It hit me like a slap in the face. A new TV commercial—for Botox— shows an exceptionally well groomed and impeccably dressed “architect,” tweaking plans using a pencil and a scale. (How quaint and 20th century of him.) “It’s the details,” the voice over says, “that make the difference.” And since details make all the difference, Botox makes them better in daily treatments of just ten convenient minutes.
Architects control details—that’s what we do. And if they “make all the difference,” then those who control them will need to use Botox to make those pesky “frown lines” disappear. We can control what’s imperfect—in buildings, and in our faces—by taking control of the superficial.
Human folly writ short and pure. But it’s just advertising, so who cares? This 60-second spot, however, reflects a popular perception that far too many architects embrace. The cartoon image of the hip designer conveys a “cool” that is simply not how I (and most others) help make buildings.
The male-focus of the ad—the white, male—is up front and intentional. That’s the ad’s prime demographic. Men are people too, who need to control details, and architects are those who do that with really cool artisanal equipment and, well, Botox.
Message: Botox is not just for women any more.
Architects control details, but the other men shown in the ad, dressing and working out, also control details. Human empowerment facilitated by buying a product is nothing new. White men being architects is nothing new either. Architects are not hip arbiters of taste, no matter how much some wish it were so.
When I saw this ad, I sighed heavily. I am 62 and a half years old, with wrinkles, and a bald spot. I dress, truth be told, poorly. I work out like a freak not to “control details” and look good—because I never have—but to forestall death.
By the standards of this ad (and of much of our image-focused culture), I am a poor example of what an architect should be. I could also be a woman, or African American, or even plumper than I am: in all of those manifestations I would fall short of the centuries-old image of the groovey architect, white and male.
But the imagery is not only superficial in its depictions of the demographic, but it is pandering in its messaging as to what architects actually do to be valuable parts of our culture (beyond being a convenient archetype to sell product).
Like so many others, I don’t wear fashion-forward clothing and have perfect hair. I don’t pensively ponder my projection, using crafty tools to manifest my hip genius. Most architects don’t either. Instead they design buildings with our clients, listening to our buildings’ sites, not to “control details” but to manifest the common hopes of those who need places we can help create.
The ad’s message panders to the product: it equates the depth of design to the last, dead, flat skin cell you see. It says, in effect, we are how we look. The “details” that “mean everything” are not so subtle allusions to the details Botox can “fix.” If design had Botox as its inspiration, architects would become decorators, cosmeticians, or purveyors of simply a “look.” Sadly, that image is often how architects sell themselves.
The world rewards the superficial. Some architects design to the perfect pics of those “controlled” buildings, not to the fit with the users, the site, the budget, the culture. When anyone looks to manifest image over reality, we become like this ad: an image of posing pretense.
The narcissism of ego projection is nothing new to architects, or humans, but it is exquisitely depicted in this ad’s picture perfect and paper-thin projection of my profession’s values.
The message of the power of the superficial in our lives is not the hope of humanity, either. No, the symbolic architect depicted in this ad uses design to project a flawless skin of ego.
That shallow stereotype ultimately defames me, despite my white maleness, because it ignores what matters: humanity’s best hopes and dreams; our messy possibilities; our complicated opportunities; our ability to improve; to live out our best selves, no matter how we look.