Talk About It
A Conversation with Peter Weller
The man behind RoboCop
In preparation for the article RoboCob: Resilience and a Tale of Two Cities, Kevin Sloan, Hon. AIA Dallas and James Adams, AIA interviewed Peter Weller, the lead character in the movie RoboCop. A wide range of interesting topics were discussed.
Weller was named to TIME magazine’s list of 10 “Wicked Smart Actors” in 2012. Besides acting and directing, he developed an interest in history, art, and architecture. That led him to obtain a master’s degree in Roman and Renaissance art from Syracuse University and a Ph.D in Italian Renaissance art history from UCLA. He is a frequent instructor at universities.
Read highlights from the transcript here:
On the University of Texas and Austin …
Peter: “My godmother just passed away. She once said if you are blindfolded and parachuted onto Guadalupe Street and the Drag in Austin, you wouldn’t know if it was 1969 or 2016 because the same hippies selling Patchouli oil are still there.”
Kevin: “Guadalupe Street is like a fly in amber. It’s just frozen in time. The campus however is changing tremendously.”
Peter: “I go to Austin frequently because I graduated from high school in San Antonio. I have my reservations about city development. I’m sad to see that Austin, TX, has become a metropolis. It was the most beautiful small town city in the world and I think that is going away, sadly.”
Kevin: “Right. Even in my own life I can remember walking down Congress Avenue in the mid-‘70s and it was a two-story street all the way to the state capitol.”
Peter: “Correct, correct! I loved it that there were two-story buildings. There was only that one condo at the top of Congress [that was] over eight stories in the whole city. Now this is only me as a Renaissance art history/architecture student and professor: You fall in love with how they built a building in 1500 as opposed to how they build a building today.”
On Ancient + Modern Worlds …
Peter: “I came [to Syracuse University] in the winter of 2001. I was there during 9/11, finishing my master’s.”
Kevin: “Amazing. So you had to have worked with [Dr.] Robert “Rab” Hatfield, the esteemed scholar at SU in Florence on Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Italian Renaissance art?”
Peter: “Yes. Robert Hatfield was a mentor in many ways. He’s a curmudgeon, but students love him. I love him. He was an inspiration.”
Kevin: “And absolutely a brilliant scholar. He was my Michelangelo professor. I have a lot of affection for the Villa Rossa and that magnificent city (Florence, Italy). Anyway, I thought we could begin with some broad questions. We are interviewing because the AIA Dallas magazine Columns is doing an issue on resilience—a current topic that covers buildings, the contemporary cities, and their sustainability. When you did ‘Engineering an Empire’ (a one-season series for TV’s History Channel), you surveyed civilizations that built monuments, cities, and temples that have endured. As a scholar, what in your view are the relevant lessons that the modern epoch can learn and apply from the ancient examples?”
Peter: “There is a trick that happens when you go to Florence or you go to Rome and you fall in love with the re-advent or proportional architecture by way of Brunelleschi. I’m going to give you all of the clichés here of single-point perspective—where medieval architecture then jumps back into what classical antiquity gave us, which is the depth of design where one could draw it on paper and did not need buttressing and 18-foot-wide walls and so forth. The systems of proportion allowed the Renaissance—and subsequently what we do now—to draw on paper a proportionate system of columns, pediments, architrave, and other elements that were self-supporting by means of ratio. What these medieval guys were doing after this particular classical idea of deductive architecture left us after antiquity? Additive architecture, by trial and error. They possibly did know the systems of proportionate stabilization, perhaps because books, notes, and instructions that were destroyed. Or possibly because no one knew how to read and incorporate whatever after antiquity was left.
“By the way a great movie to see: Agora. I saw it because my best friend is an antiquarian book dealer. Agora deals with the Roman Academy in Alexandria [Egypt] that talked proportionate systems, mathematics, and so forth, and that was eventually brought down by the early church that feared all that literature was pagan.
“Alexandria, it seems, was the very last place that classicism was taught until it was truly almost reinvented with the humanist ideas in Northern Italy, particularly Padua in the later 1300s. But back to the Renaissance. You have a proportionate system of architecture and you start to learn that, for instance, the distance between these two columns is exactly the same as the height of one column, that the system of columns is a series squares. One goes to the Coliseum and thinks the Middle Ages might have thought that it took one hundred years to build this gaming structure; however, it only took nine. But how did they do that with this oval?
“As a young architecture student, one falls in love with Greek Revival and then admires the return to Greek revival in the late 1800s … until I had the privilege to play Frank Lloyd Wright in a play called Frank’s Home by Richard Nelson. Frank Lloyd Wright denigrated America’s constant return to antiquity. He held that the Renaissance already reinvented it once. Greek Revival in the early 1800s did it again. Now America, in Lloyd Wright’s era is doing the same damn thing. He bemoaned, ‘Can’t we think of anything on our own?’ He goes to Japan and essentially falls in love with the aerated feng shui flat roof idea of movement from one room to another.
