Not Quite Ready for Prime Time?

Partners, Pilot (CBS Studios)

The set of “Partners” — models, books, material samples… it must be an architect’s office! (That being said, I would kill for that monitor…) (CBS Studios)

Now that the holiday season is well behind us, I’m trying to get back into my old routine, which includes a fair amount of primetime television.  Last night, I tuned in to find that the CBS series “Partners” has, not surprisingly, been canceled.  (Apparently, I should have spent a little more time over the holiday break catching up on my entertainment news — it was canned in November, and the network has no plans to burn off the unaired episodes.)  The sitcom, about best friends who go into business together, was surprisingly run-of-the-mill except for one small detail: the partners in question were architects. How do we know they were architects?  Take this sample line of dialogue: “Maybe you should focus a little more on architecture, which is what we do, instead of (insert plot device here).”  Subtlety at its finest.  The humor was often lowbrow and the plot derivative — One’s gay, the other isn’t!  One’s incredibly rigid, the other is free-spirited!  Hilarity and hijinks ensue! — but at least it was a weekly dose of architecture in pop culture each week.

Architecture isn’t a part of the zeitgeist in the same way as other professions. Doctors, lawyers, police officers — all of them have been a constant part of the prime-time landscape for almost as long as television has been a mainstream medium, and for good reason.  Each of these professions brings its own inherent drama with it, which makes for good ratings… and means that the general public ends up with a pretty good idea of what a career in medicine, law, or law enforcement is all about.  Even a relatively obscure line of work can benefit from a prime-time phenomenon — after the series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” premiered in the fall of 2000, the demand for criminal forensics programs increased exponentially; the forensics programs at some universities had doubled in size in 2004, a result of what was dubbed “the CSI effect,”  proof positive that the right show at the right time can work wonders for your profession.  (No data exists on any subsequent decline after David Caruso’s over-dramatized turn, when its spin-off “CSI: Miami” hit the airwaves.).  However, as we noted at the Summit20 last March, there isn’t an “ER” or a “Law and Order” for architects.   Imagine for just a minute how many more people would have a better understanding of what it is an architect does, or what it takes to become one, if our profession was a weekly staple — must-see TV with plots worthy of the office watercooler.  A series like “Partners,” that referenced the architectural profession even tangentially, felt like a step in the right direction.

Our generation's Howard Roarke...?

Ted Mosby: Our generation’s Howard Roark…? (CBS Studios)

We are left with Ted Mosby as our last man standing.  The central character of CBS’ series “How I Met Your Mother” (and the former lead-in to “Partners” — lest we spread out our situational comedy architects into any other night of the week, or on any other network), who tells his future children the incredibly lengthy tale of how he came to find the love of his life, is unabashedly an architect.  Creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas must have known an architect or two in their time (or perhaps head writer Kourtney Kang — a CMU grad, she might have known a few aspiring archies — had something to do with it) — Ted is an earnest and heartfelt homage to at least one (if not several ) of them.  Ted is anal-retentive and fastidious, wearing his heart on his sleeve but labeling his belongings.  He watches the Star Wars trilogy once every three years, judging his success in life by how much he’s achieved since the last time he “tril’ed it up.”  Ted spends a great deal of time with his four best friends (note: none of which are architects — how realistic is this again?!) hanging out at the local bar, but is not above leaving it to run upstairs to grab one of his books in order to settle an argument.  A quirky but lovable dork, Ted probably very closely resembles some — if not all — of the architects you know.  From the looks I get from my wife during any typical episode, you’d think Ted was based almost entirely on me.  (For the record, I stand by my statement that any similarities are purely coincidental.)

Ted’s story, without delving too deeply into the mechanics of our profession, actually has been a quite honest portrayal of architecture.  As the series began, we find Ted working in a mid-sized architecture firm in Manhattan. The downturn in the economy leads to the loss of his job.  Ted then tries his hand at a sole proprietorship — Mosbius Designs (was I the only one who laughed at the title? I think not.), complete with intern/ receptionist — which, unfortunately, also fails (actually, that might be a good thing — Ted’s biggest commission was a new restaurant, shaped like a cowboy hat).  Ted is forced to consider a slight course correction in his career path — he takes an adjunct professorship position at a local university, teaching an introductory course on architectural history.  Teaching may be a solid gig, but practicing architecture remains his first love, and after a particulary significant lecture (on Antoni Gaudi and the Sagrada Famiglia — “unfinished” — which actually was quite inspiring), Ted takes a commission for the headquarters for a major financial institution, the fictional Goliath National Bank. 

Ted then finds himself, inexplicably, designing a new high-rise office building — in the middle of Manhattan.  Single-handedly.  Out of his apartment.  On the site of a former historic landmark building.  With nary a consultant or engineer in sight.  (Adios, realism.  Cue “The Price is Right’s” farewell music…Wah-wahhhhhhhhhhhhh…)

As the sole architect in prime-time television, I wish that Ted’s career were a little more realistically portrayed… but it’s not the focus of the show, nor is it meant to be.  (And yes, I do cringe whenever the series tries to “make” Ted an architect — such as when the contractor for the GNB Headquarters put him on the spot by asking which parabolic lamp he’d like to use in every fixture in the building — but I can’t fault them for trying.)  Maybe the details aren’t exactly correct, but the sincerity is.  Ted is a decent, hard-working, introspective guy.  He has boatloads of insecurities; in a moment of self-doubt over his ability to handle a project like the GNB Tower, he actually tells the story of the architect that designed a library, but forgot to account for the weight of the books (Cringe!! General public, stop listening now!).  Ted stressed out over that cowboy-hat restaurant, even giving up his birthday celebration in order to work toward its deadline, because he was serious about it — it was his project, and he wanted it to be the best cowboy-hat restaurant that it possibly could be.

Ted is certainly no Howard Roark, the self-righteous, unflappable heroic architect of The Fountainhead.  Ted’s career has been littered with setbacks and self-doubt, reinvention and redirection.   If Roark was the iconic architect of his generation, Ted might just be one for ours.  Roark was an symbol of individuality in the face of conformity.  Ted is an idealist, a romantic… a real human being.  Ted strives to be succesful because he wants the same things as the rest of us — a respectable career spent doing what he loves, the person of his dreams to share it with, a story worthy of boring his children to death with somewhere down the line.  As architects, we may not have many prime-time heroes, but we do have Ted.  And, for now, I’ll take it.