Blair Kamin on Writing and Reporting on Architecture’s #metoo Moment
Shortly after the news about Richard Meier broke, Blair Kamin wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune in which he interviewed Carol Ross Barney and discussed the allegations against Meier. I read the article and had some questions about how this story (and others like it) are covered, so I called Kamin. Our conversation was lightly edited.
EHF: Eva Hagberg Fisher
BK: Blair Kamin
This is a weird and interesting time, and I’m glad that you’re willing to talk about it. What is the role of critics now that harassment reports have reached architecture? And are we going to revise the canon?
The first role that architecture critics have to play, I think, is they should do what journalists do: bear witness to what’s happening. The second role is to bear witness in a timely fashion, while the allegations against Meier are part of the public conversation. So Robin Pogrebin at the New York Times, to her credit, broke this story. She was the one who really bore witness here and deserves the credit for doing that. My role as a critic was to take up the story and thereby to signal its importance to our readers. My role was also to contextualize the story, to put it into a framework of past harassment of women and to connect it to the #metoo movement. As soon as I read Robin’s story, I recalled an oral history interview with the architect Gertrude Kerbis of Chicago. Among her designs was the Rotunda building at O’Hare International Airport. In her oral history, she recalls working for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in the 1950s, and rejecting the sexual advances of her boss, who was married at the time. Her view was that she was fired from the firm for doing that. I wanted to connect the dots between that and Richard and the #metoo movement. So that’s why I called Carol. She was an ideal person to discuss these issues and, for our readers, to try to put them in a local context that would speak directly to them.
I was wondering why of all potential interview subjects, you picked Barney—she’s having a resurgence, a lot of attention. She was on the cover of Metropolis recently. There’s a sort of sense that… older female architects are having a little bit of a moment. Did you try to call other people?
I called Carol because I remember her telling me that someone had chased her around a desk at Holabird and Root, so I knew that she could speak to this from personal experience. And I know that she’s been an outspoken proponent of women’s issues in architecture. So I needed to go to someone quickly, who could speak to it intelligently, who could speak to it from a Chicago angle.
In terms of her having a moment, I think it’s really more related to her achievements as an architect. In other words, the reason that she’s getting attention now largely has to do with her work on the Chicago River Walk and her other recently completed projects. It’s funny, in a national context, she may be a new thing, but I’ve been covering her work for 20 years which has included the River Walk, The Oklahoma City Federal Building, Chicago Transit Authority transit station, public schools. The fickle mindset of the national design media, as far as I’m concerned— there’s not any moment she’s having, she’s always been there as a fine architect. Now, it may be that the editors in New York may be paying attention to her, but she’s been a focus of attention here for generations.
So , this question is both sort of stultifyingly boring and endlessly interesting—do we separate the person from the art? I noticed in the story you speak really lovingly about Meier’s buildings. You described them as having “machined elegance.” As you were describing the “exquisite” nature of his buildings… what were you thinking?
That was a shorthand characterization of Meier’s work. I’ve actually been critical—you can have a range of reactions to his work. Certainly I was making reference to the elegance of many of Richard’s buildings, but by no means am I enthralled with everything he does. That said— I think that in the immediate context, it is hard to distinguish right now: the white, pure buildings are marred by the scandal. But, the art will stay, and that association is likely to fade, if Frank Lloyd Wright’s example is telling. Wright, as you know, precipitated the scandal when he ran off to Europe with the wife of one of his Oak Park clients. Now, I am in no way equating Wright’s affair with Meier’s alleged misdeeds. The affair was consensual, and Meier’s alleged harassment was not. What I am saying is that scandal tends to fade while the art lives on. When I sat in the restored Unity Temple, it was mesmerizing. It was serene. It was like coming upon a glade in the forest. I never for a moment thought of Wright’s behavior while I was experiencing that space, I was just enthralled with the space itself. So, there is a separation, in the end, I think, between the artist and his or her life.
It’s not so much that we’re going to revise the canon, but that there will certainly be a revised narrative of architects who contributed to the canon. When Richard Meier dies, his obituary will invariably mention this episode.
However, I want to add quickly that to focus on the life, it’d never be the same. In other words— you ask, will there be a revision of canon? Should we revise the canon? I would say, it’s not so much that we’re going to revise the canon, but that there will certainly be a revised narrative of architects who contributed to the canon. When Richard Meier dies, his obituary will invariably mention this episode. When a biography is written, the author will just as inevitably have to come to grips with this alleged misbehavior. Just like Wright’s biographers have had to do that. In that sense, it changes our view of his life, and of him and his character. There is this question of, can people who do bad things make good or great architecture? And it’s very complex, but I do think the answer is yes. What I think—we would be foolish to dismiss these works of architecture. We would be poorer for the experience, but at the same time, we would be naive to dismiss the character of the people who created them. So there’s real ambiguity here. Ideally, you want a Boy Scout who makes Pritzker Prize winning buildings. But that isn’t always the case. People are fallible, and weak and they have foibles, and there can be good people who produce bad architecture. So it’s not simple.
