Construction of an Architect

September 14, 2020


Mas issue character construction of an architect 01

The Belly of an Architect (1987) directed by Peter Greenaway.

The Architect, a title so synonymous with a certain cultural clique of filmmaking that there were no less than three movies released within the last decade that donned the professional title. While the later films might be accused of lifting the title, the combined Rotten Tomatoes score of a paltry eleven percent for all three films may suggest that each film was simply too inconsequential to make an impact on the others.1 The commonalities of these movies did not end at their titles and low ratings. Above all, they documented the character of the architect in the eyes of the public. While endeavoring to turbo-charge the character of the architect with all the beauty of Hollywood comedic appeal or dramatic effect, they failed to present anything more than stereotypical representations—architects devoid of contact with the greater society and cocooned inside personal endeavor. Although the formula may not always yield filmic gold, their presence on screen does bring up the question of the character of the architect and its relevance to the discipline.

The construction of the architect character is something of great specificity, outlining truths beyond the well-oiled stereotypes in these recent films. The image of the architect as presented to us on screens, in paintings, and in books is very much a formulation, or system, in and of itself. Characters are often disposed to have an existing structure—held up by the personalities and individual emotional traits that represent a continuous pendulum between artistic expression and business commercialism—and are covered with layers of allegory—built-up from accessories and equipment that symbolize the profession and the work undertaken. The characters we see in different forms of representation are indeed fabricated in the image of the architect, but an image that is formed by the public perception of the discipline’s emotional generalities and its symbolic objects—a duality encompassed by the categorization of the personal and the elemental architect character.

Used in a variety of ways, the split between the personal and the elemental character of the architect exposes the particularities of different mediums. Henry Fonda, as one of the jurors in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film 12 Angry Men, is an architect whose slow and concerted persuasion of the other eleven jurymen seems highly inconsequential to his abilities as an architect. Yet taken in the grand scheme of his actions, the architect title is aimed at warranting his aptitude for influence. Dropping the title of an architect, Fonda’s character is instantaneously capable of intelligence and consideration, remaining off-center and daring in the face of standard irrational prejudice toward the defendant on trial. “His intelligence and compassion, king’s English and dignified restraint, are contrasted with the crudeness of the other [characters].”2

To take this as merely the pontification of an architect’s abilities would be jumping to conclusions. What this suggests is the architect’s multifarious character. Constructed through personality and devoid of direct professional evidence of their abilities, the architect takes on a personal relationship with the viewer that is independent of their architectural production.

“Are you a salesman?”
“I’m an architect.”
“You know what the soft sell is? Well, you’ve got it, believe me.”3

Fonda, an architect in plain clothes, assumes the role of the left field journeyman willing to consider the terms of the case of a young man on trial for murder. He can see past any initial visceral reaction, following up with clear-headed inquiry and rational argument. The “soft sell” claim encapsulates Fonda’s willingness and stubbornness in the face of public opinion, yet one that finds form in subtle refusal, leaps of faith, and the slow manipulation of other jurors through his own analysis. Fonda is the “character” of the architect without architecture, capturing an architect’s characteristics that involve analysis, prophecy, and the creation of alternate worldviews. In the realm of personal character construction, the profession of architecture, or the labored work undertaken by the hand of the architect, is forgotten to focus on the individual’s persona in direct relationship with other individuals.

The opposite of this personal form of character construction is Pablo Picasso’s 1912 painting, The Architect’s Table, which reveals that neither the architect nor architecture needs a direct relationship with the other. No human figure is found in this cubist painting. Instead, only items such as a ruler, some ink, and a compass provide evidence of a character’s presence. The self-referential objects emphasize—within the medium of painting—the acts of the architect undertaken through his or her tool kit, and encourage the viewer to disregard their personality or identity.4 The ability to draw, construct, and define a world is the consideration, fabricated out of the material tools that symbolize their work. This is an elemental character.

In forms of representation such as painting that are less conjoined to narrative depiction, the character of an architect is constantly constructed in this same elemental manner in order to depersonalize the individual’s existence. Acting to exemplify the discipline, the conversation moves away from a strictly entertainment-focused representation and into a contemplative and considered one. In contrast, architect characters constructed with an emphasis on personality, open up a barrier between the architect as a persona and the architect as a professional. This character’s professional particularities are then utilized for their personal attributes, and what occurs is a deprofessionalization in the name of entertainment. On the other hand, the elemental construction of character, such as in The Architect’s Table, gives priority to the work of the architect and architecture in general.

