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The Shitty Architect: A #MeToo Short Story

The time we saw Evan hitting on Ada, he was a floundering designer and she an almost-architect. Some of us in the studio thought he’d fallen in lust. Most predicted she’d fall out of favor. What we didn’t know was how oddly their fling would end, or how quickly things would collapse.

Ada had come to the firm a month after graduating from the University of Edinburgh. Not yet licensed in the UK, much less the US, she couldn’t officially call herself an architect. She of ancient lands met Evan, a modern Clevelander struggling to make general partner. He was licensed three years out of school, made associate five years after joining the firm, and given a studio. Soon after, his career stalled. Evan’s buildings were workman-like, if a little boring. For years, he was passed over for prestigious projects, and with them, his chance of promotion.

Office pairings were part of the firm’s culture. Studio leads—all men but one—were known to enjoy the perk, as it was called, of hiring new talent. To us, management cavorting with women interns and newbies was unsurprising. The office was a sexy place, powered by ambitions fueled by hormones. Fred penned a manifesto in 2016, Unorthodoxism, which became required reading in design schools. Suddenly, we were news. The man with his name on the door graced the glossies and trade press with indecipherable theories of architecture. Every new project was published and analyzed. As accolades proliferated, we drew close as a firm. New hires were expected to fit into a tight-knit quilt of long days and intense nights. Our reward wasn’t money; salaries were low. Our prize was pride. Fred had become famous, so, by extension, we were all famous. We were a starchitecture firm. In 2017, the company opened an office in São Paulo; in 2018, Shanghai. We were making dents in the universe. If that didn’t get your juices flowing, what would?

A perk would begin innocently in the lobby: a firm handshake with an interviewee, a warm hand on a shoulder on the way to a meeting room, a lingering pat on the back before sitting down to business. Under the right circumstances, a spark could ignite a fire that began on slow burn, perhaps an amorous look during the interview or accidental footsie under the conference table. Once hired, temperatures would rise with muffled laughter at inside jokes, shine brightly at one-on-one employee evaluations over lunch, and then flare into unexplained absences during charrettes. Mentors and mentees gliding out of sight and then returning disheveled to the studio were common. Sooner or later, the heat would flame out. Within a studio’s simmering ashes were darting glances, awkward silences, pouts, and grimaces. Office flings ended like a pair of socks spun out of a dryer, both a little wrinkled, each no worse for the wear, but one on its way to getting lost.

There was an exception. Occasionally a male studio lead would latch onto an exceptionally talented woman and do everything he could to keep her. She became his right hand, his apprentice. Those dynamics were the interesting ones to observe. They tended to end more conspicuously.

Ada might have been twenty-four or five when she checked into Reception for an interview. The visual impression she gave was that of a Gaelic Tinker Bell, lithe and magical. Evan showed us in the studio her portfolio, drawing after drawing of fantastical architecture energized by sun and wind, heavenly greened buildings set in pastoral parklands. Female candidates were routinely asked about their long-term goals. Ada missed the discrete probe about getting pregnant and told Evan her father wanted her to join him in the raisin business, the second largest in Scotland. She told her father no. She’d rather save the world from global warming.

Ada blew into Evan’s studio on a bright morning like a spring breeze driving out winter’s chill. The first woman in our little group, she landed in turmoil. Fred had recently thrown a tantrum. Two weeks previous, he’d sketched on yellow trace a rhombus-shaped tower with an attached circular garage. The man’s style du jour were buildings of simple geometry, equal sides, pure forms. Our studio was tasked with making his thumbnails habitable, which turned out to be tough. Fred blew a fuse at the next crit when Evan showed a parallelogram of unequal lengths and a rectangular garage. Evan told Fred a perfect rhombus created bay depths deeper than forty-five feet, which was unleasable in the current market.

Fred roared in front of Evan and his team, “THAT’S THE MOST STUPID THING I EVER HEARD.” Things went downhill from there. An hour later, Fred reassigned the office tower to a studio on the other side of the floor. We were demoted to designing only the garage—a perfectly circular garage.

Fred was temperamental. He flipped like a switch, although his on/off position depended on gender. If you were male and crossed him, Fred would fire or replace you saying you didn’t fit in. If he was mad and you were female and pretty, Fred would ask you to dinner, saying he wanted to know you better—solely to find the right place for you in the firm, of course. Rumor had it that Fred, four times divorced and single again, never dined alone.

