Architectural Workers

As part of our occasional series of conversations, architect and educator Peggy Deamer talked with editor Nancy Levinson about her life as an activist, about cofounding The Architecture Lobby, and about the rise of labor consciousness in the design disciplines. Their conversation was conducted by email, and edited for publication.

Peggy Deamer, reading from Asymmetric Labors: The Economy of Architecture in Theory and Practice, at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Peggy Deamer at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, reading from Asymmetric Labor: The Economy of Architecture in Theory and Practice, an anthology published by The Architecture Lobby. [Courtesy of Peggy Deamer]

Nancy Levinson: Let’s start with the founding of The Architecture Lobby, seven years ago — and right at the start I’ll share with readers that I’m on the organization’s board. What were the crucial problems in the profession that seemed to call for a new organization, a new movement, centered on the issues of architecture and labor? What convinced you, in the midst of a major career in academia and practice, that there were no existing organizations that were adequately addressing — or even defining — the problems of the workplace in the design professions?

Peggy Deamer: There were several galvanizing moments that occurred around the same time, starting about a decade ago. I remember seeing a list, on a bulletin board at Yale Law School, of the “top ten family friendly law firms.” It was compiled by a student group called Yale Law Women, who wanted to make a point: this was one of the ways in which leading firms competed to attract recent graduates. Law firms — and the legal profession in general — have increasingly acknowledged the importance of work/life balance, of gender and racial equity, of leadership training and mentorship, of fair labor practices. I was immediately struck by the comparison with the design professions. I’d never seen any similar listings in the Yale School of Architecture, where I’d been teaching for years, nor in any of the numerous schools where I’d visited as an instructor or reviewer during three decades in academia. Why weren’t design firms prioritizing such matters? Why weren’t architecture students expecting — demanding — that their future employers do so? So I began to think hard about how and why architecture was lagging behind other professions not only in its workplace policies and programs but also in attitudes and culture.

We architects are taught to see ourselves as creative practitioners participating in culturally ambitious projects, not as hired employees racking up billable hours.

Also around that time I helped organize a public discussion for the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation at the National Building Museum that featured women discussing their approaches to practice. During the Q & A, a young woman asked us to reflect on what to expect from a career in architecture. Not surprisingly, one of the panelists deflected the question with this response: “Architecture is not a career. It is a calling!” This is of course a longstanding perception within the discipline. We architects are taught to see ourselves as artists, not workers; as creative practitioners who are participating in culturally ambitious studio projects, not as hired employees who are racking up billable hours for a business. This helps explain why architects have for so long been chronically underpaid — it’s the positive spin on a long history of undervaluation and exploitation.

NL: That distinction between architecture as “career” or “calling” is, as you say, an old one. Back in architecture school, a friend told me she felt we were being trained for a “priesthood.” Why do you think the mystique has been so durable? Is it paradoxically more valuable, given the reality of low pay for long hours? Is it a kind of cultural compensation? Does the star system — the promise of fame or recognition — function as a lure?

PD: All of the above! I think the “cultural compensation,” as you put it, functions as a form of aspiration and also as a screen. It makes it easier to ignore the impoverished reality of our situation and to keep working long hours for low pay in order to boost the profit margins of firm owners and real estate developers. It makes it easier to think of ourselves as “exceptional” members of an upper-middle-class profession; and maybe even to identify more closely with our increasingly upper-class clientele.

Exhibition posters from Who Builds Your Architecture?
Exhibition posters from Who Builds Your Architecture?

And yes, the star system and the allure of fame play into these dynamics. My biggest political awakening, years ago, came with the convening of Who Builds Your Architecture?, an advocacy group cofounded by Kadambari Baxi and Mabel O. Wilson at Columbia that explores “the links between labor, architecture, and the global networks that form around building buildings.” The first public session, in 2012, focused on the controversies that were emerging around major projects in Abu Dhabi, where leading global architects were designing a branch of the Guggenheim and a satellite campus for New York University. The session focused on troubling reports that were then coming to light: that construction workers on these costly projects were in essence indentured servants, bound to their employers by debt bondage, and that they were living in grim conditions in temporary camps. By now this has inspired a major protest in the art world, led by the activist group Gulf Labor. But back then it made me realize the disconnect between the professionals who design buildings and the laborers who construct what we design. Partly this is due to longstanding business technicalities: it’s not architects but contractors who hire the workers. But mostly it’s due to what I’ve come to see as a deeper, more ideological and conceptual problem: for the most part architects feel little connection, let alone solidarity, with others who work in the construction industry. No matter that architects are notoriously poorly paid, no matter that we complain about the long hours and lack of security; no matter our own lousy working conditions, we don’t want to define ourselves as laborers, as workers.

