Hollywood Architects

Moviemakers love architects. As long as they are white men.

Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead; Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, Indecent Proposal; Richard Gere, Intersection; Keanu Reeves, The Lake House.
Clockwise from top left: Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead (1949); Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, Indecent Proposal (1993); Richard Gere, Intersection (1994); Keanu Reeves, The Lake House (2006).

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 2015 Oscar nominees, the response on social media was fierce. For the first time since the late ’90s, all the nominees in the top acting categories were white. Twitter users deployed the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to protest the lack of diversity. In 2016, yet another all-white slate reignited the controversy and sparked calls for a boycott.

Many observers have argued that the problem is rooted less in the Academy as an organization than in the broader culture of the film industry, which offers few major roles to actors of color. A study of “Inequality in 700 Popular Films,” by researchers at the University of Southern California, found that in the 100 top-grossing movies of 2014 there were only 17 leading actors from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups including blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, even though these groups make up 37 percent of the U.S. population and 46 percent of the ticket-buying audience. The picture for women is even grimmer. Only 21 of the top 100 films in 2014 had a female star or co-star, and of those, only three were from underrepresented groups. None were over 45 years old.

Inevitably, the gorgeously produced worlds we see presented in Hollywood films influence how we see our own worlds — how we view our personal and professional lives. It matters, then, that those onscreen work worlds are disproportionately populated by white men, and that architecture is among the whitest and most masculine.

The gorgeously produced worlds in Hollywood films influence how we view our personal and professional lives.

A few years ago Kathryn Anthony, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, along with two former students, analyzed the image of the architect in Hollywood by viewing 45 movies released from 1942 to 2010 in which a leading character is an architect. As reported in ArchDaily, in the overwhelming majority of these films — 91 percent — the architect-protagonist is male (he is also likely to be “clean shaven … with dark hair and brown eyes”). And in 96 percent, the architect is white. In only two films were the architects people of color, both men: Jungle Fever (1991), in which Wesley Snipes plays a New York architect who has an affair with his white secretary; and The Namesake (2006), in which Kal Penn plays an architect of Indian descent. Both films were also directed by people of color, Spike Lee and Mira Nair, respectively.

That Hollywood would reinforce the stereotype of the white male architect is hardly surprising. After all, the profession itself has been overwhelmingly white and male. In the early 1970s, just 1.2 percent of all licensed U.S. architects were women, and 1 percent Hispanic or black. 1 Starting in 1972, Title IX, which outlawed gender discrimination in federally funded education programs, opened up architecture schools to women, and by the turn of the 21st century female enrollment had soared to 40 percent nationally. Nonetheless, deep-rooted biases have driven many women from the field, and today fewer than 20 percent of licensed architects are women. 2

But ultimately the demographic underpinnings of Hollywood stereotypes are beside the point. One of the crucial decisions in the creation of a screen character is the choice of a career, and screenwriters make these choices — craft their characters — on the basis of common assumptions about the professions. As journalist Larry Buhl writes, on the website Monster, “Many films ― even great ones ― have used occupations as shorthand for personalities or ‘types.’” To understand why architects in the movies are so rarely women or people of color, let’s look at how Hollywood defines the role.

In Hollywood, ‘architect’ signifies a male type who is ‘sensitive but not girly.’

An article in A.V. Club gets right to the point in its title: “Everyone’s an architect: 11 jobs common only in romantic comedies.” The authors describe the visual appeal of the field, the popularity of “glossy romantic comedies set in spacious loft offices with drafting tables and sketchpads.” They also register the many movies and their leading actors — Sleepless in Seattle (Tom Hanks), The Lake House, (Keanu Reeves), Love Actually (Liam Neeson), etc. — in which architect signifies a male type who is “sensitive, but not girly.” Journalist Ben Johnson makes a similar argument in Nerve, noting that male movie-architects are assumed to personify the perfect romantic lead: they are “creative, but not as grubby as musicians; fiscally sturdy, but not as stodgy as bankers; dreamers with briefcases; visionaries of the tangible.”

Some critics even describe film architects as having a kind of nobility. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein quotes the cinema historian (and Turner Classic Movies host) Robert Osborne:

With architects, you have an image of someone above reproach and not damaged, the way lawyers and judges and even doctors have been. There are very, very few professions that still have a ring of heroism about them, and architecture is one of the few that does. … And it’s one of the last manly professions — you are building something outdoors.

