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SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE ARCHITECTS

June 24, 2016

1940’s architects (public domain, photo from wikipedia.com)

Why do some people like having architects around as conversation pieces, while simultaneously accuse us of unbearable pretentiousness?

Arguably impressive and both cultured and irksome, architects have the ability to speak about almost anything, to pontificate, to provide diatribes on nearly any topic—from why Apple will fail or succeed, to the specs of a car vs. the specs of an espresso machine, to the latest documentary on documentaries.

Rem Koolhaas looking fashionable on the cover of Vogue
Rem Koolhaas looking fashionable on the cover of Vogue

Though most architects can provide “constructive criticism” on many topics, ask an architect about the last three Super Bowl championships. Or ask for a review of a Tom Cruise blockbuster. Rather than being a casual conversationalist, the architect might deliver a righteous discourse on the downfall of Western Civilization.

At times, there is the better-than kind of reaction to a situation that would typically draw an authentic human response, such as laughter to a good joke, or complacency at a family gathering. Many architects are skilled at displaying boredom as they try to appear as though their creative minds are preoccupied with the next big idea that will deliver world peace.

Architects try to be cool, want to be cool—and yes, some are. But many are just trying too hard. They are no better or worse than anyone else. The problem is that only architects seem unaware of this fact.

We possess our own absurd lexicon. (See, I just used the word “lexicon.”) A sentence almost makes sense as the architect speaks it, particularly when the client witnesses the conviction in an architect’s voice along with the poetic glaze in the eyes.

The sometimes impenetrable text of the Harvard Design Magazine (photo from vazio.com)
The sometimes impenetrable text of the Harvard Design Magazine (photo from vazio.com)

In a review of a new building, the Harvard Design Magazine actually spewed, “Unlike architecture that seeks to articulate understandings about the nature of things through expressive or metaphoric mimings, this remarkable building yields us actionable space.” Or, “Digital design finds its certainty in a parametric computation of infinite, noncritical formal variability, with its simultaneous assurance of all possibility and no particularity.”

Huh?

Architect Barbie (photo from bldgdreams.tumblr.com)
Architect Barbie (photo from bldgdreams.tumblr.com)

Maybe this convoluted speaking is pseudo-intellectualism, but in truth, it is ridiculous when you hear an architect (me included) present in full egomaniacal glory. Do we really need to use words like tectonic, datum, aperture, and gestalt all in one sentence? Do architects need to use the common tags “-ality,” “-ology,” and “-ity” to make words sound fancy? Words that gush out of the architect’s mouth too easily: actuality, phenomenology, specificity, and homogeneity.

How about the name of an architect’s company? There are the invented names that might sound like words you know, Morphosis and Architectonica, for example. There are abbreviations that are sort of the founder’s name, SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), or MAD architects (Ma and Dang). And there is the use of the generic—such as OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), or FOA (Foreign Office Architects).

Also, my favorites are company names with unique spellings, punctuations, capitalizations, such as Office dA, SHoP, SPF:a, wHY, No.mad, or Coop Himmelb(l)au. How does the receptionist answer the phone? How does she spell the name when asked? “Capital this then that, no, lower case, now get rid of the space, yes, add an open parenthesis, no, it is actually spelled wrong, I mean, that is correct . . .”

Starchitects, generally in black, all with stylish flair: upper left: Jean Nouvel (photo by Tom Dyckhoff); upper right: Jeanne Gang (photo from architecturaldigest.com); lower left: Frank Gehry (photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images); lower right: Daniel Libeskind (photo by Matt Thomas)
Starchitects, generally in black, all with stylish flair: upper left: Jean Nouvel (photo by Tom Dyckhoff); upper right: Jeanne Gang (photo from architecturaldigest.com); lower left: Frank Gehry (photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images); lower right: Daniel Libeskind (photo by Matt Thomas)

Then there’s our appearance. Most architects are well-groomed, decently dressed (predictably black), and generally put together in some conscious way. When I say, ‘decently dressed,’ I don’t mean an overdressed fashionista. We do have a very conscious sense of our day-to-day uniform. The way we wrap an old scarf to appear blasé—this apparent indifference is rehearsed. When I say “well groomed,” architects may not broadcast their attention to personal hygiene, but you will not find too many architect’s looking like the absent minded professor/engineer with three-day unwashed hair and an overlooked belt loop.

Zaha Hadid looking stylish on the cover of DAC & Life
Zaha Hadid looking stylish on the cover of DAC & Life

For female architects, traditional conceptions of pretty femininity are ignored. I believe most female architects prefer to leave the cute outfits, glittery clanging jewelry, obvious make up, and high heels to fellow interior decorators. For male architects, impressions of metrosexuality are common: the neatness, a decent haircut, and clothes that just seem to work together, even if it is a simple crisp shirt and artfully distressed jeans.

