São Paulo-based architect Anthony Ling has shared with us his perspective on Andrew Maynard’s recent article “Work/life/work balance”. Maynard’s article was extremely popular as it discussed some of the industries most controversial issues surrounding exploitative and exclusionary working practices. Although Ling agrees with many of Maynard’s points, he disagrees with the logic of Maynard’s two options for attaining a good work/life balance – (1) taking the risk of going broke and start your own practice or (2) leave the profession. Greatly inspired by Joshua Prince-Ramus, Ling proposes a solution that focuses on the creation of more business-minded, medium-sized practices.
By reading Andrew Maynard’s critique on today’s architectural workplace I could share his feelings and his rage towards the top-down management system run by many corporate architecture firms and the poor environment most architects work in. I couldn’t agree more that architecture is not as romantic as one sees it, and people who decide to embrace the field should know that. He is also right on by saying that a small percentage of time is spent on creative work and that architecture isn’t the highest paying profession, but I think most people who decide to enter the business already know about this last one. Although his ideas are inspiring and even agreeing with part of his solution to the problem, I think his logic is wrong.
Andrew holds architectural employers guilty for the ugly situation many architectural employees face every day. He says these managers exploit and badly compensate their workers, and in the end tells us to leave our offices and take the risk of starting our own establishment or quit the profession entirely. I don’t blame employers: heck, Andrew himself became one from the moment he started his own practice. By the contrary, people just like Andrew, seeing that the companies they work at have bad management, quitting their jobs and opening new, innovative offices are the ones who make the profession more valuable to society. They are the ones that, in fact, attract better employees, deliver better products and attract more clients.
We have to overcome these archaic feelings of exploitation. Our employers are telling us what to do because they’re the ones risking their money – we have guaranteed paychecks. But if they don’t have any competition, the risk they face is much smaller and the way they treat their employees is far worse. But we have the freedom to leave the office and create the competition at any time, just as Andrew did and recommends. We’re slaves of nobody, and if we’re unhappy with our jobs we have to have the guts to embrace freedom and risk. We are the only ones to blame when we are afraid to do so. Enough with fear-mongering on going broke at anytime and the notion that this “threatens the long-term relevance of the profession”. Opening a new and better office is exactly the spirit of entrepreneurship that makes a competitive market put the obsolete corporations out of business.
Things are wrong the way they right now: creativity is smashed with rigorous working hours and architects are badly paid. And certainly the huge gap between several small trades and a few large commercial offices is a bad sign and unsustainable. But, we can’t complain if we don’t do anything about it, can we? Demanding better working conditions and higher salaries by regulatory action in bad corporations, such as suggested by Andrew, will only make bad architecture more expensive, which will even worsen society’s critique on architects. I suggest a more pro-active, optimist and suffering-free solution to this problem. Instead of running away (his option #2), let’s open our offices planning it just as it was a business so we don’t go broke (his option #1 with a twist). Andrew himself realizes that the small practice model is not suitable for the market as a whole – so why don’t we grow up and quit the little league ourselves? The goal is to shut down the manipulative exploiters by showing society that there is a better way of doing things, not by forcing it to pay more on something that is rotten at its core. To me this means a radical but important change of mindset for those passionate about architecture: rethinking architecture more as a service instead of a work of art and a design as a team-result instead of a one-man’s show.
If you don’t care about me than listen to Joshua Prince-Ramus, he’s the man behind REX and the guy who founded OMA New York with Rem Koolhaas. He bluntly says architects have to stop being cowards and start facing liability, taking more responsibilities and controlling the execution process: things our trade held in the past but gradually faded away. He says we have to respect the positions of the client before the architectural manifestation and know how our decisions influence costs. These issues are all related to thinking the practice first as a professional business and then as an artistic workshop, and all of them are requirements for any healthy, innovative 21st century office in any field – why should architecture be any different? In interviews, he also points out that we have to listen and value young creative minds as much as the experienced old minds and that any project must be recognized as a team effort, with no selfish credit. As a matter of fact, I’d say that the first step for self-fulfillment while working as an architect is recognizing that there is no single-handed creator in the world, noticing we’re constantly “stealing” each others’ ideas from travelling, exhibitions, magazines or even ArchDaily. That a building is the work of many different people, from architects to site workers to engineers to pre-fab providers to even the client. This self-awareness relieves the feeling of exploitation and opens up the path to real teamwork and a professional architectural office.
So telling people to quit and to take even less responsibilities is just avoiding the problem architecture faces today, acknowledging that we didn’t make it and that we’re not capable of doing it in the future: a bleak, pessimistic approach. Yes we want free time, but we also want self-fulfillment and professional recognition, which is nothing different from doing what we love, knowing these desires are commonly shared and that society values our work. It’s a humane feeling, not to be avoided or forgotten. What I’m suggesting is tweaking current corporate rules in our own practices and turning the art of building into something people deliberately pay for: that should be commercial architecture.
Lets’ create new competition for these obsolete corporate thugs out there with new and creative company policies, just like Andrew did. It’s not an impossible task; we just have to think big. Remember that every single large commercial office today was once a small practice, starting out with a handful of architects. And don’t be afraid, we do not have to become as big as the large corporate offices today; if many new medium-sized professional offices appeared with these new mindsets, the whole architectural market would change and prospects would seem even closer to the next generation of architectural entrepreneurs. If Andrew himself decided to grow his office just a bit more (maybe hiring business consultants to help him out, who knows?), I’d bet the corporate office he used to work at wouldn’t stand a chance against him.