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The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 1

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This article was written entirely by hand in the margins of a book I’ve been trying to review for the last few months. The book is entitled Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, by Robert B. Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. Remember those days? Probably not.

Currently he is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at Cal Berkeley. My guess is that he is not well-known among architects—his books are comprised of dense fields of text and the only images are graphs and charts with numbers. Given the current challenges the profession is facing, I thought now would be an appropriate time to introduce him. Actually, it’s a pity his ideas—which by the way are not merely his alone—are circulating now when they could have been instrumental in preventing the current recession.

More after the break.

The reason it’s been so difficult to write a review is because every time I read a couple sentences I find myself getting so infuriated that I have to slam the book shut and go for a run. Not because he is wrong, but because I know he is right and the paradigms he narrates seem so obvious when presented on the page. The other night, one paragraph was enough to make me an insomniac. So, I have been absorbing this book one small piece at a time and it has been having a cumulative impact.

This article is not meant to be the final diagnosis of architecture’s problems. It is more a test to see if the particular conditions Reich describes apply to the business and culture of architecture. It is, in some ways, the book review I have been trying to write, but it is an indirect review as told through the specifics of the architectural sector. This sector, which is still trying to pull itself up after being knocked down, also happens to be intimately connected to the causes of the current recession. The culture of architecture, for its own internal logic, unwittingly exemplifies the economic and social divides that made our economy vulnerable to recession in the first place.

Architecture’s Concentration of Wealth

If more architects had better business models they would be able to pay their employees better. As it is now, architecture as an industry mirrors the economic and social divides that characterize the broader economy. The architecture industry is one of the clearest examples of the macro-economic division of capital that concentrates wealth at the top 5%.

The remaining 95% of the “workers” are fighting for scraps at the bottom with fewer and fewer in the comfortable, more stable middle range. In fact, according to Reich, the middle class does not really exist in a viable way anymore so it is more that the majority of workers are struggling to maintain the fantasy of the middle class.

Architecture’s Culture of Sacrifice

Architecture is notoriously exploitative of its workers. It relies on a culture, largely bred in school, of sacrifice (read: long hours and precarious job security) and suffering (read: low pay) for a lofty, noble cause: Architecture as culture’s highest calling and art form. In other words, suffering and sacrifice are compensated by the abstraction of supposed cultural superiority.

That’s just the way it is, as you have been told time and time again by the veterans who endured similar privation and penury when they were young. You, as the architectural worker, are asked to sacrifice your life, to receive low pay and possibly no benefits.

Once, a high-paid principal of a global firm advised me to try to live at all times as if I were receiving half of what my salary actually was. This well-meaning elder’s point was that I should be extremely frugal and save as much as possible to offset the economics of the profession always be prepared for future recessions. In other words, I should merely accept these conditions as givens and adjust as best I can. This may be sensible from his standpoint, but had I followed his advice I would not have been able to afford supporting myself, let alone my family.

This is another one of Reich’s points: when the majority of workers cannot afford to participate in the economy as stable consumers, the economy becomes unstable and vulnerable to the downward spiral of recession.

Architecture Wages Remain Flat

For the majority of workers in the architecture profession, wages have remained flat in relation to steady increases in the consumer price index and the cost of living. While many firms have gotten larger, more powerful, and their principles have become wealthier through mergers, acquisitions, and market expansion, workers have seen their financial potential and long-term security drop significantly over the long-term.

As Reich noted, for the average American, wages have been stagnant for thirty years. As he stated in a recent Huffington Post article:

“Today’s typical 30-year-old male (if he has a job) is earning the same as a 30-year-old male earned three decades ago, adjusted for inflation. (Although women are doing better than they did 30 years ago, their wages still trail men’s).

The bottom 90 percent of Americans now earn, on average, only about $280 more per year than they did thirty years ago. That’s less than a 1 percent gain over more than a third of a century. Families are doing somewhat better but that’s only because so many families now have to rely on two incomes.

But wait. The American economy is more than twice as large now as it was thirty years ago. So where did the money go? To the top. The richest 1 percent’s share of national GDP has doubled — from around 9 percent in 1977 to over 20 percent now. The richest one-tenth of 1 percent’s share has tripled. The 150,000 households that comprise the top one-tenth of one percent now earn as much as the bottom 120 million put together” (March 2, 2011).

Now, in the midst of recent history’s worst recession—yes, we are still in a recession—layoffs continue and the ones who remain are worked twice as hard to make up for a continuously shrinking labor pool. And for the favor of not being axed, those who remain in their Knoll chairs are expected to sacrifice even more than before.

Those fortunate enough to be hired in the recession are getting paid up to 30% less than before and find themselves having to be grateful to be in even more financially vulnerable circumstances while expectations for work hours increase exponentially. Even before the recession, workers were expected to put in long, free, hours of overtime. After all, you are taught from school onwards that working for free is a natural part of the learning curve. In fact, architecture is the only profession I can think of that has actually institutionalized free labor.

