David Brenner, the comedian, interviewed me in the early 1980s regarding the renovation of a brownstone he had just purchased. He had read an article about my work in Avenue, a magazine delivered free of charge to residents of Park Avenue and other high-income New Yorkers. We met at his residence, filled with a plethora of objects, including a trophy girlfriend that was barely distinguishable from the background scene. It was early in my career, so my portfolio was scant and included only interiors. But the projects did not lack in ambition. He looked like an intelligent man, so I launched into explanations about the mapping of sites, spatial matrixes and associative imagery, to be resolved into a complex spatiality. The Law Offices and the Consulate of the Ivory Coast caught his attention. He seemed amazed that banal workspaces could be turned into metaphorical landscapes, resonant with personal or collective associations. In silence, he reviewed the portfolio once more and said, very slowly: “ It is… not… going… to… work… You… are… er…an… artist! And… we… are… er… SHOPPERS!!!” I remember the spray falling on the photos, luckily protected by plastic sleeves. He was sharp enough to see that I would not make the most genuinely enthusiastic shopping expedition companion.
In time, I learned to deal with the status-based consumption that most clients who can afford architects inevitably introduced in the design of their homes; but that evening with David Brenner made me ask some hard questions about the kind of professional life I hoped to develop. For the first time in my budding career I had to consider whether architects, especially young ones eager for projects, would always have to sell themselves by suppressing the discussion of ideas and only saying what clients wanted to hear. Or whether it was a cultural misunderstanding on my part that prevented me from “reading” the situation from the start. And whether a project so circumscribed by issues related to status and consumption was worthwhile doing. Or whether female architects were perceived as being more interested in shopping than male ones. Only a few weeks before, I had responded to a query from the New York Times Home section asking me to identify my favorite domestic appliance, including its brand, by recommending the restaurant of the Dorset Hotel, where I used to have breakfast as soon as I rolled out of bed across the street. Since my answer did not fulfill the interviewer’s expectations, it was not published.
I thought that, if I had to make a living solely from my architectural practice, I would have to learn – in my view – to live with deception and self-censorship. The question was: how much of it could I handle without violating my personal values? Sensing a dangerous slippery slope, I resolved to find a way to combine a professional practice with an academic one. I already had (male) colleagues who were doing it (seemingly successfully) although they did not spend the extended hours in the studios with their students that I did to ensure that they produced the best work they were capable of. That dedication eventually earned me a tap on the shoulder at Columbia University for a tenure-track full-time position and the economic freedom to be able to reject projects solely defined by consumption. The price, however, was a heroic if entirely unbalanced existence, marked by the intensity of managing hugely demanding parallel lives. How the dichotomy between academic and professional practices would be played out will be the subject of other blog entries.
Nonetheless I am still grateful to the quick-witted David Brenner (recently deceased) for an insight that helped me, and him, clarify a crucial distinction.
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