Time's Up: Architect Edition

Time’s Up: Architect’s Edition                                                                                                    3/18/18

We saw it coming, of course. It was just a question of when. But still, this kind of behavior continues to have the power to shock. I’m talking about the revelation that Richard Meier, the consummate postmodern modern architect, has been accused of a pattern of sexual harassment, and in at least one case, assault. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously quipped that god is in the details, so as I sit here stunned, speechless, sad, I find myself focusing on the details. I’m not quite ready to absorb the big picture and what these accusations mean for a profession that I love despite its failings, so instead I focus on the bathrobe. What puzzles me is why Meier, the most monochromatic of modernists was wearing a blue bathrobe. By all accounts, it should have been white, Meier’s signature color, the symbol of purity, the color of abstraction. Richard Meier’s work represents the apogee of pure formalism, astute explorations of space through the interplay of crisp, clear geometric forms. But I struggle to reconcile the elegance of the work with the vulgarity and aggression of his alleged behavior. The work is pristine. And yet these stories are so base, so vile, so dirty.

The revelations are particularly disturbing given Meier’s stature in the architecture profession. A Pritzker Prize winner and darling of both developers and cultural institutions, Meier is possibly as close to a household name as any living American architect. And we in the profession created him by feeding too long on the myth of the lone creative male genius. We have been too slow to recognize, much less celebrate, the contributions of the legions of other people involved in the design process. Another telling detail in these stories is that the victims are not architects. They are devalued not only by their youth and their femaleness, but also by the fact that they work in “support” roles which are largely filled by women, re-enforcing a power dynamic that provides fertile ground for abuse. In our hero worship, we have built a toxic professional culture. Starting in school, where lore is passed from generation to generation in hushed, awed tones, we create our own gods. They are giants, mythical creatures that feed our collective need to believe in genius. For if genius exists, is it not possible that we, ourselves, possess it? Or perhaps it is a kind of wishful thinking to help us endure the grueling all-nighters, the punishing critiques, the niggling self-doubt.

Design is a complex, messy business. With climate change and increasing globalization, the designers’ challenges only get messier and more complex. Meier’s impeccable formalism feels nearly irrelevant now and increasingly out of step with the imperatives of a new generation of architects. He may represent the past of the profession, but he is not its future. When I think of the architects I admire today, the very best of our profession has to offer, I do not think of “starchitects,” firms with single figureheads and signature styles. I think of collaborative, interdisciplinary practices with women and minorities in leadership roles. I think of firms working for social equity and innovating for sustainability and resilience. I think of firms who provide flexibility and encourage their employees to lead healthy, balanced lives. These are the firms winning design awards today. These are the practices that give me hope that the myth of the hero architect has finally lost its luster. When I think of Meier, now exposed, I think of crumbling, sun-bleached ruins set atop a rugged hillside. And in them I see Meier’s pure white forms, sugar cubes dotting a desolate landscape.        

                                                                                                     

Sharon Portnoy, Mill Valley, California