I had always envisioned Richard Meier to be like his signature white buildings: dignified and stately. And then came the March 13 New York Times story detailing allegations of his sexual harassment and abuse of five women.
The #MeToo movement has exposed a widespread pattern of sexual misconduct by powerful men in the arts. Are these so-called “creative geniuses” simply taking advantage of their power and success, or is there a correlation between creativity and abuse?
The romantic image of the creative genius has long captivated Western culture. As a young adult, I was seduced by Howard Roark, the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1943) who is unwilling to compromise on the purity of his vision. Roark’s readiness to destroy in the name of art was unmissable—he blows up a building when it fails to adhere to his design—but I completely missed his tendency to abuse.
In fact, it wasn’t until two years ago, while I was writing an opinion piece about rape and consent, that I realized that Roark—portrayed as the paragon of the great artist—violently raped the woman he later married.
Western history has been told as stories of great white men who work alone and excel on their own merit. As a result, we have come to associate creativity with the image of these obsessive, solitary, brilliant people. Now, with the global economy shifting toward technology and innovation, the allure of the “creative man” has only increased; for example, the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study of 1,500-plus executives found creativity to be the most desired quality for leadership.
The problem with the myth of the creative genius is that it is a myth, an aggregate of cultural beliefs and biases that restricts our understanding of how innovation actually happens. In Group Genius (Basic Books, 2017), author Keith Sawyer argues that innovation more often comes from collaboration rather than from an individual. This is patently true in architecture, where buildings are realized only through teams of designers, engineers, contractors, and clients. Yet, until recently, many prestigious architectural awards only recognized individuals.
Creativity and masculinity have also been conflated for too long. Christine Battersby shows in Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (Indiana University Press, 1990) that the title “genius” in the arts and sciences was reserved for men for more than two centuries. Unfortunately, not much has changed. A 2015 Duke University study found that both men and women predominantly identify creativity as a male trait. When asked to evaluate architectural designs, men and women ranked projects that they thought were designed by a man as more creative.
But gender bias is not the most dangerous consequence of the lone-wolf image: It is the unspoken permission to abuse that should worry us. For the privilege of working alongside this aggressive and uncompromising genius, we are asked to tolerate his erratic, harsh, and selfish behavior. (In an intriguing twist, author Claire Dederer suggests that the monstrous man becomes a great artist in order to justify his bad behavior.) The genius thus wields power, feeding a vicious cycle in which male aggression is seen as proof of genius, which then opens the door to more abuse. Recent headlines suggest that when companies believe their success depends on that one male maverick, they are tempted to ignore or even facilitate his abuse.
To fight sexual abuse and abusers, we must first let go of this simplistic and fictitious image of the lone wolf. We need to open our eyes to the multiplicity of creative practices and celebrate the complex, nuanced, and more accurate understanding of how innovation happens. Only then will we stop overlooking contributions by all team members—and particularly those by women and minorities—and start developing new paradigms of creativity that leave no room for abuse.
Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.