Imagining the Modern 02 The Master Builder

Despite all of the projects on display being located in Pittsburgh, Imagining the Modern is very wide-ranging. So wide that the range extends outside the museum walls, and the media extends beyond what can be displayed on a wall. Such is the case with a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, put on as a collaboration between the Heinz Architectural Center and Quantum Theatre.

The Master Builder is a play written by Henrik Ibsen late in his life. It’s called the most autobiographical of his plays. The protagonist, Halvard Solness, never received formal training but, through several fortuitous occurrences, is regarded as one of the top builders in the region. The projects that Solness pursues throughout his life, first churches, then homes, then “castles in the sky”, can be seen to reference the types of plays of Ibsen himself, who became a founding figure in Realism and Modernism. Quantum Theatre doesn’t have a “theater” per se. Rather, they often stage site-specific productions of classic texts. The Master Builder is a prime example;  the building that was chosen for the staging of the play is the East Commons Professional Building, which was finished by the Offices of Mies Van Der Rohe after his death. There are obvious correlations between the play and the setting. Mies, a real-life master builder, was also a pioneering figure in Modernism in architecture. We complete a circle of references when we consider that this building is part of Allegheny Center, one of the projects in the purview of the Imagining the Modern exhibit.

Allegheny Center came to be at the tail end of Pittsburgh’s initial “renaissance”, as verdicts on other developments, such as those in the Lower Hill, began to come in. The flight to the suburbs was well underway by this time, and population on the North Side began to fall before the collapse of the steel industry took people out of the rest of the city. Perhaps seeing how the Lower Hill was cut off from Downtown Pittsburgh by traffic arteries, Deeter Ritchey Sippel designed Allegheny Center completely around the pedestrian experience. Thirty-six blocks were converted into one walkable “super block”. Large shopping areas accessed by generous plazas were designed to draw people back from the suburbs in a torrent of cars. This optimistic speculation led to the ring road surrounding the site to be oversized to four lanes, which proved to be the projects undoing. The pedestrian paradise was entirely isolated from foot traffic by a moat of fast-moving traffic. Retail spaces withered and gave way to offices that didn’t rely on foot traffic, which allowed the development to decay over a period of decades rather than years. Such was the state of Allegheny Center at present when it was recently acquired by Faros Properties and rebranded as Nova Place.

The performance of the play, I think, was very good. The subject matter frankly confused me a bit. I was glad to read the Wikipedia entry and learn that I’m not the only one to be “engaged and bewildered” by it. Solness is by turns prideful and confident, insecure and weak-willed. The aforementioned fateful events that lead Solness to the top of his field can be read in a couple of ways. Solness believes that he willed them into being through the strength of his own mind, something that I initially read strictly as an expression of his ego. I actually think I enjoy the play more when I take him at his word, which adds an element of magic to the realism of the play. It’s only when doubt enters his mind that he brings about his own demise. The actors, performing on a thrust stage with an appropriately minimal set, did a good job of bringing life and humor to the text. By leaving the windows unobscured during the performance, the audience has to take the good (the view) with the bad (fireworks accompanying the Pirates game taking place nearby).


I went on a night when the performance was preceded by a panel discussion, including Raymond Ryan (who curated the museum exhibit) and the principals of over, under, who run a Boston-based architecture firm and produced the source material for the exhibit, including guiding a studio of architecture students in producing hypothetical proposals for the (re)redevelopment of Nova Place. More on that in a forthcoming post. To conclude, I’ll say that I did enjoy the performance, but even more I enjoyed the idea behind it, that the museum could reach out beyond its walls in order to engage a different community in the discussion of urban design.



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