Architectural Blatherations

Humour and Architects

top rule

The Good Oil

Dr Louis Hellman
Dr Louis Hellman

If architects have a sense of humour, it does not run very deep. We can think of Louis Hellman's famous cartoons in the Architects Journal. You might also want to check out his more sardonic works, such as Architecture for Beginners (ISBN 0863160417) or Architecture A-Z: A Rough Guide (ISBN 0471489573).

The only other satirical work that comes to mind is the cartoons by Geoffrey Atherden that ran in the late 1980s in Architecture Australia.

What interests us is—do they have a sense of humour about their work? Can they take cracks at their buildings in their stride? Some disciplines have a deep sense of whimsy: in physics, for example, one finds 'shed' and 'barn' to describe atomic-sized units of volume; and 'quarks' comes in 'flavours' called top, bottom, up, down, charm and strange. We think they're wonderful names.

Architects have some difficulty being whimsical. Take a look at Bruno Taut's 'Down with Seriousism' (1920), which you can find in the must-have collection Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture, edited by Ulrich Conrads (The MIT Press, 1970). Contrary to its title, the piece is a most earnest and serious attack on the old architectural generation of Bruno's day.

Sure, you can find a lot of modern architecture that looks like its designer was having fun, that he or she was heaving some harpoon at pretence and pomposity. But talk to them about it, and you find yourself wallowing in the direst sort of art-speak that would make even a French intellectual blush. Architects take their whimsy very seriously.

Are architects delicate petals?

In almost every review of Dr Garry's last and final book, the reviewer quoted this passage and berated him soundly for it:

Perhaps these properties of taste explain one of the great puzzles of the architectural persona: the extraordinary lack of humour and priggish self-righteousness noted in the great architects. Read through the biographies of the Masters to find a jocular, whimsical, earthy soul, and you shall be disappointed. From my own experience, the more eminent the architect, the more they regard themselves and their works with the most sober solemnity. An innocent quip about their work will be met with a maiming glare from the cooler patricians or a tirade of abuse from the more mercurial; for to attack one's taste, one's aesthetic judgement, is to attack the whole person, one's entire embodied cultural capital. To criticise a master's works is to assault his or her very being.

This was taken as yet another gratuitous attack on architecture; a baseless slur on a dignified – nay, noble – profession.

We happen to think that all those occupations that like to label themselves 'professions' are pretty pompous and self-righteous collections of people— doctors, lawyers, you name it. But architects have added another layer to this. Complain to your dentist that in your last filling of a rear molar; the amalgam fell out, that it hurt like hell, that the tooth does not grind properly. They do not have much choice but to accept your version of the facts: if you say it hurts, it does. Neither do builders, for that matter. If your new shower leaks and all the bathroom tiles have fallen off, the builder can only fall back on Monty Python's Dead Parrot defence. Architects can fall back on something else.

Yup, pretty much

Architects have another out: blame the client for being too stupid to recognise their aesthetic superiority. The passage quoted above was not intended as a cheap shot. We've been thinking about the humour of architects for a decade or more. Dr Garry made a few observations in other places but never developed them. Here are some of the cases which set us to thinking.

Umbrage 101

We at Architectural Blatherations are not the only ones to note the drama-queen freak-outs that architects are prone to. Consider this interchange in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). The SMH had published articles criticising architects for a spate of guttering faults. One architect defended her occupation against the charges. Her opening line was As an architect I take umbrage.... She received this response:

What makes architects so thin-skinned? Is there a course in professional umbrage-taking on their university curriculum? Any mild suggestion that the profession is less than perfect is met with ferocious counter-attack.

It is apparently not the architect's fault that architect-designed houses lack eaves or approved guttering. Yet how does this unsuitable guttering find itself attached to these houses? If an architect did not specify the guttering type, he is guilty of negligence; …

—Andrew Taubman, Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 26 2008.

The case of the angry lecturer

Blues Point tower
Blues Point tower, seen from underneath the Sydney Harbour bridge. The tree in front makes our point.

What got us started was our observations that very successful architects aren't keen on criticism, especially by the hoi-polloi. One classic example Dr Garry recalls from his own architectural student days, back in the 1970s. Mr Harry Seidler, was giving a lecture about himself. In question time, a first-year student {freshman} ventured to say that one of Harry's mid-period buildings, was regarded by many Sydneysiders as an ugly intrusion on Sydney's beautiful harbour. What did Mr Seidler think of that?

Harry was dumbstruck. What was more offensive? That anyone should venture a criticism about Blues Point Tower was offensive enough. That such talk was so widespread amongst the hoi-polloi that a mere teenager would know of its existence was galling. That the student actually said it was beyond the pale. He packed up his lecture notes and huffed off.

Twenty-five years later Mr Seidler was still prickly, as the reporter Stephen Lacey found:

Going along to interview Harry Seidler is always a nerve-racking business. You never know what mood you're going to find him in. And when it comes to the subject of Blues Point Tower, Harry's moods are notoriously black.

