Ask someone to draw a cartoon architect and a few features will certainly make an appearance; a big roll of paper and a harried expression might crop up, an entirely black outfit would just about seal the deal, but the image won’t be complete until a big old pair of black-framed glasses of some elemental geometric shape are slapped across the eyes. As ubiquitous as the profession is, as common as the practitioners of the art are, the architect’s eyeglasses have established themselves firmly in the imagination as a central component of the uniform, nigh on ever-present.
The international cult of personality is an exclusive club to gain entrance to as an architect. We live in a world after all where most first-world cities consist of buildings that come with some level of applied design theory behind them, and while by no means all of these structures are the work of architects, this reality does render the profession widespread, and its practitioners legion. Gaining some level of recognition in the industry is often the work of a lifetime, with architects putting in years of study, apprenticeship, and graft before coming to a rare level of externally perceived mastery and client backing – oftentimes never forthcoming – that affords them international, public mention. Some architects of alternate motivation and station determine to colour their native cities or regions, others devote themselves to the fostering of young talent in educational institutions, still others turn away from the paths of the built environment to become theoretical or journalistic experts.
And so it is a great boon to architects the world over that they have at their disposal a universally accessible accessory of historical, symbolic and practical potency in the form of hip spectacles.
The afore-mentioned Le Corbusier spent his entire career stalking around with a pair of thick, predominantly circular rimmed black glasses perched on the end of his imposing beak: strong, stern, heavy, immovable. More recently the evergreen Frank Ghery has made a different kind of statement by making a permanent exhibit out of a pair of wire framed reading glasses that one would usually expect to be stowed away in a shirt pocket between showings. SANAA co-founder Kazuyo Sejima, who won the 2010 Pritzker prize along with her coworker Ryue Nishizawa, sports a fantastic pair of heavily framed specs, complete with an attached neck cord for added practicality. The great and stately Rem Koolhaas goes commando, but Daniel Libeskind of the Jewish Museum in Berlin adopts a look that melds with his broad smile to leave him looking like the zaney German uncle, or perhaps discotheque emcee, of the profession. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the industry.
Beyond these shining lights of the profession, the opportunity exists for any architect, of any time and place, and any specialty, to adopt an instant public persona – with remarkable scope for nuance – and in doing so somehow orient himself with the cultural language of the artform.
Lota de Macedo Soares
But what is it about architect’s glasses besides the pedigree of some users that makes them such a widespread, go-to tool of the trade? Surely also there is the psychology of the mask to take into consideration. Perhaps there is something in the public perception of architects that can render the glasses a powerful component of the architect-client relationship? Architects by implication believe that their vision of the world is worthy of investment and permanent representation, perhaps the glasses are another offensive tool in the struggle to ensure clients that this conceit is in fact the case? Perhaps the glasses of serious architects are the industry translation of the mullet: business on the body, party on the sellion.
Words: Richard McPhillips