Time and again, allegations of sexual misconduct resuscitate the #MeToo movement that had surfaced in 2017. Initially stemming from within show business, it spread to other disciplines, including architecture, bringing to the surface, the harassment and maltreatment individuals, chiefly women, faced on a regular basis in the workplace.
At its peak, the #MeToo movement exposed numerous public figures. Accusations in certain sectors that are more in the public imagination, like cinema, sport, and politics, reverberated with greater resonance. Western movie stars like Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby faced a barrage of accusations. Perhaps the most famous case there is that of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood movie mogul, facing serious charges from numerous actresses whom he interacted with. In the Indian film industry, actors Nana Patekar and Alok Nath, amongst others, were accused of unacceptable behaviour. Multiple allegations of sexual harassment against a former president of the Wrestling Federation of India led to the suspension of the sports body. An unseemly imbroglio stretched through the better part of 2023 that also drew the attention of the Supreme Court of India.
Comparatively unnoticed at the early years of this activism was the controversy that ended the illustrious career of a celebrity American architect, Richard Meier. In 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, five women, including four who were his employees at some point, accused Meier of sexual harassment. Renderings of their experiences with Meier had common overtones. Some amongst these female employees, significantly younger than Meier, were directed to report to his residence to help document his ideas. At some point with each of them, Meier behaved unethically. He was accused of indulging in physical contact that was not consensual. In other cases, Meier is facing allegations of indecent exposure.
Misogyny in the profession of architecture is a long-acknowledged affliction. In the United States alone, despite their receiving 48 percent of all architecture degrees, women constitute only 17 percent of the architects registered with the American Institute of Architects. It is further accentuated by the cult of personality often built around the lead designer. Although designing and executing a building is a collective effort, it is scarcely acknowledged as such. The resultant public recognition of an individual makes for a near-mythical status that is often abused. A lengthy ‘Shitty Men of Architecture List’ compiled in 2018 brought in the open numerous well-known names in the profession.
While architecture as a creative art commands a physical presence in the public domain it holds scarce interest in popular imagination. Like Meier’s case, allegations of sexual harassment against Sir David Adjaye, a British-Ghanaian architect of international standing in mid-2023 went relatively unnoticed. The allegations against Adjaye and the unravelling of a discernable pattern to his misconduct made for serious note. Two of his female employees allege repeated sexual assault and one victim registered a criminal complaint.
Like Meier, Adjaye suffered consequences. He resigned as an architectural advisor to the Mayor of London and stepped down as a trustee of Serpentine Gallery, a prestigious art museum in London. His practice was impacted. Work on a Holocaust memorial next to the Palace of Westminster has been suspended. Large commissions in Chicago, Illinois, Portland in Oregon, and Lincoln in Massachusetts have been lost since details of the episodes surfaced. The Africa Institute cancelled Adjaye’s appointment for a campus in Sharjah and Studio Harlem parted ways with him on its New York City museum project. The commission for the National Cathedral in Ghana too, is under a cloud.
This case has a bearing for India where Adjaye was appointed for a very prestigious project in the country’s capital. Hired by one of India’s wealthiest families, he was designing a museum for their art collection. To be known as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Cultural Centre (also known as KNMA), the design for this building was exhibited amidst much fanfare at the 2023 Venice Biennale and afterwards in New Delhi.
When the need for a foreign architect to design a museum in the Indian capital dedicated largely to Indian art was questioned, Adjaye’s star-architect status quelled most detractors. It had been stated that his appointment for the National Museum of African American History and Culture was possibly because he is ethnically African. It may then be argued that Adjaye was selected as the architect for the project via a design competition for which six prestigious firms, including Foster + Partners and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, were short-listed.
Likewise, a design competition launched in 2018 invited forty-seven firms from fifteen countries to submit proposals for the KNMA project. Of these, five architects were short-listed for the second stage, all of whom were from the United States or Europe. Adjaye’s design was the unanimous choice of an international jury. The jury itself comprised three members of the Nadar family while the other four members were American and European. They ranged from a Belgian art historian to the Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. There has thus been, since inception, a discernable effort to exact global standards at every stage in this effort to create a centre of excellence.
When most clients in Europe and the United States terminated Adjaye’s services, the KNMA issued a press release in late July 2023 announcing disassociation with Sir David Adjaye but stated ‘full confidence in the wider team to continue delivering the project.’ While Richard Meier’s firm disassociated its operations from the founder and rechristened itself as MeierPartners, Adjaye continues unaffected in his consultancy. His firm’s website highlights him as principal and attributes its standing to his achievements.
This raises questions about the nature of disassociation that the KNMA affected. Also, by the time of the Museum’s response to Adjaye’s misconduct, his role as a designer in the project would have been complete and ‘the wider team’ would have taken over aspects of detailing the building. At the time charges against Adjaye went public, work at the KNMA construction site hadn’t started in earnest. However, unlike most of Adjaye’s other clients who reconsidered his appointment, the KNMA chose to continue with his design.
It may also be debated if an Indian architect in Adjaye’s position, faced with similar accusations here, would have survived the onslaught of charges. It is obvious that the star architect status of Meier and now Adjaye didn’t shield them of the taint in the part of the world they belong to.
The fallout of #MeToo charges against cine celebrities is a proverbial call to boycott their movies. Politicians accused of sexual misdemeanours find their careers at risk. When charges were levelled against Richard Meier, the nature of societal response against a wayward architect was debated. Do we boycott buildings designed by him?
In this regard, the observation of a worshipper at a church designed by Richard Meier stood out. Every time he attended service there, he was reminded that the building was designed by an immoral man.
The KNMA is named after a woman. It houses the lifelong collection of priceless art collected by her. As India ambitiously aspires for its rightful global standing, as evidenced in Adjaye’s appointment for this project, it may also consider a broader appreciation of international standards of conduct.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.