How are we to understand labor in architecture, again, today?
“Again?” While this question causes neoliberals to shiver––labor talk stifles “innovation,” they say––more and more architects (mainly young and even younger ones) appear to be placing this question at the center of their discourses and, no pun intended, their work. For the conventional protocols and procedures that script how we make architecture, a discipline connected to a massive infrastructure of capital, development, histories, and cultural conditions, seem dated and stiff––the kind of stiffness that comes with the quaint idiosyncrasies of a gentlemen’s profession.
This “stiffness” could be said to have two visible poles. On one side, there are those who peddle the currency of purity, in its various guises–– they maintain the church of authenticity and represent the views of the liberal-bourgeois architect: The “good” city, keeping spectacle at bay, enshrining the early modern architect-as-craftsman, warn of the “dangers” of contemporary technologies, bla, bla, bla.
On the other side, we have the church of corporate megalomania: the making of a spectacle of seamlessness for those who, indulging the quasi-fascistic ethos of hi-tech-and-high-performance-hygiene, conveniently repress, negate or censor the mess they produce or leave behind: a trail of (“creative”) destruction in the shape of ravished, depleted and polluted environments; an army of permanently migrant and exploited workers forced to live diminished (when not “bare”) lives; a trail of horrendous, unbearable inequality, “etc etc etc” (to paraphrase our dear colleague and ultra-hygienic meteorarchitect, Patrik Schumacher).
Perhaps one could brutally reduce the recent history (last 50 years or so) of how these two sensibilities have applied to architectural work by highlighting the false distinction between human nature and human capital; positions advocated by those from the church of authenticity and the church of technocracy, respectively. For the former, institutions, procedures, technology, and forms of normalcy constitute an obfuscation of the real self that is being sacrificed at the altar of modernity. Creativity, freedom, and all those other imponderable metaphysical qualities are weakened under the pressures of spectacle. Thus, “Human nature must be defended.” For the latter, all activity––human or not––irredeemably falls into the category of “economic,” and the logic of economy is––in this particular discourse––the logic of competition. “Human nature is human capital,” and we must all therefore understand this nature as something to be constantly invested in (by ourselves), trained, developed in every aspect of life and the world, so that our ultra-competitive self-interest and those of society will become magically aligned––“eventually.” (Neoliberals are very good at asking for patience but giving none.) The constant in both formulations, of course, is that other metaphysical and pernicious subject, “the human.”
Our challenge today is to find a way out of the trap or false distinction between these two poles of human nature or human capital. Between the totalizing hold of these two positions, to construct a more substantial discourse upholding the idea that talking about architecture can also be, and in fact, should also be, talking about “architectural work” per se––and not aesthetics, concepts, contexts, formalisms, structures and gadgets, or the cult of private profit so lauded by the neoliberal consensus.
Under this consensus, creativity, innovation, intelligence, and other metonyms of value, are hijacked by an epistemic frame mistaken for “reality.” But the way we work, protocols, contracts, relationships, materials, expertises, etc, are a huge source of value and the currencies that are set in motion by architecture––if not the source. By this I mean not only the cliché corporate (and hipsterist) phrase “office/studio culture,” but the more mundane and pervasive world of office technicalities and its peripherals: files, computer systems, drawing registers, administrative assistants, receptionists, desk lighting, coffee machines, office pets, lunch breaks, site meetings, maternity-paternity leaves (or lack thereof), consultant arrangements, presentation-performances, printing panics, variations, model-making supplies, competition formats, and so on. All these socio-technical materials, plus the quasi-automatic procedures that recursively animate them––class distinctions, professional habitus, organizational systems, normative channelizations––constitute what I am calling the Fundamentals of Architectural Work. It’s time we open them up for critical examination and experimentation.
In a totally provisional and purely suggestive manner, here are some approaches or considerations that might be helpful for such an impulse (and here I have to thank, for their projects and conversations, my colleagues at OfficeUS as well as The Architecture Lobby in New York):
To be radically materialistic, or more simply, realistic instead of idealistic, while understanding there is no materiality or reality without representation: they constitute each other.
To take as many gains as possible, however small, without worrying (too much) about compromised positions. All positions are compromised.
To have a “total” strategy despite its impossibility. To understand the difference between causes and effects of the current conditions: low wages, lack of work, unpaid overtime, etc are symptoms of the problem, not its causes. Seeing the complex infrastructure that constitutes “causes” takes tireless pedagogy and organization.
Finding ways––as Machiavellian as necessary––of demonstrating the unique value architects bring to the table, such as being able to advise how or when not to build. The issue of communication––and technology in all its forms––is an integral aspect of Architectural Work, not an accessory preoccupation.
Understand that we are not just “a part” of “the economy,” but that we constitute economic or economizing processes with every breath we take (or don’t take).
Continue fighting the myth of the solo creative genius; agitate shamelessly on this issue. Establish structural connections between the profession and academia for research on professional labor rights.
Push for a greater collaboration between architects, planners, and public authorities to move away from the radical free market system and toward a more democratic city.
The list could go on, but the underlying point is that things really could be, and inevitably will be, different––whether we like it or not. Having the imagination to think and act on this thought: what will you do with a life––as an architect, as a person, as a thing? And how will this change architecture and the world?
+++++ JOIN us Friday June 6th 4-5pm for OfficeUS issue LABOR LEED! +++++
Erin Rae Hoffer
Ethical imperatives currently hover over architectural practices worldwide. The notion of exploitation, environmental or human, is often addressed today less through a recourse to previous principles for the generation of form, space, or program than through bureaucratized frameworks that involve little beyond simply checking, with better or worse taste, a compliance box. The US Green Building Council (USGBC), the developer of the LEED building rating system, was created in 1993. The aura surrounding LEED Platinum certification has become a common object of desire among developers and clients around the world, sometimes more powerful than any local code. Buildings around the world are being designed to enter the club of the self-consciously responsible in relationship to energy consumption and sustainable practices. In a parallel manner, a growing awareness of the conditions of labor on construction sites worldwide has prompted reflection on questions of human sustainability and the principles that might be applied, whether through measuring tools or design strategies, to make the building of architecture an ethically tenable construct. What are the mechanisms for ensuring human sustainability?
LABOR LEED investigates what new tools, codes, and system of measurement can be implemented to produce higher levels of equality among the individuals who build, live in, and service architecture.