The Mad One


The first time I came to New York I was a film student. 9/11 occurred three months before and the city was still eerily quiet with shock from the collapse of the twin towers.  At that time of my arrival there was a contest being held for the design of the World Trade Center memorial. Among the contestants was Antonio Gaudi which was odd because the Spanish architect had been dead for 75 years.

With some research, I discovered that the entry was submitted on Gaudi’s behalf by another architect named Paul Laffoley. Gaudi designed a hotel for the current site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, but it was never built. Even more intriguing was that Laffoley worked as an architect designing the twin towers until he was fired when he proposed an idea to make the buildings more stable.


I cold called Laffoley with the idea of recording a short interview. To my surprise he picked up the phone. The Gaudi memorial at Ground Zero was the entrance to a rabbit hole into the world of old New York, visionary art, nanotechnology, living architecture, extraterrestrials, and time machines. The lines between art and reality blurred. Yet, the conversation progressed in a rational way. Laffoley was eccentric in his thinking, but strangely normal in conversation.


Laffoley agreed to meet me at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. From there, we took a cab downtown and recorded our first interview on the Brooklyn Bridge. For the next two years I filmed, edited, and animated the documentary with guidance from documentary filmmaker, Susan Steinberg, my coworkers at Three One design (who have cameos in the animations), and musicians including Matt Walker, Sean Barry, and Dave Baron.


After countless solitary evenings in a Times Square editing bay and weekends on a Chinatown bus to Boston, my first documentary was complete. It was a labor of love that almost broke me.

The Mad One received mixed reviews. Laffoley’s gallery panned it (“poor and disrespectful title”; “sensationalist”; “needs LOTS of work”). On the other hand, my mother, a psychiatrist, presented the film at a conference and got a different response.

Like Einstein, Paul Laffoley is reported to have been delayed in developing speech.  He was thought to be mildly autistic.  A brilliant youngster he graduated from Brown but received several treatments of electroconvulsive therapy before graduating. In spite of physical and emotional obstacles Paul Laffoley developed into a soft spoken, functioning gentleman with a warm sense of humor.  But also like Einstein, Laffoley is a “divergent” thinker.  Laffoley’s determination and positive approach to life allowed him to overcome odds to become an architect; his creative thinking enabled him to become an internationally acclaimed visionary artist. 


As Laffoley invites us into his world one easily wonders if this is a world of delusion or a world of someone gifted with a brilliant, unbounded imagination. The concept of psychiatric diagnoses becomes meaningless to the many who see Paul Laffoley as a genius whose unorthodox ideas inspire others to “think beyond the box”, to accept the challenge of their own creativity.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry


For the most part, this documentary is discovered by word of mouth and over the Internet. Laffoley was an artist who was concerned with time, but not preoccupied with becoming famous in the present. In that sense, I like to think that an audience will discover this film at some future date and it will challenge their world view. Laffoley would have appreciated that. Spending time with him helped me to understand that epochs are malleable. This makes art powerful because creativity allows us to illuminate and even heal our historical scars. Paul Laffoley passed away recently, but he designed his work to be eternal.