SEX AND THE STARCHITECT :
Abstract: While our society seems to treat the ‘sexiness’ of male architects with giggly humour, if a woman architect or engineer confidently displays her intelligence, talent AND feminine sexuality with dignity and humour – she faces intense opposition of jealousy-disguised-as-righteousness from other women and is sometimes not taken seriously by male architects and engineers for shedding the ‘asexual/tomboy’ persona required for women to succeed in this field.
The trigger for writing this particular post came from attending a talk at Harvard GSD by hyper-energetic and hyper-humourous Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Ingels is one of the fastest rising young architects in the world today – befitting the term ‘starchitect’. What makes him different is his age – as most ‘starchitects’ so far have usually been eccentric men in their late 50s and older (which is considered the time it takes for an architect to reach his ‘peak’ and climax, professionally of course). Phillip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, I.M Pei, Santiago Calatrava to name just a few. Mostly sporting a varied array and style of white hair or shiny bald plates and thick-black-framed glasses either in perfect circular or rectangular shapes – the latter ‘look’ having somehow become the latest fad amongst men in North America. (Stop stealing the Libeskind Look!) The last time a 30-something male architect came even a wee bit close to the starchitect stature and had movie-star looks – it had been Bjarke’s fellow Dane – the incredibly gifted Jorn Utzon who designed the landmark Sydney Opera House and faced an incredible amount of jealousy and became a victim of back-handed politics to tragic consequences. The starchitect status seemed to safely belong to men who were intellectual design geniuses but sadly – quite simply put - ‘bland’ in the aesthetic and sex-appeal department.
Bjarke has been luckier. Much like Utzon he won his place in the world through an impartial design competition. He went on to win many more and established his new firm in 2006. The difference is that he was born 56 years after Jorn Utzon. And is both a product and a player of our times, his appeal reaching across time zones and boundaries due to the benefits of online magazines, social networking medias and online videos. His facebook fan page boasts over 8000 fans and his ‘personal’ circle on his own page contains an ever growing list of over 4000 friends. (For a quick comparison, People magazine’s 2008 ‘Sexiest Classical Musician & Frenchman’ – brooding violinist Laurent Korcia – has a slim following of some 95 fans on his page – at least at the time this post was written – even after having fiddled into hearts for over 25 years while Bjarke has burst in the limelight only in the last 4 years!) These are not huge numbers if you compare with the average following of top-notch or even moderately known pop or rock stars, and neither numbers nor glossy magazines should be held as the only barometers of popularity or of talent ; but this is a rather phenomenal outreach for a 36 year-old designer in a profession never quite known for its social or marketing skills, but more for its masochism and workaholism in its inner circles. After all, on any given day, more people would have access to classical music than to the works of a Danish architect. So it is quite an interesting paradigm.
Then of course, there is Bjarke’s personal charisma: Matt Damon boyish looks, a Robin Williams type sparkling on-stage wit and effervescence and an intellectual powerhouse reminiscent of his one-time boss renowned architectural pioneer Rem Koolhaas. Here is a typical Ingellectual example:
‘’Historically the field of architecture has been dominated by two opposing extremes. On one side an avant-garde full of crazy ideas. Originating from philosophy, mysticism or a fascination of the formal potential of computer visualizations they are often so detached from reality that they fail to become something other than eccentric curiosities. On the other side there are well organized corporate consultants that build predictable and boring boxes of high standard. Architecture seems to be entrenched in two equally unfertile fronts: either naively utopian or petrifyingly pragmatic. We believe that there is a third way wedged in the nomansland between the diametrical opposites. Or in the small but very fertile overlap between the two. A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.’’ – BI
You can see how Ingels has won over the jargon-happy intellectual theorists too – the kinds who largely rule academia and are, in a sense, quite removed from the reality of construction sites and budget issues. A friend of mine who has been working in Rem Koolhaas’s Rotterdam office for 8 years now loves what Rem produces but admits that it is a high-level intellectual-and-creative-but-brutally-hard-working sweatshop. Interestingly Koolhaas’s first degree was in Film and Television Studies (and among many versatile and interesting projects has a soft-porn film script to his credit.) He had learnedhow important marketing and advertising one’s personality is to secure major projects. It’s not that hard in a profession dominated by mostly introverted, quasi-schizoid artistic geeks – who prefer to work in solitude rather than socialize. This is why the former end up as the servile faithful employees and associates of their more dynamic bosses who are free to market and bring the meat home and proceed to sketch imaginative concepts on paper napkins during lunches (in fancy cafes, or airplanes if you are Toyo Ito) which their old faithful flock then proceed to implement into workable designs. This is largely true for Gehry, Libeskind and many others who do not know how to use graphic computer software and whose projects rely more on their associates and some insanely intelligent structural engineers. Calatrava is quite the exception – being a genius who has degrees in structural engineering, sculpture and architecture and is one of the few greats who knows how to make his phantasmical designs actually ‘work.’ So is Canada’s very own starchitect and recent Order of Canada recipient Dan Hanganu who is my mentor too (and will soon be working with Koolhaas on a Quebec City museum project.) Dan had actually spent time in the trenches and on construction sites working alongside Italian construction workers in his youth and understands design, material and construction inside out. And like many avant-garde architects, is brashly open in his conversations with its generous doses of sexual metaphors. His diplomatic skills are quite another story…..
