I was sitting at a posh bar the other night, dining alone, half-listening to the band, when a woman walked over, ordered a drink, and sat beside me. Slim and alluring in an exotic way, she wore a shimmery gold gown meant to impress. Olive skin and bright eyes. Crazy-long eyelashes. Manicured baby-blue nails matched her eyeshadow and lip gloss. A tattoo snaked across a bare shoulder before disappearing into depths unknown. Cascading down her back was an outrageous blonde mane, which I assumed was a wig. Everything about her screamed “look at me,” so I did. Beautiful and beautifully strange, she and I locked gazes before I forced my attention back to my wedge salad and Guinness.
“Today’s my 25th birthday,” Celeste said when she landed on the barstool next to mine. In a sudden pout, she added, “My friends stood me up. They were supposed to meet me here to celebrate. Guess I’m alone, too.”
I didn’t tell her I was 68 and not exactly alone. “Maybe your friends are just running late.”
“Nah. They ain’t coming. I called them twice. They say they coming, but they ain’t.” She broke into a wide, sweet smile. “I’m alone.”
Celeste obviously wanted to talk, but I tried to think. During my meal, I had pondered the now-infamous Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) faculty-student discussion “How to be in an office.” The event, streamed live on YouTube, devolved into a social media brouhaha when students were advised to reject “a 40-hour workweek that you can barely get through” upon graduation; better that they should opt for “a 60-hour workweek that you can’t wait to start.” Students and practitioners read between the lines and unloaded. One summarized the show’s bottom line as: “Your reputation and success in this profession is a direct result of how much overwork, abuse, and degradation you’re willing to put up with.” There were other opinions, too, such as:
- “To put it more bluntly: this panel was a bunch of, pardon the language, tired, self-serving bullshit, and it’s irresponsible to promote these beliefs as ‘normal’ or ‘just how things work’, especially for an audience of young students.”
- “Gaslighting of the highest order—these SCI-Arc faculty make $250k in pay and benefits, besides getting cushy positions for their partners. Then they blackmail students for free labor.”
SCI-Arc’s administration quickly issued an apology, as did the speakers. Two faculty discussants were suspended, and investigations into alleged mentor-mentee exploitation started. Traditional media like Architectural Record, Dezeen, and the LA Times ran pieces on architecture’s “toxic work culture.”
Munching on pretzel bread, I wondered why the #HowNotToBeInAnOffice moment took so long to arrive. As far as I know, architecture students’ indoctrination into studio culture all-nighters goes back to before the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. I’ve no idea what prompted 17th century architects to consider sleepless nights part of The Calling, but I suspect the contemporary reason is the time value of money. In the modern world, the faster that construction documents can be produced, the more profit a client stands to make. Insisting a year’s worth of work be delivered in six months makes business sense. To an architect, keeping the customer satisfied is good business. Is this symbiosis adaptable to a better work-life relationship? I want to think so, but I’m not sure.
SCI-Arc faculty pooh-poohed making a decent living in a “corporate” (read: mediocre) architecture firm. Those with high aspirations were better off spending their early years in a “boutique” (read: good) atelier working for low or no pay. Or so they implied.
Cue the shitstorm.
When I sat down for dinner, my question was: What to make of this controversy? With Celeste now within arm’s reach and batting eyelashes, the question became: What to make of her?
I considered punching out early to find somewhere else to contemplate my navel alone. But then I remembered the $30 valet charge awaiting me outside the restaurant. Would they take a credit card? Preferably not, given the exit line I saw coming in. I took out my wallet and asked the bartender if he could break a hundred.
Celeste lit up when I pulled out a Benjamin. “We’re not having dessert? I love dessert!” I pretended to study the TV above her head (Blue Jays vs. Yankees) and daydreamed about June 1977.
Two weeks after graduating and getting married, I was at work at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, immersed in 60–80-hour workweeks. It was just like architecture school, I remember thinking. Back then, no one told me to return to the studio night after night after dinner to finish a project. It was understood. Sometimes, pizza would be delivered at wee hours of the morning. A client-sponsored dinner usually thanked a team for meeting its deadline. I never questioned the firm’s motivation or felt abused. My initial years in practice extended what I’d been doing nonstop for the previous five years. No biggie, I thought then.
