The Canon That Crushed Richard Meier

Architect Richard Meier recently resigned as the leader of the business he created 50 years […]

Duo Dickinson / 11.6.18

Architect Richard Meier recently resigned as the leader of the business he created 50 years ago. He created stark white and glass High Modernist Masterpieces for all those years. He was the very model of a Modernist “Starchitect.”

Scott Frances,

He was compelled to leave because he had been accused of disgusting behavior with women. Not unusual in the time of #MeToo, but more exquisitely ironic because of who he is.

Beyond just being an architect, Meier was a poster child of white, male, Ivy, entitled elitism. He was part of a 1975 book focusing on the “New York Five” architects. He was in a national list of Great Young Architects: the “40 under 40”. He has won about every award there is to win.

In 1975 I was in Cornell Architecture School, the proclaimed “best” (after all, Richard Meier had gone there 20 years earlier). It was a crockpot of raw ego and hubris, seasoned by sexism and the cultural dominance of one demographic–mine.

Meier came to talk to the school in my junior year. It was 1976, a time of upheaval. Everywhere. Nixon was fired. The Equal Rights Amendment had over 60% of states supporting it. There were blacks and females in my class. A few were on a par with, sometimes better than, us egomaniacal jackasses. The White Guy Thing was proving to have feet of clay.

We listened to his pontificating. The endless stream of “my latest work,” his glasses, the suit, his pretense. We left laughing at what an arrogant so-and-so he was. But he was not just the privileged white male in midcentury; he was, arguably, in the most arrogant, entitled, and pontificating profession in those most male, most privileged, most white Ivy times—architecture. 

His failure to manifest any humility—even, one might argue, humanity—in his lecture, was abetted by the overwhelming, toxic masculinity of architecture in midcentury. His Mad Men caricature missed the real reason for his ultimate fall from grace this year.

My guess is that Meier’s arrogance was created by the Canon of Architecture he was made in: an entitled stew of hubris, a cliché extension of what every one of us has in us. His sexual violence was part of all our culture, but his status makes that abuse an extension of the Canon of the day.

The truth is that sometimes Canons change. I am an Episcopalian. 300 years ago I would have been an Anglican of the Church of England. 500 years ago I would have been a Catholic. But back then, a radically disgruntled Martin Luther could not stand it any more. He composed about 90 versions of “I can’t stand this!” and hammered them onto a church door and FU’d the Canon as it stood. 

Like Luther into church abuses, my immersion into the Meier’s Canon made me bridle against it. I never have owned a suit. My glasses are on sale from Lens Crafters. I seldom do the Architecture Thing, let alone participate in the world of destructive stereotypes that dehumanize everything they touch. I hated the effect of that exclusive Canon of Architecture, but the disgusting #MeToo violence is way beyond my professional niche. That niche is, to me, about the extreme projection of self-justification. 

Canons are made by humans, and they fully embody both the nobility and utterly flawed essence of who we are. Some want everyone to take the Eucharist every Sunday. Some other Canons will not allow anyone to eat meat. Some will not give up their guns. Others really think opera is the only music.

In this part of the world, a Canon that does not victimize anyone else is OK—for those who follow their Canon.

But in architecture, the Canons I should have followed in midcentury were outrageously prescriptive, assumptive, and brain-dead to me. I am not Richard Meier. He faithfully followed virtually all of architecture’s public Canon for 50 years. I think his present purgatory was caused by his faithful projection of himself in the cause and belief in that Canon.

The Canon’s “my way or the highway” approach kills our humanity and denies the reality that we are children of God—children who make unending errors but who know that Jesus was one of us. Instead architects are taught to pose as Masters of the Canon.

That Canon, in the weird elitism of Meier and other architects, is what defines success. It is a narrow path and leads to laud. But it is a way where humans create success on our own terms. Humans laud other humans. There is no God to listen to, other than the self-constructed ones who anoint and confirm legitimacy for ourselves.

It is the laud of the choir you are singing in. The greater world, the larger reality, does not care about these petty judgments. God loves Richard Meier, even though Meier is a creep. God even loves me. And you.

But the path we define is only defined by us. There is a larger, harder way we cannot define. That path opens your heart to what is not defined by “Modern Architecture” or any other Canon. Because we cannot know it, let alone control it, the lack of our own design and construction of this largest reality mandates Faith.

The truth is hard for us because we did not write it. We did not ask for it, even want it. I wish I could have faith in the world of Richard Meier. I would be a more celebrated architect, a validated success. I came to realize what Richard Meier may now know—that the success we make for ourselves inevitably falls short, because it fails to address one central truth.

We are only here because something we do not understand gave us everything we are. We are forced to live, and ultimately die, with one abiding reality: the love of God. Not easy for we who wish to be the Starchitects of our lives.