But Bjarke Ingels is a whole other animal. What makes him different is his underlying shrewdness at knowing how to succeed both artistically AND financially AND politically in today’s world. And ‘sexiness’, certainly, is a part of it. For better or for worse, sex sells. Koolhaas knew it. Johnson knew it. And to Bjarke – the sexual metaphors in his speech come naturally. And easily. As in his opening words at a lecture in Oxford, which was part replicated in those at MIT and Harvard, he breaks the ice with the audience by asking whether London’s famous ‘gherkin’ is a giant sausage or a sex tool.
The rampant usage of sexual metaphors in the academic and work climate in architecture is not new. It is in fact so matter-of-fact that most architects are horrified when we find that engineers and marketing representatives and city council members squirm at some of the terms so commonly used in the design world. And we have to learn to bite our tongues for more prim and proper (a.k.a prude and stuffy) corporate climates. Examples include:
- Design masturbation = when you spend hours trying to make something work before you finally achieve something that gets a resounding ‘yes’ in terms of the joy derived of ‘coming together’ at a solution that meets functional, aesthetic and budgetary expectations.
- Design prostitution = when you are forced to take up a project and design kitsch or blandness out of the sheer necessity of getting a paycheck, but feel as though you have sold your soul towards design integrity in the process.
- Phallic Frenzy = the eternal and timeless competition for who or which city can boast of building the tallest tower. Very Freudian indeed. In fact most students on entering the program come with dreams of some day building the world’s tallest tower. Most of the compromise and lost dreams in the profession come from the impending gloom that alas, that may not be the case and that one has to settle for much less impressive mounds. In the field this is referred to as the ‘glass dildo’ complex. Variations of the glass dildo include the ‘glass vagina’ entryways as evidenced by I.M. Pei’s famed entrance to the Louvre museum in Paris. Bombay- based starchitect Hafeez Contractor was also known for building his first tower which looked alarmingly like a giant penis and variations of this form along with various triangles predominated his early practice. No kidding. Take a look below.
- Several other metaphors that are too risqué perhaps to print here. But in short, this goes back to the history of architecture….domes were inspired by the female breast, column heads such as Doric, Ionic, Corinthian etc. by….er, varied expressions of gushing joy, the pyramid they say was inspired by….(ahem!) and so forth…..While ancient Europeans believed in shape-dependent metaphors in their architectural expressions, ancient Hindu architecture was quite more, shall we say, explicit?
Some men perhaps never really grow up from their fifteen year old sexually-curious age. Especially if they pursue professions they had a passion for as children – musicians, airplane pilots, architects. Being playful is part of their work (pilots being the exception, though every single one of them loves to fly and are known for their libido). Their associates, employees and support group unfortunately are the ones who have to grow up, bear responsibility and become utter pragmatists. There is both a sense of irony and unfairness to this situation. Some bear the responsibility of taking responsibility so their employers can dare to dream. William Butler Yeats had written : ‘In dreams begin responsibility.’ Only the undertaker of the responsibility is often not the dreamer once you have established your firm and your career. But daring to have dreamed in the first place commands credit.
ONE GENDER IS SEXIER THAN THE OTHER. ONLY, AMONGST ARCHITECTS, IT’S THE MEN – SAY THE NON-ARCHITECT WOMEN.
