The seeds of self-sacrifice and exploitation are fertilised and sustained in a system that has demanded merit but also long hours to attain acclaim and advancement in architecture. To ensure a more equitable, sustainable profession, it’s essential we reframe the way we measure successful projects, practices and people, argues Warwick Mihaly.

In March this year, stories on Dezeen and the Architects’ Journal revealed the existence of unpaid and gruelling internships at the office of Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. A leaked email offer stipulated thirteen-hour days and six-day weeks, and required interns to bring their own computers and software.

The article was inspired by the #arch4all campaign by London designer, Adam Nathaniel Furman, who a couple of weeks earlier had started posting emails from starchitects offering unpaid internships onto his Instagram feed.

Ishigami drew particular scrutiny because of his design of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, though other practices were highlighted by Furman’s campaign, including 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 Dezeen and Architects’ Journal articles, there were three immediate and very public consequences:

There was also plenty that didn’t change at all, in particular the brazenly unapologetic continuation of unpaid internships at Atelier Bow Wow and Karim Rashid. The recruitment page of Atelier Bow Wow’s website notes that they are currently accepting applications for internship positions that are “unpaid and full time from one to six months”. Karim Rashid’s website promises interns “four solid months of full time, unpaid, challenging and intense projects”.

Reflecting on his activism, Furman commented via phone interview that 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 acknowledged the “Cosa Nostra–like secrecy” still surrounding pay conditions, and the ongoing allure of high culture architects who burn through staff and undercut their competition via shockingly unsustainable business practices.1

Haven’t we heard all this before?

Three years ago, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects wrote an inflammatory op-ed on the entrepreneurial opportunities of Brexit, cheerfully suggesting in the comments below the article that “unpaid or low paid internships have nothing to do with exploitation… they are mutually agreed exchanges”.

Three years before that, Sou Fujimoto publicly defended the Japanese open desk tradition of using unpaid interns, describing it as a “nice opportunity” for both the employer and intern. Proving that yes, we have indeed heard all this before, Fujimoto was the architect of that year’s Serpentine Pavilion.

In the same year I published an article entitled, Why working for free is not okay. I acknowledged similar practices and attitudes to the above in Australia, examined the conditions that gave rise to them, and concluded that unpaid internships are illegal, unethical, exploit the young staff working for free, and damage the architecture profession as a whole.

My article made reference to two important initiatives at the time:

  • A 2011 update to the Royal Institute of British Architects’ charter policy that committed “every RIBA chartered practice to paying the statutory minimum wage to students” and promised to strip any architecture practice who breached this commitment of its accreditation.2
  • A stirring 2013 awards-night speech by Victorian president of the Australian Institute of Architects, Jon Clements, who asked the gathered architects to consider the “progressive compromise of our profession that results if we reduce the costs of delivering our services to unsustainable levels based on inappropriate employment conditions.”

Tricia Lawton, RIBA Information Specialist, explains that the RIBA policy came equipped with the power to audit chartered practices and ensure “compliance with the requirement to prohibit unpaid internships.”[Tricia Lawton, email correspondence with the author, July 2019.] And Clements’ speech came at the pointy end of a growing awareness of, and impatience with, unpaid employment within Australian architecture. Both initiatives promised to mobilise real change.

But, despite an incredible amount of attention then and regularly in the years since, and despite the role model offered by RIBA, rumours of unpaid employment continue to circulate. It’s clear that it’s not just an issue plaguing distant starchitects and their interns, but one that’s also systemic within everyday Australian architecture.

Complicit exploitation

This article does not seek to revisit the ethical dimensions or broader industrial implications of unpaid labour, both of which I discussed in ‘Why working for free is not okay’. But, with the compelling effects of Furman’s activism resonating in the pit of my stomach, a question has begun to nag at me:

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

Sofie Taveirne, a Belgian architect who spent six months working as an unpaid intern with Junya Ishigami, offered one possible answer to Dezeen in April 2019: “I believe that architects like Junya Ishigami + Associates, 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 realise radical beauty and thoughtfulness. They like to explore the limits of what man is capable of.”

Yet Taveirne’s divorce of Ishigami’s artistic pursuits from his employment practices is highly problematic, as the former is only feasible because of the latter. By celebrating Ishigami’s art she is, by extension, also celebrating the exploitation of his interns.

Not that she’s alone. The profession accepts high culture design competitions with inadequate prize money – even those that explicitly encourage winning entrants to surrender their prize money to boost construction budgets.3 Then there are any number of architecture conferences, media outlets, publications, exhibitions, awards programs and Instagram feeds that extol the work and ignore the political economy of its production.

