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Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect

Photo by Timothy Brown | CC BY 2.0

The latest cultural titan besmirched by allegations of sexual harassment sits squarely atop the profession to which I am loosely affiliated as a practicing architect. As a minor pundit in the swirling firmament of cyberspace, I feel constrained, at last, to enter into the fractious arena of sexual politics.

Richard Meier, #45 on Dezeen’s global hot list of architects has been accused of sexual harassment. He is known for his stark white buildings begun when, as a protégée of Phillip Johnson, he was a member of the New York Five, also known as the ‘Whites’, long, long ago in the 1970’s. He is the designer of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, The Getty Center in Los Angeles and recently, a series of glassy New York condo towers.

Five woman have accused the architect of unwanted sexual advances. Four were his employees, of whom two report his exposing himself to them. The fifth, a furniture designer, describes an attempted rape in Los Angeles, while Meier was working on The Getty Center. The New York Times further reports that following allegations of sexual harassment against Meier in 2009, Alexis Zamlich, then a 22-year-old communications assistant, received a $150,000 legal settlement that also required the firm’s staff to undergo sexual harassment training. A former communications director with Meier’s company has noted that his behavior was an open secret amongst female staffers.

Cathleen McGuigan asked, in her prescient Architectural Record, Editor’s Letter, March, 2018, Where is Architecture’s #MeToo Movement? As indicated above, it arrived, days after her editorial went on-line, at the very pinnacle of the profession – Meier belongs to that very select group of architects who have been awarded the profession’s top prize, the Pritzker. She writes, “There are rumors of bad behavior that go back decades, some involving leading figures in the profession (some new dead)…but attempts to document new cases of predatory or abusive actions in architecture, are so far, proving difficult”. One is left to wonder what she knew and when she knew it. In any case, it was left to the paper of (sexual harassment) record to break the story.

Meier, has regularly included his own photographs of female genitalia in his collaged art pieces which were publicly exhibited and for sale; the major work in Meier’s recent New York show at Sotheby’s S-2 Gallery, (precipitously closed following publication of the allegations), priced at $250,000, is ominously titled By Law All Buildings Should Be White. Perhaps the aforementioned photos were forcibly obtained using a similarly ferocious totalitarian diktat. Erin Hudson reports in Architectural Record that “Meier’s collages are infamous for including naked women and close-ups of female genitalia”. At his first art show at Design Miami in 2013, the magazine’s critic, Fred Bernstein wrote, that viewers were shocked by “raw photographs of naked women showing absolutely everything except the subtlety Meier’s architecture is known for.”

Given the litter of warning signs, lack of meaningful intervention in this case must be deeply regretted. Meier’s fall from grace will negatively impact his current and past institutional, private and corporate patrons, his employees, and his friends and family. While he owns full responsibility for his alleged actions, his closest advisors (and the Architectural press) share some culpability for the not inconsiderable financial, emotional, psychological and societal blowback of his being allowed such a lengthy career, it now seems, as a sexual predator. Meanwhile, we can safely assume that his professional achievements will be forever footnoted by his apparent personal failings.

Responding to the news, Eva Hagberg Fisher, an architectural writer and PhD candidate at U.C. Berkeley, writes, in Co.Design that “the conditions of capital and power are very linked here. This is not about men like dyyyyyyyying to sleep with hot women. This is about systems of power and systems of the production of labor that favor people already in power. So pay architects better wages so that they don’t feel like they have to put up with unlawful shit, like sexual harassment!”

She rightly notes that this kind of harassment begins with an imbalance of power. Power relationships based on professional status, talent, pay, age and experience will continue in all areas of contemporary society and are, perhaps, irredeemable – they are not, in other words, about to go away any time soon, nor, arguably, should they.  What can change is the societal power allotted to one’s gender. Empowering woman is not akin to the neutering of men. It is not a zero sum process. We should all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or ethnic identity feel empowered. It is a necessary condition for the successful navigation of our lives through time and circumstance. It should not be a special dispensation.

Visible evidence of this shared empowerment might reasonably be sought, for instance, in an equitable distribution of gender throughout all societal endeavors. But it is the empowerment of woman that will ensure that result not the other way around. Mandated or voluntary quotas will breed resentment and abuse of whatever mechanisms are put in place(all our cleaning staff are female, all our executives male, but we have gender parity – we choose the best qualified individual regardless of color, creed or sex!).  McGuigan blithely suggests that architecture firms should “bring true pay equity and equal opportunity to woman and minorities”. Women are not special cases. They are an inviolable part (at slightly more than 50%) of the human species. ‘Minorities’ assumes the validity of racial categorization. While we are at it, designation of sexual identity and or preference assumes that that too, is somehow socially meaningful data.

Can we use every new case of bad behavior as an opportunity to fight for what really matters, rather than mouthing platitudes? To fight for what is essential rather than for the trappings of appearances and quotas? To fight unconditionally for the full and complete empowerment of all women and men as members of the human dyad?

Conditions in many architecture firms are as bad as or worse than in Hollywood. They are both, ironically, ‘sexy’ professions that attract the young and the vulnerable willing to trade their empowerment for their career advancement. Jonathan Berr, writing last year in Forbes, notes that, “The history of Hollywood is chock full of examples of powerful men (Howard Hughes, Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and Joseph Schenck to name a few) who preyed on young women eager do anything to be a star. Even Shirley Temple wasn’t safe. A movie producer reportedly exposed himself to the child star when she was 12”. Perhaps McGuigan will shortly regale us with her list of prominent architects whose behavior generated the ‘rumors of bad behavior that go back decades’. Howard Roark – one of the 20th century’s best-known fictional rapists – was, of course, an architect.

Few architecture firms approach gender parity and while student enrollment at architecture schools is close to 50/50, their teachers are predominantly male and inappropriate teacher-student relationships abound – this from both personal observation, and anecdotal information. McGuigan suggests that “more professors, more guest lecturers and more jurors on student’s crits should be women”.  Well, duh.

Richard Meier, is alleged to have been abusing his power and the woman in its thrall.  He grew to fame and fortune in a society which valued his education (Cornell University), intelligence, talent and, let’s face it, his maleness. His outing as an alleged sexual predator, like Harvey Weinstein’s, represents another crack in the well-armored facade of an intensely androcentric society. Female empowerment must be wrested from this bastion – and it may ultimately be achieved, it seems, over the ruined careers of the men committed to upholding its most demeaning privileges.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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