The architecture of exploitation

Some of the world’s most admired architecture practices employ unpaid interns. Warwick Mihaly questions why these practices continue to be lauded as both they and their works are direct beneficiaries of exploitation and personal sacrifice. He argues it has long been time to set a new definition and measure of success.

In March 2019, stories published by Dezeen and the Architects’ Journal revealed the extent of gruelling, unpaid internships at the office of Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. A leaked email offer stipulated 13-hour days and six-day weeks, and required interns to supply their own computers and software.

The articles followed a campaign by London designer Adam Nathaniel Furman, who, a couple of weeks earlier, began posting emails onto his Instagram feed revealing that some “starchitects” were engaging in the practice of unpaid internships. Ishigami drew particular scrutiny because he was chosen to design the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion in London. Other practices indicted by Furman’s early posts included Atelier Bow Wow (Japan), Elemental (Chile), Karim Rashid (United States), Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile), Plasma Studio (Italy), SANAA (Japan), Shigeru Ban (Japan), Sou Fujimoto Architects (Japan), and Studio Mumbai (India).

In the days that followed the publication of those articles, there were three immediate and very public consequences: the Serpentine Gallery told Ishigami that “unpaid staff would not be allowed to work on the [pavilion] project” and he agreed, guaranteeing the entire project team would be paid; Elemental terminated its unpaid internship program; and Sou Fujimoto Architects also terminated its internship program, although it claimed the decision “was [made] for management reasons.”

But plenty didn’t change at all, particularly the brazenly unapologetic continuation of unpaid internships at Atelier Bow Wow and Karim Rashid.

Reflecting on his activism, Furman says he’s pleased it has “cracked open the door on the issue of unpaid labour, and hopefully made it easier to be discussed on campus and in job interviews.” But he also acknowledges that a “Cosa Nostra-like secrecy” still surrounds pay conditions and that there is an ongoing allure of high-culture architects who burn through staff and undercut their competition via shockingly unsustainable and unethical business practices.1

Complicit exploitation

Compelled by Furman’s activism, I have this nagging question:

If the world’s most celebrated architecture practices choose not to pay their staff appropriately, what does it mean for the profession that they continue to be lauded?

Sofie Taveirne, a Belgian architect who spent six months working as an unpaid intern with Junya Ishigami, offers one possible answer: “I believe that architects like Junya Ishigami, if they offer unpaid internship positions, are not doing that for the sake of money. In my understanding, they are artists with a great desire to realize radical beauty and thoughtfulness. They like to explore the limits of what man is capable of.”

However, I argue that Ishigami’s artistic pursuits cannot be divorced from his employment practices, as the former is only feasible because of the latter. By celebrating Ishigami’s art, Taveirne is, by extension, also celebrating the exploitation of his interns.

Serpentine Pavilion 2019 designed by Junya Ishigami, Serpentine Gallery, London.

Serpentine Pavilion 2019 designed by Junya Ishigami, Serpentine Gallery, London.

Image: Norbert Tukaj

Architects continue to participate in high-culture design competitions with inadequate prize money, and even those that explicitly encourage winning entrants to surrender their prize money to boost construction budgets.2 Then there are the myriad architecture conferences, media outlets, publications, exhibitions, awards programs and Instagram feeds that extol the work and ignore the economy of its production.

That we collectively celebrate architecture without understanding how it is produced is a sign of our era – who knows how anything is made these days?

This means we are all complicit in exploitation.

The viral rise of the Me Too Movement has shown the world that using art to excuse bad behaviour can and should be a habit relegated to the past and, as Furman’s campaign also conveyed, that the public outing of such behaviour can lead to positive change. Likewise, the recent scandal involving Melbourne chef George Calombaris and his forced repayment to employees of $7.83m in unpaid wages should serve as a warning that wage theft can have steep consequences.

Moments like these across borders and industries have the potential to effect a powerful and permanent change to employment practices within architecture. But to achieve this, the issue of unpaid labour first needs to be reframed as a direct consequence of the way we define and measure success.

Success and the myth of meritocracy

On a visit to Europe in 2018, I had the good fortune to witness this vision of success firsthand at theFondation Cartier in Paris, which was exhibiting the work of Junya Ishigami. I say “good fortune,” because the exhibited work was truly mesmerizing, with drawings twice as tall as I, models 20 metres long and time lapse videos in forests. But as I wandered from one wonderfully outrageous display to the next, I kept asking myself: “How in the world could any architecture practice afford to produce all this?”

