The epistemological DNA and richness of architecture
Harriet Harriss The epistemological DNA and richness of architecture

The long workday of architecture has come to symbolize the industry’s internal crucible of unrest, one that exposes the inequalities related to class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and age that continue to plague the profession.

From the perspective of a design practice eager to win work, uncertain market conditions, ongoing wage devaluation, and the rising cost of building materials—which can trigger value engineering and thus laborious redesigns—can too easily throw initial cost proposals into disarray. Rather than rip up the balance sheet, firms often rely on long hours and unpaid overtime to soak up the losses. Accordingly, job descriptions seeking individuals with “flexibility, commitment, and professional passion” become a proxy for consensual exploitation, and employee prospects for promotion become contingent on this form of self-evisceration.

Harriet Harriss
Morley von Sternberg Harriet Harriss

For the talented, dedicated, and often debt-encumbered architecture graduate, resistance is futile. Schools are caught between ensuring students are capable of confronting inequality in the workplace and conditioning them to become complicit in it—or risk unemployability. The situation is even more acute for poorer students, who are statistically more likely to be from minority households: The unpaid or low-paid internships frequently required for getting a foot in the door are simply beyond their reach. And for anyone contemplating a family, the choice is too often promotion or parenting, but not both.

Not all architecture practices are unscrupulous, of course, and the profession doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The growing polarization of wealth requires discrimination on a grand scale, across all groups, industries, and places.

Schools are caught between ensuring students are capable of confronting inequality in the workplace and conditioning them to become complicit in it—or risk unemployability.

What a problem of this magnitude needs is people whose education is richly informed by different disciplines and epistemologies—from the historical to the economic, the cultural to the creative. It needs problem-solvers who are willing to experiment, who are able to work across different platforms, and who understand the interconnectivity and interdependency of people, place, politics, and power. As it happens, the people best meeting this job description are architects.

Architects adopt, appropriate, and hybridize multidisciplinary theories and practices. They can work at the macro- and micro-scale simultaneously with the confidence born of problem-solving in three dimensions. Rather than designing largely in the service of the 1%, they should take on the most significant and meaningful design challenge yet: designing out inequality both within and beyond the profession. The architects of tomorrow need more than technology; they need tenacity to become outspoken advocates against injustice.

Today’s most innovative and productive businesses are paving the way. For example, Microsoft Japan’s recent conversion to a four-day workweek yielded a 40% increase in productivity—and a 20% decrease in its energy bill, to boot. Long work hours are not, in fact, essential to competitiveness.

A number of architecture schools, including mine, are collectively developing inclusive professional pedagogies. Our approach involves supporting student-led curriculum initiatives; providing spaces outside of studio for socializing, rest, and well-being; partnering students with communities and commercial practices; and offering opportunities to design buildings, as well as inclusive and equitable practices that the students would want to lead. For the savvy practice director, a creative, confident, and socially aware graduate with sound business acumen surely makes for a sound and attractive hire.

Affordable housing, climate change mitigation, safe infrastructure, and healthy workspaces are just a few of the design issues that matter—to everyone, regardless of context or identity. Yet, it is only when architecture is set free from its own internal inequalities that it will be able to play a more critical role in responding to these existential problems.

This op-ed appeared in the February 2020 issue of ARCHITECT with the headline "Only Equity Can Beget Equity."

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.

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