Examples of manly, heroic architects in the movies include the character played by Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno (1974), described by Stein as the “prideful creator of the world’s tallest skyscraper,” and of course, the prototypical architect-hero Howard Roark, as played by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film of Ayn Rand’s novel-manifesto The Fountainhead.

In many movies the architect’s passion for work leads to passion beyond work (in Jungle Fever, it leads to adultery on the drafting table ). “Catnip to women” is how Stein describes the typical character: “Albert Finney has Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Bisset vying for him in Two for the Road — and that’s before he’s even made a name for himself. Richard Gere must make a tough choice between Sharon Stone and Lolita Davidovich in Intersection.” In The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon, the heiress/architecture critic played by Patricia Neal, says to Howard Roark, “I wish I had never seen your building. It’s the things that we admire or want that enslave us, and I’m not easy to bring into submission.” “That depends upon the strength of your adversary, Miss Francon,” replies Roark. Dominique doesn’t stand a chance.

To be sure, not all Hollywood architects are depicted as purely charismatic or alluring. As Nancy Levinson points out in “Tall Buildings, Tall Tales,” films from recent decades have explored the darker side of the designer’s will to create. 3 In Indecent Proposal (1991), Woody Harrelson plays an idealistic architect happily married to his childhood sweetheart, played by Demi Moore; pushed to the brink of financial ruin, he accepts that titular proposal from a billionaire (played by Robert Redford), who offers one million dollars for one night with his wife. In Click, Adam Sandler is an ambitious architect in a corporate firm whose careerism crowds out his wife and children. It’s notable that when they are denied their desires, movie architects, in the hoary tradition of the temperamental artiste, tend to have tantrums (see, for instance, Intersection, Jungle Fever, and Life as a House, in which Richard Gere, Wesley Snipes, and Kevin Kline chew up the well-appointed scenery). My students at the University at Buffalo, where I teach a course on architecture and film, describe Hollywood’s architects as “a bunch of angry men.”

Narrative tensions emerge in the perceived misfit between the image ­of a profession and the celluloid figure who embodies it.

Nor does the depiction change much when the male architects are not white. Wesley Snipes’s character in Jungle Fever, Flipper Purify, who works in a sleek Manhattan firm, displays the familiar tropes: the artistic ego, the entanglement of creativity and sex, the temper lurking beneath the smooth surface. (What’s more unusual is the frank portrait of the racism of the firm’s white partners, who deny Flipper’s request for a promotion and who, when he quits, are more concerned about losing his baseball skills for the office team than his design talents for office projects.) The movie uses the white-collar status of the architect to signal the character’s upward mobility — Flipper and his wife and daughter live in a Striver’s Row brownstone — which distances him not only from his poorer Harlem neighbors but also from the Italian American secretary from Bensonhurst, played by Annabella Sciorra, who becomes his lover. Similarly, in The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, Gogol, the American-born child of immigrants from Calcutta, chooses architecture as a career — a choice that underscores the growing cultural divide between the son and his parents. Kal Penn’s Gogol is cool and sophisticated, shopping at Tiffany’s and buying truffles at an upscale Manhattan market, unlike his frugal, first-generation suburban parents. At the same time, architecture ties him to the heritage he longs to deny: it was experiencing the Taj Mahal as a teenager that inspired him to study architecture.

In these films about architects of color, the protagonists’ vocational choice creates what film historian Jeanine Basinger has called a “platform for contradiction.” 4 Narrative tensions emerge in the perceived misfit between the image ­— or stereotype — of a profession and the celluloid figure who embodies it. The audience thus wonders: What is this character doing here? This is a strategy often used in Hollywood films in which the female lead is an architect. Indeed, the dissonance that results from trying to merge these identities is apparently so jarring that only a handful of Hollywood films have ever featured a woman as an architect.

A clip from Woman Chases Man (1937).