Junya Ishigami's Freeing Architecture exhibition at Fondation Cartier.

Junya Ishigami’s Freeing Architecture exhibition at Fondation Cartier.

Image: Junya Ishigami and Associates

Ishigami’s work stupefied me with both its brilliance and its abundance, but also with the impossible economy of its production.

This expression of architect-as-auteur doesn’t just occur among the global starchitects – the everyday architect’s belief in personal sacrifice is also alive and thriving. As detailed in the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice, the widespread acceptance of long, mostly unpaid hours persists and is an issue not just for young, transient interns but also for more senior, permanent employees.3 Embedded within this culture is the belief that long hours equate to merit: “They reflect a notion of professionalism based on athleticism, in which one’s pace and accomplishments exist to be bested.”4

Dr Ian Campbell from the Centre for Applied Social Research at RMIT notes, “People want to exceed and there may be overt or covert sanctions for short hours. If you leave early, you might find yourself overlooked for the next promotion, or you might attract derision from your colleagues or get a bad reputation. That’s a hallmark of a culture of long hours.”5

What follows is an internalized pressure from employees who work long hours because they believe they are necessary for success, and an external pressure that comes from the boss or co-workers to do the same. Personal sacrifice may be rewarded with extra work opportunities, promotions and pay rises. And it is also reinforced when exploitative, high-profile architecture practices are commissioned for glamorous projects, going on to receive awards and stardom. A simple equation emerges:

Success = Merit + Long hours

This success equation may be most prominent in the top echelon, where the seeds of self sacrifice and exploitation are fertilized and sustained through the selection processes for prestigious commissions like the Serpentine Pavilion, but it trickles down into the smallest practices and into the psyche of an architect who feels the pressure to make personal sacrifices in order to get ahead.

Redefining success

The likes of Junya Ishigami may be famous and admired, and their works are brilliant and excessive, but both they and their work are the beneficiaries of exploitation and personal sacrifice. Theirs is a world where the pursuit of “radical beauty and thoughtfulness” justifies wage theft. Or, as candidly revealed by Anastasia Tikhomirova, a Russian architect who participated in Elemental’s now-terminated unpaid internship program, it is a world where a single-minded commitment to architecture comes at the expense of a liveable wage.

But what if success was viewed differently? What if success meant a commitment to architecture between the hours of nine and five, Monday to Friday? What if it meant a decent workplace and decent wages, healthy careers and healthy lifestyles, strong projectsand a strong commitment to inclusivity?

I propose that the architecture profession urgently needs to redefine success and the way it measures successful projects, practices and people.

We need to use Furman’s activism, the exposed wage theft practice of the hospitality industry and similar efforts around the world to catalyze a paradigm shift in our attitudes toward unpaid labour.

Quinta Monroy Housing, 2004, Iquique, Chile by Elemental.

Quinta Monroy Housing, 2004, Iquique, Chile by Elemental.

Image: Cristobal Palma

We need dedicated leadership from universities, member organizations, commissioning bodies and the profession itself to promote fairer and healthier models of architectural practice.

We need well funded research that quantifies and qualifies the pervasiveness and effects of unpaid labour on individuals, practices and the profession.

We need to empower the newest members of the architecture profession to value their time and demand fair remuneration for their labour.

We need to encourage commissioning bodies to fairly remunerate architecture practices for the services they provide.

We need to include the economics of production in every conversation we have about architecture, and carve out space to discuss and critique it openly.

We need to demonstrate that economically ethical architectural practices can still produce great design, and find ways to help them compete against those that aren’t.

We need to celebrate new models of success that prioritize the methods of production as much as they do the design outcome.

If we can do all this, we will reshape employment practices in Australian architecture for the better, and demonstrate to the world that an inclusive architectural profession is also a sustainable one.

This article is an edited exerpt of Warwick Mihaly’s original article “Redefining success.” Read the full text on Parlour.

1 Adam Nathanial Furman;Phone interview with the author; July 2019.

2 See the Budget section inAntepavilion commission 2019: open call; Architecture Foundation; accessed August 2019.

3 Long-hours culture; Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice, part 2; Parlour; page 2.

4 Melissa Gregg; The neverending workday; The Atlantic; October 2015.

5 Dr Ian Campbell quoted in Anneli Knight; A long work hours culture; The Sydney Morning Herald; November 2009.

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