I just want to push you a little bit about the Wright comparison. Because one of the things I think is different now is the social context that we’re in. I’m hopeful about this turn toward paying attention to structural oppression. That’s a significant change that has the potential to be more permanent. People like Wright or Kahn or Johnson—there’s a sense that, well, it was a different time. But, I wonder if using people like Wright or Kahn or Johnson as a model actually won’t work given the strength of this movement.
I think you’re right to distinguish between these past figures and Richard. I made clear that I’m not equating Wright’s affair with what Richard did.
Right, I get that. It’s more about equating the acceptance. Did you read Daniela Soleri’s open letter? About how her father, Paolo Soleri had assaulted her and she was really suffering because of the architecture world’s denial, disavowal of her experiences.
I think you’ve hit on the key word: denial. The culture of architecture has often forgiven a multitude of sins committed by great practitioners, because the coin of the realm was the art. And the sins, whether they were affairs or brutal treatment of employees or association with nazis or whatever, were backgrounded, not foregrounded. Character matters. You can’t ignore it. The field has to confront this, for many reasons. It has to confront it so women architects can work without fear of being harassed or assaulted, but it also needs to confront this so women architects as we’ve known already are not seen as adornments that exist for the visual pleasure or sexual satisfaction of male bosses. There’s no doubt that this is a watershed moment in the field. Especially with so many women coming out of architecture school, it’s something that deserves critical commentary and not just reportage. That’s why I took it up. And I knew that column was by no means the last word, but here we are talking about the issue, and you’re asking excellent questions about the issue, and raising people’s consciousness within the field and beyond about this issue. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation. So I think you’re right, time’s up on denial, as well as on the acts that have been denied or glossed over because, “Well, he’s a great designer so we can excuse that.” We can’t anymore. Now, does that mean— it’s easy to say that—but what do we do with Louis Kahn having an affair with Anne Tyng and cheating on Esther? Is he a monster? I don’t have an answer. But I do think this episode raises a number of new and uncomfortable questions within the field, and that’s what’s important.
Speaking of uncomfortable questions. What do you see as your personal moral responsibility and what do you see as your professional moral responsibility, and are those the same thing? One of my friends is on the shitty architects spreadsheet, so I’m having a moment of personal reckoning. I believe in making amends. I believe that no one is inherently a bad person, and also I feel a professional responsibility to do whatever I can to get these stories into the light so that people know about it. How are you thinking about this moment?
I see the moral and professional responsibilities as intertwined. It’s why I asked Carol, when I spoke with her, whether there were instances in Chicago of sexual harassment or sexual assault that she knew of. She cited some rumors about some well-known figures. But, they were simply rumors and my responsibility as a journalist would be to verify those before spreading rumors and destroying someone’s reputation. So the first responsibility, the moral and professional is simply to bear witness. If you don’t confront, you just let it slide. By not taking up the issue, you signal that it’s not important. So, yeah, the point is to bear witness and to put this issue in the public conversation. I also think it’s worth stressing that you don’t have to be a woman to do that. And I think this is something that’s universal. Whether you’re gay or straight, black or white, whatever, this is just unacceptable behavior and it can’t be denied. In other words we can’t be in denial about it, we can’t ignore it, and so the thing is to come to grips with it, or begin to come to grips with it. Frankly, I’m really glad you called because I was getting out a relatively quick column and your exploration of this is much more considered, and you’re a very good asker. You raised really good questions that I wasn’t able to explore in the first column that I wrote, so maybe I’ll take this up again when I have the time or when the next #metoo moment in architecture presents itself.
I’ve noticed Kimmelman is…absent on this. Are you reporting on the rumors that you heard?
Not yet, but I certainly will. Right now I have other things, and I should stress that the New York Times has a huge staff, Robin is a very good reporter. Her only responsibility, though, is to report on cultural issues. My responsibilities are to be a reporter and a critic, so I’m juggling a lot. If I had an equivalent of Robin on my staff or with whom I worked, we would certainly have started assessing those rumors. But at this point, there’s other things I need to write about. But it’s there— if anyone in Chicago has a rumor, they can certainly call me and I’ll check them out. Carol’s were not particularly specific, they were just rumors. But it does make you wonder, this whole thing with Richard. We all knew, at some point, this was going to surface in our field. And it’s interesting—why do we think that? Have engineers been having the same conversation? Like when will engineering’s “me too” moment happen? I don’t know why, it just seemed more inevitable that it would happen in architecture. Is that because architects fetishize visual beauty? Is it because part of that fetishizing is the denial and the excusing that we’ve talked about? I honestly don’t know. But I suspect this—I don’t think this will be an isolated incident. You have to think that other accusations will arise.
