#Hownottobeinanoffice goes viral on Twitter with the controversy at the SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) panel discussion over labor practices in architecture. A panel discussing the professional aspects of architecture emerged into a full-blown controversy and led to the suspension of two faculty members of the SCI-Arc architecture school.
A panel discussion was held on March 30, 2022, at SCI-Arc where architects, Marrikka Trotter of Tom Wiscombe Architecture, Margaret Griffin of Griffin Enright Architects, and Dwayne Oyler of Oyler Wu discussed the working conditions of the architecture firms. Every statement of the discussion proposed a misguided and failed system of ethical work culture of architecture and raised controversy within the architecture community. This article is a reaction to the misguided principles preached by the architects.
Table of Contents
Are architects masters or mentors?
“How to be in an office?” is the question posed in the panel. Ar. Griffin says, “Nobody is entitled to be in an office.”
“If you want to learn about big buildings, maybe a bigger office is better and if you want to have your own firm one day, a smaller office is better. Thinking of your next set of experiences is about constructing your continued education In architecture, she says.
This statement by Griffin is what anyone could say. It is the most conservative piece of advice that anyone could give in a technologically cutting-edge institution like SCI-Arc. She further says, her architecture firm is a studio or atelier rather than an office. And students/undergraduates should see their practice under any firm as an extension of their education (with little pay/no pay).
“There is a pedigree of whom do you work for and that is important”
“Your reputation and success in this profession is a direct result of how much overwork, abuse, and degradation you’re willing to put up with.”
This age-old idea projects architects as mythologized masters who sought interns who should be willing to do everything, any task for however long he wishes, bear with any degradation and be grateful for the chance to do so. But these experiences do not make anyone successful. Instead, they make them miserable and unhealthy.
We have moved into the age of accountability where the identity and experiences of a person are of no matter. The interns and the freshers are always eager to find a place in the office to contribute their skills as well as receive proper mentorship and a fair wage. But they are always looked down upon in an office. It reflects when the panel says, “give your all to The Company and hope they’ll notice your initiative.” Architects should shift from this mental state of being masters who extract work from their employees to mentors who allows others to contribute and helps them develop their skills.
Paid less, Work more culture
“When you commit to a project, to a firm, when you commit to a principal, and you really invest, then I guarantee you they will invest in you. They will pay you as much as they possibly can and be happy to do it. Now does that mean you’ll be a millionaire in your first 10 years…probably not, but will you feel like you’re living a passionate and fulfilled life…yes. And honestly, I think it’s worth the investment,” Trotter says.
Architecture can be an exclusive and toxic discipline, one that too often rejects anyone who can’t or won’t conform to an all-or-nothing lifestyle of “commitment.” To be in an architecture office is about contributing to the office rather than committing to the architect or the project. One with passion tends to contribute to the office and collaborate with the Principal architect rather than blindly doing all that he wants him to do.
A Principal architect should treat his interns and employees as co-architects (not as labor) and be open to their ideas to get the best out of them for a project. The architect should not treat them as slaves working for long hours with sleepless nights to get the work done.
“..is it like a 40hr work week that you can barely get through or is it a 60hr work week that you can’t wait to start every day. So you’ve got to choose your poison on that one. You’re still making money as opposed to paying money…”, Trotter says.
It is said that interns or undergraduates who do not work 60 hours a week, who do not come in on weekends or work over hours are not passionate about their office and work. And, when they commit to a project, they should devote themselves to the project and think of it every minute, but do not have to expect a fair compensation, as it is their choice of learning. And still, they are getting paid to learn instead of paying for their higher studies in Universities, Trotter says.
This is the traditional way of looking at passion, devotion, and enthusiasm. Passion is always measured by the number of hours you work. Those who work the most are the most devoted and dedicated people in an office. The social price that comes with this reductionist view of work (“it’s all about the hours”) is impossibly high for most people, disproportionately favoring the privileged while perpetuating a continuous cycle of inequity and elitism.