Meanwhile, principals and executives at large firms continue to draw large paychecks with no sacrifice. These few at the top keep everything for themselves while trying to convince those below that their sacrifices will pay off someday. The general thinking is that the pay-off can come once you open your own firm.

This is one reason there are so many firms cluttering the landscape: people occupying the lower levels feel compelled to break out on their own to reposition themselves as principals of their own firms. In order to do this, however, they must exploit other workers as “interns” because they cannot yet afford to pay a living wage (or any wage, for that matter). And so the cycle continues and more and more firms flood the market with more and more working class employees.

Architecture’s Re-boot

Architecture needs a re-boot and perhaps the recession is a good opportunity for that. Architecture must move beyond the project-shop mentality and evolve using viable, practical business knowledge. This is the only way to secure the long-term health of the profession as well as the position of high design. In other words, high design can thrive only when protected by an economics of value and fiscal sustainability.

Without developing new approaches to architecture as a business, architecture as a profession will continue to erode. It will reach a point where younger generations will not be able to sustain themselves in the profession. The sacrifices will simply be too daunting and unreasonable—if they aren’t already.

The Architectural Worker’s Union

Isn’t it interesting that there isn’t a union for architectural workers? Why not? Because we see ourselves not as workers but as designers, as creative, artistic, cultured, educated individuals who are beyond the petty concerns of the mere working class. If we look at the numbers, however, it becomes clear that the majority of these cultured, educated designers are in fact the working class. They are part of the new working class that was once the middle class. As Reich asserts, the middle class doesn’t really exist in real terms as it once did.

The business you are in treats you like a worker. You are viewed as such. You probably have an employee number. Your tax forms and pay slips look and behave the same as other workers. You receive wages or a salary and you are taxed. Your project manager looks at your numbers alongside the project budget, counting every click of your mouse and noting every time you glance at Facebook. You are part of a spreadsheet. S/he wants you to be more effective and faster. Most importantly, s/he wants you to be cheap.

You’ve probably noticed by now that besides there being extreme economic divides in offices there is also a status or class divide. There are a handful of licensed architects and legions of workers, Arch I’s, Arch II’s, Arch III’s, whatever a firm chooses to call them—Designers, Project Designers. Of course, if it was easy to get licensed then there wouldn’t be the same pool of cheap and free labor for offices who don’t want to pay too much.

The logic works the other way, too. If an office has more licensed people, or at least higher paid people, the better it can serve the public. They can also charge more for their services by showing clients they have valued professionals working on their projects. How much do you charge per hour? What are your hourly rates for different orders of problem solving? It’s worth paying more for professionals, right?

But this goes to another problem. Architects are prisoners of those who control most of the capital in the current economy. According to Reich this would be the top 1-5%. When all the wealth is concentrated at the top, the demand for architecture decreases because there are fewer potential clients. The wealthy actually consume less and hang on to most of their money—it does not circulate in the economy to create more demand.

The majority 95-99% of the population is in such a weakened state that they cannot mobilize enough resources to launch new architecture projects. What would happen if the economy were less lop-sided and the middle to low majority were in stronger positions? There would be more clients for architects, for one. But when the architectural profession is exploited by society, then the profession exploits its own members. This is part of the capitalist system. The profession, then, has to become stronger so that forces of competition do not grind it down and keep it down.

Is it good to have a demoralized, exploited workforce? Is it good to have an office that is extremely vulnerable to shifts in the economy? Is it desirable to be trapped in a cycle of dependence on specialized projects? Wouldn’t it be better if the architecture business were able to pay all of its workers salaries that lifted them out of debt and social vulnerability, salaries on par with their education? Wouldn’t it be good if firm leaders were trained not just in architecture but in business and economics? Wouldn’t it be nice if architecture, an industry so vital to community and culture, were able to economically perform on a par with its true value to society, on a par with other professions like medicine and law? It’s great that architects think so highly of themselves, see themselves as so superior and knowledgeable. Yet it would be good if the rest of society agreed with this assessment. Another way of putting this: if architects could be paid equivalent to how they regard their actual worth, they would all be millionaires. Or if not, at least they would be able to live comfortably.

Now that I have identified some of the problems, what are the solutions? For this you have to wait until next week where I will introduce some of the thinking by three of the profession’s top strategists and advisors. In Part 2, I will introduce you to the minds of Nancy Egan, Marjanne Pearson, and Paul Nakazawa. If you run a firm, or are fortunate enough to be working for one these days, you will want to know these names.

See. I’m not just making this stuff up. I’m actually talking to people who know more than I do. Firm leaders would do well to do the same in times like these.

The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.

Cite:Guy Horton. "The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 1" 03 Mar 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>