According to the old saw, you have to be old to be an architect. Barbie is 52, and she has finally made it. Now that over half the women in many architecture schools are women, now that women are as powerful and influential as men in the profess— Well, never mind. At least now that go-getter California girl has finally realized that you can be beautiful and designing at the same time, architecture has arrived. She might not be as influential as she was before the advent of An American Girl and social networking for pre-tweens, but Barbietect can still show us that architecture matters.
Don’t expect her to be radical. She is carrying a blueprint tube, for heavens sake, and it is pink. I guess a pink flash drive cover would not have been as expressive and would not have let her thrust her bosom forward with as much energy. She also has glasses, of the retro-nerd, square, and black variety. Sarah Palin fashion statements might have been too political, and Philip Johnson-esque round ones might have been too masculine. They are, in any case, only accessories she wears over that famous golden waterfall of hair. Instead of being clad in all black, and preferably something by Issey Miyake or Comme des Garçons, as we all know she should be, she has a dress that graduates from a red fringe, via midnight blue to a light shade, with a vestigial black vest thrown over those thrust-back shoulders. She towers over her dollhouse with all the grace of a Walmart mannequin.
It is not exactly a great model for little girls, but the AIA is crowing over having made it into this particular popular culture temple. Certainly that is an achievement, not only because of the social recognition it provides the profession, but also because it affirms a particular notion of what architecture is: Something to be performed by someone who has tools inherited from the past, and who exists at the intersection between the creative and the business worlds.
The British critic Jonathan Glancy, writing in the Guardian, connects the release of Architect Barbie both to the “news” that Justin Bieber wants to be an architect (like Hayden Christiansen, Brad Pitt, and Stanford’s star quarterback Andrew Luck, who has to pursue “architectural studies” at a university that—shame, shame,shame—doesn’t even have a program) and to the release of a report by the RIBA that predicts “the death of the typical, medium-size ... architectural practice,” and the total takeover of the profession by outsourcing and large conglomerates such as AECOM and Aedas. Barbietect might turn out, like so many of the discipline’s products, to be a monument to dead ideals and ideas.
I doubt that this is completely true, as the same aggregation of efficiency through technology and financial calculation frees young designers to be infinitely more effective: You can design a skyscraper by yourself from your home, if you have the right technology and knowledge. The real question is how the profession will image itself. There is a lot of talk of starchitects, but most of them do not have hair like Bieber or Barbie, and their fashion sense is just as undeveloped. The music industry has made stars out of nerds manipulating turntables and morose, black-clad types sampling and aggrandizing bits and pieces of other people’s creativity. Politics has given us a black president (quick, name one African-American architect of note). Nerds in business can make billions and connect us. Architecture better pick up its game. I say we need more starchitects, not fewer, but of a different kind. I am looking beyond Barbietect at Obamatect, Biebertect, and Zuckertect.