All's Fair in Love and 'Home'

How to deal with a dictatorial architect
John Glover portrays the dictatorial architect Erich Hochmann in “Home.” Jonathan Levine

A seven-minute film made 30 years ago generated a fascinating and frequently entertaining 75-minute panel discussion about architecture and the architect-client relationship before a packed house at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Friday.

“When I set out to make this film I had been living in my [Norman] Jaffe house for almost 20 years,” said Sandy Perlbinder of her 1989 film “Home.” “I had also lived in a Jaffe apartment. I was really getting ready to address some of the architectural indignities we had experienced over those 20 years, and this was the way to do it.”

To which Terrie Sultan, the museum’s director and moderator of the discussion, said, “You did mention to me at one point that this was a revenge movie.”

“I was trying to be kind,” Ms. Perlbinder said.

“Home” stars the versatile actor John Glover as Erich Hochmann, a tyrannical architect narcissistic enough to proclaim, “My life is a struggle, a fight against monotony, a constant raging battle against ugliness.”

Ms. Perlbinder had needed a director’s reel, and “happened to notice an article in New York magazine about Peter Eisenman, who was the architect of the moment. He was a deconstructivist, and there were so many quotes from his writing that it was almost as if the script wrote itself.”

Mr. Eisenman took up a good portion of the evening’s conversation, as did Jaffe, who was widely known for his use of natural materials in sculptural beach houses on the East End, as well as the Gates of the Grove, the synagogue of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. In 1969, Ms. Perlbinder and her husband, Steve, commissioned Jaffe to design their house on the ocean in Sagaponack.

Joining her on the panel were James Merrell, who studied for a year under Mr. Eisenman at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and opened his own firm in Sag Harbor in 1988; Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic and longtime writer of The New Yorker’s “The Sky Line” column, and Robert Stein, a psychotherapist from Sag Harbor who also heads that village’s zoning board of appeals.

“When you hear about architects and clients,” said Ms. Sultan, “you’ll understand why we have a psychotherapist here.”

“In terms of my own clients,” said Dr. Stein, “most of them who are building are complaining about the architect first, then the builder, and then their family. In terms of the film, we can talk about the parody and humor of it, but it’s also relevant to what we see happening out here: A lot of people are building statements that are projections about themselves.”

“What we thought was excess 30 years ago now seems modest,” said Mr. Goldberger. “I love the film because, like all good satires, it’s almost true, but not quite.” Addressing Ms. Perlbinder, he said, “I think you did in seven minutes what it took ‘The Fountainhead’ two hours to do. And yours is a lot funnier. For a long time, the social construct was that the architect was a noble artist who for the sake of his art was entitled to bulldoze everything in his path.”

The film focuses on the relationship between Mr. Hochmann and his clients. At one point, the husband says to his wife, “He put a stairway in our living room, a stairway that goes nowhere.”

“That stairway goes to The New York Times,” she replies.

In another scene, the couple discovers a column in the middle of their bedroom. When the husband points out to the architect that there’s no room for a bed, Mr. Hochmann replies, “Precisely. I knew you were the kind of man who could grasp this concept.” 

Referring to the presence of the column in the bedroom, Mr. Merrell said, “That’s the Eisenman-esque part of the character. That’s why I think the architect in the film is much more Peter Eisenman than Norman Jaffe.” 

According to archdaily.com, “Eisenman has been one of architecture’s foremost theorists of recent decades; however he has also at times been a controversial figure in the architectural world, professing a disinterest in many of the more pragmatic concerns that other architects engage in.”

Mr. Eisenman’s second built dwelling, House VI in Connecticut, had a hole in the floor, a column abutting a kitchen table, and a glass strip that divided the bedroom and prevented the installation of a double bed.

However, Mr. Merrell pointed out that the clients not only loved the house and lived in it for 40 years, they also wrote a book about it. “I think architecture ultimately is an abstract experience as well as a sensual experience.”

“Those patrons were patrons of theory,” said Mr. Goldberger, “and they were thrilled at the opportunity to be patrons of theory. The extraordinary thing about architecture is that it is both an art and an act of response to particular conditions of people in a practical way. One has to somehow thread the needle of the contradiction of it being two different things at once.”

Ms. Sultan agreed and cited the Parrish Art Museum, which was designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, as an example of a building that succeeds as art but at the same time, unlike some other recently built museums, functions successfully as a place to show art.

Speaking of her Jaffe house, Ms. Perlbinder, an art collector, philanthropist, and award-winning filmmaker, said, “You have to be lucky to get an architect who gives you something wild or crazy. I talk about the discomfort we experienced for 20 years, but it comes around. The kids have grown up, and you find you can live in an open bedroom with a bathtub in it. You can have all these things the architect tried to sell you, and there may come a time if you stick it out where you’ll grow to like that design.”

The disappearance of many modernist houses on the East End came up for discussion. “When I came out here,” said Mr. Merrell, “the landscape was being filled with inexpensive knockoffs of Charlie Gwathmey’s early houses.”

Mr. Goldberger noted that the beginning of the revival of the Shingle Style 30 years ago was a reaction to those excesses of 1960s and 1970s modernism. “At that time some slightly more traditional houses seemed almost refreshing, almost forward-looking. And of course that particular trend just kept going and going and culminated in Farrell.”

He also pointed out that the tearing down of most modernist houses has had less to do with architecture than with the value of land. “We’ve lost a lot of wonderful and important houses here because somebody had the misfortune to have built a small, lovely modern house in Georgica on a couple of acres, which seem today much better suited to someone’s 15,000-square-foot house.”

Mark Segal