At some point, Vanessa’s studio convinced Fred to soften his demand for geometric precision. Fred later proclaimed elongated quadrilaterals were his “latest refinement to unorthodox Euclidean theory.” Ungeometry, he called it and declared the term the title of a new book he was writing. In the meantime, we in Evan’s studio had hit a wall. Finding an efficient parking layout inside a circle or ellipse was impossible.

To us, not wanting another soul-draining shaming was why Evan assigned the garage to Ada. Her looks would keep her safe from Fred’s wrath. The worst that could happen was that she’d be swept into Fred’s orbit, another filly for the boss’ stable.

It was about that time that Evan started to wonder aloud if he, too, should have a stable. In a pub with a few of us after work one evening, sour grapes in hand, he said he’d discovered a hidden corollary to Fred’s theory of architecture. Swirling wine in this glass, he said, “Here’s the secret to success, guys: the more head you get in this firm, the more you get ahead.” We nervously laughed.

Evan at forty-six was an athletic body stuffed into a middle-age paunch. His face was comfortable in a scholarly way, approachable but dull in his thick Corbu glasses. Behind his back, we called him “Dad.” Had we voted on Evan’s chances with young women, we would have elected him Least Likely to Get Lucky, which was ironic. A year before, in 2018, the design profession confronted a #MeToo social media movement. Sexual harassment in architecture schools and practices hit the fan. Someone solicited accounts of misconduct and distributed them online. Architects of all ages, shapes, and sizes made the Shitty Architecture Men List. The allegations were anonymous, though. Some were hearsay. Without proof of wrongdoing, the list was a target for libel lawsuits. The post didn’t last long, a month at most.

   The company was at least twenty percent women, higher than most at the time, yet we were not spared. The List suggested our firm was sexist, but without specifics, the scandal passed. Two years later, another online tell-all popped up, also anonymous, but longer-lived. To keep out of reach of lawyers, the Shittiest Architects website cycled itself through obscure domain names hosted in former Eastern bloc countries.

His nose illuminated red in the pub’s warm glow, Evan unfolded a sheet of paper from his sports jacket. The Shittiest Architects website tagged our general partners, every one of them, and Fred was the shittiest of them all. Evan finished his Bordeaux and ordered a gin and tonic. After it arrived, he moaned he’d never strayed from his wife, that he wasn’t the promiscuous type. He was one of the good guys—and that’s why he remained an associate. There were no notches in his bedpost. He had no bragging rights. Evan joked he’d been banging his head against the wrong wall all these years. It should have been a motel wall. We didn’t know what to say, so we said nothing. He ordered a whiskey shot, picked up the glass, and leaned back his head. Then he went home.

On Ada’s first day on the job, she attacked the garage with the dogged feistiness of a Scottie. Blissfully unaware of the danger of Fred’s weekly crits, she abandoned any attempt at curved parking. By the end of the day, she’d come up with a dozen square and rectangular garage plans, sections, and elevations. Evan rejected her schemes, not because they were terrible (they were quite good), but because Ada insisted on cutting the required parking count. While the program called for five hundred cars, Ada drew structures that held less than half. Evan asked why.

“Heard about global warmin’, have ya?” Ada had an irrepressible smile. “The world is suffocating in carbon dioxide. Fortunately, we soon won’t be needin’ car parks. We’ll plant trees instead—carbon sinks.” All of us in the studio tuned in. “Self-drivin’ and ride sharin’ will lower demand for onsite parking. I based my thesis on this.” When Evan rolled his eyes, she said, “I’ve tons of research. Data is proof. We won’t be needin’ garages at all in a few years.”

Evan studied Ada’s eyes. So sweet and innocent, he must have thought. So raw her talent. And so wrong. The two of them hovered over her drawings while Evan scribbled atop one of her elevations. They were soon cheek-to-cheek. Evan walked to his desk and returned with a thick three-ring binder. He opened to a tabbed page. City ordinances required a minimum of three cars per thousand square feet of office space. There was no choice.

“Could we not obtain a variance? With the right data, you can convince anyone of anythin’. I’m sure the city would consider—”

“This had better not be my parking structure.” Fred and his entourage had arrived early for his weekly critique. He stood next to Ada’s desk holding a teacup, pinky extended. “Where’s my circular garage?” Fred turned red as Evan stammered.

“W-we… I mean, Ada was just—”

“DAMMIT MAN, DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING MYSELF?” Fred yanked a red Sharpie from his pocket and gently elbowed Ada out of the way. “THIS IS CRAP. I SAID A CIRCULAR GARAGE. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?” He dragged an X across her drawing and turned to leave.