“But, what about the Middle Ages, you say? What about those early Romanesque churches and essentially what the Franks [the Merovingians] gave us—Gothic architecture? What about these amazing structures that we go ‘Ooh, aah,’ when they look like big hunky pieces of stone, after you have fallen in love with the Renaissance because the Renaissance is so clean? And you go back and look at the antiquities in Rome or North Africa—you go to Pergamon in Turkey or have the sense to go to Petra in Jordan, and say, ‘Geez, this is the cleanest, most beautiful, proportionate, easy-on-the-eye thing.’ But what of the Middle Ages monoliths? Notre Dame? Chartres, Milan?
“There is a feeling of disjuncture that you have with the Middle Ages until you go to Venice and you read John Ruskin. For the last 26 years, I’ve gone to Venice every Hanukkah/Christmas. I remember picking up a book on Ruskin, and Ruskin says, more or less, ‘Listen, what you see here is what is very enduring.’ This is when they didn’t have deductive architecture, when they had additive architecture, when walls fell in, and, yes, they could draw Notre Dame in the dirt and build the wall or whatever have you in the Milan Cathedral, and when the walls fell in it became trial and error.
“Ruskin’s whole argument was there is an organic beauty in figuring it out by adding and failing and rebuilding. You have to look at the beautiful Romanesque architecture in early medieval Italy, say in Ferrara or Pisa, and then the entire Middle Ages really, as the strongest force of human nature in architectural expansion in the western world because those dudes didn’t have the numbers or the ratio systems. They did not know how to do it. They had to do it from the seat of their pants. Consequently, one begins to admire additive architecture—be it Romanesque or Gothic—for its fortitude … and beauty.
“Ruskin forced me to go back, after finishing my master’s degree, to France and to Italy. I had to go to Venice. Ruskin really hated the Renaissance existence in Venice except for one guy: Mauro Codussi. Codussi is the first real Renaissance architect in Venice, but you hardly hear of him because Venice dissuaded any cult of personality in architecture until [Andrea] Palladio in the 16th century. Subsequently, you don’t have superstars in Venice until the 1500s. Codussi did the Scuole Grandi di San Marco. He did some of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings ever. He combined elements of the late Middle Ages with the Renaissance, and he is superb.
“However, I get Ruskin’s problem with the Renaissance presence in architectural Venice. He says, ‘Look at Palladio. We all admire Palladio. He doesn’t belong in Venice.’ Ruskin is saying in the 1800s that Venice is medieval Gothic or Islamic Gothic or Oriental Gothic or Byzantine Gothic—but it’s a Gothic city, and this deductive idea, this recreation of Rome, doesn’t belong here. He’s convinced me that as much as I love San Giorgio Maggiore and San Francesco [della Vigna] by Palladio—as much as I like the clean lines and the recreation of Roman baths in Palladian churches, I walk Venice and I go, ‘I’m sorry; man, those are beautiful buildings in and of themselves, but are they organic to this place?’ This entire city was made by the seat of its pants. Beautiful biforate and triforate windows that had to be put in and fell out while walls fell down and then brought up again. That is why Venice is truly enduring.
“I think now, even though my bailiwick is Renaissance art and architecture (and particularly late 1400s and early 1500s), I look at that stuff in Venice. I look at those Gothic churches. I look at those early Romanesque churches. I look at the beauty of something like Ferrara Cathedral built in 1100. Those guys didn’t have a numeric proportionate system to figure it out and they didn’t have single-point perspective. They couldn’t draw it on paper like they could by the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s and today. They had to figure it out and map it out and start to build. If the damn wall was too big and fell in, or if the spire was too big and fell in, you do it again. Then the French gave us buttressing. I find that period—the late Romanesque and early Gothic—probably the most profound statement in the western world of man’s effort to build buildings.”
On Ancient Sustainability …
Kevin: “Were the ancient cities easier on the environment? Discounting Scipio [Aemilianus Africanus] allegedly salting the lands around Carthage for the moment, in general did the ancient world treat the environment more sympathetically than perhaps we do with our contemporary cities?”
Peter: “You have to remember that Rome—at least by the late Republic and early empire—had sewer systems and Romans believed in baths and cleanliness and order. But they still had insulae [a type of apartment building]. The Romans invented multipurpose buildings. If you want to see a great recreation of one, see [Federico] Fellini’s Satyricon as it recreates four or five of them. … We tend to think of Rome as an auspiciously cleaner environment than what happened in the Middle Ages because basically the Middle Ages get a bad mark in cleanliness because of the Black Death from approximately 1349 to 1456. Over a third of the population died in seven years. They still don’t know if rats or fleas were the inception-carrier. However, if you go to Ostia, the port of ancient Rome, you’ll see where those insulae dwellers lived—many families in fairly sanitized conditions, living with each other.”
