Why the Clichéd Architects of Popular Culture Must Be Destroyed

The profession’s insular subculture is almost never depicted in movies or TV shows. That’s a missed opportunity.

Ross Brady Ross Brady

Examples abound of architect stereotypes in mainstream movies, TV shows and novels. Much to the chagrin of actual architects, they tend to run a very short gamut between sensitive romantics and self-centered egoists. While these sorts of portrayals may be frustrating, the real disappointment is in the way architects aren’t portrayed: The profession’s insular subculture, a hallmark of the architect experience, is almost never depicted in popular culture. This is a missed opportunity for the profession and an indication that subculture should be opened to the rest of the world by finding common ground to emphasize in architecture circles.

If you took a moment to look around for architect characters in popular fiction, you’d quickly find there’s a lot of them. Fictional architects are nearly as proliferous as fictional doctors, lawyers and police officers, but while those characters tend to get their own procedurals, the intricacies of an architect’s work are almost always backdrops; their profession matters only so far as it reinforces certain personality traits. That these traits often fall along the lines of passion, dedication or obsession shows an attempt to register the ethos of the profession, but popular depictions become foreign to a real architect as soon as the working life of a fictional one is portrayed.

Michelle Pfeiffer in “One Fine Day”; via Vimeo (Nicky Chang)

Think about some recent examples: Why, in the mid-2000s, was Ted Mosby from “How I Met Your Mother”at a drafting table whenever he was shown working? And when that same character taught “Architecture 101” to a group of college students, why were they in a classroom, and not a studio? While you’re at it, count how many times you see an architect carrying a model or a large roll of drawings in any movie or TV show, and you might get the impression that’s all they ever do.

But deeper than these material symbols are a host of subtle misinterpretations of the profession’s culture. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s aspiring architect in “500 Days of Summer,” for example, is extremely enthusiastic about pre-Modern historic buildings — often a niche interest in a profession that seems to pride itself on embracing the avant-garde.

Most importantly, the fictional practice of designing buildings seems to frequently, and mistakenly, take on whatever guise prevailing office culture happens to be dressed in at the time it’s written. Films like “One Fine Day,” “Click”and “San Andreas”are just a few of the many examples that wash the profession with a basic, unsophisticated corporate flavor — hardly the sort of environment encountered among professionals whose job requires a massive amount of attention to detail.

David Hasselhoff as an architect in “Click”; via hotflick.net (and Sony Pictures Entertainment)

This is where the heart of the problem lies: Most fictional depictions of architects simply graft mainstream culture onto the profession and call it a day. All the telltale signs of the real culture are missing. An indecipherable jargon advanced enough to be its own dialect, a microculture of vocational celebrity that’s taken more seriously than perhaps any other profession’s, a pain-fetishizing education system that older architects somehow recollect fondly — all these indicators are scarce among the profession’s fictional representations.

So how could the entire body of writers, directors and actors who create architect characters miss this unique subculture? The answer is likely that this unique subculture is simply too boring to interest anyone who’s not an architect. But it would be shortsighted to take this circumstance as a sign that important things can’t be said through the profession.

Ayn Rand spent 300,000 words hashing out a philosophical stance that spoke directly to the debates over communism engulfing the entire world when she wrote The Fountainhead. While that novel is probably the genesis for most of today’s negative, egocentric architect stereotypes, the daily grind of the profession it depicts still rings true some 70 years later — only the technology has changed.

In the 1980s, when mainstream movies were full of manic characters collapsing under the weight of their own obsessions, celebrity architecture got its own treatment with a relatively scrupulous spotlight in “The Belly of an Architect.” And in the mid-2000s, at the height of the reality TV craze, someone understood how appropriate the environment of a collegiate design studio was for that genre when they made the series “Architecture School.”Even if the drama in that series was staged, it probably didn’t need to be.

A group of students in the reality series “Architecture School”; via TWO SL

There’s a considerable disparity between the influence of those examples (The Fountainhead dwarfs them all); however, they show that an accurate account of the profession can not only be a viable setting for reflections on broader society, sometimes it’s the only setting that works.

Consider the problems architecture faces today. Despite being an ostensibly progressive field, the profession nonetheless struggles with gender and racial equality like other more conservative professions. Technologies that reduce the number of employees needed to complete a required amount of work are creeping into architecture just as noticeably as anywhere else, but their reliance on highly sophisticated artificial intelligence has ramifications far beyond the design world. And many architects, like a host of other professionals who had to undergo a long specialized education to enter their fields, may feel helpless as their profession appears to become marginalized in a society that increasingly values innovation over expertise.

Problems like these are universal, but within the culture of architecture, they embody potentially fascinating details. It’s hard to believe there aren’t numerous stories that could be told through such circumstances that would resonate with a wide swath of mainstream society.

In any case, the biggest potential upside to the profession’s cloistered nature is that it’s filled with people who care a lot about something that’s just background noise to most everyone else. If the practice of architecture is ever to see its relevance expand, breaking this culture open by foregrounding the problems it shares with the rest of the world should be a priority.

Top image via Netflix

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