I began to wonder about how to raise awareness of the value of architectural labor — and more, how to enlarge the capacity of architecture to function as a force for positive social change.

This was when I first began to grasp the connection between architecture and labor, between so-called white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers. I began to wonder about our chronic dissatisfaction, and what could be done not simply to increase our salaries but more expansively to increase awareness of the value of architectural labor — and to enlarge the capacity of architecture to function as a force for positive social change. I began to wonder about the connection between our ignorance of labor issues and our marginalization as a profession, and about whether our marginalization is related to our prioritizing aesthetics over ethics. I began to wonder why our major professional organization, the American Institute of Architects, wasn’t doing more to improve things. And I even began to wonder about our very identity as professionals, as licensed practitioners, and whether this identity was helping or hurting. Would architects be better off if we were better organized? If we were unionized? Or if our workplaces were restructured as cooperatives? These are the questions that led a group of us to found The Architecture Lobby seven years ago. It seemed time to create an organization to advocate, as we say in our mission statement, “for the value of architecture to the general public and for architectural work within the discipline.”

NL: What is the relationship of the Lobby to the AIA, which in its own mission statement uses similar language? An article in Metropolis a few years ago described the Lobby as a “radical caucus” to the AIA. Was the Lobby founded to fill the gaps in the Institute’s agenda?

PD: The relationship is complicated. Like the AIA, the Lobby is a membership organization. Currently there are several hundred members in chapters across the U.S. as well as in Canada, Europe, and Australia. And yes, the Lobby was founded to fill the gaps to the extent that we came to understand the limits of the AIA’s agenda. We’ve been willing to play the bad cop to their good cop — to push difficult discussions in response to the Institute’s tendency to smooth over antagonisms. At the same time we’ve come to realize that it’s not the Lobby’s responsibility to force the AIA to expand its purview; rather, we aim to be the organization that advocates for positive and meaningful change in our discipline.

The relationship between the AIA and the Architecture Lobby is complicated.

One of our first encounters with AIA leadership was informative — and galvanizing. I travelled with another Lobby member to Washington for a meeting with the national leadership, including CEO Robert Ivy. We raised a host of problematic issues — low fees, low wages, illegal working conditions, unpaid internships — and asked why the AIA was apparently so reluctant to address these longstanding problems. The upshot: the organization has been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice twice, first in 1972 and then in 1990, for promoting fee schedules, which the DOJ saw as a form of anticompetitive collusion. We were warned that the DOJ can sue individual professionals, not just organizations, for discussing agreements about fees and wages — and that if the Lobby continued to advocate for industry-wide fair wages, there might be negative consequences. We left the meeting determined to learn more about U.S. antitrust laws, and we had a better understanding of the AIA’s position — but not necessarily more patience with its reticence!

NL: What is the role of academia in the creation or perpetuation of the professional mystique? And by extension in the continuing problems of undervalued labor and career precarity?

PD: The role of academia is significant. In most design schools, the curriculum privileges studio, and the studio privileges formal expertise. Broadly speaking, the result has been a culture that rewards individual creativity, minimizes the value of collaboration, idealizes the form-making “genius,” naturalizes the star system, and fetishizes such sacrificial bad practices as all-night charrettes and grandstanding juries. What’s all too often relegated to secondary status are courses that deal with ethics, with the environment, with social systems, with finance, capital, and power, and how these influence and control the production of buildings. Often there’s the assumption that the university years are “special” and that students shouldn’t be burdened with so-called “real world” issues, which will come soon enough at graduation.

One of a series of San Precario Prayer Cards sponsored by The Architecture Lobby.
One of a series of San Precario Prayer Cards sponsored by The Architecture Lobby.

This is of course a very general portrait — and unfair to all those who are moving beyond these stereotypes. But so far change has been slow, and mostly individual and ad-hoc. To my knowledge there is no architecture school that has reorganized institutionally in order to effectively address such issues as work precarity, income inequality, the housing shortage, public health, global warming, and the effects of technological change. Most immediately, as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests, schools are being called upon to account for their failure to be more equitable and diverse; my own school is being challenged to “dismantle institutional racism and [to] rebuild itself to promote an inclusive vision of architectural education.” That these concerns are not already foregrounded in our educational system only testifies to the power of the professional mystique.

NL: What kinds of institutional or programmatic reorganization would be most effective?