Kevin: “When I was spending evenings in the architecture studio, my wife actually monitored one of Dr. (Marcello) Fantoni’s classes and she actually brought a piece of information home about how the butchers (meat mongers) originally populated the Ponte Vecchio, and after dressing the meat they dumped the carcasses into the Arno River. According to Dr. Fantoni, the merchant princes established what they called ‘Princely Routes’ through Florence, and to become a ‘Princely Route’ the routes had to be purged of any rabble living along them and any street filth had to be removed. So Lorenzo (il Magnifico), I understand, had the butchers removed and replaced with goldsmiths. That’s one example of what I meant by the ancient city being tough on the environment.”
Peter: “I know the oldest bridge in Florence is probably a Roman bridge as the city was settled by Julius Caesar. That is why you go to the Piazza della Repubblica and you see the decumanus and the cardo, which are the main streets and the cross streets. I knew the meat markets were there, but it’s fascinating that when the meat markets were booted with the idea of the passegiata where the locals take an afternoon or evening walk. That’s almost entirely a Renaissance idea. Those guys didn’t come out of the house unless they were going to war.”
On Cultural Memory …
Kevin: “Sometimes I think American culture is averse to things like ‘ruins’ and the cultural memory they represent. The majority of the Fort Worth Stockyards have been dismantled since they were decommissioned. It seems like in our culture that if something doesn’t make money anymore, we tear it down.”
Peter: “Wait a minute back up a second. Didn’t the Bass brothers and Bass family restore the Fort Worth Stockyards?”
Kevin: “I’m not sure about the stockyards. But I understand they have focused on downtown in Sundance Square. A piece of the Fort Worth Stockyards remains intact as a little ruin. It’s like a tiny Texas version of the Foro Romano. From a cultural perspective, what was it that compelled papal Rome to basically re-arrange, repurpose, and reuse the material and architecture of Imperial Rome? Can American culture learn anything from that other than just preserving old buildings because they are old and charming? … Which isn’t a bad thing, but I think there are cultural differences. We generally think if something isn’t new or commercially productive, then it is no longer relevant. What do you think?”
Peter: “The beauty of Rome, particularly interior Rome, is that they figured out that with pozzolana they could build within a matter of months and then face it in travertine. [Pozzolana is the pumice that comes out of Mount Vesuvius that weighs about a third or even less than what stone does, and yet that gets harder the wetter it gets.] I’m sure you grew up under the onus that the barbarians hauled away all the marble, right? I was told that since I was a kid. You know if I’m Alaric or Attila, the first thing I’m not going to do … is steal stone! First of all they didn’t know what the hell a wheel was, so, I mean how the hell did they get the marble out of there? Thus, the first thing I’m going to steal is not 40-million tons of shiny white rock. You’ve got papal and royal families that raid these places. When the humanist popes start, say with Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, called Pope Pius II, it goes on with [Pope] Sixtus’ [IV] support when the Sistine Chapel was built, [Pope] Julius [II], and [Pope] Clement [VII] on until the 1500s when you have got guys who all of a sudden say, ‘Rome is in ruins, but you’re not going to use the travertine, so why don’t we let the so-and-so family take it and put it up in St. Peter’s [Basilica]? Why don’t we use it in the house?’ They did that. That’s bad, and it’s sad, but it’s money and architecture.
“When I was living in New York for 30 years (from 1971 to whenever), [Mayor Edward] Koch voted 100 square blocks into landmarks. There was a consortium of developers who wanted to tear down the Ansonia Hotel. I don’t know if it was Mortimer Zuckerman or not who wanted to build a huge skyscraper on Columbus Circle that would cast a shadow. I got on the Jackie O bandwagon, and I went out there on that Saturday with a million people, creating this shadow that it would create, and they voted it down.
“The second thing that Jackie Onassis saved was Grand Central Station. They saved it and then they cleaned it, and then they found, under the stucco that’s been there 80 years those amazing frescos. Are they brilliant? No, but they are beautiful. This was done in 1995 or 1994. The point is that it’s too bad that in the name of progress one generation to the next wants to readily tear down something that is endemic, organic, an exponent of a particular cultural period. I was sad when the McDonalds’ organization tore down the very first arch. They tore it down and took it away. They should have given it to MOMA, for crying out loud, because for over 50 years that original arch stands for the origins of fast food in the United States. I don’t care what you think about fast food, but it’s the ethos. It’s a collective cultural identity. When they tear stuff down, and there is a whole lot of crap that I’m all for tearing down, but what the papacy and royal families did in 250 years to the ruins of Rome in the name of the church and state is reprehensible. That is my take on it.”