“Excuse me, sir.” Ada was speaking softly to Fred but looking at Evan, who emphatically shook his head. “Sir, I have somethin’ to show you.” Ada lifted Fred’s felt tip from his hand and circumscribed a circle around a square parking plan. Then she drew a concentric circle, a little larger. “This is a spiral ramp with a high wall. The garage will appear like a drum when viewed at eye level.”

The starchitect took a sip. His sunburn faded. “That could work.”

Evan coughed. “See, t-that’s what I was trying to tell you, Fred. I’ve c-come up with a donut scheme that yields an efficient garage inside a circular form. Ada was just about to p-put it into the computer and model traffic flow. Once I had the analysis, I p-planned to show it to you.”

Fred examined the plan. “Can you park enough cars in there?”

Evan said, “We may have to add a few floors.”

“I like it. But don’t call it a donut. It’s an Ungarage.” Fred patted Ada on the back. “Good work, Evan. I knew you had it in you.”

“Sir, if we could talk a wee bit about the parkin’ count. I have some data I think—”

Evan stepped in front of her. “Thank you, Fred. I’ll bring the traffic study by your office tomorrow morning.”

The boss walked off, heading to another studio. A few minutes later, Ada stood at Evan’s desk looking hurt. “Right. What was that about? You wouldn’t let me finish.”

Evan drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair and rotated a hundred eighty degrees. He gazed out of his window. The evening had turned a bright blue day leaden. After a long sigh, to Ada’s distorted reflection in the shimmery glass, he said, “Let’s you and I have dinner somewhere.”

Her eyes widened before squinting. “Em…Just us?”

Evan swiveled and flashed a quick smile.

She looked at her watch. “Should ya not be gettin’ back to yer family?”

“Laura’s visiting her folks in Venezuela. My son’s grandparents complain they don’t see him enough.”

Ada nodded as if she understood. “Noo thank you. I best be gettin’ home myself.” Suddenly a wide grin. “I have a wee kitten that’ll be hungry ’bout now.”

“If you’ll p-permit me, Ada, I’d like to discuss how to sell an idea in this firm, the secret to getting ahead. I w-want you to be my apprentice, but I need to understand you better to know how b-best to guide you.”

Ada watched Evan’s face. “Ya only stutter when you’re nervous.”

“Have d-dinner with me.”

Clouds grumbled in the distance. And then a seam in the sky’s tufted gray blanket split open. The world outside Evan’s window disappeared into sheeting rain.

Ada didn’t come to work the following day, or the next, or after that. There were whispers she’d left the country, homesick for Scotland. Few of us in the studio believed that. Graduates were clamoring to work here. Landing a position was a dream gig, a career kickstart. No sane person would quit after a single day, especially after the expense of moving overseas. At the beginning of another week, Evan casually said Ada didn’t fit in when the question of her absence came up. He said she probably went home to her family’s raisin farm. A month down the road, ShittiestArchitects.com sported a new entry. Evan had made the grade.

 

                                                         ***

 

In the decade following Ada’s departure, a lot changed. The firm was now fifty percent female and had six women associates. Still no women partners, though. The ungarage had given Evan his first design award. His status inched up, notch-by-notch, apprentice-by-apprentice. He was getting the prestigious projects. Evan hadn’t made partner yet, but that seemed about to change. Fred telegraphed an auspicious signal at the end of 2029. The firm’s New Year party invitations included an engraved version of Evan’s ungarage alongside the firm’s logo. Below it was “Announcement of a new general partner.”

A massive tent went up December thirty-first outside the ungarage. It was festooned with Christmas tree lights intertwined with vines and fake icicles hanging from the pole structure. Evan arrived around nine with a striking twenty-seven-year-old Asian on his arm, a newly hired urban planner. Ling immediately pulled Evan into a swarm of gyrating gowns and tuxedos. He and she made an odd pair, and not because of their thirty-year age difference. She towered two hands above him.

The ungarage bathed in green and red spotlights. Moonlit shadows scalloped its graceful ramps. Curiously, the building was cordoned off by a row of police cars and two fire engines. On one side was an ambulance, and construction workers were milling about. Evan’s studio clustered around him and Ling when the band stopped. Why the barricade? one of us asked. Evan didn’t know, but Ling had a suspicion. The ungarage was about to receive another award, perhaps even a National Medallion. She surmised commemorative art had been installed, which would be revealed at the stroke of midnight by some bigwig politician. Wow. Maybe even President Haley was here! Ling peeled off to see if she could find secret service agents lurking in the crowd, dudes with clear wires curling out of their ears.