Accessories are rare for any architect, but the carefully considered accent item might be present, such as the locally created wristband, a French fountain pen, or a custom designed wedding band. This approach to the personalized feature item might come from some famous predecessors. Le Corbusier (1887-1965) had his famous black shell, round rimmed glasses, of which Philip Johnson had Cartier make a replica in 1934—a trend which I.M. Pei continues today. Fortunately, Frank Lloyd Wright’s cape never caught on.

left to right : Le Corbusier (photo by Girard-Perregaud Vintage) ; Philip Johnson (photo by Getty Images) ; I.M. Pei (photo from architizer.com)
left to right : Le Corbusier (photo by Girard-Perregaud Vintage) ; Philip Johnson (photo by Getty Images) ; I.M. Pei (photo from architizer.com)

EPILOGUE: I confess that these characterizations are not all architects. But where is the fun if I can’t generalize, if we take ourselves too seriously?

Popular TV actor Josh Radnor playing ten seasons of the beloved architect Ted Mosby, from How I Met Your Mother
Popular TV actor Josh Radnor playing ten seasons of the beloved architect Ted Mosby, from How I Met Your Mother

CELLULOID HEROES

May 27, 2016

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949), Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), Charles Bronson in the Death Wish (1974), Paul Newman in Towering Inferno (1974)

Why are there so many architects in the movies and on TV?

In most cases, the fact that an actor is an architect on the small or big screen is superfluous to the actual plot. Though a popular trope, the role of the architect is no more than a characteristic, a trait assigned to the male lead, and in fewer cases the female lead, only to provide substance and gravitas.

This matter—the truth and accuracy of how architects are portrayed by Hollywood—is frequent coffee room or cocktail hour chatter among practicing architects. We are at turns offended or flattered, but always perplexed.

Here are the basic elements of the architect-in-entertainment mix-and-match dramatis personae toolkit:

 – affluent, but not necessarily rich
 – thoughtful and introspective
 – attractive
 – cultured
 – sensitive
 – artistic-with-a-job
 – highly intelligent
 – coolly professional

Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991), Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)
Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991), Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)

The writer and director of Sleepless in Seattle needed Tom Hanks to be the reserved, artistic businessman at the center of the story, so they made him an architect, not a poet, cop, or hedge fund manager. They also didn’t want Hanks actually being an architect most of the time. Those paying to watch a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan want to see Hanks as the sensitive, romantic architectural designer with an ideal nature, not Tom Hanks as a real architect trying to restart his laptop because the Revit software has crashed again, and then spending the rest of his day slaving for a client who can’t decide whether the exterior paint should be tan, sand, or beige, or whether the bathroom tile should be ivory, buff, egg shell, or ecru. Also, Hanks can’t spend his time hitting the pavement hoping to find another commission so he can pay his office rent.

Poets, cops, and denizens of Wall Street are equally charged character fodder, but for different purposes. The architect character is altruistic, worldly, cool, but not too cool, well dressed, and established. Architects are also considered not wild, emotional, or too, too sexy. (I would sometimes like to be, or at least thought of as being, one or two of those things.)

In a drama, the architect is the cool center, and often needs the supplement of other traits from the screenwriters’ playbook, such as diplomatic jury member or struggling educator, to beef up the character’s potentially monochromatic dimension. In comedy, the architect’s impartiality allows other cast members to shine uncontested with wit and satire. Architects are safe non-distractions.

Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994), Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996), Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996), Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)
Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994), Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996), Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996), Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)

Here’s a partial list of movies featuring architects:

Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934)
Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)
Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (1957)
Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet (1960)
Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now (1973)
Charleton Heston in Earthquake (1974)
Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)
Steve Martin in HouseSitter (1992)
Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)
Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994)
Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996)
Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996)
Matt Dillon in You, Me and Dupree (1998)
Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999)
Billy Crudup in World Traveler (2001)
Liam Neeson in Love Actually (2003)
Ashton Kutcher in Butterfly Effect (2004)
Michael Keaton in White Noise (2005)
Adam Sandler in Click (2006)
Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006)
Virginia Madsen in Firewall (2006)
Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)
Luke Wilson in My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Tom Everett Scott in Because I Said So (2007)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Steve Martin (again) in It’s Complicated (2009)
Ellen Page in Inception (2010)
Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011)

Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999), Adam Sandler in Click (2006), Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006), Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999), Adam Sandler in Click (2006), Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006), Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)

Except for the Gary Cooper role, which came with the heavy expectation associated with Ayn Rand’s bestselling and controversial novel, The Fountainhead, I suspect most do not recall that the actors above portrayed architects. That’s how well the role was written and the stereotype applied. And as to the stereotype syncing with the real world, the roles are mostly male, reflecting an issue in the real architectural world, though that is changing for the better.

Serious movie fans will note some omissions on my list. I did not list the following, for the reasons stated:

Paul Newman in Towering Inferno: He’s really playing an architect in a real design and construction crisis, not playing a stereotype.

“The Architect” in the The Matrix movies: He’s not a builder of buildings per se, but a builder of an entire future world, which I certainly envy, but not quite to that extent, my ego aside.

Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies: As he is a vigilante murderer, I invoke the “exception proves the rule” cliché. Architects can be cool, but not cool killers.

For my full feature essay, go to the Film and Music Issue of the recent LA Home.

Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009), Ellen Page in Inception (2010), Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011), Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009), Ellen Page in Inception (2010), Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011), Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
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