On Perspectives of Dallas …
James: “You have a lot of ties back to Texas, and your exposure to our metroplex spans decades. Speaking of cities that are ‘throw away,’ Dallas has very little history to begin with and has done a really good job of demolishing it. They push for more real glossy real estate. I’m curious on your opinion.”
Peter: “I think they are just trying to compete with Houston, and I don’t know why they do that. I think Houston gets under their skin.”
James: “How would you characterize your experiences in Dallas over the decades you have been involved here? What elements of success have you seen over recent visits as you come back for the Comic Con and for other events? What have you seen improve?”
Peter: “I get to go back to Dallas because my father was a federal judge out of Dallas and lived in Fort Worth when I was making RoboCop in Dallas. One of my dearest old friends who went to the University of North Texas … is a retired editor and photographer for The Dallas Morning News named Jim Mahoney. Jim takes me through Dallas from time to time. There are really cool places there like Deep Ellum. In RoboCop, we really did blow up Deep Ellum. We blew up a city block of it almost. We blew out windows. Look at the end of RoboCop. That is a real store window blown out. Apartment windows across the street blew out. Thank God nobody got hurt.
“Now Deep Ellum is so hip; it is an ‘in’ place to live, and I like to see places like that. When I grew up as a young man in my middle years in New York, the lower east side of Manhattan was a travesty. Essentially the urban movement reconstituted that. The same thing is happening in New Orleans, which is home to much of my surviving family on my father’s side. Now I have a place in New Orleans. I love what Dallas is doing to the hipper places. I don’t have the problem with Dallas that a lot of people have. I love that park that was built over the middle of a downtown freeway. What is that park called?”
James: “Klyde Warren Park.”
Peter: “… Any place where you get people downtown and walk, because I love cities. I love the downtown parts of cities. A sadder situation that has been coming around in the last 10 years is Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a neglected downtown. There are beautiful pre-war, 19th-century buildings just forgotten. Now they are starting to bring these back in the last 10 years.
“I can’t fault Dallas for any of its urban progress because they are looking out for the pedestrian. The pedestrian [experience] is the fun of being in a city, and that’s my only problem with being in L.A. There are not a lot of places to walk except for downtown. It’s nice to go downtown now as there are a lot of great restaurants there. Before they started to reconstitute it, there was no real place to hang out in L.A. —no center of the town.
“This is why New York and Paris are popular. It’s why Rome is popular. Those are walking cities. People love to walk around what I like to call the circus, which is the center of the town. When Dallas puts a park in the middle of downtown, when they are reconstituting the little peripheries of downtown—the pereferia as they say in Italy—I love it. However, I can’t tell where Denton ends and Dallas starts now. There used to be country there, which is kind of sad, but I can’t fault Dallas. …
“Yeah. James, I don’t have a problem with Dallas. I just have a problem with skyscrapers.”
On Dallas as Detroit …
James: “Well, that ties in to another question. It’s been quoted before from Jon Davison that when he and Paul Verhoeven were looking at cities to film RoboCop, Dallas made sense because of its futuristic skyline—the glass towers that Detroit did not have. What did you think of this portrayal back then and what do you think of it today? Why was Dallas the perfect setting for RoboCop?”
Peter: “It was the perfect city because Dallas and Fort Worth together … I got to say I believe—and I may be wrong here—but I think the first person to light the exterior of a downtown skyline was in Fort Worth. I believe it was the very first place that was every lit up at night, outlined by lights, but at the same time when I would drive up from Austin and San Antonio to Denton, I would usually take the Dallas route because I could see an amazing skyline after the flatlands coming out of the Hill Country when you get past Waco. It looked futuristic. It was the only skyline that I had ever seen that looked like something out of H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, or Philip K. Dick. It looked like the future. When they said they were going to do it there, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s make the movie in Dallas. That’s right near my home and all my buddies.’
“What is that thing on top of the Hyatt—that golf ball?”
Kevin: “You mean the revolving restaurant?”
Peter: “…And the pyramid on top of that other building.”
James: “Yes, the Trammell Crow Center.”
Peter: “It was astounding. It was Post-Modern and futuristic. I thought it was a genius thing to do. Every other downtown was a plain old skyscraper downtown. You could shoot Dallas from the airport or from the south or the west and it just rose up like a phoenix. Those strange, compelling buildings. It was quite an effect to see. You didn’t think it was the ‘80s driving into Dallas.”