All of this isn’t unsurprising, and is perhaps obvious, but what this dichotomy of characterization explicates is that the form of construction matters. While different mediums of representation utilize different character formation, what becomes enlightening are the proclivities that each medium has to elucidate or eliminate certain characteristics. Hence, what is afforded to representation is a certain control over the architect’s character for specific audiences. This control allows architects to position themselves strategically in the world.

The elemental character is often manifested within drawings, drafting equipment, models, sketches, clothing, and accessories. All signifying to the viewer the presence of an architect’s work, these elements make symbolic reference to architecture in general. Best explained in the 1929 piece Der Architekt of Hans Poelzig by August Sander for his People of the Twentieth Century project, the portrait could be considered the construction of an archetypal architect solely through the use of accessories. The hair, the bow tie, the cigar, and the circular spectacles, all form part of the distinctive façade, symbolizing the discipline at large. As Jeffrey T. Schnapp explained in his “anatomical dissection of the modern architect,” these props identify the architect’s expanded visibility in the twentieth century through their own body and formal composition. He continues, proclaiming that the bow-tie is an explanation of an architect’s anachronistic rigor that “recall[ed] the revolts against triviality of a prior century of nonconformists (and) openly defie[d] contemporary habits.”5 However, Poelzig’s portrait may actually formalize a subtler image: one consistence with the construction of character based upon clashing contradictions. From this perspective, Poelzig’s image reveals more about his desire to be placed within society at large through recognizable accoutrements, yet remain separate through the choice of each. The glasses, the cigar, the haircut, and the bow tie are all identifiable objects of fashion at the time, but all of them are unmistakably different from standard forms of attire of the same period. What results is a conflicting character who chases distinction while remaining in the crowd. The quintessence of this character is made clear in Sander’s title, People of the Twentieth Century. The project, envisioned to reveal the subjects’ “status as typical representatives of their trade or class or generation,” presents Poelzig as an individual but, more importantly, as a representation of a group.6 He is an architect of the future twentieth century, symbolizing the rest in an almost tribalistic condition of acceptance and distinction through markings. His allegiance to the cause is on show; equipment and accessories becoming tribal tattoos to be worn.

The protagonist, Asterios Polyp, from David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel of the same name, is another example of an architect character that is stringently shaped. Mazzuchelli begins by describing Polyp as a typical modernist architect who is outwardly ideological. Drawn through transparent cylindrical forms, Polyp’s character is actually built out of its own architectural philosophy and, as a result, deliberately contrasts with the other character he is confronted with. Standing opposite his wife Hana, whose chiaroscuro hatching expose her soft character, Polyp’s representation portrays his personality through the image of his architecture. Unlike Poelzig, whose portrait focused on being differentiated from a wide set of people through accesories, Polyp’s typical features deliberately differentiate him from his wife, further focusing his character on its personal idiosyncrasies and distinctions.

In contrast to Poelzig, Mazzuchelli’s character underlines the profession’s impact on his personality, principled on efficiency and efficacy. As his story is told, Polyp’s choice to leave architecture comes only after a fire has destroyed his apartment, heavily laden with architectural emblems of modernist furniture. The symbolic destruction of his equipment allows him to leave the profession, yet the profession’s impact on his personality remains, even under the disguise of a middle-aged car mechanic. The foundations and formations that structure his cylindrical ideological character are forever visible on him; he is not so much representative of architecture, but a distillation of it into human form. His character is figuratively and literally built out of it, turning the professional attributes into a medium of narrative tale.

While an architect’s character can be constructed, it can just as easily be deconstructed. In much the same way as control over symbolic equipment was important to the construction of Poelzig’s character, the authority of the character itself is crucial to its stability. Both the portraits of Stourley Kracklite, in Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect, and Seth Pecksniff, in Frederick Barnard’s illustration from Charles Dickens’s 1844 novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, represent or foretell their capitulation in the face of losing authority. Barnard’s spectacular drawing of Pecksniff prophesizes the hypocrite’s downfall by elaborating the notion of the character’s rigid construction of himself as farcical. Shown in honorific position with compass and sketch in hand, what one takes from the drawing of Pecksniff is his self-obsession. Standing in front of a bust, a portrait, and another smaller painting, all representations of himself, the drawing of Pecksniff is elementally agglomerated around other depictions of himself. Pecksniff’s own formulation of his character as an architect is so precise that its repetition instantly alludes to its falsity. Instead of alluding to his greatness, his portraits and busts stand in as inanimate objects that symbolize his character as a fabrication. Pecksniff’s eventual downfall in the story may be seen as the result of an elemental character construction that does not represent anything of the profession.