PD: The key move would be to recalibrate the design curriculum: to de-center the studio and to give more weight to all those social and political issues I’ve just mentioned so that students would be better equipped to understand the real-world complexities they’re now being sheltered from. Schools should also pursue research that’s much more closely connected to the pressing problems that are overwhelming our news feeds — research that’s both spatial and social. Today that could mean studying earlier pandemics and how they influenced the design of the built environment and the development of public health policies. It could mean studying how the design disciplines have been complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. It would certainly mean studying how architecture affects climate change and investigating new models of sourcing construction materials and using buildings.

Now What?! explores the little-known history of design activism on behalf of progressive causes from civil rights to feminism to gay liberation.
Now What?! explores the little-known history of design activism on behalf of progressive causes from civil rights to feminism to gay liberation. The exhibition, which has been traveling around the country for several years, was created by ArchiteXX.

Schools should pursue research that’s more closely connected to the problems that are overwhelming our news feeds — research that’s both spatial and social.

I’d also love to see more courses that teach the history of design-based activism. The nonprofit ArchiteXX, founded by Lori Brown and Nina Freedman around the same time the Lobby was being organized, has created an excellent exhibition, Now What?! Advocacy, Activism, and Alliances in American Architecture Since 1968, that’s been touring the country. It spotlights a history of activism — ranging from The Architects Resistance to CARYATIDS to the Women’s School of Architecture and Planning to current initiatives like 400 Forward and Mapping Feminist LA — that so far has remained outside the margins of mainstream pedagogy.

NL: In the past few years, the Lobby has put architectural work and the workplace on the activist agenda. You’ve just published a new book, Architecture and Labor. How does the Lobby define “architectural labor”? It’s a truism, or a cliché, that most designers devote less time to creative work than to mundane business and administrative responsibilities. There’s also the long-running argument between those who see the field as a public art, and those who see it as service profession. What does your research reveal about architectural jobs, the actual daily realities of the typical architectural career?

PD: At the Lobby, we tend not to differentiate between so-called creative activities and mundane ones. To put it more theoretically: we don’t subscribe to Hannah Arendt’s classic distinction between labor (what we do to subsist) and work (what we do to produce deeper meaning and cultural sustenance). We conceptualize work as what we all do in our individual lives (i.e., we go to work every day), and labor as what is monetized by our economic system. So our research has not focused on identifying how much time architects are “creative” and how much time they are not. Creative work is work — and as such it is monetized, bought and sold in a system of exchange. And when these systems are humane and well-organized, work is self-actualizing and rewarding, whether or not the field is considered artistic.

The month-long installation What Is an Architect?, conceived in coordination with the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial and Chicago Artists Month, was part of the Lobby's contribution to the event.
The month-long installation What Is an Architect?, conceived in coordination with the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial and Chicago Artists Month, was part of the Lobby’s contribution to the event.

Created by The Architecture Lobby, the video (Re)Working Architecture was an uninvited contribution to the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, consisting of a series of scenes depicting the "absurdities of architectural practice/labor/work."
Created by The Architecture Lobby, the video (Re)Working Architecture was an uninvited contribution to the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, consisting of a series of scenes depicting the “absurdities of architectural practice/labor/work.”

The deeper shift is philosophical: to convince architectural workers that they should embrace being workers — and thus pursue worker rights and empowerment.

At the Lobby, our goal is not to do away with mundane activities, which isn’t possible, but rather to figure out how architects can better control their workplaces — their means of production, in Marxist terms. This means advocating for strategies that enable both employers and employees to function in ways that are more relevant and rewarding. The strategies are straightforward: conducting substantive, non-confrontational, and action-oriented discussions about clear and transparent promotion and pay structures; speaking up for the rights and agency of staff workers; demanding effective policies for equity and diversity. Again, the deeper shift is philosophical: we want to convince architectural workers everywhere that they should embrace being workers — and thus pursue worker rights and empowerment.

NL: The Lobby has become a strong proponent for the unionization of architects, which would of course involve a fundamental change in how architects conceptualize the discipline — again, in the mystique of the artist-professional. What would be the advantages of an architects’ union?

PD: I began to think about unionizing architects as a result of that first Who Builds Your Architecture? workshop. At that session I was struck by the parallels between the working conditions of architects and those of building laborers. Because despite the very different socio-economic conditions — the different levels of privilege and opportunity, of personal danger and environmental exposure, not to mention the material comforts of the design studio — architects experience similar circumscriptions and workplace abuses. The vast majority are at-will employees of private corporations and, as such, have little ability to influence their daily working lives or the overall terms of their employment. Many are routinely expected to put in extra hours for little or no overtime, have scant job security and meagre benefits, and can be fired for no cause.

