Members of Art Institute of Chicago Workers United and other supporters demonstrate outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Benita Nnachortam Members of Art Institute of Chicago Workers United and other supporters demonstrate outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

This fleeting speck of a life we’re given is nothing compared to the infinity one experiences when opening the morning’s emails. You send one, and six more arrive. In the workplace, time slips by; you forget the monetary and moral value of an hour spent on Zoom, in meetings, and, yes, sending those emails. But as a part-time faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects department, I’m deeply aware of the value of each bit of labor I perform. Each hour of building syllabi, sending emails, providing mentorship and feedback, and writing recommendation letters is directly proportionate to my and the institution’s goal: the success of my students. I see the value of my time in their growth and achievements. And yet, I am only financially compensated for the time I spend physically in the classroom—three hours per week.

My situation is not unique. Nearly 600 SAIC part-time faculty are struggling to actualize the value of our time as a part of Art Institute of Chicago Workers United. Currently, we are in an election period; if we win, our union will codify that the time we spend performing the teaching, administrative, and creative labor that fuels our institution’s reputation and fills its coffers demands adequate compensation, access to benefits, and opportunities to grow professionally. But as a teacher, I also see this work as a unique opportunity to teach architecture students about the value of their time—time spent in studio, in dialogue with classmates and colleagues, in critique and reflection, and in rest—as critical components of their practice. We can teach them to value their time as workers, yielding what I hope will be transformative change in the field’s often-toxic, overworked environment.

While new unionization efforts at companies like Starbucks and Amazon are sweeping the country to increasingly popular public approval, the movement for workers’ rights hasn’t permeated architecture practices. SHoP’s union-busting activities that made headlines earlier this year did galvanize some practitioners under Architectural Workers United, but the cultural flurry won’t seem to take hold. This isn’t necessarily indicative of an overarching anti-labor stance, says Andrew Daley, architect and associate organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Rather, it’s a culmination of many factors, including how architects are educated and indoctrinated. It is, says, Daley, distinctly a class problem.

“We're not taught that we're workers,” he says. “What we are taught is that the epitome of the industry is to own your own firm, do world-renowned projects, get invited to give lectures and, maybe to teach. If that's the mindset, then you can't see yourself as labor.” Such creative work, it seems, aims toward a managerial class. And, Daley continues, those aspirations stem from architecture’s ‘lone genius’ mythology: Though dozens of workers are needed to produce and execute the notable buildings and places that color architectural history, that labor is made invisible under the shadow of that sole individual.

Those values are directly and indirectly communicated to young professionals, beginning in the classroom. School presents a unique chance to deal with time value; as the artist group Raqs Media Collective wrote in their 2009 text, “How to be an Artist at Night,” the word “school” (skholē) meant a “pursuit of time of leisure,” or an opportunity to practice outside of normative environments of production and capital-oriented production time.

“It is time, and a particular kind and quality of time—time out, leisurely time, the kind of time that can be a vessel and receptacle for reflection—that is central to learning. The current reality of schools, and of all other institutions that produce the commodities knows as technique and information, have strayed a great distance from the original sense,” they write.

Benita Nnachortam

“In school, we're taught to devalue our time—how much time we put into things, what that time is worth, how much time it takes to create something worthwhile,” Daley says. Students are instructed, sometimes overtly, that their time in school is built for output at all costs. A six-credit, hour-long course that demands more than 30 hours of studio work outside of class time prepares students to accept the unacceptable: exploitative work hours typical in a professionalized setting. Studio culture teaches students to settle for the bare-minumum compensation for the maximum amount of labor.

In that educational environment, little value is placed on reflection or evaluation of process—ideation, research, rest, failure—as well as the politics of one’s position as a creative worker. This is the stuff which, Raqs says, constitutes and differentiates school-time from traditional workforce time. By reframing studio culture to require students to set boundaries, and importantly, to reflect on their creative process, all elements of creative work are valued as work, not merely the output alone.

Teaching students the value of their time, not just that of their outputs, educators can leave their students with a skill that helps bridge the incessant gap between “architecture as art” and “architecture as business” that leads many architects to believe that architecture is not labor but is instead a creative calling. We don’t want to halt ambitions toward greatness, but we should value every component that produces such greatness. Educators can model that behavior.

When it comes to “individual architects that are practitioners and faculty, how they carry and conduct themselves personally; what practices, policies and politics they actually stand for and back up with their words and their work— students watch that just as much as what they listened to in their lectures,” Daley added. Faculty, especially those who practice, can and should demonstrate to their students that creative work is worthy of compensation, and that exploitative work practices have no place in or outside of school. Organizing can be a critical tool in teaching such skills, as it demands attention to labor made invisible, and aims to lead to policies that re-value our time.

Unionizing architecture faculty presents politics and policies that we should model for our students; it becomes a pedagogical tool that creates a viable path for change in this field. Granted, I acknowledge that some would prefer for the field not to transform—those who accept the profession’s predictable attrition rates, who profit from devaluing their employees’ time, and those who believe that ping pong tables are viable retention strategies. But college educators can imagine a future wherein organized architects are valued, and who pass that value into the places they design. The only task left to do will be to restructure our email inboxes.

Workers who build the world, unite.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more from Anjulie Rao: Prioritizing carework in design—rather than tech innovations or green metrics—will lay foundations for more sustainable communities. | The pursuit and promise of equity in architecture.