
ELLA: Unbelievably confusing, claustrophobic, and disorienting –
ALEJANDRO: Fine, the staircase goes.
ELLA: And once you get rid of that, is there really any reason to keep the rest?
Can you nod your head if you hear what I’m saying?
(He nods only slightly but enough.)
Ella starts to walk away as if everything’s settled.
ALEJANDRO: But we keep the façade.
(Ella stops and turns.)
I like the façade.
ELLA: (Mocking him) You “like” the façade.
ELLA: You “like” the façade.
ALEJANDRO: Very much.
ELLA: What do you “like” about the façade? That it’s an inconspicuous cross between a rubberized rock-climbing wall and a cheap George Braque knock-off.
ALEJANDRO: Not so much that part, but unlike the rest of the manufactured façades of this city that feel like they’ve been rolled off an assembly line, it’s innately humane … And I like that.
ELLA: Where’d you come up with that?
ALEJANDRO: Where’d I come up with what?
ELLA: That’s not the way you speak.
ALEJANDRO: I speak the way I speak.
Ella has a hunch, walks over to a stack of magazines, and rifles through the pages before stopping.
ALEJANDRO: What are you doing?
ELLA: (Reading): “… made by human beings and not rolled out from some assembly line …” You just quoted The New Yorker – only you butchered it. Did Thomas threaten you?
ELLA: Because that would be incredibly feeble of you to cave just because you’re afraid of him. I’d lose complete respect for you.
ALEJANDRO: What you refuse to accept is that people in this city love that façade!
ELLA: Which people?
ALEJANDRO: Don’t you read? Letters to the editor, articles in every magazine – they’ve turned it into a shrine! It’s completely irrational!
ALEJANDRO: But people like it!
ELLA: No, Goldberger and Hawthorne like it. Everybody else is jumping onboard.
ALEJANDRO: So why do they like it?
ELLA: That’s your measure now?
ALEJANDRO: I don’t remember you having a problem with them when they praised our addition to the concert hall.
ELLA: That’s when we needed them. We’re beyond that now. Critic proof! … You don’t achieve that kind of status only to piss it away for a bunch of sentimentalists.
ALEJANDRO: Fine, fuck the people, screw the critics, who needs friends! … But you and I both know that if we take down that façade, there will be a price to pay.
ELLA: Maybe … In the short term … But once things settle down, and people get to see what we’ve built in its place, they’ll forget it ever existed.
ALEJANDRO: You seem so certain of yourself.
ELLA: That’s what you love about me.