Have you seen the spreadsheet?
Well, now the question is—who’s gonna document that?
One of the things that I’m working on is finding something like sanctuary firms, like a whisper network of support. Because we have a whisper network of warnings, but we need a whisper network of support… we need the safety net before anybody can speak up.
It’s really incumbent upon all critics, the professional press. To examine this issue further, I’m a contributor at Architectural Record. Cathy McGuigan has been very good on women’s issues and has championed the cause of women in architecture. If I were having a conversation with Cathleen, I’d say put someone on the story. Check it out. I’d say the same thing to Ned Cramer at Architecture. Because these issues are particularly significant to the women architects who are their readers. Is the design media ecosystem coming alive to the moment by further examining these issues? By holding powerful people to account? That’s one of the things that journalists are supposed to do. It isn’t just politicians. If you’re a star architect and and you run an office and you’re a superstar, you have power. And you can use that power to gratify your sexual appetite and wreck someone’s life and/ or career. It’s a moment and the design media should not let it pass without a thorough examination of what’s going on here. And that will take courage. Because the stakes are very high. If X magazine starts looking into Y architect’s alleged sexual harassment, then Y architect may not be willing in the future to give X magazine his work for publication. That’s where this whole business of having courage and the need for confronting the truth and speaking truth to power—again, it’s a watershed moment, it’s a test. And Robin deserves a lot of credit. Yes, this has been a rumor apparently, as Carol said, for years, but Robin tracked it down, got the women to go on the record, just as Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor did for the Harvey Weinstein accusers. That’s very hard to do. People in architecture prize theory, but reportage matters. Getting the facts right really matters. Not that I’ve done my bit, clearly the conversation I had with Carol is only the start of the story. It’s important that all architectural critics take this seriously and don’t just let the moment pass without further rigorous examination of the profession as a whole.
You can’t buy me lunch, if you’re an architect. I won’t socialize, I won’t go to parties with you. I’m not Herbert Muschamp running about with his friends…
Do you have a sense of what you’re prepared to—I’m sure as a critic you have very firm boundaries…. But we’re all kind of in this ecosystem.
No, I don’t play that way—you can’t buy me lunch, if you’re an architect. I won’t socialize, I won’t go to parties with you. I’m a journalist. I’m not Herbert Muschamp running about with his friends, or his five favorite architects all the time. So in other words if somebody in Chicago is named, I’ll check it out. That’s my job. You can hold me accountable to that.
So much of this conversation is about a structural issue, and it’s reminding me how much we really need critics, who have a steady paycheck and job security. Having people in your role vs. people in my position, where I’m in this game of access and friendship and networks, there are people who are going to be like, “if I alienate this architect, then that’s it.”
Absolutely, that’s always been the conundrum for the professional press. They need access, because their business is all about getting those pretty pictures in the pages. Without those, nobody’s reading. That’s not my job. My job is just to go out there and evaluate what’s out there without any obligation to the people with whom I’m interacting. So that makes it tougher for the professional press. And it’s not coincidental that these rumors may have been circulating in New York design community, I was not aware of it, but it’s not coincidental that it took a great newspaper and not a design magazine to unearth the rumors and get them in print. But that said, people like Cathleen McGuigan are very outspoken, and editors on her staff, many of whom are women, can get some great sources about other alleged misdeeds. So if they do— I really think Cathleen has a great nose for news, as a former Newsweek architecture critic— and so if they do have the sources, it’s incumbent upon them and all of us to really check them out.
If you have experienced harassment in architecture and want to talk confidentially to a reporter, the following have said they are interested in hearing from people: Blair Kamin in Chicago; Kelsey Keith or Diana Budds at Curbed in New York; Alex Bozikovic in Toronto; Mark Lamster at the Dallas Morning News; Cathleen McGuigan at Architectural Record; and Sukjong Hong and Audrey Wachs at The Architect’s Newspaper.
If you want personal experience of what it’s like to take a harassment case public, or to talk through the emotional, logistical, and professional costs of speaking up, contact Eva Hagberg Fisher.
If you would like to join a group working on labor issues facing architectural workers, contact The Architecture Lobby
If you need a lawyer, Eva knows some good ones.
None of us are doing this alone.
Featured image: photo by Richard Phipps, via Disegno Daily.