Consider the 1937 screwball comedy, Woman Chases Man, which revolves around the antics of Virginia Travis, played by Miriam Hopkins. Impoverished but shrewd, Virginia is a “girl architect” trying to catch her big break. Accordingly, she sets out to persuade businessman B.J. Nolan, played by Charles Winninger, to commission her to design his latest housing project, Nolan Heights. When he turns her down, visibly shocked to discover she is an architect, Virginia delivers a passionate speech on her bona fides:

I know what you’re thinking, that I’m a girl. Yes, Mr. Nolan, but I have a man’s courage, a man’s vision, a man’s attack. For seven years, I’ve studied like a man, researched like a man. There’s nothing feminine about my mind. Seven years ago I gave up a perfectly nice engagement with a charming wealthy old man because I chose a practical career. I left him at the church to become an architect, and today I’m ready and he’s dead.

Virginia insists not only that she meets all the masculine criteria of her profession but also that she is “a darned good [architect].” Tellingly, although she presents her portfolio to B.J., we viewers never sees her work. Instead, we are meant to deduce her expertise from her histrionics, which include stomping on floors and knocking on walls to test a building’s construction.

More than a half-century would pass before another Hollywood film portrayed a woman architect.

In good screwball style, Woman Chases Man is thickly plotted. Early on, B.J. confesses to Virginia that he is bankrupt, which then inspires an elaborate ruse to convince his wealthy son, Kenneth, played by Joel McCrea, to underwrite the project. The classic girl-chases-boy storyline takes on a new twist: architect-chases-client. At which point we learn that Virginia’s skill set includes not just male talent but feminine craft. “I think like a woman when I have to,” she says. Eventually, when Kenneth confides that alcohol makes him prone to rash purchases, Virginia schemes to get him drunk and make him sign a contract giving him control of Nolan Heights. Sipping champagne in the moonlight, Virginia and Kenneth fall for each other. By the end, after further plot contortions, we find Virginia and Kenneth sitting in the branches of a tree, happily inebriated as they embrace and Kenneth heartily endorses Virginia’s architectural vision. Talk about a platform for contradiction! In the tree, we watch as Virginia struggles with what is clearly intended to be an inevitable conflict between her masculine ambition and her womanly love for an attractive suitor. The conflict appears to be resolved when Kenneth declares they’ll be the “Adam and Eve” of a new world of suburban housing development.

Movie reviewers at the time seemed unfazed by the depiction of a woman as an architect. Perhaps it was simply accepted as a clever plot device and reliable source of humor. Or perhaps it wasn’t such a radical notion. The 1939 U.S. Census identified 379 female practicing architects — a not insubstantial number at the time. Woman Chases Man suggests Hollywood was quick to recognize these professional newcomers. But if so, the recognition was fleeting: more than a half-century would pass before another Hollywood film featured a leading woman character who was an architect.

A clip from Father of the Bride (1991).

In the 1991 version of Father of the Bride, Kimberly Williams plays Annie, the bride of the title and an aspiring architect. As the movie begins, Annie is returning home to Los Angeles after a semester in Rome, where she has been studying for her master’s degree. She surprises her parents, played by Steven Martin and Diane Keaton, by announcing her engagement to a wealthy young man she’s just met, also from Los Angeles. Annie’s father objects to what seems a hasty decision — and reminds her that she herself once believed that marriage deprives a woman of her identity. But Annie insists that her fiancé, Brian, is different:

I’m not going to lose my identity with him because he’s not some overpowering, macho guy … He happens to love the fact that I want to be an architect. He wants me to design a house for us to live in. He said he’d move anywhere I got a job.

When he meets Annie’s parents, Brian gushes: “I can’t wait to marry her and, one day, have children and grandchildren. And I’m going to do my best to be supportive of her dreams — she’s a very gifted architect!” Yet Annie’s vocation plays no real role in the film (or in the 1995 sequel); after it’s established early on, we hear no more about her professional dreams, and the film can pursue its real interest — her marriage ambitions. These passing references, in any case, have done their work: they’ve asserted that Annie is an independent-minded, modern young woman and, even more important, that Brian is a sensitive, modern guy. In this way the traits so often attributed to male architects in popular films are transferred to the future husband of the architect.(Annie’s career aspirations also serve to update the movie, which was a remake of the 1950 film of the same name starring Elizabeth Taylor as the vocation-less young bride and Spencer Tracy as her protective father.)

A clip from One Fine Day (1996).

