First of all, what apparently happened at the Southern California Institute of Architecture—asking students to work for an instructor for free and then threatening to withhold scholarships if they did did not do so—recently was just wrong. To gauge from the records, transcripts, and reports, faculty there appear to have, at the very least, given certain students the impression that working for them on design projects would influence the likelihood of them obtaining scholarships. If that was indeed the case, they crossed the line between academics and employment. Certainly SCI-Arc has some work to do in cleaning up to what in my experience, and according to what my friends tell me, are still loose administrative structures and seems to poised to do so.
But what about the larger issue raised by students and alumni there that both this school and others promote an unhealthy work culture without offering appropriate awards?
That the controversy was sparked by a tradition of having students collaborate with faculty on competitions and even “regular” projects points to a larger issue in which right and wrong is not as clear. There is no doubt that students can learn a great deal from working with their teachers on projects with parameters that are closer to what they experience after graduation. Those students also have a chance to build up their portfolio and network by doing so. That most competitions are unpaid and speculative makes it understandable that students are not recompensed for this work, though the ethical thing to do is to offer the students appropriate recompense if the office wins the competition. It is also wrong to treat these students as employees who are expected to do things like clean the office, as apparently happened here.
Then there is the even thornier problem of the “work-life balance” that the discussion (the March 25 “Basecamp: How to be in an office” panel) at SCI-Arc raised. Faculty there apparently were and are under the assumption that their students would have to make the same sort of choice they did earlier in their career: between being employees at a design studio organized more like a regular business—a “corporate firm”—with defined hours and compensation, or working for a smaller, more loosely organized firm in which both hours and payment are uncertain, with the strong possibility of endless workdays (and weekends) at the office with very little pay. The faculty also encouraged students to prefer the latter because of the satisfaction they would gain from working in a looser and more intimate setting on projects that had an aspect of speculation and experimentation because it would be more motivating and rewarding.
Here, the lines between academia and business are also blurred: The work experience becomes an extension of the endless hours “on charrette” in studio culture. That architecture students and recent graduates—and a certain class of architects further along in their career—work very long hours for little reward, either in immediate payment or the promise of a higher salary once they graduate, has long been a feature of architecture culture. The root cause of this problem is not necessarily the evil doings of certain architects, but the disconnect between the place architecture has in our capitalist culture and the nature of design as it is currently practiced. Quite simply, design is an iterative process, much like the making of art, but it is usually defined as a service profession. You get paid for providing that service, but producing it is not like waiting tables or analyzing a patient. It involves a process of discovery, exploration, and design that can take up endless hours. For a few architects in sole practice or with small firms, that process works; they can demand fees high enough to allow for the design process to unfold in this manner. Some larger firms also amortize such costs over many projects, concentrating on projects in which they can “make a difference" while churning out “B Team” projects to bring in the money.
The simplest way to make the situation work, however, is to either just do the work yourself or to depend on an army of lowly paid (and still in some cases, although the practice is condemned by the AIA , legally unpaid) designers to work endless hours without overtime to get the work done. For generations and even centuries, those younger designers (and I was once one of them) bought into the twin promise of the immediate gratification of working in small firms that had a workshop feel—on projects that felt more like art than a service task—and the promise of appropriate wages once they rose through the ranks to become lead designers or firm owners themselves. That the latter end result was not nearly as likely as most of us liked to tell ourselves and remained masked by the almost cult-like belief in architecture we gained in those same schools where we also learned the ritual of all-nighters.
The payoff happened often enough as to be at least semi-believable. When I lived and worked in L.A., occasionally teaching at, running programs, and working on accreditation for SCI-Arc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I watched tiny offices such as Morphosis, run by SCI-Arc faculty, evolve from two people and one employee/former student toiling in a tin shack into a highly profitable behemoth producing architecture of high quality. In recent years, however, several developments have made that career path and its acceptability untenable. One is the steepening of the pyramid in architecture as in most professions. A few at the top become quite wealthy, while the wages at the bottom stagnate or recede and the middle erodes. This economic squeeze has become worse because of the automation of so many basic drafting and modeling tasks and the outsourcing of such work around the world. It is hard to earn “an honest wage” as an experienced drafter of plans or details, just as there is little work for tool and dye operators on factory floors.
The second problem is that the realization of this injustice and the realities of capitalism have become channeled not into successful unions or some form of revolt, but 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. Though I sympathize with this reaction, it seems to me to avoid the basic problem of the place of architecture in our capitalist system. It also does not recognize the concerted effort that is necessary for architecture that is truly speculative and good. On the other hand, the tone deafness exhibited at SCI-Arc (for which the faculty members have apologized) did not exactly help the situation.
The third issue is the realization that the system is particularly unfair to those who cannot depend on a support mechanism and inherent privileges that allow them to pursue their utopian dreams while somebody else takes care of the kids, cooks, and even manages the books—mostly women, in other words. The situation has long been inherently sexist to an extreme degree, even before (or after) the biases, made ever more clear by the 2021 AIA-University of California Hastings College of the Law Report, and downright discrimination built into every aspect of the field. It is also classist and racist, in that it depends not only on access to the academy and the profession in general, which through countless overt and implied barriers is something Black people in particular and people of color in general still find difficult today, but also all too often relies on the support from family and friends that can help the young, male, white architect get through charrettes in school and later at work. For this reason alone, something needs to be done.
In other words, all these issues create a bad situation. But what is to be done about it? Obviously, we need to get rid of the abuse taking place in parts of the academy and profession and, from my own observations, I do believe that we have, despite the recent incidents at SCI-Arc, made strides in that area. I do not believe, however, that either trying to normalize the hours spent on design, or rejecting the idea that working on architecture can be an endeavor that should fill you with ideals and passion, are the next step. Rather, I think we need to be clearer to ourselves and to students that what they are being trained to become is an architect, but perhaps not one who works (only) in a service profession. Already at SCI-Arc and many other schools, students go to work in fields such as gaming design and are well-paid to do so. We can lament the loss of such talent to developing the backgrounds for first-person shooter games, or we can adjust our education and our culture to push for experimentation and critical attitudes in those fields.
What is even more important is to make it clear that there is a way in which architecture is not just giving a client a box around a certain amount of square feet, but also a form of research and development into the future of our designed environment. Architecture is a way to speculate and propose ways in which we can make the human-made world more sustainable and more socially just by design. It is also a place for experiments in technology and aesthetics, in social relations and in the scenography of community. This is important work, even if it is difficult, quite simply, to be adequately paid for those endless hours.
Traditionally, the very academy that is part of the problem has been the solution by providing a place where architects could be paid and offered facilities—and student work power—to engage in such research, much in the way they are in medicine or law. Although the institutions of higher learning are also under attack, they still offer that possibility. I would note that the generous salaries SCI-Arc offers, which have become part of the debate raised by the recent incidents, were designed exactly to offer the equivalent of that room in a self-funded institution that does not have the benefit of tenure or state support. Architecture as R+D or as experiment needs a place and a dedication in our discipline.
Beyond the academy, there are other outlets and forms of support available to architects who do still believe that their discipline can make a difference, who want to work hard in that belief, but who also want to be justly recompensed for such work. There are museums and galleries, research institutes and projects that can be pursued through private donations. In this country, that alternate network is still woefully weak. We should work to strengthen and extend it in the manner many European and, more recently, Asian countries have.
In the meantime, we must end the exploitation of students or architecture workers, and must be mindful of and counteract our biases and privileges. We must fix those wrongs. At the same time, let’s also keep speculating and designing in a manner that is worth the belief that architecture is not just a service, but also an activity of critical importance and, dare I say, passionate interest.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.