This collective celebration of architecture without acknowledging how it is produced is probably a sign of our era – who knows how anything is made these days? But, consciously or otherwise, this means we are all complicit in exploitation.

Which of course is incredibly naïve.

The viral rise of the Me Too movement within Hollywood has shown the world that using art to excuse bad behaviour can and should be a habit relegated to the past. As Furman’s isolated example has proven, 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 $7.83 million in unpaid wages should serve as a warning that wage theft can have steep consequences.

I think these moments across borders and industries have the potential to exert a powerful and permanent change on 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

Popular success in architecture currently means high culture, awards, press, invited competitions, speaking engagements, and half a million followers on Instagram. Based on the European archetype popularised by practices like OMA and MVRDV, it means research by design, relentless repetition, and a single-minded focus on each project that together result in an avalanche of content. At the risk of sinking irretrievably into cliché, it means more is more.

While visiting Europe in 2018 I had the good fortune to witness this vision of success firsthand, at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, which was exhibiting the work of one Junya Ishigami.4  I say good fortune, because the work on display was truly mesmerising. Drawings twice as tall as I am, models 20 metres long, 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 any architecture practice could afford to produce it all.

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

This expression of architect-as-auteur is reserved for a vanishing percentage of the global profession, but the everyday architect’s belief in personal sacrifice is alive and thriving. As detailed in the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice, the widespread acceptance of long, mostly unpaid hours persists, revealing them to be an issue not just for young, transient interns but more senior, permanent employees also. Embodied within this culture is the belief that long hours equate to merit – researcher Melissa Gregg explains that “they reflect a notion of professionalism based on athleticism, in which one’s pace and accomplishments exist to be bested.”

The idea that long hours can be a stand-in for merit has been extensively criticised, including by an eloquent opponent of Patrik Schumacher’s anything-goes argument, who called it “a formula for aristocracy not meritocracy”.5  But it’s reductive to argue that long hours and merit are mutually exclusive. More realistic is to recognise that both are often regarded as necessary ingredients of success.

As Dr Ian Campbell from the Centre for Applied Social Research at RMIT notes, “people want to [succeed] 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.”6

What follows is internalised pressure from employees who work long hours because they believe they are necessary for success, and external pressure that comes from the boss or co-workers to do the same. Then downstream, personal sacrifice is rewarded with extra work opportunities, promotions and pay rises. And it is reinforced when exploitative, high culture architecture practices receive the glamorous projects, the awards and the stardom. At both scales, architects of abundance succeed while less prolific competitors languish. A simple equation emerges:

Success = Merit + Long hours

It’s in this equation that I believe the current framework for success is defined. And via a self-reinforcing loop between individuals, practices, the profession and commissioning bodies, it is where the related seeds of self-sacrifice and exploitation are fertilised and sustained. The success equation may start at the largest of scales, in the selection processes for prestigious commissions like the Serpentine Pavilion, but it leaks inwards into the smallest, in the psyche of an architect who feels the pressure to get ahead.

The canary in the coalmine

During our phone interview, Furman observed that unpaid labour is not an isolated issue, but part of an extensive ecosystem of inequality that privileges the white, male, independently wealthy architect.7 However, this aristocratic ecosystem, and the success equation that drives it go largely unexamined. This makes it incredibly difficult to know exactly which architecture practices are the ethical employers and which ones aren’t.

 

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‪Don’t get me started on competitions…‬ – #arch4all #archishame

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Despite the lack of transparency around unpaid labour, there are other more visible failures of the success equation that reveal its impact on the architecture profession.

To start with, the excellent and ongoing research undertaken by Gill Matthewson has quantified the prevalence of long hours in architecture (not necessarily unpaid). In the Parlour Census Report 2001–2016, Matthewson identifies that, despite declining numbers over recent years, 40% of architects still work longer than the standard work week.8

Matthewson also found that this burden is not shared evenly by men and women, with 45% of men but only 30% of women regularly staying back late. She speculates that “parenthood strongly impacts the ability to work long hours, particularly for women… no doubt largely a result of the wider societal expectation whereby mothers are much more likely to reduce their hours to care for children.” (Parlour Census Report pages 18–19)9

This is unfortunately just one of many disparities between the genders. For example, Matthewson’s data analysis also shows that:

  • There’s a gender pay gap between men and women that begins at 5.2% the moment architecture graduates enter the workforce, and progressively widens to 15.8% as they gain experience and seniority.10
  • Women disappear from architecture as they get older, with women making up 40% of architects in their 20s, 25% of architects in their 40s, and only 5% of architects in their 60s.11

