Why Hollywood Needs to Change its Conception of "The Architect"

Why Hollywood Needs to Change its Conception of "The Architect"

Writers, directors, producers, and actors in the Hollywood film industry play major roles in shaping how millions around the world perceive architects and the architectural profession. Television shows, too, create stereotypes of professions that are repeatedly drummed into the brain with each successive episode. Both make long-lasting impacts that may encourage or dissuade young people from pursuing architecture as a career.

In her chapter, “Tall Buildings, Tall Tales: On Architects in the Movies” in Mark Lamster’s anthology, Architecture and Film (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), Nancy Levinson examines how Hollywood has assigned certain stereotypic character traits to architects. The following graphic builds upon and updates her work, showing a snapshot view of how architects are portrayed in 20th and 21st century film.

Courtesy of Kathryn Anthony, Robert Deering & Curt Pratt

So, according to Hollywood, an architect is a hero, lover, hopelessly out of touch, financially in trouble, a workaholic, or some combination of these.

But what does Hollywood say an architect looks like? Our updated list of actors and actresses who have played architects on the big screen allowed us to examine not just the manner in which the architect was portrayed, but also his/her physical features - such as gender, race, hair color, eye color, and facial hair - as well. In fact, Hollywood film directors have created a distinct image of what an architect should be. In over three-quarters (79%) of the 45 films we reviewed, the architect is represented as being clean-shaven. Over half (56%) of Hollywood’s architects have brown eyes (25% have blue, 19% green); over half (58%) have dark hair compared to light (42%). Taken holistically then, Hollywood has created the stereotypic image of an architect: a white, clean-shaven male with dark hair and brown eyes.

Screenshot from How I Met Your Mother. Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television

This image is promoted on television as well. Today’s most prominent fictional architect represented in media, Ted Mosby (portrayed by Josh Radnor) of the popular TV series How I Met Your Mother, (CBS, 2005-) is an exact demographic replica of Hollywood’s image of an architect. So was his brown-haired predecessor, architect Mike Brady (portrayed by Robert Reed) of the TV series The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969-1974), which became an instant Friday night hit. The show reached even greater popularity when syndicated episodes were repeated for after-school viewing, influencing a generation of fans to pursue architecture as a career. In the show, Brady, a widower with three sons who marries Carol (portrayed by Florence Henderson), with three daughters of her own, is pictured as the ultimate father figure of his new blended family. They all live in a large modern house in a Los Angeles suburb that Mike designed.

How else has Hollywood narrowed our perception of the “architect image?” According to the American Institute of Architects, in 2011 women made up 15% of all licensed architects, and 30% of associate members (not yet licensed), yet, according to our research, in 91% of the 45 films we reviewed, the architect is portrayed as a male. As of 2013, women architects were only found in four Hollywood movies: Father of the Bride (1991), One Fine Day (1996), Firewall (2006), and Inception (2010).

Prior to Inception, the most successful film featuring a female architect was One Fine Day. In the film, Melanie Parker (portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer) is an architect and single mother trying to juggle motherhood, her career, and a social life. In a make-or-break meeting with an important client, Parker presents her model and simply says, “Voila.” When her client asks to see cars in the model before he agrees to the design, Parker whips out her son’s toy cars from her purse. No matter that the cars are completely out of scale with the model, the client is sold. In this scene and others, the portrayal of the woman architect in One Fine Day is superficial and simplistic.

Screenshot from Inception. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

By contrast, Inception portrays a more substantial leading female character, architect Ariadne (portrayed by Ellen Page), who Miles (played by Michael Caine) proclaims is the best student he has ever had. Ariadne’s role in the ultimate metaphysical crime is paramount to the success of the mission. Before Ariadne’s character is introduced we are given a glimpse into what a less talented architect’s design can do to hinder the sensitive equilibrium of a dream’s environmental authenticity. Nash (portrayed by Lukas Haas) creates an environment where the type and texture of carpet does not match the dreamer’s reality. This minute detail, a mistake that Ariadne was too skilled to have made, ruins the entire mission and emphasizes the ability and superiority of Ariadne. In contrast to One Fine Day, a film that minimizes a woman architect’s abilities, Inception maximizes her abilities, showing an exceedingly powerful woman creating intricate environments.

Despite this one positive portrayal, the lack of gender diversity among architects portrayed in Hollywood films is disturbing. Equally startling is the lack of racial diversity. Compared to women, persons of color are even less likely to be represented as architects in Hollywood cinema. AIA’s 2011 membership statistics show that African-Americans represent only 1% of licensed architects and 3% of associate architects. Hollywood comes close to replicating these dire statistics. In just about all (96%) films, the architect is white. Only two movies, Jungle Fever (1991) featuring Flipper Purify (portrayed by African-American actor Wesley Snipes) and The Namesake (2006) featuring Gogol/Nikhil (portrayed by Indian-American Kal Penn) are exceptions to this rule.

