Most of the practicing architecture is drudgery, and this is rather unfair. As students, architects are given thoughtful prompts about the built environment and its big questions, as well as sole creative reign to answer those questions. That is the only time in the architect’s life when this is the case, and in many ways, this does not adequately prepare the architecture student for the world of architecture, which is a world of drudgery. In reality, architects are not heroes. They are not great thinkers, tasked with resolving the contradictions inherent in putting something like a building into existence. It’s very likely they are not tastemakers or aesthetes either. Most of the time, they’re sitting at the computer wrangling something called Building Information Management or drawing sections of insulation at a desk with several other people doing the same thing. This is not the creative calling one was promised as a 19-year-old. This is work, plain and simple.
Or, to be more specific, it is labor, done in piecework, no different from that of the textile worker, except that the textile worker is not burdened by insurmountable student debt, nor made mentally undone by the false promise to radically change the face of fashion forever.
And yet architects do not see themselves as workers. They see themselves as temporarily disadvantaged creatives, somehow distinct from the construction laborers who turn their drawings into reality. When architects do begin to think of themselves as workers, they open themselves up to a wide range of political possibilities, ones with profound potential to change the practice and face of architecture, not individually as sole geniuses, but collectively, as organized political actors. But professionalism is a tough nut to crack, even when the profession has been in a downward spiral for decades. We as a field are thus fortunate that there are now works like Peggy Deamer’s Architecture and Labor that help clarify, in no uncertain terms, our unflattering rules of engagement as participants in capitalist society. Deamer’s book—a collection of essays written over ten years—addresses what seem like wicked problems and proposes possible solutions to them, ranging from contract law to unionization. However, to me, this slim volume is best understood as a resource, that is, as a series of thoughtful propositions to build on rather than blindly follow.
Much of Deamer’s work could be characterized as disciplinary myth-busting. Tellingly, she chooses to open her collection with an essay on architectural detailing, often the benchmark for distinguishing a good work of architecture from a bad one. She notes that we still adhere to an artisanal view of the detail and routinely ascribe it to some unusually sensitive creator, when in reality, most details are collective assemblies, just like the rest of a building; what’s more, those assemblies are now mass-produced. Our concept of detailing has yet to take such things into account and, in failing to do so, fundamentally obscures further inquiry into the nature of architectural production in our contemporary world. She follows this with a disquisition on the nature of architectural labor as labor, aiming to tear down the firewall between architects and the rest of the AEC world, or as Deamer succinctly puts it, “Architects design, contractors build; we do art, they do work.”
In distinguishing themselves from the building trades, architects not only fail to grasp the notion of their own precarity as laborers but also let slip the financial and wellness opportunities available to those trades through unions and different structures of ownership. Furthermore, this disconnection also opens architects up to moral hazards regarding the construction of their buildings (one thinks of Zaha Hadid’s pithy comments about the indentured laborers who built her work in Qatar) and shows a distinct lack of political will to change such things. In Deamer’s words: “Architects rightly claim that they are not at the negotiating table but sadly refuse to reflect on how their disengagement impacts this tragedy.”
Deamer, who is a leading force behind the Architecture Lobby, claims that the separation of the discourse of work from architecture is a recent one. Throughout the 19th century, architects, designers, and theorists like John Ruskin and William Morris interrogated questions of worker alienation in the face of mass production. But in the 20th century, the proponents of modernism, while invoking a sentiment of culture for all made possible by technology, shifted focus away from production toward consumption and materiality, resulting in the worker being obscured by the technology of industry. In postwar America, “corporatism” (per Deamer) advanced the idea of a humane capitalism that secured freedom through consumer choice, made all the more varied by a growing design industry. However, this golden age was short-lived. The subsequent period of neoliberalism stripped architecture of its social-minded bona fides (namely, its role in the provision of public housing), replacing them with formal discourses and, at the same time, the argot and rationality of financialization. Social projects immediately gave way to individual building projects, which, in turn, were reconceived as liquid assets. Architects, unfortunately, have neglected to reconsider their notions of themselves in regard to these latter shifts.
Perhaps the most interesting and enlightening parts of Deamer’s book are her histories of events that have shaped architectural practice from the shadows. Of particular note is the role of antitrust lawsuits in the 1970s in gutting AIA protections such as “suggested fee schedules, the prohibition of members from discounting fees, the strict guidelines for advertising, and the prohibition of competition governing its members.” These litigious endeavors essentially triggered architecture’s race to the bottom and considering the broader role antitrust laws have played in the reshaping of so-called “learned professions,” they leave little recourse for collaboration, lest it be construed as anticompetitive.
In terms of solutions, Deamer proposes cooperativization and integrated project delivery contracts in which risk and reward are shared among all parties through a promise not to sue. There are loopholes in the broader legal quandaries presented in the book; however, some (third-party surveys and nonprofit status) are less convincing and structurally consequential than others (exemptions from antitrust laws as they apply to states and unionization). Deamer’s focus on circumventing architecture’s legal and managerial woes is useful because it explicates the unique structures of architectural work within a rather difficult-to-navigate American capitalist framework, giving one a fuller idea of both the immensity of the problem and the inherent limitations of would-be solutions. (Also of interest is Deamer’s comparison of architectural associations and credential-issuing organizations in the United States with those of France, Sweden, and Germany.)
Two clear narratives emerge in the book. Architects refuse to acknowledge their role as laborers at their own peril, as professionalization structures buckle under pressures of automation and de-skilling. Meanwhile, the only available avenues for redress are ultimately rather narrow in scope. The fact is, much of the work of building communal entities has, in this country, been rendered illegal, and those, such as unions, that have retained legality have been eaten away by the voracious monster of neoliberalism. Reforming the AIA or building new organizations to take its place or working under new contracts or forming co-ops might help architects stem the tide of precarity, but these solutions are limited to architecture, and in a world where we all have to inhabit the built environment, that is simply not good enough.
The prospect of unionization haunts the pages of Deamer’s book, and though it may seem like an all-too-simple solution to our current maladies, it isn’t. The power of a union lies in its ability to unite a segment of workers and build networks of solidarity outward, spanning fields and sectors. That’s not to obscure certain unavoidable tensions arising from potentially conflicting demands and desires. For instance, if we want to change architecture into a more equitable field, we must build power from within architecture. But if we want to change the built environment for the better, we have to look beyond architectural practice and into political practices that intersect with battles being fought on the grounds of housing, environmentalism, gentrification, and the myriad other issues architecture touches.
If a small cooperative uses its radical democratic consensus to refuse a project that will displace families, another, more cynical firm is happy to step into its place, and that cynical firm could also be perfectly democratized, working through IPD contracts, for instance. Democratic structures can always be used for undemocratic ends, but unions are inherently political—they carry political history and the solidarity inherent in the organizational struggle. If all architects were unionized, if they had solidarity with one another, then the refusal of their labor power would mean something collectively, something that would reverberate through the rest of the construction industry, something that in reality would throw a wrench into the production of buildings and the real estate capital inevitably tied to them.
Deamer does a wonderful job of answering questions related to the eldritch legal and organizational setbacks tied to the specific field of architecture. She asks and answers questions of labor—what it means in terms of architectural practice, how architects’ conceptions of themselves form over time, the history of architectural labor and its organizing bodies—but the time now has come to ask questions about labor power. Those are collective questions, and the only way to truly answer them is through action.
Kate Wagner is an architecture critic and the creator of the blog McMansion Hell. Her column America by Design can be found in The New Republic.