On Lessons from ‘RoboCop’ …
James: “It’s been 30 years since the hot summer of ’86 and filming the movie. Here we are now. Detroit is mired in bankruptcy and in an effort to reinvent itself, and we have the water incident in Flint.”
Peter: “Isn’t that horrible?”
James: “It really is. I think we are all hoping to see something positive come from all of it. Hopefully, the whole area of Michigan around Detroit can reinvent itself. However, when you were filming RoboCop, Dallas had just started the bust of real estate that occurred in the late ‘80s. Here we are 30 years later, and Dallas is at this tipping point of becoming a thriving urban core. I can attest to this as I actually live across the street from old Dallas City Hall, the site of a very iconic scene reliving the Dan White and George Moscone assassination alluded to in RoboCop. In this new shift to urbanity, what lessons can we still learn from the movie?”
Peter: “Wow. When Star Trek Into Darkness came out, J.J. Abrams called me with Paramount publicity. I was going to be in Dallas for Emmitt Smith’s NFL celebrity golf tournament, which I was so looking forward to. Next thing you know I’m shooting in Santa Fe, and Star Trek calls me and asks if I would go open the first IMAX premier of the film for Harry K. Knowles in Austin. I didn’t even know who Harry Knowles was. He runs the largest movie database possibly in the world. I had no clue. He showed a reconstituted print of RoboCop. I am amazed that RoboCop was so far ahead of its time—when I take myself and my performance out of the equation and looked just to be entertained—what the film says about the dangers of privatization, the privatization of urban growth, the privatization of the police force, the privatization of building, the privatization of the individual, which all trickles down into the privatization of crime and greed and power. What it says about so-called ‘trickle down’ economics. There are so many ideas in RoboCop of which I was not aware when I was shooting it. I had no clue what it was saying about the tendency of urban development to corrupt should a city become unwieldy.”
James: “The parallel to Flint, MI …”
Peter: “There is a subtext in RoboCop about the financial corruption should a city go crazy. Whether it’s overbuilding, over commercializing. There is something to watch out for and be wary of. But go ahead about Flint.”
James: “… The parallel between OCP, Omni Consumer Products, and Flint, MI, exactly that idea of privatization and the downfalls of what can happen.”
Peter: “Yes. Democracy. I think we have the best country in the world. I’m a part-time resident of Italy, and I was a part-time resident of France too. I think those are great places to go and re-gas, but I don’t want to live anywhere permanently but in the United States. You have to remember that we are young. If you want to read a great book, read the collections of S.N. Behrman for The New Yorker on Joseph Duveen, the very first major art dealer of fine art in the United States. We had a very slim idea of fine art culture in this country in the late 1800s. Duveen had to school the Fricks, the Morgans, and the Mellons on art. No one had any interest in having a national gallery. We are young. Our tendency is ‘Bigger is better,’ usually at the expense of taste. It’s always bigger with us.
“There is a great guy whom I stayed with during a play in London in 1976 named Philip Gundry, a retired teacher of economics, I believe, at Oxford. He’s funny. I used to sit at these Friday night dinners where he and his fellow academics would roast the United States in blithering humor—through me. Lord, I would laugh! I would go just to hear them make these jokes about America. These six intellectual guys who looked at our materialism and attempts at empire-ism—England got over that 150 years ago—and our over-building—England got over that. All the mistakes of expansion that England and Europe had already made and that America was falling into. It’s the genesis of that because we are young. Our culture is from what? … late 1700s, early 1800s? We are just over 200 years old. We haven’t been around a thousand years. We don’t have a Romanesque period. We don’t have a Gothic period. We don’t have any of that cultural foundation. Maybe that is why, on the one hand, we function so well, we are so resilient, much better at adapting than any other country. But on the other hand, we just say, ‘Yeah, rip that up and tear that down. That’s not impressive enough. We need to put up more. More is better.’ More is not better.
“I think that Dallas is, possibly, overbuilt. I don’t know why it is that way. I don’t know the mechanics of urban planning in Dallas, but when you are driving in from the south or north of Dallas, it is just a mishmash now. Like you said, the city used to look futuristic like there was something rising out of a volcano, and now it looks like a hundred thousand buildings that are all the same.
“Yet, I still like what they are doing in the interior of Dallas to give Dallas parks and places to walk, cafés downtown, and to have the middle class gentrify the periphery of Dallas. I like walking around Dallas. By the way, not for nothing, but when I was doing RoboCop, I didn’t like walking around Dallas. There was nothing going on after six o’clock. Now there is.”
On Privatization …
James: “It’s definitely changed. One last question on that subject matter. Was RoboCop really received as the satirical commentary on the urban city as it was originally intended, in your opinion, at the time?”