Get sh!t done #Hownottobeinanoffice
When the discussion turned toward Global Youth disillusionment and climate crisis, more red flags emerged. Ar. Griffin says, “The way that I deal with my thoughts about where the world is going is, uh, I’m gonna go to space one day. You know, I’m not sure if I can save the planet, but I don’t mind being on the first plane out of it.” Architects, as responsible people, teach the young students and graduates to be socially and politically conscious. But Griffin, in the name of optimism, kicks the issue of the climate crisis and even the planet out of context.
She says that working hard and getting the shit done is the way forward in the practice of architecture. But does that work that way? Definitely not. Architects are not professionals who draw things up and get the shit done for the day. Architects are more responsible human beings, who are an important part of society. And they should be conscious of their decisions. They cannot work all the way out and get the shit done while any other profession would not do that way.
I struggled so should you
After the discussion, the panel was open to questions. And an international student asked how one could achieve a work-life balance and even a living wage in the profession when the terms of their visa severely constrained their employment options. Margaret Griffin’s response was,
“I would just say that all of us sitting at this table made choices as well. You just have to do you, okay? Whatever that means. If doing you means you don’t want to be an architect, don’t do it. If doing you mean you want to be an architect, then you work with wherever you can get yourself into…”
Griffin says that it is your choice to be in architecture or not, and you should do anything and everything to be in the field. According to her, anyone who disagrees to do so, is a quitter or guilty and is not worth being in the field.
She further says,
“I even worked as a waitress when I had a job as an architect because I made so little in my job as an architect in a place where I had a lot of responsibility and it wasn’t enough and I had to waitress at night to save money for grad school. It’s all about choices. It’s all about what you set yourself up to do…”
It is like saying, “This is how it is and this is how it has been. My past generation went through it, I went through it and so should you.” This is a form of incoherent reasoning that she gives to the question. And it shows how architects and the architecture profession have developed over generations. We always assume that the old way of thinking is somehow correct as it worked and has been practiced for a long time. It is a lazy way of thinking and prevents improvement and growth of practice.
The real problem
All that has been said is not a criticism of the panel members of SCI-Arc. It is a criticism of the architecture profession and practice that has always found it difficult to evolve through the economic and social conditions and does not adapt to the changes that the world has gone through over years. The panel also had stuck up in the conventional theories and problems and did not discuss any new ideas to fix them.
“Big offices are gonna pay more than small offices, and it is not because they take advantage, it’s just their fees are less …and Gensler can afford to pay more and but if you go to Gensler you are gonna be drawing bathrooms for one year”, Margaret Griffin says.
It sparked a discussion with many highlighting that this comment perpetuates further gaslighting within the industry. This statement means that the employees at a design studio, organized more like a regular business—a “corporate firm”, work with defined hours and compensation. And those who work for a smaller firm will be uncertain of the working hours and the payment with a strong possibility of working all through the weekends still getting a little pay. It has been a feature of architecture culture from the past.
Another hot topic of discussion in #Hownottobeinanoffice is the side hustles. For generations, the young architects are brought into the promise of appropriate wages only when they rise to the position of lead architects or firm owners themselves. Until then, every architect had to do side hustles to make their living, the panelists said. They refused to talk about the place of architecture in the capitalist system but wanted us to side hustle for a living.
What should the change be?
All these issues create a worse situation in architectural practice. But what should the change be? The realization of the realities of capitalism has to be channeled into successful unions, but not into calls for work-life balance and a refusal to buy into the importance of architecture as a calling that supersedes the need to be able to earn a living wage.
To get rid of the abuse in the academy and profession, firstly we should reject normalizing the long working hours and the idea that one should be filled with extreme passion to be in architecture. Secondly, we should be taught that architecture is not just giving the client a box of a certain square meter, but also a form of research and development into the future of the designed environment. And institutions should give a place where architects and young designers could be paid to engage in research, much like medicine or law (which SCI-Arc already does). Architecture as R+D needs a place and a dedication in our discipline.
At the same time, we should fix the economic and social conditions of the architecture so that it is still not just a service to be paid for, but is an activity of critical importance in the society to speculate and propose ways in which we can make the human-made world more sustainable and more socially just by design.