It was not until 1996, nearly six decades after Woman Chases Man, that Hollywood would release another film in which a female lead is actually shown working (rather than simply posing) as an architect. In One Fine Day, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Melanie Parker, a single mother struggling to raise her young son while maintaining a demanding job in a Midtown Manhattan firm. The resourceful but controlling Melanie is having an awful day: forced unexpectedly to bring her son to work, she trips over her handbag and crushes the model of the high-rise that was to be presented to an important client. (Needless to say, the phallic imagery is not subtle.) Both the firm and her own position are put at risk.

When her child-phobic boss, Smith Leland, discovers that a young boy is in the office, Melanie pretends she doesn’t know her son and offers to find his mother. Leland suggests she try the law office across the hall. This line not only reveals that he can’t imagine one of his professional employees is a mother; it also captures a professional reality — law has been far more successful than architecture in integrating women into the field.

Toward the end, after a harrowing day of juggling her lives as architect and parent, Melanie reclaims her son. She tearfully admits to her client and her boss that the “little lost boy” is her­ child — and that he matters more to her than work. Melanie also transforms into a warmer woman, less defensive when, in the words of her son, “men try to open her door and stuff.” By the end she is cuddling with a handsome journalist, Jack Taylor, played by George Clooney, whose life has collided with hers through the shared mishaps of single parenthood. And now Jack is falling for Melanie, although early on he described her as a “female dog” and warned his young daughter: “Don’t be like that when you grow up.”

Released in 1996, One Fine Day is a prime product of an era defined by the feminist backlash. It’s also a film in which that “platform for contradiction” identified by Jeanine Basinger is stronger than ever. Portrayed as too professionally ambitious and too emotionally independent, Melanie must suffer a series of humiliations — à la Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew — before she can admit she can’t do it all and needs a man. She may or may not remain an architect. The audience is left unsure whether she will be fired after declaring to her boss that motherhood comes first.

A clip from Firewall (2006).

A decade later, another film with an architect-mother — or archimom — tracks changing attitudes. In fact, in the thriller Firewall (2006), the platform for contradiction has been all but dismantled. Virginia Madsen plays Beth Stanfield, a talented architect who easily balances her domestic and professional responsibilities. The film opens on a scene of cheery domestic morning-mayhem, with Beth fluffing pillows and her banker husband, Jack, played by Harrison Ford, and their teenage kids getting ready to start the day. When Jack asks Beth about her plans, she flaunts her multitasking flair: she’ll wrap up a design project, find her daughter a guitar teacher, pay the household bills, and “schlep” the kids. Jack jokes that she should take up a hobby to keep busy, and she replies, kissing him: “I already have a hobby … it’s taking care of you.” But the day takes a dark turn and before long Beth and the kids are being held hostage by a cadre of white-collar criminals who are forcing Jack to electronically rob his own bank. Throughout the standoff, Beth remains cool, self-collected, and sharp-witted. Enabled by her detailed knowledge of the family house — a spectacular lakeside mansion of her own design — she guides her children in an attempted escape through a crawlspace. Thus do the roles of architect and mother merge and give new meaning to “schlepping the kids.”

A more recent thriller offers what is arguably Hollywood’s most powerful incarnation of a woman architect. In Inception (2010), Ellen Page plays Ariadne, a young architecture student hired by a team of corporate thieves led by Dominick Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to construct fantastical dreamscapes capable of infiltrating the minds of their targets. Presented as one of her university’s “brightest and best,” Ariadne creates worlds that challenge the laws of physics. Not all reviewers were impressed. Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, dismissed Ariadne’s inventions as a “trite and familiar” sequences of spaces in which “you can make out the boot-prints of both James Bond and Jason Bourne.” Feminist commentators paid less attention to her portfolio and more to her power and its gendered overtones. Posting on the feminist blog Bitchflicks, Amber Leab noted that Ariadne — whose name means “holy” or “pure,” and whose asexual rationality is the counterpoint to the dangerous sexuality of Cobb’s dead wife, Mal, or French for “bad” — is expected not only to facilitate the heist but also to nurture the emotionally traumatized Cobb and help him to heal — to rebuild — his damaged life. 5

A clip from Inception (2010).