To a large degree this is the result of historical circumstances; for a century and a half — even since the founding of the AIA in 1857 in order to “promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members” — architecture has organized itself as a profession. In other words, architecture was not a trade, or occupation, or industry. Rather it was a rarefied and specialized discipline of highly-trained practitioners, often as not members of the same socio-cultural elite as their clients. As the architectural educator Tony Schuman has noted, “Historically, the idea of a ‘profession’ represents a secularization of the religious concept of ‘taking vows,’ where the profession of faith is replaced by one of knowledge.” Talk about a priesthood!

The Unionization Campaign is central to the activism of The Architecture Lobby.
The unionization campaign is central to the activism of The Architecture Lobby.

There was one serious effort to unionize architects, back during the Depression. It’s a fascinating history of white-collar unionization that ought to be much better known.

There was one serious effort to unionize architects, back during the Depression, with the founding in 1933 of the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians. This was, as the historian Mardges Bacon has argued, a “little-known, but landmark, episode of solidarity and political advocacy,” an effort to respond to the “structural defects of modern industrial capitalism.” As Tony Schuman puts it, “By analyzing architecture as a form of production, the union identified the architectural office as a workplace where the junior architect was a worker and the partner an employer, challenging the ‘happy family’ image of the small, intimate office.” Over the years, the FAECT successfully lobbied for higher wages and paid overtime for architects employed by New Deal agencies and federal departments; it also organized a sit-down strike to protest the anti-union policies of Robert Moses, then the New York City parks commissioner. As Bacon says, the federation became, in effect, “the collective bargaining agent” for architects in private firms. At its height, the FAECT counted more than 10,000 members, including the physicist Robert Oppenheimer; it published a journal and even ran a school. The organization dissolved in the postwar years in the midst of rising anti-radical and anti-labor sentiment. It’s a fascinating history of white-collar unionization that ought to be much better known.

Today we’re still struggling with the structural defects of industrial capitalism — and unionization is an old idea that deserves new attention. Certainly it’s gaining momentum in other white-collar fields, from journalism to academia. Why not architecture? At the Lobby we fully understand the enormous difficulties. We know of no firm owner that will welcome the arrival of a union; and employees — architectural workers — while indignant about their lack of bargaining power, often seem unwilling to be confrontational. Yet ultimately there are advantages for employers as well as employees when offices are fair and transparent about the protocols of pay, promotion, benefits, and severance. Collective empowerment is a powerful motivator; so is mutual respect.

NL: The Lobby has also been a strong advocate for architectural cooperatives. How would these work? What would be the advantages?

PD: Our interest in cooperatives was partly an acknowledgement of the sheer difficulty of unionization. To organize a union in a design firm, architectural employees would first need to identify an existing union to join, since starting a wholly new and unaffiliated one that will be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board is virtually impossible. Then they would need to launch a campaign to convince fellow employees of the advantages of being represented by a union; then hold an election; and then negotiate their demands with firm owners. This would take not just a lot of strategic organizing but also a very significant intellectual and political reorientation — a willingness to relinquish our identity as rarefied professionals and embrace a new one as empowered workers. But we also recognized that unionization is more appropriate for large firms; it would be less effective for small ones. Small firms needed another approach, at least at this moment.

Cooperatives are less complicated than unions, and they offer advantages at smaller, more varied scales.

Cooperatives are the answer. They are less complicated, and they offer advantages at smaller, more varied scales. An individual design firm might be organized as a worker-owned cooperative, with all the worker-owners making decisions and sharing profits jointly. At the same time a network of firms might function cooperatively in order to share resources. For instance, a group of small studio practices could collectively support administrative staff, including bookkeepers, accountants, and lawyers; they might join together to enhance their purchasing power for insurance and benefits. And they might share workspaces, or collaborate to form project-specific design teams. Clearly cooperatives are advantageous to small firms, and in the U.S. the vast majority of firms, more than 90 percent, employ fewer than 20 people.

But still, no matter the benefits, cooperatives are rare. In the U.S. it would be legally tricky for an architecture firm to set itself up as a true cooperative; most states don’t even recognize them as a business model. To a large extent this reflects the political power of the idea. As the activist and historian John Curl has argued: “The very existence of cooperatives challenges corporations and capitalism.”

NL: The Architecture Lobby not only campaigns for unions and cooperatives; its activism extends to the Green New Deal, to #MeToo, to injustices along the U.S./Mexico border. What links all these agendas?

