I had absolutely no idea, two weeks ago when I wrote my post “Ha ha ha ha! Seriously?,” that its two subjects, Pritzker Prize architect Richard Meier and the late female architect Natalie de Blois, are connected. No, de Blois is not among the five women who have just accused Meier of sexual assault. But unbeknownst to me, I introduced the oppressor and the oppressed into the same post. How was I to know? You can never be too careful.
Aaron Betsky wrote in November wondering when architects would get caught up in the #MeToo movement. Now that the moment has come, his interesting column has been reposted online by Architect, for which he is a columnist. “Waiting to be Weinsteined” makes some interesting points. The article opens with this passage:
“What do you think of Louis Kahn?” one of my students asked last week. “Oh, well, I think he was God,” I answered only half-jokingly and turning away to my next task. “Oh,” she said. “Well, but he was sort of a creep, wasn’t he?” I turned around, faced her, and didn’t know what to say.
Well, Louis Kahn, now Richard Meier, who else? Oh, Lord, please: Frank O. Gehry! He is about as arrogant as they come, and also a creep. Didn’t he say that “98 percent of what gets built today is shit”? Okay, that’s a different kind of creep. I have a special animus against Gehry because he is about to uglify my hometown, Washington, D.C. Anyway, wasn’t his Dancing House, in Prague, caught in the act of dirty dancing, or maybe even frottage?
Harking back to his own 1995 book Building Sex, Betsky adds that
the values of the architecture world are thoroughly bound with notions of masculinity. The glorification of the big, the muscular, and the tall, the suppression of comfort and sensuality as important values, and the complete domination of the architecture world (still!) by men are all wrapped up together. Too many male architects see the world as a supine figure waiting for their brilliant erection to bring it to life.
Oh ho! Betsky lets the cat out of the bag. He refers to modern architecture. No other architecture calls for “the suppression of comfort and sensuality as important values.” No doubt the classical firms of a century ago and beyond were as dominated by men as are today’s. Classical architects were probably just as arrogant* as modernists are today (and with much better reason for it). The rare female architects and office staff were probably just as subject to male “interest” then as now. But back then it was probably far more subtle because it was far more forbidden than today, as of November at least.
As flirtation grows bold enough to cross the line into harassment, or worse, it becomes more desirable to chastise, sanction and prevent. But preventing dastardly behavior originating in the office must not be allowed to throttle innocent behavior. Romance often germinates in the work environment, and to block that off, or to generate a fear of indulging in it, would constitute an assault on the quality of life. In the office, gentle yearnings are among the benefits of employment. Boundaries must be clear, but innocent flirtation mustn’t be punished for the deeds of the sexually irresponsible.
Betsky cannot decide whether knowing of Kahn’s infidelities means he can no longer like Kahn’s buildings. Isn’t it just like the modernists to think that wrongdoing can be blamed on buildings? One of the founding blunders of modern architecture is that the horrors of World War I demanded not just new forms of government but new forms of architecture as well.
In an ideal world, we should be able to separate the work from the man or woman who made it, but in the real world, the cult of the “genius maker” so thoroughly defines the way in which any art is made and received that we cannot ignore questions of character when we look. Moreover, the inexcusable behavior of men has too long let them build unabashedly while inhibiting the work and the careers of women.
That’s pretty dodgy. What can Betsky mean? The “cult of the ‘genius maker” prevents us from distinguishing the artist from his (or her!) work? Sexual assault and sexual discrimination are different issues, not entirely unrelated perhaps, but still distant. Neither causes the other, and both are problems that require different programs of redress on the part of the profession.
In short, Richard Meier and Natalie de Blois may have cohabited my blog two weeks ago, but the problems each represents are worlds apart.
Betsky should feel free to erect a wall between his opinion of Kahn and of his buildings. I would not condemn him for allowing Kahn’s behavior to affect his opinion of Kahn’s work, but I would insist that they may indeed be judged independently. Some might be unable to do so, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible, or even especially difficult. To argue otherwise is to fling oneself (and one’s profession) down a dangerously slippery slope. After all, we never do have a full knowledge of anyone’s character, which is more than just what makes it into the news. So in the end we must judge an architect’s work by his buildings, or we must acknowledge that we judge it in blindness.
I may deplore Aaron Betsky’s admiration for Kahn but I will defend to the death his right to that admiration, whatever he said about bricks.
(I would have put the photo of Meier’s building on top instead of below if I could have found any Meier building guilty of the least sexual misconduct.)
(* Read the demurral in the comments below by Milton Grenfell. I would add that those who saw the sexual revolution with clear eyes, at the time or looking back, could see #MeToo’s embarrassingly conflicted discontents coming down the track.)
Male architects are no different from other men: some will be honorable; some will be scum; and some will do whatever they think society will let them get away with. In the second category, Frank Lloyd Wright, Stamford White, and now Paolo Soleri and Meier.
Big Tent architecture!
“I asked the brick what it wanted to be… and it said laid.”
-the answer to Kahn’s koan
I don’t usually disagree with anything you say, David, but allow me to cavil over a couple of points you made. First, I take issue with your hunch that successful traditional architects back in the day were “as arrogant as architects today”. Having read their writings in journals from the 20’s and 30’s, I’ve been struck by how courtly and gracious they were. Even in the raging style wars of the day, the writings – polemic and otherwise – of these top men (Delano, Pope, Cram, et al), were unfailing courteous and pleasant. Curiously, the writings of the young Modernist Turks with whom they sparred, were not at all that way, but rather shrill, boastful, and splenetic.
As to sexual harassment “back in the day”, let us acknowledge that the Sexual Revolution did happen. Having lived before and during this revolution, I can testify that the propriety that existed between the sexes before the revolution, did a very good job of preventing much of the ugly and regrettable things that now go on between the sexes. There’s much more that can be said on this topic, but it’s important to at least set the historical record straight.
Milton, I struggled with whether to leave that passage in, and I may have been wrong because it was based on assumptions, perhaps wrong. The intent was to lend at least the appearance of evenhandedness to my comments on the current behavior. I will put a note into my post that acknowledges your important demurral. Thank you very much!
As a female young professional working in the Classical field, I haven’t experienced work place harassment myself (knock on wood). However I used to work for a famous architect who – how do I put it – has low moral standards. Despite his good work, I find it impossible to look up to him. And as a sad result, I struggle to appreciate his work without mixed feelings. But in an ideal world, good architects are supposed to make the world a better place, not just a few good looking buildings. Or maybe it’s just me?
I am glad to hear you have not been distressed by any overly aggressive men. I do get the impression from your comment that you have been able to summon the ability to judge the man and his work separately, though clearly it has been difficult. I respect your manner of considering the important questions involved. Good luck!