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The Shitty Architecture Men list draws a line in the sand

Ellis Woodman
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Relationships between senior male architects and junior staff or students may be mired in shades of grey, but this list makes clear what is not acceptable, says Ellis Woodman

In recent months I have twice found myself confronted with disquieting revelations that have prompted soul-searching about periods in my past. 

In March, a former teacher at Gordonstoun was found guilty of sexually inappropriate behaviour with boys during the time that I was a pupil at the school. Andrew Keir was my deputy housemaster. We lived under the same roof for five years and, on more evenings than I care to remember, I could have been found in his flat, dressed in pyjamas, messing around with his CB radio, raiding his supply of chocolate biscuits and bantering with this single and obviously rather lonely man of more than twice my age. Andrew was an oddball but kind and ready to entertain an intimacy with brattish, filthy-mouthed public school boys that other adults would not. In an environment that often bore a more than passing resemblance to Lord of the Flies, he was an ally.

Thirty years later, it is clear that his absence of boundaries had a darker side: he has been sentenced to a year in prison for lewd acts that included swimming naked and showering with 13-year-olds. When I heard the news, I was shocked but not altogether surprised. The portrait painted of him in court as a cunning predator is one I still struggle to square with the man-child of memory, but I don’t doubt the allegations’ truth nor the cost in broken lives that his actions have incurred.

Harvard sign

Harvard sign

Source: Malia

The second uncomfortable discovery came in the form of an email notifying me of the online publication of Shitty Architecture Men, an open-access spreadsheet, detailing anonymous allegations of demeaning – and in many cases illegal – behaviour towards women (and men) in architecture schools and practices across the world.

The accused men range from current students to Pritzker Prize winners and their alleged crimes from unsolicited back-rubs to rape. The inclusion of 18 members of the Harvard Graduate School of Design community has already prompted a protest at the school that has included the appearance of banners announcing: ‘This cannot end in conversation. This must end in action.’ 

Again, the news has forced me to reconsider my own experiences and complicities. I know and like a number of men on the list, and one I consider a dear friend. I have heard him tell the erudite but admittedly rather off-colour joke that the spreadsheet attributes to him. I laughed at it too and didn’t imagine that it could cause the offence that it evidently has. 

I witnessed situations I found variously exasperating and creepy, but dismissed them as the private business of consenting adults

I have taught in architecture schools where staff have slept with students and worked for a boss who was having an affair with a junior member of staff – both behaviours that crop up repeatedly on the spreadsheet. I found those situations variously exasperating and creepy, but dismissed them as the private business of consenting adults. Reading the Shitty Architecture Men list was to be left in no doubt that there may have been others, particularly young women, who will have found such behaviour threatening.

Much as I abhor Andrew Keir’s crimes, I am left with the difficult realisation that they lay at one end of a spectrum of intimate behaviour that drew me to him and which, however unwittingly, I may have encouraged. Thankfully, the law exists to make blunter distinctions: there is a line; he crossed it; and now he is paying the price. 

The Shitty Architecture Men list makes clear that relationships of senior male architects with their colleagues and students are also mired in multiple shades of grey but it, too, draws a line in the sand. Its central demand is a simple one: the desexualisation of academic and professional relationships that are characterised by an imbalance of power. If the rules were ever in doubt, they are not now and ignorance is no defence.

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