Peter: “Initially no. Time looks back at RoboCop and says there was that impression. It was received as an amazing action film with a great scene of resurrection in the middle of it which was phenomenal. Now, particularly in the face of everyone talking about what needs to be deregulated and what needs to be regulated, look at Julius Caesar when the optimates were screaming, ‘Deregulate now with the third world coming here. Let us use these people as slaves.’ These people—it’s essentially happening now, the people that the rich people are using as slaves today—were saying, ‘No, no. We want to stay. We want to stay here and work. We want a wage and we want to be citizens.’ Consequently, there was a travesty in the late Republic called the ‘Social Wars.’
“Caesar had to walk into Rome when he got the muster, the equipment, and the manpower behind him, and he had to essentially regulate the urban situation—the economic and social situation. He had to impose regulations on it. He had to relieve the interest of debt and let people pay the principal. He had to enfranchise poor people who were building labor. Do not believe for a second that slaves built Rome. Even Jewish slaves in the first revolt did not build Rome. There are too many stone workers who needed to be employed in Rome constantly. Slaves didn’t build it. People being paid built it. Do you understand? It’s a myth that slaves built Rome. It’s hideous. They did build other parts of the empire, but not in Rome. Caesar had to regulate it, regulate labor, regulate food and wine. Caesar had to propose restrictions. Otherwise, the super-rich would have overdeveloped that city and its surroundings into oblivion with essentially unpaid labor.
“You look back at RoboCop and you go, ‘My God, they are talking about the deregulation of commerce here. They are talking about the privatization of a city, run entirely from the private sector with no particular enforced sanction on anything.’ That’s what RoboCop is talking about. I talked to these two dudes—Mike Minor and Ed Neumeier—who wrote it. I said, ‘Did you guys know?’ and they said, ‘No, this was all made up… They were reading science fiction. … Now, they were really smart guys, and they wrote it at UCLA. They had taken a course or two in economics, but they were not going, ‘Gee, I see the future as a huge polemic of the haves and have-nots about deregulation, trickle-down money, and the privatization of the urban centers.’ They were not seeing that. They were just making that stuff up, but it’s resonant today. Isn’t it?”
Kevin: “Absolutely. Especially in Flint. The way that government was dismantled and replaced with an appointed individual. What did they call him? The ‘emergency executor’?”
Kevin: “I believe it was the emergency executive who made the decision that ended up poisoning the water supply.”
Peter: “The sad news about that is that because money talks, you cannot convince me that they did not know that from the jump. I don’t want to be the pessimist in it all, but you can’t just throw up your hands and go, ‘I didn’t know the water would be leaded,’ which killed half of Rome by the way. I just find that a travesty. Who’s minding the store there?
“On that note, considering RoboCop and Detroit, Detroit is making major progress. When I opened RoboCop in Detroit, you couldn’t be downtown after six o’clock. It was an unsafe zone. You have to remember the National Guard was called out in Detroit in the 1980s. Now I go to Detroit—because they are building a RoboCop statue—and I love Detroit. Detroit speaks to me. I’ve gone on ‘Funny or Die’ for Will Ferrell about taking a shot at the then-mayor. Because in the terms of that, Kevin, as you know Florence, one of the remarkable idioms about medieval, late medieval, and early Renaissance Europe, all the way to the Baroque, is that people started to put up statuary. Not just the propagandist statuary of a ruler, but statuary of emblems of the city that created and enhanced civic pride. You could walk and see: ‘Oh, there’s the Marzocco, the emblem of Florence. The lion.’”
Kevin: “Right. The Marzocco of Florence.”
Peter: “When I went back to Detroit the first time, wow, they pulled down all these ugly parking lots and created a walking park along the river. How smart is that? Even a dummy could see that.
“I believe Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas is the person who suggested when she was on the city council that Detroit erect bronzes of the heroes of Detroit: not only the Native American political heroes of the revolution onward, but also those of Motown. The general response was, ‘What do you want to do that for? We can’t spend that money. It’s just fluff.’ This was with no particular opening up of a book on what civic pride statuary next to remarkable renovation of older architecture means so that people in their city can go, ‘Yeah!’
“Detroit restored theaters in downtown. They rebuilt the baseball stadium. There are some cafes opening. A couple of guys are restoring those federal buildings that are falling to pieces. This is how you start. You reinvest. You don’t add on, but you reinvest in the landmarks that you have. This is my feeling anyway. Beauty in a city remains in the urban center of it. All of the cities in the United States have something in them that is old and represents ‘old America’ even though we are not that old. If it’s built in stone, don’t tear the thing down.”
