So….during my exercise routine this morning I was watching a rerun of the 90’s sitcom Wings (rented for free from our library). You’re wondering where this is going aren’t you?
This episode featured an architect that is as usual portrayed in a fashion that doesn’t help our profession. Yes, it’s a sitcom people, I get it. However, I’m more disappointed at how the process is portrayed more so than how the architect as a person is portrayed. The episode was funny (for a sitcom) but I must provide some corrective commentary after I expound on a few segments of the plot. You can watch if you’d like.
Early in the episode, supporting character Casey (lead character Helen’s sister) is talking starry-eyed to Fay about some peasant job. She looks up and see the renowned (fictional) architect Y. M. Burg across the airport terminal having lunch. She carefully approaches him and rambles off some archi-speak in an effort to impress him with her knowledge of architecture.
I don’t support any type of celebrity status privilege, but no one should feel the need to speak to us in an effort to impress us. If some think of us this way, we need as a profession to correct this. I’ve seen and heard too much arrogance from architects. Maybe there’s truth to this sitcom, but it’s not good. We desire respect and recognition for doing good work, but I can’t stand how actors and athletes are treated differently. For goodness sake, we don’t need that in our profession.
In the next segment (watch the last 3 minutes of this video) Joe and Helen are behind the lunch counter searching through a magazine for a pre-fab house (in the early 1990’s no less) because they can get the “style” of their house…cheap (not because the concept of pre-fab was being advocated). Yes the emphasis was on cheap. The architect sitting at the lunch counter overhears their discussion and offers to design a house for them. He introduces himself as if they should know who he is. They mistake the architect’s condescending comments as if he’s begging for work and perhaps he should consider working for the pre-fab company. Casey appears and is appalled when she hears that Joe and Helen ignorantly sent him away. She shows them a magazine of his work and they change their opinion to go and ask him if he’d take on their project.
There are so many things wrong with this scene from the culture’s misguided desire to get something of alleged value for cheap. Of course the architect is immediately introduced as narcissistic and patronizing (money grubbing in the words of Joe). He doesn’t explain, educate or even try to communicate on their level (yes I know it’s a sitcom). However, the public’s perception of us is extremely poor.
After realizing their mistake, Joe and Helen go to the architect’s (fancy corporate) office in Boston to ask him to reconsider. Like Casey, Joe feels the need to talk differently to impress the architect rather than be himself. The architect doesn’t help by rambling off some high-brow archi-speak in a lame attempt to engage them in the process, yet must conveniently leave to take a phone call giving Joe and Helen a chance to discuss this offer. Helen is skeptical. Joe and Helen discuss the project portrayed as uneducated compared to the architect.
Architecture as a profession is portrayed not as a service, but as an elitist commissioning by lowly peasants to a rare genius. It’s as if the client must beg the architect to take on their unimportant project. There are inaccuracies to both sides of this sketch. The architect needs the client to survive so must be grateful for the opportunity. However, clients must understand that architects are educated and talented professionals that deserve a degree of respect for being able to do and offer something they can’t do for themselves. They do have a rare creative ability, but at the same time balance must be kept or we end up somewhere…quite frankly, weird.
Later Joe and Helen fly off to Boston to see the ‘unveiling’ of their house. It turns out to be a strange geometric “modern” house that Helen says looks like the number “7”. They react politely and Joe exclaims he loves it so as not to look stupid. In the next scene back at Joe’s office, they argue over the design to where Joe finally admits it looks like the number “7” and hates it as much as Helen. They agree to go back to the architect to tell him they don’t like it.
First of all, where were the early sketches, diagrams or dialogue of their needs, wants, program, site features, and what that one thing we all deal with…hmmm….oh yeah budget! How could Joe and Helen afford this big shot’s fee as well? Moreover, clients AND architects need not apologize for styles that they like, but clients can also expand their mind and world by being exposed to more types and expressions of architecture (and other forms of culture). In this episode modern architecture is portrayed as weird, harsh and alien (with no resale value). Nevertheless, when it comes to finding an architect, people should find an architect who not only has good chemistry with them and listens carefully, but also aligns with their aesthetic sensibilities. In other words, choose an architect whose work is somewhat close in character to what you want or appreciate. But more importantly, the chemistry has to be there.
In the final scene, Joe and Helen go to the architect’s office to “tell him off.” (I wonder if they’ve paid him anything yet.) Helen goes in first to quietly tell of their disappointment only to find that he’s sketching an alternative design that Helen ultimately loves. After a classic sitcom misunderstanding, Joe walks in and has words with the architect before he sees the new sketches. Helen shows him the design and loves it too. Based on Joe’s behavior, the architect now tells them they can’t have it. Just as he is about to break the board of sketches over his knee, the screen fades to the credits.
Like most sitcoms, this plot segment is a classic of misunderstanding for the sake of humor. I get it. However, for a client-architect relationship to be successful there must be clear, specific and candid communication. Again the PROCESS was never portrayed, shown or even alluded to in this show (it’s a sitcom I know). There was never any dialogue back and forth to allow the architect to learn and discover what the client wants or thinks they want. It sets up the architect as the genius and the client will just want what he produces. On the otherhand, his expertise isn’t valued either. It also did not show that the client frequently wants something else once the architect can show them options and reasons. It also paired up architectural styles with our artificially created classes of people. Unfortunate.
Both sides are portrayed incorrectly (it’s a sitcom, I get it). However, this was one more rare opportunity that an architect appears on television in a role that only hurts our profession. When are we (or Hollywood) ever going to get this right? No wonder the episode was titled “So Long Frank Lloyd Wrong.”