Dec 18, 201312:43 PMPoint of View
Meet The Architecture Lobby
(page 2 of 2)
Courtesy Jim Bryant/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
SM: How might architects begin to improve their working conditions? Does the onus fall on interns/employees or on employers, or both?
AL: It falls on both. Many of us who teach have heard our graduating students say, “I’m willing to work for little because I know the firm I’ll be working for is making very little.” That chain needs to be broken from both ends. The first step, for the Architecture Lobby, is putting a mirror up to the profession so we can see ourselves for what we are. The first step for the profession—both owners and staff—is to refuse unfair compensation. Acting collectively would dispel the fear that when we say no to a client for unfair fees, another firm will step right in; that if we say no to wages that, when calculated hourly barely yield the minimum wage, someone else will take that job. But that collective mentality will take time to develop, especially given the AIA’s disseminated fears of being caught price-fixing. Everyone needs to start with their own consciousness as workers, not just architects.
SM: Are there workable solutions from the profession’s past that can serve as lessons? Or are overwork, unreasonable compensation, and unpaid labor constituent features of architectural practice?
AL: It is clear that the larger, more corporate the firm, the greater the use of HR policies that pay overtime, give benefits, etc. There tends to be a direct relationship between size/boutiqueness/design aspiration and quantity of best practices. At the same time, we need to remember that it isn’t just a question of compensation, but of control, autonomy, and recognition. Likewise, firms that recognize that managing the process of design is as essential and as creative as the design of the object offer instructive models of success. One thinks of the current achievements of BIG.
What is more interesting, though (and we have just begun to coordinate our knowledge here), is identifying alternate forms of compensation for firms. Can we be supported by venture capitalists like tech start-ups? Can we be traded on the stock exchange? Caudill, Rowlett, Scott (CRS), at one point the largest architectural firm in the country, was the first architectural corporation to appear, in 1971, on the US stock exchange. While their move to public ownership has been criticized as the beginning of the firm's decline—as it changed from “one ambitious but still service-oriented [and] imbued with humansitic ethos” to one that was merely profit oriented—the structure of public ownership itself may not be to blame, as many tech companies today demonstrate.
Equally noteworthy for contemporary practice is CRS’s “marketing through research,” which preceded the public offering and is linked to it by the desire to escape a merely client-driven reputation. Presenting the work of the firm as research and not merely as design solved the paradox of needing to impress both clients (marketing) and peers (research). [Current examples of firms that are publicly held corporations include AECOM and URS (formerly United Research Services).]
SM: So far, we’ve addressed the issue from within the industry itself. Pulling back, however, reveals how architectural work is repeatedly valued less than other, comparable work within the creative and knowledge industries. Why is this so, and how can architects collectively work to shift this bias?
AL: One answer is that architecture has fallen between the cracks of art and profession, getting the worst of both. We neither organize our compensation in the manner of other professions nor leverage our creativity like tech industries or artists selling at major galleries. Part of this is the perception the public has of architecture: on the one hand, everyone feels qualified to judge special distribution, there being no mystique about what we do; on the other, our expertise seems only to bring added expense and hubristic, aesthetic strutting. Another part is our own inability to quantify our value, either in terms of cultural gain or in terms of environmental sustainability. Collectively, we can start tracking how; over the long term, we save rather than spend our clients’ money and be willing to share this information with each other.
SM: You have said that the media is partly to blame for the current state of things. How, again, can architects shift the spotlight from flashy building form to the creative makers behind these projects?
AL: 1. We can refuse to do monographs, interviews, or profiles that talk solely about our buildings and not the R&D, intelligence and collaborations that led to them. We can make sure that the media profiles architecturally-trained people who work in government and/or non-profits. (One couldn’t help but notice that the majority of women who are leaving with Bloomberg for his new “Cities Initiative” have architectural backgrounds.)
2. We can pester those who write articles about community board workshops without mentioning the architects who are organizing those discussions and designing the outcome. (They generally mention the agency that sponsors the proposal but not the architects who take on the work.)
3. We can put better models of success before our students so that they are interested in more than formal virtuosity. We can encourage articles about how buildings have faired 10 years after their completion so that the public knows we care about things beyond the photo-op.