On Frank Lloyd Wright in Film and Theater …
Kevin: “Peter, I want to touch on your work in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre. There is a question that I have had for a long time, and I finally have the perfect person to ask. Frank Lloyd Wright was a complicated and dramatic individual. There is genius and tragedy in his life, along with tremendous charm that was contrasted by a shrewd and ruthless skullduggery. Why has no one ever made a movie or modern opera about Frank Lloyd Wright?”
Peter: “You know modern opera might be the thing. There is no particular real third act though. What you need is a beginning, a rise, then a major problem in the center, a downfall, and then a comeback. That’s Aristotle’s definition of the dramatic construction essentially. It’s the first act, the two parts of the second act, and the third act. So what is the third act of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life?
“Somebody will [write a movie or opera]. They just made a movie about Steve Jobs. Even though the box office receipts were disappointing, the performances are nominated, the film is nominated. So if they can make a movie about Steve Jobs, they can certainly make a movie about Frank Lloyd Wright because his career spans six decades. He definitely transformed suburban architecture, as well as elements of urban architecture, in the United States. Frank’s Home is structured about his own reviewing of his Mayan architecture in L.A. during the breakup with a girlfriend after the murder of his mistress.”
Kevin: “Right. Mamah Borthwick Cheney.”
Peter: … “I read this thing when I was 23 that Marlon Brando said in an interview in Rolling Stone to Christopher Hodenfield that it took Brando until he was 38 or 39 to disassociate personality with artistic gifts, to make a distinction between the repulsive individual and that person’s genius. Most of his life, up until his late 30s, he forgave unctuous, rapacious, or salacious behavior in gifted people until he worked with Charlie Chaplin whom he said was rude and mean, but yet the comedic genius of the 20th century.
“But if you make a movie about Frank Lloyd Wright’s life, it’s a one-way street on an ego trip. Maybe that is the Frank Lloyd Wright that was needed to transform American architecture—because we had no signature in architecture. We didn’t have any. We were exactly what he said to Louis Sullivan, ‘We are recreating something that we once again recreated a 100 years ago that was built on something in the 1400s that was based on something in Rome that recreated Greece.’ How many times are we going to run this cycle? These other guys who came from Europe, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the like, certainly contributed to Modern architecture, but I think that nobody more than Frank Lloyd Wright gave America an identity as far as building goes. You can admire a bunch of them, but the guy who really put the bullet in the bullseye is Frank Lloyd Wright.
“So should there be a move about him? I saw the Mike Wallace interview with him when he was about 88. I think it was in 1959. He was impenetrable. Wallace tried to get his goat, but could not move him.
“My dearest friend in the world—aside from my wife, Sheri, and son, Teddy—is Ali MacGraw. A more beautiful or smarter individual you would be hard pressed to meet. Ali got me to go to Italy the first time. She got me to study French. My mother wanted me to do all this, but who listens to their mother? Most people don’t know, but Ali was the ‘Girl of the Year’ for Diana Vreeland (as was Sylvia Plath), as well as an art history major and a design major at Wellesley College. She worked as a stylist with talented photographers. She is steeped in art and architectural history. She was the person who sent me to Italy and told me where to go and what to do.
“I bring her up because her parents were artists—both of them. I have an amazing deco mosaic of Parthian soldiers in a chariot that her mother made of mosaic in 1931. Both of her parents studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona at Taliesin West. They said as a teacher he was a bust, a sham. He saw that idea from Japan of flat roofs and open air and one room flowing to another—an organic building organically absorbed into the countryside where it was built and connected to natural surroundings, not apart. I knew Ali’s mother before she passed said they would hang on every word he was saying when he was talking about himself. Could he impart that stuff? Could he instruct? No. He had no language to give it away.
“What I loved about Wright is that he built the [Second] Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He built it on this gyros of stones underneath the earth so that the lower foundation will essentially shift. Here’s a mistake: Why did they tear that down? When that earthquake hit in 1913, everything fell except for that hotel. And the Japanese hated it: The ‘floating’ substructure and the Ōya stones. It wasn’t enough to tell Japan, ‘Hey, we ought to keep this as an emblem of possibly the most inventive architect of the 20th century in any culture,’ but they tore it down. For the life of me, I don’t know why. Does anybody know? You did know they tore that down, right?”
Kevin: “Yes. The Imperial Hotel was demolished when it was rattled by other earthquakes. I don’t know the political intrigues of why it came down. I do know that it reached where the renovation costs no longer made sense with the real estate values, unfortunately. Now you have compelled me to want to look into it a bit more as to exactly why they tore it down. I understand it was the only thing that Frank Lloyd Wright worked on during that period of his life. He had next to no commissions in America, so he went abroad and poured all of his energy into that project. … And from the photographs, it showed.”
