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Architects Perceived

An Irreverent Op-Ed.

I need an architect joke. I’ve got a whole arsenal of quips in my head for every occasion, filed away by subject, so there’s got to be one in there. Looking for a good duck/horse/doctor joke? No problem. Did you say drummer, accountant, or nurse? Accordion players, even? Have I got stories for you. But a zinger about an architect? I can’t even conjure a light bulb–changing one-liner.

Maybe architects aren’t that funny. And maybe that’s why they’re not in politics or on reality TV. Architects are, however, inadvertently funny (though floating design humor in mixed company is like trying to win a staring contest with a cat).

Le Corbusier, for one, makes me chuckle. His comical view of a disease-, dirt-, and chaos-free future so amused planners that they razed entire neighbor-hoods to test his theories. Here’s what we learned from his “machines for living”: modernism requires a really good janitor. In other words, you can give us nice, clean modern architecture, but unless everyone agrees to put things away, it’s bound to get messy. Regardless, all Le Corbusian projects broadcast the immense confidence of a man who’d dubbed himself — wait for it — “The Raven.” (Ça sonne mieux en français, non?) I suppose he fancied himself a superhero. He even had a uniform: those enormous circular glasses that Philip Johnson and (ironically) Jane Jacobs copped.

Speaking of Johnson, I suspect the old devil appre- ciated a hearty laugh. I once heard a rumor that Johnson would prance around his glass house in his underwear, for the benefit of trespassing architecture devotees. That takes gumption. And a friend of mine who sat next to Johnson at the GSD loves recounting how his thesis advisor, Mies van der Rohe, actually designed much of what would become Johnson’s first built project. As Mies leaned over Johnson’s desk assiduously sketching out construction details, Johnson impatiently whined, “I don’t care how you do it, just make it beautiful!” Johnson’s best prank was when he out-Graved Michael Graves by building the world’s tallest Chippendale chair in New York. His Boston gambol — copy-and-paste Palladian windows in which the arched portion is actually a fake-out — is a minor laugh riot.

You’ll discover more dysfunction than humor if you delve into the backstories of architecture’s greats. Like a living incarnation of a bad Ayn Rand novella, Mies glibly abandoned his bourgeois German wife and three children when he discovered the contemporary avant-garde movement. Hollywood-esque Frank Lloyd Wright married thrice and fathered seven. Louis Kahn, though no looker, juggled two completely separate families and a mistress for decades. And in the docu-mentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, Mr. Titanium proudly proclaims that his psychologist advised that he choose his wife or his career. He chose the latter.

I can already see the finger-waggers lining up to tell me to give these guys privacy. In the end, they’ll say, judge them by their work. And I’ll admit that the creative process can be painful, often to the detriment of personal relationships. In fact, I remember one late night in the studio when my professor compared my agonizingly chaotic design methods with giving birth. In hindsight, he was kind of right.

But within the realm of normal, these guys are nowhere in sight. Their troubled personal lives reveal a side of architecture that gets architects into trouble again and again. We’re talking about a chronic lack of social skills and rampant narcissism. Sadly, this condition isn’t limited to a few stray stars. I once mod-erated a conference panel on design/build, and just as the audience was nodding out, someone brought up the power that interior designers have over their clients. Sparks flew. “It’s so frustrating,” the architects complained. “Clients will do anything their interior designers tell them to!” Everyone seemed to have an anecdote. This was, indeed, a phenomenon, I decided.

Well, interior designers can be flamboyant. They can laugh, cry, and overgesticulate. But they’ll take you shopping and friend you on Facebook. They’ll listen with rapt attention as you talk about your sex life. They’ll commiserate when you miss your train or forget your mother’s birthday. In other words, interior designers tend to be human in ways that architects don’t. A lot of people like humans.

In contrast, I’ve had countless uncomfortable conversations with architects. They’re often so busy proving they’re the smartest guys in the room, they forget why it matters in the first place.

Which brings me to the only marketing seminar I ever took in my life. Stick with me here. I was 23 years old and working for a — you guessed it — painfully sincere and chronically underemployed architect. He wanted more business, so he hired me — green as a celery stalk and, pound for pound, about the same price. His strategy for getting work was simple. I was to cold-call presidents of Fortune 500 companies and ask them if they wanted his services. His plan was so earnest and so idiotic that thinking about it today makes me shake my head in wonderment. But I digress.

Because I didn’t know squat about marketing, my employer paid for me to do a seminar with a marketing guru — a guy in a flashy suit and pinkie ring. The marketer’s magical formula was thus: Scrap your sales pitch, and get prospective clients talking about themselves. Dig deep. Get personal. Nothing’s taboo, including childhood, marital junk, and fantasies. The marketing guru then picked a dupe from the crowd, sat him down, and got him talking. For 45 minutes. I think there were tears. It was awful to watch, but once it was over, the dupe revealed that he was grateful for the chance to “share.” Maybe too grateful — he followed the guru around all day mooning like a groupie. It was disturbing. “This is how you build trust with your client,” the marketer explained, patting his new sidekick, while we shifted uncomfortably in our seats.

Afterward I consulted with my mother, a psychologist, who explained that getting people to talk about themselves is a form of hypnosis. The modern world leaves little time for true empathy (which is why we have therapists). So when someone shows a hint of understanding and takes more than a moment to listen, he or she earns heaps of trust. It’s a cheap trick, but I’m reminded of the one thing people always say when they meet Bill Clinton: “He made me feel like I was the only one in the room.”

Although I love architecture and the people who have the patience to do it, whenever I try to hang with them, I feel like they’re the only people in the room. Granted, I’m generalizing quite a bit. That said, if you’ve ever spent two hours in a clunky modern house, feeling your feet swell up in your professional footwear and shivering (because the A/C is set for penguins) while architects overexplain the obvious using abstruse language designed to shock and awe, then you know what I mean.

When I’m finally able to slip in that I’m also trained in the manly arts, they get a little sheepish, like they’ve been caught condescending to someone who knows the secret handshake.

One final story: A few years ago, an architect asked that I come to his office to see his latest projects. Once I arrived, he assumed a conspiratorial attitude, signaling that he was about to unveil a genius concept. And here it is. He’d identified six or seven projects recently completed by others that he just knew he could have done better. To prove it, he’d redrawn the buildings with his own façade treatments demonstrating his superior approach. He unfurled one drawing after the other, admiring his mastery of the art, shaking his head at the obvious blunders those deficient designers had made.

Finally, he posed a candid question: Should he send his re-renderings to the people who’d commissioned the projects, along with his calling card? It was one of the few times in my life that I was speechless. I thought he was out of his mind — and then remembered: no, he was an architect.

On second thought, this seems like a fabulous setup for an architecture joke. All it needs now is a punchline.