What do these very different films tell us about the Hollywood ideal of the woman architect? Unsurprisingly, she is white and relatively young. Kimberly Williams, at 19, was the youngest actress to portray an architect, and Virginia Madsen, at 43, the oldest. (But in typical Hollywood fashion, her onscreen husband, Harrison Ford, was then 64.) Moreover the onscreen female architect is depicted as possessing a “masculine” mind, demonstrated by traits such as rationality, independence, and modernity. All of which can pose a threat to her more domestic or maternal inclinations. In Father of the Bride, when her fiancé gives her a gift she deems too domestic — a blender — Annie is insulted and breaks off her engagement. In the ethos of the film, Annie is clearly taking her ideas of modern-womanhood too far and jeopardizing her wifely future. Likewise, in One Fine Day, the stressed-out Melanie is so intent on meeting her project deadline that she leaves her son at a dubious daycare center. In contrast, in Firewall and Inception, the women architects are played as not only composed and rational but also nurturing; they are almost superwomen. In these most recent films, the older stereotypical qualities of the architect — cool, brainy, creative — are no longer shown as incompatible with more traditionally feminine qualities. Or at least, with the sort of “together” woman who doesn’t trip over her own handbag.

It’s been half a dozen years since a major Hollywood movie featured a female architect as a leading character, and a decade since the industry showed an architect of color onscreen — this despite the profession’s continuing popularity in mainstream films. That invisibility is telling. In the Los Angeles Times, television critic Mary McNamara emphasized the importance of the Oscar controversy.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the images we choose to create and share reveal who we are — our hopes, our fears, our secrets, strengths and shortcomings. When we praise and reward certain stories or images, whether by big box office or gold statuary, we reveal what we as a society value, the kinds of people we find interesting, the characteristics we revere and revile.

For most of its history Hollywood depicted women and people of color as architects only when looking for misplaced or oddball characters who were waging inner battles. The depiction of women architects at least seems to be evolving towards less conflicted roles — but that evolution doesn’t much matter since there seems to be less interest in showing them onscreen. There are fewer women playing architects in Hollywood films today than in the 1990s.

Hollywood has depicted women and people of color as architects only when looking for misplaced or oddball characters who were waging inner battles.

This matters if we care about the broader invisibility of women architects in popular culture. For all their quirks and flaws, female architects onscreen have helped normalize the presence of women in architecture. This normalization remains a struggle. In a New York Times article titled “I Am Not the Decorator: Female Architects Speak Out,” more than a dozen women architects were asked “to talk candidly about their experiences.” Here is Yen Ha, a principal at Front Studio Architects, who describes the constant need to justify her professional existence:

Every single day I have to remind someone that I am, in fact, an architect. And sometimes not just an architect, but the architect. I’m not white, wearing black, funky glasses, tall or male. I’m none of the preconceptions of what an architect might be, and that means that every time I introduce myself as an architect, I have to push through the initial assumptions.

Hollywood films remain powerful cultural touchstones with the ability to reinforce or challenge stereotypes. Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk helped to push awareness of LGBTQ issues and identities. So it’s all the more disappointing, given the rising focus on diversity in architecture, to see our popular films trade in the old clichés. It leaves professionals like Yen Ha holding the bag, having to battle the outworn ideas before she can get to work.

About the Series: Women in Architecture

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  1. See Paul Goldberger, “Women Architects Building Influence in a Profession That Is 98.8% Male,” The New York Times, May 18, 1974; and Robert E. Tomasson, “Blacks’ Role in Architecture Widens Slowly,” The New York Times, August 27, 1972, R1.
  2. I explore this continuing absence in my recent book, Where Are the Women Architects (Princeton University Press, 2016), which developed from articles in this journal. Nonetheless it is promising that women now comprise more than one-third of those on track to licensure. Racial and ethnic diversity is also growing, although the numbers remain very low for minorities, including African Americans.
  3. Nancy Levinson, “Tall Buildings, Tall Tales,” in Mark Lamster, editor, Architecture and Film (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000).
  4. Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 451.
  5. Ariadne’s architect/therapist role marks a positive leap forward from the 1999 film, At First Sight, which portrayed the cerebral woman architect as someone damaged and damaging. Mira Sorvino plays Amy Benic, a driven Manhattan architect who confuses problem-solving with love and nearly destroys her gentle, blind lover Virgil (played by Val Kilmer) by attempting to change him — as if he were the interpersonal equivalent of a gut rehab.
Despina Stratigakos, “Hollywood Architects,” Places Journal, September 2016. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/160906

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