Ultimately we envision unions and co-ops as structures for reorganizing work to be more meaningful and socially relevant.

PD: What links them are our ambitions for the profession. There’s no doubt that the employment conditions of practicing architects might seem a niche priority these days. That’s why we conceptualize unions and cooperatives not simply as vehicles for better workplace policies. Ultimately we envision them as structures for reorganizing work to be more meaningful and socially relevant. Unionized architects would be able to use collective bargaining not only to negotiate salaries and benefits; they could also seek a greater role in determining the kinds of projects a firm takes on — or refuses to take on. In spring 2017, soon after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an RFP for a new wall along the Mexican border, we started the #NotOurWall campaign. Like many Lobby campaigns, this was about raising awareness of the issues and encouraging architects to refuse any professional involvement in the construction of a southern border wall. That same year we also launched the Just Design initiative to identify firms that follow exemplary labor practices — paid parental leave, flexible hours, flattened hierarchies, proactive mentoring, and respect for healthy work/life priorities. The goal is to develop a form of official certification; meanwhile we put out a call for nominations and, from a field of 180 proposals, selected 25 firms. Starting last fall, Archinect has been publishing case studies of these offices.

The Architecture Lobby's projects include a manifest and the #NotOurWall campaign.
The Architecture Lobby’s projects include a manifesto and the #NotOurWall campaign.

In these projects and many others, the Lobby uses a range of tactics, from publications to events, to break down architects’ ideological reluctance to connecting their work practices with social and political goals. We’ve written reports on labor law and on parental leave; we’ve held “think-ins” to debate new pedagogical models, the perception of architecture in the media, and the pros and cons of professionalization.

NL: We’re in the midst of a momentous year. The Black Lives Matter protests are inspiring new waves of campus activism, and schools everywhere are being called to account for their complicity with white supremacy. The pandemic is slowing down construction and threatening the projects and payrolls of design firms. How might these world-historical events open up new possibilities for structural change in the design disciplines?

PD: Yes, the pandemic and the protests are epochal events — along with climate change and the corruption of our democracy! Together these crises are opening up new possibilities, some structural, others more conceptual. Clearly this is a moment to develop new historical and social consciousness. Along with many others here in America, architects are recognizing that the status quo — our market-centric economics, our winner-take-all politics — is truly broken. We’re recognizing that architectural actions are not neutral. What we do — as individual and as members of organizations and institutions — has impact in the world for which we are responsible. And given that all these crises — political, viral, environmental — are so intertwined, many architects are also recognizing that we need to scrutinize how our industry functions within larger socio-economic systems.

Architecture and Labor was published earlier this year, The Architect as Worker in 2015.
Architecture and Labor was published earlier this year, The Architect as Worker in 2015.

This heightened consciousness is an essential foundation for identifying as an activist and pressing for structural reforms. Today I’m optimistic that there’s rising awareness of the need to organize as a profession. I think the AIA is waking up. Architecture in Turbulent Times, which started last month and is continuing through the fall, is a remarkably progressive educational program; I’ll be leading one of its workshops, on “ownership as equity” and worker-forward business models. I’ll also be one of the keynote speakers at Distributed Proximities, a conference organized by ACADIA; my focus will be labor and practice. These speaking invitations are surely due to the growing profile of the Lobby.

Now COVID-19, which is intensifying the precarity of designers, is inspiring a new wave of activist energy.

It’s been gratifying for me to watch the growth of the Lobby. After our early focus on labor practices, the big boost came with the 2016 election. The AIA’s notorious post-election memo — stating that “the AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces” — caused some significant number of those 89,000 architects to realize that their professional organization was not speaking for them. Soon after that there was another big upswing in membership with the rise of #MeToo, which brought unflattering new attention not just to decades of sexual harassment and discrimination on the part of leading architects but also to the damning silence of the profession. More recently, the Congressional resolution on the Green New Deal, which links environmental and labor issues, attracted more members to our cause. And now COVID-19, which is intensifying the precarity of designers in the profession and the academy, is producing a new wave of interest and energy. From a group of about 50 members in New York City, the Lobby has matured into an international network with almost 350 members across 20 chapters, and counting.

Of course I am convinced that our growth and reach are testimony to the strength of our cause: worker empowerment and professional relevance. But you are right to point out that world events are making it impossible to ignore the need for structural change. At the Lobby we are ready to identify key changes in our discipline — and to fight for them.

Peggy Deamer In Conversation With Nancy Levinson, “Architectural Workers,” Places Journal, September 2020. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.