Jungle Fever provides a glimpse into the struggles of an African-American architect through the story of Flipper Purify, a successful African-American architect in New York City. Writer and director Spike Lee touches on the lack of diversity in the architecture profession when Snipes, claiming that he is tired of being the only African-American in the office, asks the partners of the firm to let his new secretary be African-American. Later in the film, Flipper asks to be made partner, and promptly quits when his request is denied. Director Spike Lee casts Purify in an unusually seductive role: he has consensual sex with his female secretary on the drafting table in the office’s design studio.

Screenshot from Jungle Fever. Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In her film, The Namesake (2006), Indian-born director Mira Nair chronicles the lives of Indian parents who make the transition to life in America and struggle to raise their son, who is torn between the two cultures. The son, Gogol (Kal Penn) has an eye-opening experience visiting the Taj Mahal during his summer in India. Here he announces to his parents, “I think I am going to major in architecture,” to which his father replies, “What about engineering”? And then Gogol responds, “C’mon, baba, architecture has everything. It’s got engineering, drawing, aesthetics.” The father’s response reflects the fact that in many households, architects are not held in as high esteem as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, who are paid much more. But Gogol ultimately persuades his father to support his pursuit of an architectural career.

The lack of gender and racial diversity is not the only quarrel that architects could have with the way they are portrayed in Hollywood fictional media. As seen in One Fine Day and elsewhere, many representations of architects’ work are both inaccurate and absurd. This can be seen not only in Hollywood films, but also on TV shows, such as The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) and How I Met Your Mother (2005-present). For example, in The Brady Bunch episode 16, titled “Mike’s Horror-Scope,” Mike Brady designs a factory that is shaped like a powder puff and is completely pink. In How I Met Your Mother Season 4, Episode 8 - titled “Wooo!” - a rival architectural firm shows the design of a skyscraper shaped like a dinosaur that actually breathes fire on command. In Season 4, Episode 24, titled “The Leap,” the main character Ted Mosby designs a restaurant in the shape of a cowboy hat. These examples of preposterous designs paint a comical picture of the profession and serve to diminish and demean the way that architects work.

Fictional characters can play important roles in both reflecting current realities and in shaping future realities. Just as the popularity of television shows like Glee (2009-) and Modern Family (2009-) allow mainstream viewers to identify with fictional lead characters who are gay, and corresponded, perhaps not purely coincidentally, with a sweeping shift in public opinion across the USA towards greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, a greater diversity of Hollywood architects is needed to inspire the next generation. Architecture 101 (2012), for example, a South Korean film directed by Lee Yong-joo, who received a Bachelor’s degree in architecture, offers a sensitive portrait of a mid-career architect reflecting on his life as an architecture student. The film was a box office hit, holding the number one spot for its first three weeks, and topping over 4.1 million tickets sold: a box office record. According to a faculty member at Seoul National University, since the release of Architecture 101, the number of applicants to architecture school has greatly increased.

Hollywood directors could similarly help restore the image of the profession by picturing architects more realistically and by creating films in which highly underrepresented gender, racial and ethnic groups, such as women, African-Americans, Latino/as, and Asian-Americans, play major roles as talented architects to be taken seriously. Perhaps Newsweek reporter and television pundit Eleanor Clift put it best in a segment (March 3, 2013) of the TV news show, The McLaughlin Group: “Movies are one of our most important exports and it’s how we change hearts and minds around the world…”

Screenshot from 500 Days of Summer. Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures


Kathryn H. Anthony, Ph.D. is ACSA Distinguished Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the author of two design-related books, Design Juries on Trial: The Renaissance of the Design Studio; and Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession; over 100 scholarly articles; and two apps for iOS: The Design Student Survival Guide and The Student Survival Guide. She teaches a graduate seminar on “Architecture, Cinema, Environment and Behavior.”

Robert Deering is a LEED Green Associate currently working for an architecture firm in Cleveland, Ohio. He received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the Ohio State University, and a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Curt Pratt is currently working for an architecture firm in Davenport, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Architecture.

Both Deering and Pratt participated in the inaugural session of Professor Anthony’s graduate seminar on “Architecture, Cinema, Environment and Behavior.”

About this author
Cite: Kathryn Anthony, Robert Deering & Curt Pratt. "Why Hollywood Needs to Change its Conception of "The Architect"" 25 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/441844/why-hollywood-needs-to-change-its-conception-of-the-architect> ISSN 0719-8884

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