On Donald Trump …
Peter: “Yeah. Which brings us to Donald Trump. On the political landscape, I listen to Donald Trump. I understand why people are galvanized to support him. He shoots from the hip, and we haven’t had that in a long time. He doesn’t need anybody. Some of the stuff he says actually makes perfect sense. Everyone else is boring me. …. Donald Trump in the mid-‘80s saved Wollman Rink [in Central Park]. He saved some things. He did amazing things for New York. I really admire the guy for his commitment to urban preservation, even as much as I admire Ed Koch for signing all those buildings into landmarks so that the developers couldn’t tear them down. You look at the Ansonia Hotel today and you cannot imagine why anyone would want to tear it down. It’s like the redo of Parisian Haussmann.
“Donald Trump then booted people out of condos left and right to refurbish them … so he lost me after a while. I think his ambitions superseded his commitments to urban preservation. There was a time when Donald Trump was grounded in New York City preservation. Now? I don’t know.”
On Miles Davis …
Kevin: “Well, Peter, you have been extremely generous with your time, and I know it is getting late. At our next conversation, I would like to talk to you about Miles Davis. I read that he was one of your favorite artists and was an early inspiration for you in music. Interesting enough—as if there isn’t enough of a coincidence between you and me through Florence—when I did my master’s of architecture thesis project at Syracuse, the project that I proposed was the Miles Davis Institute of Jazz for a site at 110th and Broadway. It explored the relationship between music, improvisation, and architecture.
“What I would like to end with is: Why don’t you come give a lecture here in Dallas at our School of Architecture [the University of Texas at Arlington] or perhaps for one of the symposiums for the David Dillion Center for Texas Architecture? I think you would be a great keynote lecturer. What do you think?”
Peter: “Yeah, when is that? Certainly, I would absolutely entertain that in a second. When is it usually?”
Kevin: “Nothing has been scheduled yet, but I wanted to discuss it with you provisionally. If you are interested, I will follow up with your agent when I have more information about a schedule or when the program begins to form. Typically, the Dillion Symposium begins with a keynote speaker, followed the next day by a symposium of panel discussions. It has been held in the Nasher Sculpture Center in their main lecture room, which seats about 250, which is a wonderful, salon-like lecture setting. I will keep your agent apprised when the event begins to take shape.”
Peter: “I would love to come. All you have to do is invite me, and if it coordinates with my schedule it will be fine. It will be great.
“I just want to say that I am really amazed that you designed a Miles Institute of Jazz, because Miles bequeathed me his self-portrait. It’s on my office wall. Just Google ‘Miles Davis self-portrait.’ My wife and I have a four-year-old, and she actually said, ‘If we have a fire, that painting will be on the ground before me or your kid.’ … Hmmm.
“I was at Miles’ last gig. My mother was a jazz piano player and turned me on to Miles when I was nine years old. If there is any artist in any field that influenced me, more than anyone it is Miles. There is not a Miles Davis album that does not parallel an emotional transition in my life. Miles is my timepiece. A great gift that I got from the cosmos is that I was at most of his gigs for the last year and a half of his life. At his very last gig, I was the last guy out of his dressing room door and walked him to his car with my friend, producer and musician Bob Thiele Jr., whose father produced Coltrane. Ten days later, Miles was dead. My mother said, ‘You got to say goodbye for everybody.’ A month after that, I had his self-portrait. The guy and his music are in my blood.”
Kevin: “He was a hero for me. I admired everything about him, especially how he transformed as an artist from his early interests to later material that was amplified and highly experimental. The band he had with saxophonist Bill Evans, Marcus Miller, and John Scofield was amazing. One hell of a band. I saw him twice in Dallas at the Granada Theater. Let’s talk about Miles and everything else over wine or a bourbon when we get you here to lecture. …”
On Peter’s Current Projects …
James: “I want to thank you once more. We really appreciate all you have shared and your contributions to media and academia. I have one more question for you, though. What are you working on now?”
Peter: “I’m in Honolulu, HI, directing ‘Hawaii 5-0.’ I direct a lot of high-end and entertaining television. If the price is right, I’ll get in front of the camera, but I have so much fun directing 10 or 11 just around-the-clock episodes for television. I’m going off to Budapest to shoot two episodes back-to-back of this remarkably brave FX show called ‘Tyrant’ which is about the first Muslim country in the world’s attempt at social democracy. I was sort of a go-to director for ‘Sons of Anarchy.’ I have done ‘Hawaii 5-0’ for four years, and love it. And I’m publishing an article on Antonello da Messina, my favorite painter, in Brill Publications, an art history publishing house.
“I’m also trying to get my dissertation published. There’s a book in it. And also I’m playing in a jazz sextet and raising a four-year-old.”