The company’s New Year parties were hedonist affairs. Trapping women under mistletoe was an acknowledged sport. The band returned and played nonstop until Fred stepped up to the dais around eleven-thirty. A little hunched in his late seventies, he was supported on each side by a student intern, both blonde, both busty, neither older than twenty. Fred tapped his Champagne glass with a spoon, and the firm’s logo appeared on a screen behind him. As the tent quieted, he recounted the year’s highlights in word and image: new buildings, the establishment of a branch in Mumbai, another book. At eleven-fifty, he announced with dramatic flair, “I now have some special news for you.” The screen went black. A guy wearing orange overalls and a hard hat joined him. We swam through the crowd to get close to the stage.

Fred looked at the buxom girl to his right and tapped a plastic icicle dangling above his head with the spoon. Flirting, he said, “I remember when these would be real this time of year.” She looked surprised. He turned to the woman on his left and said, “Can you imagine?” The woman said she’d seen snow once when she was a little girl in St. Louis. They used to have winters there, too.

Looking at the crowd, Fred described a world transformed by global warming. Sixty-two percent of automobiles were now electric. Fossil fuels and gas stations were going extinct, and with them, office garages. “Workers are giving up private cars for self-driving Ubers that drop them off and pick them up,” he said. Fred looked at the construction worker. “There’s more money now in carbon capturing than carbon polluting. Our commercial clients know this.” The interns wrapped Fred’s arms around their waists.

A voice hidden in the crowd asked if Fred was retiring his gas-guzzling Porsche and giving up his assigned parking space.

“Oh, hell no.”

As the laughter died, the boss’ expression changed. Fred grimaced in the way of a man with an arm being twisted. “Uh, tonight, I’m announcing the firm will take up the challenge of what to do with underused parking facil—Ouch!” He turned to one of the blondes. Wincing, “Allow me to introduce the newest addition to our firm.” Muttering, “And the most damnably convincing person I’ve ever met.” Fred straightened his spine, recovered his verve. “Starting tomorrow we will have a new sustainability team, and a new general partner to lead it.” He pointed to the construction guy. A smattering of applause. “The Unarchitecture Studio, as I call it, will figure prominently in my next book.”

A woman in a sequined evening A-line stepped out of the overalls. Vibrant red curls cascaded along one side of her face when she tossed her helmet. As the tent erupted in cheers, we noticed only women enthusiastically clapping. Over-excited woo-hoos bounced off the canvas roof. Someone shouted, “Yay Ada!” Another, “Interview me too!” How most of the firm knew her baffled us, Ada having spent only a day in the office ten years ago.

Evan stood frozen as Ada left the stage and made a beeline toward us. Wriggles of shiny hair bounced under glittering lights, billowing like flames.

So that was it, we figured. Evan’s inventive spiral garage was about to be given a sustainability award. How cool. So why did he look petrified?

The screen came alive again: a countdown clock.

“Awright ya?” Ada said to her former studio mates.

The crowd roared, “TEN!”

Evan and Ada locked eyes in awkward silence until he asked her, “How’s your cat?”

“NINE!”

“Like me, gettin’ old and cranky. I can’t believe ya remember her.”

“I remember her walking across my face in the morning.”

“EIGHT!”

She chuckled. “So how’s yer wife and child?”

“Luis graduated architecture school last year. Laura and I divorced some time ago.”

“SEVEN!”

“Deary me.”

“So, why did you come back, Ada?”

She frowned and shook her head.

“SIX!”

“Ach, now that’s a poor way to greet an old friend.” Ada put her hands on Evan’s shoulders and maneuvered him a few steps backward.

He asked, “And why did you bug out in the first place?”

“FIVE!”

“Thought my education was over, but ya convinced me I was wrong. I had more learnin’ to do.”

Evan angled his head and said, “Meaning what?”

“FOUR!”

“Meaning I went back to university and got a landscape architecture degree. Then I spent a few years in my family’s business.” With a sly grin, she added, “Finally, I did a wee bit of research.”

“THREE!”

“Somehow I can’t picture you growing raisins.”

“‘Ha. We weren’t growin’ raisins, Evan. We were razin’ buildings. My father’s a demolition contractor.”

“TWO!”

Ada pointed upwards. They were under mistletoe. “For auld lang syne,” she said and put her hands over Evan’s ears.

Glasses were raised, and they kissed, eyes closed. An instant later, Evan’s eyes sprung open.

“ONE!”

Their lips parted with a tremendous explosion. The tent vibrated as the ungarage imploded, folding into a pile of dust.

“HAPPY NEW YEAR!”

“Y-you demolished my building?”

“Tis better as an orchard, Evan.”

“I don’t believe it. WHAT A SHITTY THING TO DO!”

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

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