Back to Bjarke. Yes, I spoke to him after the talk. His friend introduced us. The GSD’s hall had an exhibition of the works of a certain well-known Montreal landscape architect at that time and Bjarke asked me to show him around. He was laid-back, easy-going – that same introversion-in-person vs. extroversion-in-performance seen in many musicians as well. (It reminded me of the time I had met Lenny Kravitz whose private and stage personas seem diametrically opposite.) Bjarke’s first question when he met me was trying to place my ethnic origin and mixes. It happens all the time. His guesses took him from South America to Europe to near-east Asia and had errors, as is often the case. I blushed and asked if he really wanted to know all my genetic history. Yes – he insisted. When I told him of my six ethnic mixes with my Canadian citizenship he said that his lecture series on ‘Breaking Boundaries’ could not have been more appropriately directed at a person. I guess so. I sometimes joke that I was conceived in an UN orgy. He carried that Scandinavian air of unpretentious humility that does not come so effortlessly in many American over-achievers. (Canadians are different, though.) And unlike the Armani-clad Libeskind, he prefers to wear old jeans and t-shirts with the rugged ease of a construction worker. We exchanged views propped before landscape architect Claude Cormier’s ‘Blue Balls’ & ‘Lipstick Forest’ projects. I felt a bit shy at some of his probing questions that followed. Then I realized he was, after all, a fellow architect. I had forgotten momentarily how easily such language came to us, intended in the most innocent way. In a profession whose practitioners are mild closet-Aspies you have to talk directly and to the point. We do not understand innuendos. We always run into trouble for our innocent comments on architectural metaphors when we, in fact, ARE referring to designs, not desires. I later saw this article in his photo album:
Interesting. Stud architects were common in films in the 50s and 60s. They were gradually replaced by lawyers and potty-mouthed doctors and investment bankers as the new alpha-males on film. The film Something about Mary (where the protagonist wishes that her ‘perfect man’ should be an architect) should have given me a pointer about the desirability of male architects. Or the fact that during my graduate program, girl friends from other departments would cajole me to introduce them to my male classmates. But perhaps now the paradoxical requirement for men to be both creative-and-savvy, soft-yet-strong has brought a return of the male architect? The girls in architecture never really liked our heterosexual male counterparts. We often found them condescending, smelly, goofy, nerdy workaholics, bratty if not schizoid and I guess, pretty much took them for granted. Occasionally of course, some amongst the few women would pair up with a male classmate in life and in work and go on to have successful firms, but largely, the women in the field were desensitized to all the ‘shining, versatile, intellectual, artistic, pragmatic, ethical, monogamous’ qualities of our male colleagues, surprised that they were so much in demand by other women. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. Or rather familiarity breeds, well – over-familiarity. Like couples who after years of marriage settle to some sexless sibling-hood, perhaps the few women in architecture largely felt that the men in the profession were more like asexual brothers rather than sexy beasts. After all, you have to wonder about what shortcoming these men were trying to overcome in their quest for the tallest towers? (Ok – that was a sneaky attack. Sorry.) Quite a few girls in architecture invariably had amongst their best friends the gay men in the classroom. Strangely, we did not find our heterosexual classmates sexy. Which is why their sex-appeal outside the classroom was rather baffling to us girls. Could it be that they incited some primal instinct of being ‘nest-builders’ to those women? Once a group of my Canadian male classmates even presented a slide show of a strip-tease act they had performed in everyday locations, (for instance standing nonchalantly in their underwear at a library or at a bus stop or in front of a Tim Horton’s) at an award ceremony with the blessings of their equally open-minded professors. In fact our department head in a very British accent gave the voice-over commentary and went along with the spoof. Alas, we girls were still unimpressed.
