Early morning light, Ridgeline Trail, Eugene, OR (my photo)
Many immediately commented on the fall from grace of one of the profession’s most-celebrated “starchitects.” Writer Eva Hagberg Fisher took to Twitter to recount how it was Meier’s Douglas House that made her fall in love with architecture (when she was only twelve). Richard Meier was one of my architectural heroes too, which is why I found the Times article distressing. As Fisher lamented, we can be so naïve. "Of course,” we are too quick to believe, “a brilliant artist must be a good person.” It’s a painful realization: we shouldn’t expect any corollary correspondence between talent and virtue. Fisher herself has experienced sexual harassment, a victim of misconduct by a prominent member of the UC Berkeley architecture faculty she had trusted.
In response to the Meier revelations, the AIA issued a statement on sexual harassment in which 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA, stated the “AIA stands by a set of values that guide us as a profession and a Code of Ethics that define standards of behavior for our members. Sexual harassment is not only illegal, it flies in the face of our values and ethics.” Elefante further said “we are deeply troubled by the allegations in The New York Times today, and believe that sexual harassment—in any form and in any workplace—should not be tolerated and must be addressed swiftly and forcefully.” We’ll see if the Institute adds teeth to this statement by rescinding Meier’s membership in its College of Fellows and revoking his Gold Medal, AIA’s highest award.
The Hyatt Foundation has come straight out and said its award of the Pritzker Prize to Meier in 1984 will stand because it was “based on his architectural merit at that time,” and that the foundation does “not comment on the personal lives of our laureates.” The problem is it’s difficult to dissociate the work of those bestowed with the architectural profession’s top honor from the honorees themselves. A stated purpose of the Pritzker Prize is to recognize “significant contributions to humanity.” Humanity can refer to humankind but also to kindness, charity, compassion, and sympathy. In these respects, Richard Meier has failed without qualification. It’s possible the Hyatt Foundation is simply avoiding a rush to judgment. Exercising caution and steering clear of presumptuous persecution inflamed by the current news cycle is prudent. We’ll see if the foundation reconsiders its stance if the volume of incriminatory testimony becomes overwhelming.
The obvious parallels between Meier and Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Roger Ailes, Louis C.K., James Levine, and too many others include the disturbing arrogance and narcissism that fueled their predatory behavior. The common threads are a cult of personality, an abuse of power, and the asymmetry that exists between the predator and his unfortunate targets. History will judge these men harshly, and deservedly so.
A similar day of reckoning presumably awaits the boastful and contemptible misogynist who presently occupies the Oval Office. I find the fact this day has yet to arrive in the face of plain and damning evidence absolutely dumbfounding. The “Weinstein Moment” is rightfully taking down many powerful men who have abused their positions, and yet why are so many in this country willing to give the POTUS a free pass when it comes to this issue, if not other matters?
The fact Meier’s transgressions are only now becoming widely acknowledged is an indictment of a well-established subculture within the architectural community—one that unquestioningly venerated its heroes, bred a coterie of sycophants, and swept inconvenient truths under the rug. The problem derives from a patriarchal sense of entitlement. This pernicious subculture may be on the wane as women increasingly assume positions of leadership throughout the profession. Awareness of the issue is a prerequisite. There’s no excuse now to not take steps at all levels, organizationally and individually, to address the problem.
Daniela Soleri, the daughter of another architectural icon, the late Paolo Soleri, published an article last year bringing to light her father’s sexual molestation of her when she was a child, culminating in his attempt to rape her when she was seventeen. Her matter-of-fact accounting of her father’s reprehensible actions further condemns the way our social order has allowed serious flaws of character to be cloaked in the shadows, whispered about but not spoken openly of. Her piece, though painful to read, is also optimistic. “Sunlight is a powerful healer,” she says. She likens the #MeToo movement to a first bit of light, a glimmer of hope, and a sign real change is finally on the way.
My wife tried to dissuade me from wading into this topic, fraught as it is with emotion and controversy. She believes I have nothing to contribute to the discussion that hasn’t already been said with much greater authority by those (both women and men) who have been victims of serious harassment or assault. Regardless, I feel compelled to acknowledge this watershed moment for the architectural profession because of my erstwhile admiration for Richard Meier. The widely publicized downfall of famous and influential men guilty of unconscionable abuses is proving cathartic and transformative. As Daniela Soleri wrote, “silence is cynical,” and in contrast, “truth is hopeful, and inevitable.” The light of truth can also be healing, and if that light shines bright it may lead all of us to real and lasting change for the better.