Man Seeking Woman: Why I Wrote a Short Story About Shitty Architects
Twilight on a crisp December evening, 2018, the sun floating just above the horizon—a writing prompt if ever I saw one. Sexism and abuse had been in the news most of the year, but not so much lately. What, I wondered, was it about men and women studying and working together that could impossibly stretch from harmonious to toxic? Was physiology or psychology at play, or both? And why did it take a hashtag to ask these and the related questions: how do we go forward from here? Where are we now as the shock of revelations about widespread harassment wears off?
Architecture has always been a collaboration between the sexes, if not among men and women architects and consultants designing buildings, then with clients. Not infrequently, design partnerships are married couples with roots going back to college. Office hookups are common. The difference between sexual attraction and sexism can be overt in school and at work, but not always. With a sapphire sky going up in flames in front of me, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a profession melting down, or looking at architecture’s #MeToo movement simply fade with the light.
I picked up my pen and wrote what I hoped would lead to some answers. My initial thrust would be short fiction, I decided, but felt a more epic journey of seek and destroy in the offing, a classic tale of remorse and redemption. But, I knew better than to attempt the longer narrative alone. I would need a woman collaborator to tell a balanced tale.
Consider this essay, then, a request for letters of interest.
The story so far: Since Richard Meier, FAIA stepped away from his firm in March 2018, followed the next day by the “Shitty Architecture Men” list exploding on the internet, there have been protests, workshops, exhibitions, at least one book, numerous position statements, articles, opinions, and editorials. Bombshell accusations of sexual misconduct prompted the American Institute of Architects to revise its ethics codes. In the academy, reports of professors harassing female students forced student-administration meetings to air grievances. The Architecture Lobby launched a sexual harassment solidarity website and issued a statement of support for “victims of assault in school and the workplace.” It read, in part:
We decry in no uncertain terms the use of positions of power to perpetuate abominable conduct. We ask all members of the architectural community to join us, and the many victims of harassment, in calling for fundamental change of our culture….The structural, systemic conditions of abuse are enabled by the complicity of supervisors, co-workers and the profession at large.
And then…and then not much else happened. Reactions to allegations of sexual misconduct in architecture disappeared from sight. What remained was merely the afterimage of an icon abandoning his pedestal. The profession had moved on, leaving the fundamentals of what drove architecture’s #MeToo movement in place.
Sexual harassment across many professions and industries burst into our collective conscience through Twitter posts of and by victims. That was early 2017. If internet search popularity is any gauge, the public conversation on gender is over, at least, for now. Google Trends reports the search term “#MeToo” peaked in January 2018, sea-sawed, and then peaked again in September 2018. By the end of the year interest had shrunk to 25%.
True, lively discussions continue in some online communities, the AIA’s KnowledgeNet, Twitter, and Reddit, for example. These are low-key conversations, though, not exactly headline-generating threads. That the spotlight on architects’ sexual misconduct has dimmed is evident by the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Las Vegas (June 6 – 8, 2019). Out of 500 sessions and workshops, only two are scheduled to address ethics, and neither includes sexual harassment in their description.
The movement is cooling because the news cycle has cycled past, and with it, public pressure to change. It’s back to business as usual, it seems, and that’s a problem. Sexism is not self-limiting. It grows unseen and unchecked in the dark. How to keep the heat on without a spotlight? How to change the parts of architecture culture at fault while leaving intact what isn’t?
Some would call didactic education the means to behavior change. Behavior scientists would not agree, nor would modern philosophers and ethicists, I suspect. Research shows experiential learning is a better approach than memorizing rules of conduct. Knowledge alone doesn’t change what people think and do, but experience does. This suggests students and architects play the role of victim, perpetrator, and bystander to appreciate the dimensions of sexism, to vicariously learn through the school of hard knocks, like getting immersed as characters in an unfolding drama.
Just after the “Shitty Architecture Men” list caught the profession unawares, Common Edge published an interview with Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune. In response to Eva Hagberg Fisher’s question about moral responsibility when reporting on #MeToo, Kamin said,
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.
That same day, ARCHITECT magazine editor-in-chief Ned Cramer wrote an open letter to the men of architecture. He made good points, but none as intriguing as one left by a commentator:
Thank you for the article and bringing up the subject. Unfortunately, not many details were expressed of how women experience a discriminating workplace. For a male reader, it makes it just that much easier to brush this article aside with ‘not my business/problem,’ or ‘everyone suffers in architecture’ excuses, as done by the majority of male commenters.