In The Belly of an Architect, the enigmatic and unfortunate Kracklite is also presented with his own ruination. Over the course of the film his self-belief as an architect is voiced in confirmations of pride and faith, stating “I’m an architect.”7 Traveling from America to prove that his hero, Étienne-Louis Boullée, is a rightful recipient of the title Master Architect, Kracklite constructs his own character in the vein of the Frenchman, deceiving himself into thoughts that he could be a rightful pupil. However, towards the end of the film when he is presented with images of his time in Rome that outline a map of his inadequacies and self-deception, he stands fallen and finished in self-destruction. The evidence of his wife’s unfaithfulness while carrying his future child, and his obsessive procrastination over the one thing killing him, his belly, Kracklite’s character devolves further, unable to handle the loss of control. Much like Barnard’s foretelling of Pecknsiff’s doom, the images on the wall suggests that what has transpired was already prefigured.8 Obliterating any authority or control that he perceived he had over his character, Kracklite looks at the representation of himself on the wall unable to change it and accepts his fate.

Kracklite’s procrastination over his sick belly should be seen as a rejection of his body, a denial of his personal character that results in his ruin. His body, representative of his character in and of itself, exemplifies the predicament of total control. Unable to maintain the authority over his body, his downfall is later complete in true Greenaway allegory. Standing before a gigantic sculpture of a belly completely disheveled after a drunken night in a cell block, Kracklite states his profession one final time, “I’m an architect.” The police officer placidly replies, “that’s all, thank you.” Kracklite is exactly that, finished. Without child, family, and life, the architect character is not much.

The Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh was quoted saying that “[c]haracter, like a photograph, develops in darkness.” Taken in the context of the architect, character itself is something that can be controlled only when hidden away from the projections of others. If these six portraits outline anything it is that the control of character affords the architect an opportunity to position themselves in the world, but it is a constant fight with outside factors from distinct mediums. These portraits are by no means a guide book into that realm, but are instead reflective of the consistently distorted image of the architect that has retained some honesty which the public consumes. These representations differ from the recent filmic characters in The Architect films because they are not total demonizations; they are indeed depictions of real characteristics. They derive their power from reality, the personal and the elemental aspects of their character reflect an area of understanding between public interpretation and the architect in real life.

The personal aspect of the architect character, while perhaps the most distortive, is at the same time the most digestible. A double-edge sword, the proclivity to deprofessionalize debases the architect of their occupational acumen and establishes a direct individual relationship, while regrettably reducing the discipline to personal characteristics. The elemental character promotes the discipline, removing the individual from the character and minimizing their relationship with the public. While evidently one might suggest that a happy medium between the two would lead to more control, the polarizing aspects of all six portraits emphasize that perhaps the most successful (memorable) characters are always so. If the elemental and personal construct the character, perhaps what remains unknown for the discipline is how to control them.

1 “The Architect (2006),” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed September 16, 2017,; “The Architect (2012),” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed September 16, 2017,; “The Architect (2016),” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed September 16, 2017,
2 Nancy Levison, Tall Buildings, Tall Tales: On Architects in the Movies in Architect and Film, ed. Mark Lamster (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), 14.
3 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet (United Artists: 1957).
4 Jeffery T. Schnapp, “The Face of the Modern Architect,” Grey Room (MIT Press) 33 (Fall 2008): 11.
5 Ibid., 10.
6 Matthias Uecker, “The Face of the Weimar Republic Photography, Physiognomy, and Propaganda in Weimar Germany,” in Monatshefte (University of Wisconsin Press) 99, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 473.
7 The Belly of an Architect, directed by Peter Greenaway (Hemdale Film Corporation, 1987).
8 Anne Bottomley, “Lines of Vision, Lines of Flight: The Belly of an Architect,” Cardozo Law Review 31, Issue 4 (March 2010).