How is it that in the above news article women architects do not make the cut? Is it because in a profession with only 10%– 13% women the most well known ones such as Zaha Hadid and Elizabeth Diller are rather strong-willed and do not care much to be fashionistas in their dress codes? Zaha Hadid is indisputably the pioneer of both the sexiest curved and straight lines of architecture and has designed everything from buildings to shoes, and yet, while her male counterparts shamelessly stole her designs, she was held back for years from actually building her works. I had attended Diller’s talk earlier last week and had been blown away by her wit and slide show (principally of NYC’s Highline park.) There was a lot of nudity in the show too – full frontal views of male streakers and such who would flash at the park’s users from hotel windows nearby. Diller – who has seamlessly blended theatre, film, concept art and cutting edge architecture also freely uses sexual metaphors and imagery, but as she admits – in a more ‘Jerry Seinfeld’ kind of way. One of my architectural theory teachers back in school had shown us a sublimely artistic slide show of her photographs that showed the similarities between female anatomy and airplane parts. Yet, how is it that the women in the profession were viewed as tomboys? (which I can see given the ‘look’ many of the best amongst them seem to adorn.) I had started my own firm in my early 20s before getting a burn-out and had then proceeded to take an academic break and the next 8 years working for various offices. My own ‘womanization’ and the shedding of tomboy looks had occurred when I’d found myself in my mid-20s suddenly transformed from geek-to-print-model by a well-known ad and art photographer. And this had helped more than my years in dance and theatre. But although I have reconciled with my womanly looks, I still remain an Über-geek inside.
The feminine women architects are not much different than the men in their extroversion-on-the-podium yet introversion-in –person yet imaginative-in –the-bedroom. I know of some wonderful young women in the field who could give any male architect a run for his money – in terms of talent, poise, brilliance and work ethics. Yet many are kept largely in the backdrop or increasingly leave the field after frustrating years. (One cherubic beauty I personally know who did excellent design work is now making a career-shift as a singer-songwriter.) The ‘culprit’ here is rather those high society women and museum and art-history curators who like to promote the sexy young male painters as they do to the sexy-young-male-architect. (Is it a coincidence that the archi-godfather Frank Lloyd Wright was also known for his affairs with his clients’ wives? ) When was the last time you heard of the high society women – who also convince their husbands through nasal nagging which architect to choose – promote the career of a young sexy-intellectual female architect? And if the husband does so, he would be shot down by the angry wife. The same applies to the architectural ‘critics’ or ‘theorists’ in academia – especially the women. They would rather promote and write about the ‘brilliant, sexy young talented man’ than the sexy brilliant woman. Yes – they will promote women but those who are no threat whatsoever in the physical sexuality department. The beautiful-intelligent-talented ‘freaks’ are looked upon with suspicion.
While male starchitects can flash around in designer jackets and glasses, women who decide to abandon the standard black unisex turtleneck and black pair of straight pants which is a must to survive in the profession are not welcomed with open arms in those wine and cheese media and magazine launches. Would they not take the thunder away from lady architectural theorist and lady high society contributor to the arts? Even Hadid was finally accepted only after she had practically reached menopause. The Dutch woman designer Meike van Schijndel who made the ‘lip urinals’ faced persecution from several women’s rights groups, especially the National Organization for Women and her products were removed. The ‘lips’ were later moved to the JFK airport by Virgin Atlantic only to be removed by NOW once again. (Now, wait a minute – so it is okay for most women and soccer moms to take pole dancing classes, read idiotic pop-psychology ‘how to’ books and moronic Cosmo-girl ‘tips on great sex’ and that was sending the ‘right’ message to women, and every male starchitect gets to openly talk about various parts of the female anatomy and call their buildings glass dildos and buxom curves as giggly feminists blush at their ‘flirty brilliance’, yet all hell breaks lose and the same feminists gang up in some ‘moral righteousness’ against a rather pretty 30-something woman designer who had some fun with rethinking a urinal?! According to NOW, the experience for a man using it would have been akin to fantasizing about oral sex. And that, it seems, was ‘sexist’!! I rest my case. To Schijndel’s benefit, nothing helps private sales like public controversy.)
To add to the equation, unfortunately, most of the ‘home’ shows on TV are run NOT by women architects but by former bored housewives who think that a course in ‘decorating’ has now given them the license to promote kitsch and candy. The TV home-ladies gleefully invite and interview the ‘hot young designers’ who most certainly are always men and nary a mention is made of the hot young women in the profession. That queen of daytime television Oprah who touts ‘feminism’ and every cliched ‘new-ageism’ has promoted every carpenter and gay decorator on the block and mysteriously seems to forget that women architects exist too. And for the liberal arts women’s-and-feminist-rights intellectuals, how much nicer to tout and talk of the sexual ‘lib’ of long dead actresses such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn than acknowledge the existence of those sexy women who are battling it out in mostly-male professions? Artsy women – Hello! it’s time you looked beyond Margaret Atwood & Jane Jacobs and looked at the 20 and 30-something women architects who are so not into Britney nor Blahnik-crazy Carrie Bradshaw and could out-intellectualise your envious political correctness any day and outdo your work ethics. The true goddesses with brains and talent are right in your own backyard and were buried there for a long time in the form of the early and forgotten women architects and engineers as well. Oh – I forgot – ‘not in my backyard’ is the dictum you’d rather rant about, right?
