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March 22, 2018


43 years ago we filed into the school’s one auditorium to see an architect, under 40: a fellow Cornell white male stand and deliver – Richard Meier.

He was part of “The New York Five”, on the cover of the book with 4 others, deemed, later, one of the seminal “Whites” by those in the Architectural Know. I was white, male, in Cornell Architecture School, the proclaimed “Best” when 5 year architecture programs were the “Best”, back when we “Whites” were also proclaimed “Best” by the Canon.

The Canon is the airtight, unquestioned grid of acceptance of what is True, and therefore rejection of what is False. Meier came as a fulfillment of that Canon.

The Canon has been specific about the first step of significance. You are Ivy. You are White. But most importantly, in mid-century architecture, You are Male. If you are also (less so then than now, but still), “Modern” BINGO The Golden Ticket.

Unfortunately for Richard Meier, me and my homies were dutifully present, but suspicious. It was a time of upheaval. Everywhere. Nixon was fired. The ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) had over 60% of states supporting it. There were blacks and females in my class. A few were on a par, sometimes better, than we egomaniacal jackasses. The White Guy Thing has feet of clay.

So did Meier.

We listened to his pontificating. The endless stream of “my latest work”, his glasses, the suit, his pretense, and left laughing at what an arrogant jackass he was. We were the white males who got more than a little pissed when a female student derailed a design jury when some ancient (white) male fawned over her, and that bled over to her design critique. When we knew, knew, ours was better.

We honestly did not care where the design came from. It was a third reality. The designer could be anyone, the critic could be anyone. But often the design was just damn good. It did not matter about the people.

That was a Canon. Derived by a few Alpha Males. Big Dogs. My work was not “White” like Meier’s. It was not “Modernist” but it was good. Sometimes.

But 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!”, hammered them onto a church door and FU’d the Canon as it stood.

That was then. We are now all “Modern”. The Canon is said to be tolerance, inclusion, diversity, openness, fairness, not prescribed judgement of anything but intolerance and judgement (irony intended).

Well, not in architecture. Then or now.

In a recent Common Edge Collaberative piece about how Jackass Meiers propelled his personality so evident in 1975 into sexual harassment an architectural historian, Eva Hagberg Fisher, speaks as a correspondent to a middle aged white male critic and says “Will it change the “canon?”


There is an official Canon.

Not a collection of architecture, an oeuvre, nor a phylum of building that happens to have a style amid many styles, but a black-letter-law Canon. That a vaunted jackass’s feet of clay might force change upon.

I have only been doing this for 40 years, built over 700 things, written 8 books, won dozens of awards and competitions, written perhaps 1,000 articles, lectured at universities and institutions perhaps 200 times and taught at a few, and now, now, it is revealed that there is an avowed Canon?

And the critic, world famous Aaron Betsky, simply goes along with it, and responds in a way that says the known, established Canon is real and true and strong, and will adapt to these vissitudes of circumstance.

Wait. That Canon Kills Creativity. It censors difference. It is against diversity. It definitionally cannot be fair. It is judgement based on style – Meier’s style – the rest is “vernacular”, or “picturesque”, or pandering or, what? I would say just not Meier.

What is simply aesthetic expression has become Right and Wrong. Even Good and Evil.

Weird sexual freaks were once seen as OK if they were male and Good. Until now.

We all make Canons. My Canon in that bandwidth is good. The more I or anyone deals with all the aspects of life, all the criteria of age, wealth, weather, history, culture, humor, perspective the better it is. When those are limited, distilled, propagandized, turned into a polemic or a dialectic, the worse it is, for everyone.

We want everyone to take Eucharist every Sunday, now, in the Episcopal Church. Catholics cannot have females be priests, or gay people marry. Some will not eat meat. Some will not give up their guns. Others really think opera is the only music.

Anyone should have any canon they want. For them.

But not for me. Or Martin Luther.

I am not Richard Meier either, who faithfully followed all, virtual all, of architecture’s Canon for 50 years. And now sees what it causes.

Self-definition, thus approbation and congratulation, end up having a high probability of tone deafness, and exclusion. And propaganda. And all the “My way or the highway” subtlety that leaves the small group of architects, like me, doing what we do, and largely nonexistent to the Richard Meier wing of the Architecture Party.

But there are many parties. We all belong to them, because it’s easier. It’s hard to think and muse and be self-critical, rather than trust critics like Aaron Betsky if what we are doing is Good. Or Evil.

It’s harder to actually think about what is behind prejudice than simply be prejudiced. Especially if everyone else is. I sit in silence during these 40 straight days in Lent, burning nearly 50,000 calories and listening.

Last night I heard the echoes of the jackass and see his reward now. And see the reward of the few of us who design buildings. The Canon defines success, and if it is a narrow path, the way gone upon that narrow, defined, directed path, leads to laud.

But it is the laud of the choir you are singing in. The greater world, the largest reality, does not care about these petty judgements. 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. Opening your heart to what is not defined by “Modern” or any other label. Having a bandwidth that was Luther’s, that considers before you judge.

We listened, and considered 43 years ago, he was a jackass then, and it seems nothing has changed.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2018 8:37 am

    Fuck the canon

  2. July 11, 2018 3:20 pm

    Feet of clay was my favorite. Well done. You can only write like that if you truly feel it. I am so impressed you still carry that passion.

  3. October 13, 2018 9:24 am


  4. Ed Gauvreau permalink
    November 11, 2018 7:37 pm

    I never was much for any canons – my 5th year crit was from Cornell and we never saw eye to eye. Having a career in government, especially with the Corps of Engineers, certainly didn’t fit the canon….but surprisingly attained FAIA. There are indeed many paths….

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