Why do you want to ask me about that tower? Why? he snaps down the phone, when I call to arrange a meeting. Come on, this is old news, stupid bloody nonsense, I'm sick to death of it. It's a journalistic gimmick. I've always thought Blues Point Tower is one of my best buildings and I stand by that. Anybody who can't see anything in it ought to go back to school.

I later discover that ought is a word Seidler uses a lot. Uneducated and insensitive are two more.… I ask him how he handles the jibes about BPT nowadays. It doesn't worry me that people have criticised the building, he says. What do you expect from illiterate people? They're insensitive and uneducated so why should I take that seriously?[reported by S. Lacey, Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Sep 2002, p 4.]

The Alt.Architecture case

Another example: sometimes we used to browse through the newsgroup alt.architecture. It was a pretty thin little discussion area, which just goes to show that architects and architecture don't have a big presence on the Net (We'll be discussing why in a future page— we're not saying it's a bad thing, mind). When they weren't talking about CAD programs, the denizens of this group liked to talk about how under-appreciated they are.

We recall one thread where the topic was how the word 'architect' should be restricted by law in the English language to building designers: all those 'system architects' (in the IT industry), landscape architects, and naval architects should have their backsides soundly kicked for usurping a sacred name. We pointed out that in English the word 'architect' has been used as a general term for a designer or planner of almost anything, not just buildings, since Shakespeare was a lad (the complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has a complete history (of course!)). We were roundly booed.

Britain's Architects Registration Board backs down

We've come across this sensitivity in other places. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Architects Registration Board (ARB) of the United Kingdom noted with distaste on its website that the title architect was widely used in the information technology (IT) industry. It guardedly said that this should not cause consumer confusion but it also sternly admonished Britain's many IT employment agencies not to use expressions such as systems architect when advertising jobs. My goodness us no!

By 2005 the ARB had given up the battle; its website admitting that the title was widely used in the IT industry, and that it had no intention of prosecuting for such technical breaches.

The strange lack of anecdotes

You don't have to go too far to find whole books of anecdotes about lawyers or doctors. A search of brought up 27 books of funny legal stories and 46 about humour in medicine. There aren't any about architects. Now, you are probably thinking that you can't recollect too many collections about engineers or actuaries. True, very true. But you'd be surprised: searching for 'anecdotes', just in the A's I've seen A Century of Tractor Tales (M. Degni, ed.) and Anecdotes of Modern Art (D. Hall, ed), but nothing about architects.

We have only seen one article on the subject: 'Through Inside Lens' [sic], by A. C. Antoniades, published in Architecture + Urbanism in July 1979. And what a peculiar lot of stories it was. You may think we're critical of architects in many ways. You should see this collection. Although intended to be an amusing set of brief anecdotes, each and every one depicted an architect in a bad light: Corb or Wright dismissing leaky roofs as trivial, Wright refusing to talk to Gropius.

What struck us was the light in which clients were shown. In Mr Antoniades collection, the client is always the victim of the architect's wit. We find that odd, and a little disturbing.

Architects in cinema and television

At the Internet Movie Database we found about 130 movies featuring an architect in the plot. About the most unlikely architect in the bunch was Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series. Usually the character's occupation is immaterial to the plot. There is, of course, the notable exception of Peter Greenaway's as usual off-the-wall Belly of an Architect. Architects are also featured in a number of horror films, oddly enough, where the plot has the architect coming in to renovate a haunted house.

Architects have featured in quite a number of comedy films and sitcoms: Mr Ed, Three Men and a Baby, and The Brady Bunch come immediately to mind. But the architect is almost always the straight-man in the show. Why is that, we wonder?

The case of the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects

For Dr Garry's PhD he read through every single biography in the massive four-volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects (MEA). This is by far the most complete compilation of architectural biography ever published in English, and quite possibly in any other language (although you never know what the French are up to!). Yup: all 2,400 of them. With a single exception, that of Stanford White, Dr Garry never got the feeling he was reading about a fun guy or gal. They all came across as very serious, and dedicated to their 'calling'.

And here's why

Writing in Slate, our favourite critic, Witold Rybczynski noted that architects hang on for years and years, resulting in an ocean of post-menopausal grumpy old bastards.

Our own theory is that the less you rely on externalities for justification, the more sensitive you are to criticism. Engineers and dentists, for example, justify their work by how it follows widely recognised rules, processes and regulations. Their clients have the ultimate say in how successful they have been.

Architects' designs are much more contentious. Quite often the public disagrees with the profession over aesthetic questions, and practitioners disagree with each other. About the only way you can justify an aesthetic choice is to say 'Well, I think its good. Many other people I hold in high opinion agree with me. Who are you, again?'.

The client's view of their work is simply irrelevant. We'll just repeat what Mr Harry Seidler said:

What do you expect from illiterate people? They're insensitive and uneducated so why should I take that seriously?

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