Romancing About Architecture

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Why the architect is Hollywood’s go-to male love interest.

(500) Days of Summer

Approximately six hours into this summer’s Sex and the City 2, Samantha, fearing that her heretofore artesian well of sexual desire has run dry, suddenly feels the old tingle return when she meets an architect. The film ends [spoiler alert, I guess] with said architect thrusting equinely away at Samantha, who braces herself atop the hood of an SUV while 4th of July Fireworks explode over the Hamptons.

Atrocious as it was, S.A.T.C. 2 was absolutely typical of the modern romantic comedy in one respect. Samantha’s suitor is the only new male romantic interest introduced in the film, and it is not at all surprising that the writers chose to make him an architect. Architects are everywhere in modern movies, especially in romantic comedies, and they tend to be very particular sorts: creative, but not as grubby as musicians; fiscally sturdy, but not as stodgy as bankers; dreamers with briefcases; visionaries of the tangible. In a culture bursting with self-help books and romantic anxiety, the male architect is a rare figure who can be all things to all women (and in popular culture, architects are almost always male — badass career women in the movies tend toward law or journalism). And so, in the last twenty-five years, architecture has become Hollywood’s go-to profession for the male romantic lead. 

Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever
Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever

Once you start looking for them, they really are everywhere, from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s twenty-something architect in 500 Days of Summer to Sam Waterston’s middle-aged architect in Hannah and Her Sisters to Steve Martin’s venerable-something architect in It’s Complicated, or from Tom Hanks’ white-bread architect in Sleepless in Seattle to Wesley Snipes’ black architect in Jungle Fever to the international style of Liam Neeson in Love Actually.

Our heroines make terrible decisions when pursuing architects, as in Mystic Pizza, where a young woman has an affair with an architect who has hired her as a babysitter, or in Hannah and Her Sisters, where Carrie Fisher and Dianne Wiest destroy their friendship when they both fall for the same architect who weeps at the opera. In There’s Something About Mary, Brett Favre might be good in the red zone, but Cameron Diaz really wants a man who knows his way around a blueprint. The allure of the architect also drives art-house movies like the 2008 indie Life in Flight, where Patrick Wilson plays a New York architect who has two gorgeous women vying for him (even though his endless monologues about building permits remind viewers of the biggest problem with Realism: reality is boring). Even Christopher Reeve, in the 1998 remake of Rear Window, plays an architect. Jimmy Stewart’s version of the character was a photographer, presumably because photography ties into the theme of voyeurism that makes the original a classic, but Reeve’s version is an architect for… some reason. One wonders if the writers weren’t just looking for the easiest device they could think of to make him sexier. 

So this obviously raises the question, why has Hollywood settled on the architect as the paragon of modern romance? Here are my four best explanations:

1) The artist in the gray flannel suit 

Traditionally, male romantic leads have jobs that mark them either as powerful (the princes of Shakespearean comedy, Gatsby the bootlegger, Humphrey Bogart’s tycoon in Sabrina) or soulful (Abelard the scholar, Chaplin the little tramp, or the record-store owner in High Fidelity — who, by the way, lists architect as one of his five dream professions).

Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle
Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle

The architect splits the difference between Mr. Provider and Mr. Sensitive, or at least Hollywood presents him that way. I suspect that actual architects spend as much time doing mundane crap as all the rest of us, but onscreen, they lead lives of creative wonder punctuated by soul-baring speeches, underlined by confidence in their 401Ks. Certainly Hanks’ character in Sleepless in Seattle fits this mold. He is obviously pulling down a serious salary to afford his uber-yuppie house-on-a-dock, but he’s not so crushed by the demands of work that he isn’t available for comforting chats with his son. The television show How I Met Your Mother also works this angle, particularly in its first season, when the main character, the fresh-out-of-grad-school architect Ted, refuses to shut up about his search for "the One."

2) The conversation starter 

I wonder if actual architects get annoyed by the fact that everyone has a half-cocked opinion about a field that they’ve spent their entire adult lives studying. I can’t imagine that dentists have to listen to party guests talk about their preferred root-canal technique, but when it comes to architecture, most of us have opinions. Ranch or colonial? Doric or Corinthian? Gehry or Fuck Gehry? People who think it is the height of pretentiousness to discuss abstract sculpture are more than happy to talk about crown molding, even though crown molding is basically a long, skinny abstract sculpture nailed to the top of your wall. 

