Oh Saint Precarious

Courtesy Architecture Lobby

The myth that architects have it all—professionalism, creative freedom, autonomy, civic power, cultural cachet—lasts until your first day of work. It is not that you immediately get the full picture; surely the bad compensation and crummy hours and the lack of power over design decisions are temporary, the dues you pay. But later, when you have your own firm or become a partner and the deferral can’t be deferred any longer, you don’t earn reasonable compensation, you work crummy hours, and you lack power over design decisions. Along the way you may have adjusted your thinking about the myth while still maintaining its mystical aura. “Architecture,” you can say, “isn’t a career; it’s a calling!” Which is to say, the lack of money and appreciation is justified by sacrifice. But eventually it becomes impossible to feel good about the profession: architecture graduates with $100,000 in debt begging for internships that pay little more than minimum wage, honored to be working 15 hour days, seven days a week as a sign of their being needed; principals of firms working almost exclusively for wealthy private interest, trying to prove that their meager fees aren’t paying for hubristic aesthetic experiments; young architects hoping to move beyond bathroom renovations to possible suburban additions.

We can retrace how all of this happened—how the profession over the years limited risk and liability and, with it, reward and responsibility; how in turn, the profession, as keepers of design, became known only for design. All of the intelligence that is brought to bare on achieving good design—zoning analysis, demographic scrutiny, material wisdom, procurement expertise, spatial adaptability, organizational expertise, manufacturing acumen, sustainability education, heat, lighting, and acoustic analysis, cost analysis, etc. etc.—disappears from the ledger when we are paid by (the size of) the piece. We want to be and should be part of the knowledge economy, not the production economy.

The Architecture Lobby is an organization of architectural workers advocating for the value of architecture in the general public and for architectural work within the discipline. From the bottom up, we resist the acceptance of low wages based on the assumption that architectural firms themselves make little profit. From the top down, we reject thinking that accepts marginal profits for our expertise. We insist on the following conceptual changes:

1. In order to redirect the public’s perception of what architects do, we need to reconceptualize our value. We need to walk away from contracts that don’t allow us to share in the profit of a building’s success. We need to prove that we know that the building’s success is determined not by its publication photos but by its 40-year-long habitability. We need to redefine the way media showcases us. If they got our previous message to showcase us as designers, they can now showcase us as keepers of sustainable spatial intelligence. Every submission we make to the media needs to privilege its intelligence and long-term commitment to the built environment, not merely aestheticians. Every article in every journal and newspaper discussing only form should warrant a letter of protest. Every commentary that mentions a development, a proposed project, a community plan or a new public space without mentioning the architect, designer, planner, or landscape architect involved should warrant a request for correction/elaboration.

2. In order to reprogram our own identity, those of us in the discipline of architecture need to admit that we are workers. We are part of a global labor force that has fought for and deserves fair pay, legal benefits, regulated hours, and termination policies. If we do not self-identify as such, we will remain immune to the global, labor-based, social reform movements. We should be ashamed but not surprised that architects building in the Emirates are oblivious to the indentured labor used to build the buildings we design. We should question why the artists asked to show in the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi have refused to have their work shown in a building built by illegal labor practices when we architects turn our backs. Identifying ourselves as immaterial laborers links us with artists, IT researchers, and product developers—all of who have long since recognized that their creative work is work none the less.

3. In order to retrain our graduates, we need to convince them of their value. Those of us who teach must stop being proud of our students’ all-nighters doing our pedagogical bidding. When they look for work, we need to direct them away from practices that are abusive (if not illegal) even if avant-garde. An Ivy League law school annually publicizes the top 10 family friendly law firms. It is not just shocking that law schools, unlike architecture schools, care about this issue, or that law firms unlike architecture firms climb over each others backs to get on the list; but sad that our good students don’t know that they should be the wooed, not the wooers.

Take our survey, learn more, and get involved at architecture-lobby.org

Related Stories