Not surprisingly Hadid’s first project, won fair and square at an international competition, faced unprecedented opposition not by men, but yep – the women in high places in various ‘councils.’ Alas, women still largely remain the cause of not allowing other women to be recognized. Especially the ones whose inner strength and indisputable talent seem to threaten others at some inconceivable pathological level. Insecurities are veiled by ‘righteousness.’ Jealousies run deep. And this backstabbing-in-the-female-species works best in the favour of the young male starchitects. In the double standards of sex in our society, the women who lose out are usually the smart, individualistic, beautiful ones who by entering fields of work largely dominated by men, face both sexism from the men AND sexual politics from other women. While women engineers and architects are the ones who perhaps do the most for female equality by entering hitherto-male-dominated technical professions without beating a drum about it, they get largely overlooked by the mainstream media and pushed down by their own male colleagues and female academicians. While the media either promotes the usual clichés of giggly materialistic pampered cosmo girls or alternately ‘male-bashing women’s-lib-yelling-lawyers’ or at most, the smart-caring female-doctor, the 10% women in technical fields largely remain unknown.
And ‘sex and the starchitect’ continues to remain a largely male bastion to this day.
But you gotta hand it to Bjarke. His achievement honestly comes from an extraordinary talent, a grinding work ethic and a refreshing departure from stuffy protocol and actually daring unapologetically to take architecture to an infectious level of public accessibility for the media. His work is truly mind-blowing, the logic with which he derives his solutions show an intense brilliance and clarity of thought, his designs would have made Utzon proud. His unassuming sexiness and humourous sexual metaphors in his thick accent don’t hurt either. Even his firm as an unintended pun is namedBIG. (Do check it out – a really, genuinely cool site.) Only he could have got away by showing a room full of MIT-ians a cartoon of an octogenarian Philip Johnson mouthing ‘I am a whore.’ As Bjarke points out in the opening minutes of his video posted above – from ‘Less is More’(Repression) through to ‘Less is a Bore’ (confused realisation), and to the post-promiscuity of ‘I am a Whore’ (purely in term of architectural excess, you pervs) we should move on to a stance of self-acceptance and affirmation with ‘Yes is More’. And I hope someday – in some just future , in the proverbial nomansland of the overlap between fantasy and reality – a smart, sassy, sexy young woman architect who truly made it in a nearly 90% man’s profession will be able to and be allowed to accomplish what Bjarke Ingels has done. And no longer have to cloak her sexuality and femininity behind the she-men/asexual/womyn clichés of misconstrued feminism.
Yes, Oh Yes! and Yesss to that!
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Sidetracked Alert : Architects (and architecture students) who went on to have successful music/acting/writing careers include: members of the band Pink Floyd; Seal; Art Grafunkel; the band Air; a few band members of Tool; John Denver; actor Anthony Quinn; actress Ashwarya Rai; writer Arundhati Roy; Graphic artist M.C.Escher. Scrabble-inventor – the American architect Alfred Mosher Butts.Conversely Daniel Libeskind was a musician – who became an architect.
For more on the sexism in architecture : http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2005/feb/19/workandcareers.jobsandmoney1
One of the world’s most talented and innovative architects Denise Scott Brown (Venturi’s better half) writes about the sexism in the star system of architecture. A must-read: http://www.myspace.com/bobanddenise/blog/208258270
For more on the bitter-sweet story of Jorn Utzon and to be inspired by a man who designed one of the world’s eight wonders amidst insurmountable opposition and whose name was not mentioned in the inauguration of the Sidney Opera House – here’s an interview of his when he finally broke his silence :http://www.ericellis.com/utzon.htm
THE FOLLOW-UP ARTICLE ON THE DISCUSSION OF SEX, ROLE MODELS & THE QUEST FOR THE BALANCE BETWEEN FEMININITY AND FEMINISM : Racqueting on a grass court (or) Lost in Idiotization
And an architect’s take on the cultural monstrosity of the Sex and the City phenomenon: Sweatshops for your sex and the city too.