The disparity continues into the leadership and management of the profession. At a rough estimate, only 30% of leadership positions in large practices are filled by women. While women make up 49% of technical roles, this percentage withers to just 19% of executive roles.12

These measures are not necessarily tied directly to unpaid labour, but they indicate the presence of interrelated employment conditions lurking beneath the surface. This makes gender an excellent tool to interrogate the pervasiveness of other forms of inequality within the industry, and has established it as the canary in the coalmine of the broader inequality ecosystem. In essence: if there are women getting paid or promoted less at this or that architecture practice, it’s reasonable to assume that other forms of inequality are also at play.

Redefining success

Junya Ishigami et al are famous and admired. Their work is brilliant and excessive. But both they and their work are the beneficiaries of exploitation, personal sacrifice and an aristocratic architectural profession that distorts participation by those who happen not to be white, male or independently wealthy. 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, where a single-minded commitment to architecture comes at the expense of a liveable wage.13

But what if success looked different? What if success meant a commitment to architecture between the hours of nine and five, Monday to Friday? What if it meant equal representation by men and women in senior roles, a decent workplace and decent wages, healthy careers and healthy lifestyles, strong projects and a strong commitment to inclusivity?

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

  • We need to use Furman’s activism, the Me Too Movement, the case against Calombaris and similar efforts around the world to catalyse a paradigm shift in our attitudes towards unpaid labour.
  • We need dedicated leadership from universities, member organisations, 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 compensation for their labour.
  • We need to actively promote more women into positions of seniority.
  • We need to encourage commissioning bodies to fairly compensate architecture practices for the services they provide.
  • We need to fold the social economics of production into every conversation we have about architecture, and carve out space to discuss and critique it as openly as we now do gender.
  • We need to demonstrate that economically sustainable architectural practices can still produce great design, and find ways to help them compete against those that don’t.
  • We need to celebrate new models of success that prioritise the methods of production as much as they do the design outcome.

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


Warwick Mihaly is a Principal Architect at Melbourne-based practice Mihaly Slocombe Architects, which he co-founded with Erica Slocombe. Warwick is a prolific writer and his work is published in the architectural press and on Panfilo, one of Australia’s most widely read business blogs for architects. He is also a director of ArchiTeam. 


 

Footnotes
  1. Adam Nathanial Furman, phone interview with the author, July 2019.
  2. Rose Etherington, “UK architects must pay minimum wage for student placements”, Dezeen, 24 March 2011; Mark Wilding, “Pay interns or lose accreditation, RIBA tells architects, BD Online, 25 June 2012 (paywall).
  3. See the budget section in “Antepavilion commission 2019: open call”, Architecture Foundation, accessed August 2019.
  4. Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture, Fondation Cartier, 30 March–9 September 2018.
  5. Tim Do in comments section of Patrik Schumacher, “Brexit: a chance to roll back the interventionist state and unleash entrepreneurial creativity”, Archinect, 8 July 2016.
  6. Dr Ian Campbell quoted in Anneli Knight, “A long work hours culture”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 November 2009.
  7. Adam Nathanial Furman, phone interview with the author, July 2019.
  8. Gill Matthewson, Parlour Census Report 2001–2016: women in architecture in Australia, Parlour, October 2018, 30.
  9. Matthewson, Parlour Census Report 2001–2016, 18–19.
  10. Matthewson, Parlour Census Report 2001–2016, 23.
  11. See infographic showing percentage of women in architecture by age group versus graduation rates in Gill Matthewson, “Updating the numbers, part 2: at work”, Parlour, January 2013.
  12.  I selected practices based on my general industry knowledge, so they are not necessarily representative of large practice in Australia. I scraped staff data from practice websites and organised it according to gender and seniority. The following websites were accessed in July 2019: Architectus, ARM, Bates Smart, Buchan Group, BVN, ClarkeHopkinsClarke, Cox, DWP, Elenberg Fraser, FKA, Hames Sharley, HASSELL, Hayball, JCBA, John Wardle Architects, Lyons, Plus, SJB, Thomson Asset and Woods Bagot. Some leadership roles were consistent from practice to practice, for example associates and senior associates, but others were less so, such as principals and directors. I sought to order them as best as I could based on presentation cues provided by each practice.
  13. Sofie Taveirne quoted in Marcus Fairs, “Unpaid internships strong part of the social fabric in Japan”, Dezeen, 5 April 2019.