A recent article in the New York Times looked at the phenomenon of architectural firms run by husbands and wives. It was a novelty when Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown formed an architectural partnership in 1967. But since then it has become commonplace. Some of today’s most active young firms, including Diller-Scofidio and Tsien-Williams, comprise married couples.
For Robin Pogrebin, the article’s author, such merging of personal and professional lives is a boon for the practice of architecture, “allowing for an unsparing candor that takes the work to a higher level.” (What it might mean for the marriage is not examined.)
But the article glosses over the issue of collaboration itself, a fascinating but generally neglected category of creativity. Historically, many of the great figures of American architecture have worked in partnership, from McKim, Mead & White (founded in 1879) to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (founded in 1936 and still active today).
Yet when we discuss the achievements of these firms, we tend to think of one member of the firm as the “creative” partner, while treating the others as non-entities. Stanford White, an erratic and volatile genius, is made in our minds into the “artist” of the partnership, while William Rutherford Mead is relegated to the role of a business partner who presumably spent his days answering White’s fan mail. Louis Sullivan is celebrated for his doctrine of “form follows function,” while his senior partner Dankmar Adler is written off as the engineer who calculated the stresses on bolts and beams. That Adler was the principal planner of the firm’s buildings, and that Sullivan’s role was more that of decorative draftsman, is invariably left out of the story.
The process of collaboration is notoriously difficult to talk about. The Times offers only the vague platitude quoted above. We still tend to think of creativity in Romantic terms, in images of solitary genius and lightning flashes of inspiration. We are in need of an expanded vocabulary to address the subject properly, one complex enough to describe the complicated interactions between individuals involved in the same artistic endeavor.
These interactions, when successful, produce an outcome of a different order than anything White, Sullivan, or anyone else might have achieved on their own. Anyone who has listened to the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney—singly and jointly—knows this to be true. Perhaps collaboration is a process akin to the operation of our own two-sided brain; perhaps every great collaboration itself becomes a kind of unruly, asymmetrically functioning brain. At any rate, the Times has found a fascinating story, of which the tale of marital bed and drafting table is perhaps the least interesting part.