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The end of the architect profile

It’s time to stop perpetuating the myth of the lone genius

illustration of face

My first cover story was a profile of Richard Meier for Graphis Magazine. It was 1998 and the Getty Center was about to open. The magazine did not have the budget to send me to Los Angeles, but it had photos, so I was dispatched to Meier’s office on Manhattan’s west side to see what I could get out of the man in an hour.

Meier has recently been in the news as the first major architect to be publicly accused of sexual harassment by a cadre of former employees. He is taking a six-month leave from the approximately 50-person firm that bears his name. He didn’t sexually harass me; I was only patronized.

In the first (white) Meier monograph, John Hejduk quotes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick on the meaning of Meier’s signature color, white: “... the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, [serves] to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.”

In the profile, I emphasized the physical manifestation of that chromatic control:

And Meier definitely knows how to channel terror. When you step off the elevator into Meier’s Tenth Avenue offices in New York, the wall in front of you bears no corporate logo. Not even a name. It’s merely white.

Inside the office there is one chair for a visitor, set into a gap in the parade of huge white models of Meier’s work. A high white wall blocks any view of the rest of the office. The three employees that can be seen are wearing white and khaki, black and khaki, and black—there’s an informal dress code of this limited palette for days when he is in the office. When the receptionist goes to get a cup of coffee, she returns with it in a Meier-designed teacup.

That I was treading on his territory was clear. I was terrified, and terribly green. Graphis’s then-editor, Martin Pederson, had noticed something small I had written in New York magazine and given me my first big assignment. I can still connect with my amazement that a stranger should have noticed something special in my words.

The next career move was to put those words in service to someone other strangers might care about: a famous architect, who designed what was sure to be a famous building, the confluence of events that produces the architect profile.

I was there to perpetrate what I can now more clearly see as a fiction: that one man (or Zaha) does it all. That fiction props up much coverage of architecture in the mainstream media—buildings aren’t stars, but their makers can be. It also reinforces the hierarchy that makes hundreds of people dependent on a single individual to speak for their work and sell it to the world.

That individual—the star, the genius, the auteur—can operate with impunity because no one wants the enterprise to go bust, just as I brushed aside any slight because I wanted to write the story and get paid. #MeToo may take down individuals, like Meier, but the reckoning should go deeper than that. I reckon it is time to put an end to the architect profile as we now know it.

The architect is photographed at the new building. The architect is interviewed in the office and, if you are lucky, at home. The architect’s past work is forked for examples of the moves that have now been made bigger and better for the global stage. If you are lucky, the architect is funny, whips up a home-cooked lunch, offers a “spontaneous” desk critique so that you can see him (usually him) in action, jumps on a bike.

The template is the same as that of the celebrity profile, a form also in decline until a few sharp female practitioners shook it up: Taffy Brodesser-Akner by bringing a wild descriptiveness and her buoyant personality to the fore (sometimes revealing her subject’s own dullness) and Anne-Helen Petersen by reveling in meta-analysis of all known celebrity profiles of her subjects. But actors really are singular, really are stars (except poor Armie Hammer). Architecture does not benefit from layers of publicists, an emphasis on looks, designer labels on the black sweaters.

Something, anything, to keep your reader from the truth: that your subject is an abstraction-spouting workaholic with a huge team of people who have drawn, rendered, detailed, supervised, constructed the work in question. The profile lives to serve the simplest possible narrative of architecture: one man, glorious inspiration, a building.

As a writer, I have had to serve that narrative too. Too much complexity ruins the view. Too much critique punctures the rationale for the profile. You are there to be patronized because the subject is king. You may even play a part in the seduction of the next client, who likes an architect with a trail of cover stories.

This model of coverage has already begun to fragment. There are architect couples who rightly insist on being interviewed together (while the editor prays for sparky Thin Man repartee). There are firms that want you to interview every partner or, in the manner of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at its 1960s peak, credit everything to the collective. There are architects who say so little they can’t be profiled. (I’ve always chosen to interpret the latter strategy as resistance to the promotional imperative.)

Digital design sites often dispense with the profile in favor of the easier (and video-friendly) interview, which offers even less room for criticism, and even more focus on one face, one facade.

When I reviewed the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design last year, I noted its adherence to this structure. Each subject was a solo artist, no matter how large the corporation in which his practice sits, and my favorite episodes, on graphic designer Paula Scher and photographer Platon, were those that spent the least time on inflationary biography and action scenes and the most inside watching and listening to the designers at work.

Both these episodes were directed by Richard Press, who also made Bill Cunningham New York, and is in preproduction on a narrative film about Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House that (at last!) doesn’t intend to shortchange the concerns of client Dr. Edith Farnsworth.

Press, working in another medium, shows a way forward. Profile the project, not its maker. Discuss the client as a collaborator, not a funding source or dramatic impediment. Let employees speak about their role, not just about dear leader. The profile can become more critical. It may even become a piece of criticism, an increasing rarity in online and print magazines.

Ian Parker’s recent New Yorker profile of Thomas Heatherwick pushes the man and his vest to the back. The whole first section of the story is in the head, and voice, of billionaire Stephen Ross of the Related Companies and the Miami Dolphins, Heatherwick’s best client. Ross is the commissioner of the Vessel, Heatherwick’s building-size basket for Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, made of 154 staircases. “I said, ‘I need a three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day tree, O.K.?’ ,” he tells Parker. He rejects Richard Serra as too “subtle.”

If this is the client, the story implies, there’s no way for the result to be less than bombastic. The story’s best quotes come from Ross and the contemporary architect who has made himself master of the architect profile, Bjarke Ingels. Heatherwick, a brilliant teller of his own artistic story in quieter settings, gets swallowed up in the very profile that labels him “architecture’s showman.”

When I wrote a profile of landscape architect Adriaan Geuze of West 8 for the New Yorker in 2016, I struggled with my ambivalence toward the form. I thought readers should know that landscape architecture was reshaping their cities, and a profile was the way I could tell them. Could I make it clear that Geuze wasn’t alone, either in his practice or at the forefront of landscape architecture? Could I make it clear that clients, too, should think for themselves?

The architect profile used to be a sign of success. The New Yorker canonized, Vanity Fair glamorized. Vogue, for a time, offered a counter-narrative of female-only architect profiles, before defaulting to the same men (Ingels, Adjaye) as all the other places.

But they portray an idea of success that is exclusionary, grinding out new versions of the same self-promotional model embodied by Frank Lloyd Wright. Whither the boring architect who just likes to work? What about a more soft-spoken collaborator? Or a teacher? Great architecture can be made by those who fail to charm.

As we look beyond this moment, we must focus on the work and all the people who make it. The #MeToo stories illustrated with the outtakes from the architects’ profiles? I don’t want to see their faces right now. We need new faces, and nonfiction.

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