Romancing About Architecture

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

(500) Days of Summer

By Ben Johnson

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.

Commentarium (17 Comments)

Jul 22 10 - 12:46am
formerlyscanneremily

Great story, Ben! Glad to see Kansas City still representing on Nerve.

Jul 22 10 - 4:26am
Jamonit83

Where are these architects you refer to in this article? Certainly not at the firm I work for. Pretentious, insecure, manbabies!

Jul 22 10 - 7:37am
ss

this is a fantastically well written article. As an aside, how funny that George's character on Seinfeld always pretended to be an architect! Was it because he wanted to think of himself as the romantic male lead? I never thought about it that way before.

Jul 22 10 - 7:45am
noh

Architects earn no money really its done for architects these days. Maybe it's different in the states in Europe there are heaps of then just floating about. Not working since the crisis many of my old architecture class buddy's one killed himself in Dubai. The other works and a security guard and another teaches surfing.

Jul 22 10 - 9:54am
MissHayden

"Our heroines make terrible decisions when pursuing architects..."
This heroine certainly has. ... sigh

Jul 22 10 - 10:04am
FriendofDorothy

Makes me wonder if architects only actually exist in the movies...

Jul 22 10 - 10:07am
Me

This would be a cool regular feature. How professions are displayed in romantic comedies. There might not be enough jobs to make it last very long, though.

Jul 22 10 - 12:50pm
Beth

"Erection"! How are you missing this.. it is always BIG buildings, phallic buildings ... powerful control and manipulation of space and materials..

Jul 22 10 - 2:51pm
JF

Finally Nerve publishes something interesting!

Jul 25 10 - 8:38pm
Felix Jones

Nuclear Engineers are way sexier.

Jul 28 10 - 3:49am
robotboy

From the title on down to the thesis, this article is the shit!

Jul 29 10 - 5:07pm
Twinkletoes

Being a real-life female architect I would pass on dating another (male) architect esp. after having gone to school with and working with them - a bunch of moody drama queens! And yeah, many of us in our 30's are unemployed, unlikely to working in this field again...

Aug 01 10 - 7:35pm
bmbarton

boring

Aug 10 10 - 10:02am
matt

if only

Nov 20 11 - 10:50pm
Polly

This forum neeedd shaking up and you've just done that. Great post!

Nov 21 11 - 2:51pm
iljpohredem

SWNavh onqvnutsplks