This explains a lot about why architects are such a go-to for Hollywood. Within five or six minutes of her meet-cute with the architect, the female love interest will find herself in a deep conversation about his favorite buildings. Indeed, in Hannah and Her Sisters, Sam Waterston’s "move" is to ask two beautiful women (one of whom is Carrie Fisher three years post-metal-bikini), "Would you like to see some of my favorite buildings?" And it works. He takes them on a tour of Woody Allen-approved architecture that culminates with the two women negotiating about who will be dropped off last and thus seduced by Waterston. In 500 Days of Summer, architecture is even more essential to giving the male protagonist the opening he needs. Through most of the movie, Summer’s affect is as flat as the pancakes she’s eating when she dumps Tom, but the moment she finds out Tom went to college to be an architect is one of the few times she seems impressed by anything.

3) He can build your dream house 

It’s Complicated probably goes the furthest with the "Dream House" idea — when Meryl Streep meets Steve Martin for the first time, he presents her with the blueprints for an addition to her house, and unlike everyone else at his firm, he understands what she wants. "Thank you," she says, "for taking my forty-seven emails and turning them into something so beautiful." So that’s the message, ladies: architects can take all of your neuroses and transform them into breezeways and bay windows and shit.

4) Architecture is visual 

Any movie that deals with creativity faces a problem: how can a film convey the nature of inspiration in a quick, understandable, visually compelling manner? And often, the solutions leave something to be desired. Russell Crowe scribbles formulas on the window, but the viewer of A Beautiful Mind doesn’t really understand the vagaries of higher math he is discovering. John Keats, wan and twee, luxuriates beneath a tree as we hear a snippet of whatever Ode he is writing, but if you go into Bright Star without a pretty strong sense of Keats already, it is nearly impossible to grasp the meaning of the whole poem from a few lines recited to an orchestral accompaniment. And I grant you that a movie about architecture isn’t going to teach you about load calculations any more than Bright Star is going to teach you about pentameter, but at least you can see the damn building. Thus, in 500 Days of Summer, Tom scribbles a drawing of his vision for the Los Angeles skyline on Summer’s forearm, and we think, "My, but that Zooey Deschanel has some lovely wrists. And I guess that building looks cool too."

Hollywood almost never makes romantic comedies where the architect is a woman (One Fine Day is an exception), but I’m not sure that’s even the biggest insult to women in all of this. After all, movies are not about what we are, but what we want. And Hollywood has decided that women want a man who is creative, as long as he is creative in a way that doesn’t compromise his ability to buy stuff. Of course, the professions women tend to be assigned in romantic comedies — dog walker, crossword-puzzle writer, "sell your stuff on eBay store" proprietor — are just a big pile of quirkiness. So apparently screenwriters have determined that women want everything and men just want not to be threatened. Either wish is pretty infantile, when you think about it.

How I Met Your Mother
Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother

That said, the two most recent and youth-oriented iterations of the romantic-architect formula — How I Met Your Mother and 500 Days of Summer — are filled less with wishes than anxieties. In the romantic-architect films of the nineties, the architect never worried much about his financial or professional viability, but in the late oughts, we saw a new figure emerge — the failed architect. Tom in 500 Days believes that he has washed out of his true calling, and is stuck in a job that not only wastes but insults his professional training. Ted began the run of How I Met Your Mother with a job as an architect, but at the end of the third season he bails on his career when he can no longer bear the required compromises.

So why are movie architects, after a twenty-five year run in which they might have had the highest sexual batting average of any movie profession, suddenly so glum? It would be tempting to ascribe the "failed architect" trend to the recession, but both of these examples premiered prior to the economic collapse. However, these narratives comment on a longer-term economic anxiety: the fear of American young adults that even if they play by the rules and earn college and graduate degrees, the well-compensated, personally fulfilling work that was promised to them might not actually be out there. 500 Days and How I Met Your Mother both target a young, middle-class demographic that is saddled with debt accrued training for careers in extremely competitive fields.

And the boomers who have those jobs are hanging on tight. For instance, right about now Hanks’ character from Sleepless should be getting old enough to start looking ahead to retirement, but his mutual funds probably got hammered in 2008, there’s no way his house is still worth what it was when he re-financed, and he doubtless owes a lot of alimony to that stalker from Baltimore he married. So Ted and Tom probably aren’t going to see an opening advertised at a Seattle architecture firm anytime soon. But if Hollywood is correct, young architects can at least take solace in the fact that their degrees are as valuable on the meat market as they are worthless on the job market.