Four and a half decades later, I realized how much I learned during that internship. The intensity of the experience allowed me to get licensed only three years after graduation. In 1980, passing the state architectural exam on one go was uncommon. Could a more humanized apprenticeship have led to the same result? Maybe. Would I have been happier? Doubtful. I was already happy—but I was also paid.
I ordered an espresso chocolate mousse, which arrived with two spoons and the bartender’s sly wink. His body language said to me, You old dog, you. I would have liked to have told him, This dog don’t hunt.
The band started playing Dylan as Celeste dug in. I thought about Helen. My wife was 20 feet away in the restaurant’s private room at a pharmaceutical-sponsored dinner for physicians. I remembered her initial years after graduating medical school as not unlike mine at SOM. She, too, was treated as a professional-in-training serf.
Tradition has it that newly minted physicians and architects are given tedious scutwork (faxing reams of medical records, endlessly drafting bathrooms, etc.) because they’re green and cannot stand alone or be left unsupervised. There is some truth to that. Medical schools combine classroom activities with experience gained in clinical rotations. Architecture schools mix didactic instruction with hands-on studio work. None of this thoroughly prepares a student for life after graduation. Internships take up the slack, and that’s where problems creep in. Architect and health profession employers complain that new grads cost more than they earn, so newbies live at the low end of the totem pole on salaries more like stipends than wages.
Medicine’s “patriarchal hazing system” changed during the 2000s when studies found that medical interns working 24-hour shifts were endangering both patients and themselves. In response, in 2011 the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education capped medical interns’ work days at 16 hours. The rule didn’t stick. Five years later, further research “determined that the hypothesized benefits associated with the changes made to first-year resident scheduled hours in 2011 have not been realized.” ACGME raised the bar to 28 hours per shift or more when needed.
Industry customs die hard, but they can, and when they do, they can take companies down with them. In 1987, I wrote an article about computers’ impact on design practices. PCs were just rolling into paper-based offices, and few practitioners knew how to turn them on, let alone use them. But the newbies did, which made recent architecture school graduates among the more valuable people in the office. Often, they alone knew how to drive the newfangled computer-aided drawing systems and where computer files were stored. As I witnessed several times, a boutique atelier suddenly losing its computer jock could crater the firm. In my article, I reasoned that CAD-proficient interns should be paid the same or more than experienced staff. I could make the same argument regarding today’s grads and the latest design systems. Many of today’s architecture students are as much software artists as they are designers. But I won’t make the case. Few listened to me then; probably no one will listen now.
Celeste polished off the mousse. The bartender noticed empty glasses and asked if “you guys” wanted another round. I said sure and popped Celeste a question: “Tell me what you think about indentured servitude.”
“You mean bondage? I’m OK with that.”
“No, no. I mean, do you ever feel like you’re living the life of a slave?”
“I’m not making myself clear, am I?”
Giggling, “Yeah, you are.” She inched closer and lowered her voice. “Listen, no one takes advantage of me. I like what I do. So will you!”
“Erm, consider this a question from a practitioner of the world’s second-oldest profession to a practitioner of the first.” I asked her for an opinion on architecture’s tradition of “overwork, abuse, and degradation,” the long hours and low pay, employees pressured to do things they shouldn’t have to do, industry icons demanding obsequious behavior—or worse.
“Well, they always people expecting someone to suck this or that.”
“I’m being serious.”
Celeste thought carefully, occasionally sipping through her straw and watching me pretend to watch the ball game. After a while, she said, “Long as I’m having fun, I ain’t no slave. I’m my own person, but I got two rules: I have to want to do something before doing it, and I gotta be paid in full. Fair’s fair.”
“Seems reasonable,” I admitted. “Did you know what you were getting into when you started?”
“Sort of. I mean, not really, but it turned out OK.”
“And you’re happy with your decision?”
Celeste’s smile evaporated. “Hey, I chose my life. Not all of us do, but I did. I make my own hours, don’t sell myself cheap, and bring home good money. How ’bout you, mister architect? How’s your life going?”
I took a swig of beer and recalled Philip Johnson once saying, “Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.”
“Let’s just say we’re both happy hookers.”
She laughed and took my hand. “OK, then, let’s go. I think it’s time you and I get out of here and get happy, don’t you?”
I half agreed. Helen was standing over Celeste’s shoulder, holding a to-go box. “I couldn’t finish my chocolate mousse. I’m bringing it home for you.”
As my wife and I made our exit, I whispered “Happy birthday” in Celeste’s ear and wished us many happy ending returns.
Featured image by the author.