The result of my novel-in-waiting was a short story for Common Edge, posted a few weeks ago. The Shitty Architect is about a guilty man as told by accessories to his crime: bystanders. The protagonist is Evan, a male studio leader transforming from good guy to bad boy. The narrator is Evan’s all-male atelier. The story’s antagonist is Ada, a woman intern architect who, in the end, defeats Evan, making the saga both tragic and hopeful.
Like many of my male colleagues, I am the witness to sexism Kamin spoke of. Untold men have seen what happens in architecture school and practice. We have our own whisper network to voice. Onlookers like us bring a particular vision to bias and abuse, in storytelling terms, that of a third-person narrator. Me Too is Us Too.
Some of us like myself also know the inner workings of fighting against institutional sexism, seen the emotional toll it takes, the years of legal battles, the personal fortunes spent.
In 2012, I used a rare form of long fiction to teach real-world ethics of the kind AIA recently added to its rules of conduct. It’s called a choose-your-own-adventure story (CYOA). Working with creative writers and ethicists, I published a CYOA textbook called The Brewsters: An Interactive Adventure in Ethics for the Health Professions. The rear cover reads,
The Brewsters is an innovative way to learn health professional ethics: a choose-your-own-adventure novel where *you* play the roles of health care provider, scientific researcher, patient, and their family. Storylines branch based on choices you make as you read. The immersive story is interwoven with in-depth didactic chapters on health professional ethics, clinical ethics, and research ethics.
Here’s the story’s hook,
Wayne is sure he has osteoporosis. Walter is drunk. Gloria has cancer. And Sheila is having an affair. Choose your own adventure with three generations of an American family getting their health care … from you.
Portraying the world through multiple perspectives is an empathetic way to explore clear transgressions, as well as touchy-feely subjects and ethical gray areas. Subjectivity is in the eyes of the beholder, which makes for learning opportunities. Randy Cohen (for twelve years the writer of “The Ethicist” in The New York Times magazine) called The Brewsters, “An ingenious method to turn everyday readers into moral thinkers: have them walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Something like The Brewsters could work in architecture. In many respects, medicine is architecture’s reflection in the mirror. Both are noble professions trying to better the human condition. Both preach humility but often deliver ego. Each is a bastion of white male supremacy struggling to become inclusive. Glass ceilings and machismo are endemic. (Table).
|Experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in school, training, or workplace||66%||47%|
Architecture students enter school as someone who likes to draw or build models. Soon, they form embryonic identities, possibly cultivating the personality of one of architecture’s male gods: Mies, Wright, Corbu, Kahn, Roark. Or, they get inspired by a recent luminary of the likes of Philip Johnson or Richard Meier. Perchance they are swayed by a more contemporary hero viewed through the lens of an invited lecture or journal article.
But do we really know our role models? We contemplate eminent architects’ aesthetics but leave their moral character unexamined. We absorb manifestos but don’t read between the lines. We seldom deliberate how starchitects’ beliefs and values connect to their designs. We forget to ask if artistic merit and personal integrity are related.
How many of our gods were/are shitty architecture men, stained by moral failures? In my opinion, a lot. At a time when the sanctity of marriage was unquestioned, Mies van der Rhoe’s abandonment of his wife and three daughters when he left Germany on the eve of World War II lowers the credibility of Modernism’s altruistic premise. Frank Lloyd Wright also walking out on a large family makes me wonder about the truthiness of his associating hearth with home. Was Lou Kahn’s polygamy compatible with the honesty of solicitous conversations with a brick?
We might also question why swastika blemishes on Philip Johnson’s reputation had no bearing on his career trajectory, and why allegations of Mies being an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and Le Corbusier an anti-Semitic “militant fascist” Hitler fan, as two recent books claim, are left out of architectural history classes.
Architecture school is a transformative process that should incorporate altruism, compassion, integrity, respect, tolerance, and empathy. Instead, architects become who they are through osmosis, sometimes mimicking stereotypes of toxic male behavior.
It would be fun to tell The Shitty Architect story again, but from Ada’s point of view, and then again from other characters’ perspectives, such as Fred, the guy whose name is on the firm’s door, the man voted “shittiest of them all.” The Shitty Architect also includes other women characters who have something to say: Ling, Evan’s latest harassment target, and Vivian, who may have been one of Fred’s victims.
Whether or not a CYOA Shitty Architects novel makes publishing sense is open to debate, but architecture’s #MeToo moment seeing the light of day again shouldn’t be left to fate.
I could write all of The Shitty Architect’s characters’ stories myself, but it would be a better book if a woman authored Ada, Ling, and Vivian’s parts. Any architect/fiction writers out there looking to collaborate on a “novel way” to cultivate architectural morals and ethics? RSVP to RBuday@Archimage.com.