The relationship between the business of architecture and the nature of architectural work is fraught. Many celebrated firms have been built on the backs of young and often unpaid labor. To call this practice an open secret would be inaccurate. It isn’t a secret at all; for some firms, it’s standard operating practice.
The Architecture Lobby, founded in 2013 by Peggy Deamer, has begun the long and laborious process of addressing these issues. Today, the group has 16 chapters and 450 dues-paying members. (Yearly dues amount to 0.2% of total income, or about $100 for a $50,000 salary.) Recently, I spoke with the Lobby’s national organizer, Dexter Walcott, about the group’s recent efforts, its campaign to unionize the field, the Green New Deal, and the future of work.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
DW: Dexter Walcott
What’s the Lobby working on right now?
The top three initiatives are the unionization campaign, the socializing of small firms, and the Green New Deal campaign. We’re also working to expand the “Not Our Wall” campaign to focus on the detention infrastructure, beyond the physical barriers and surveillance infrastructures.
So there are both national and local Lobby initiatives?
Yes. There are chapters that are working on issues that are purely local. And then some chapters blur a lot, where there will be a national campaign that has a strong presence in our regional chapters. The “Not Our Wall” campaign, for instance, had a strong presence in the California chapters. The Green New Deal is a national campaign, but the New York chapter has a very strong presence with that.
Let’s pull a few of these issues out for closer examination, starting with union recognition. What’s your goal here, and how do you see that playing out?
The end goal is to form unions of architectural workers. There are a number of ways that it can play out. One type of union we organize would be a single-issue union, where we would begin to organize architectural workers around a single problem within the profession and organize workplaces to form collective bargaining units around that issue. For instance, something like the eight-hour workday would be appealing in the profession. That covers a lot of the issues with one broad stroke, whether it’s the culture of overwork or the inability of people to have time to take care of themselves or their families outside of the profession. We could organize workplaces under a contract that only has one clause in it that would say, “We’re going to work for eight hours, five days a week.” That’s something that is appealing to the Architectural Lobby at the moment. And it’s so necessary in the profession right now.
Is your goal to go through the actual process of becoming a legally recognized union?
Not necessarily. We’re more interested in helping workers build collective bargaining units. At the end of the day, the Lobby isn’t so concerned about being the legal entity. We want to see the sector have unions. The unionization working group has put together an amazing pamphlet on the steps to do this.
So some chapters might, ultimately, be purely local?
Yes. Right now we’re organizing ourselves and trying to understand where the organization has power, and where we can leverage that power. It starts with a belief that we need to get tight around an argument, if we’re going to start organizing other people to commit to it. We don’t want to build an organization that just brings together like-minded people. We must become good at winning contentious arguments. You can’t organize a workplace by assuming, “Oh, everyone who already thinks like me will automatically join my group.” You have to engage in discussions with people who say, “I don’t think unions are going to help our industry”; or ask questions like, “Will that cut my pay?”; or say, “My boss is really good to me right now.”
It’s also important to have conversations with people about preserving things that are good about the profession. We need to reinforce the idea that unions aren’t just for times when everything’s falling apart, but are a way to ensure that things stay great and can get better. But the Lobby’s core position is that unions are necessary, and winning them will bring about material and immaterial benefits to architectural workers. People can find out more at their next local Lobby meeting or by joining the Lobby and getting involved in this campaign.
Presumably there would be firms that wouldn’t have a problem with a union, while others certainly would.
Most definitely. This is where another initiative, the socializing of small firms, becomes important. This campaign is about cooperativization, creating worker ownership of small firms. There are people in the Lobby who are interested in cooperative models, rather than the conventional employer/employee workplaces. And we want to take advantage of smaller scales. We’re not going to walk into Gensler and demand, “All right, 51% of control of this company, turn it over to workers!”
But if you have a five-person firm where everyone’s sympathetic and they’re all sharing the workload equally, it’s a different and easier conversation to have: “Maybe it doesn’t make sense necessarily to sign a union contract, but for us to all get equal ownership of this firm.” And that’s where the cooperativization campaign comes in. It’s for that scale. To fully leverage firms who might be supportive. However, small workplaces can be unionized too. There is no limit for the size of a collective bargaining unit.
Let’s talk about the Green New Deal. It’s a laudable but daunting political challenge, since it literally calls for the complete rewiring of our entire economy. An economy that architecture is built on, to some grim extent. Talk about that challenge.
I think the catastrophe of climate change needs the scale of response of the Green New Deal. For too long, architects have operated with the belief that we can shop our way out of climate change. That we can just buy the right systems and add them to buildings, and that alone will address the issue. Sadly, that’s not the case. We need to think much bigger and be part of the work outside of our own profession to create change. The original New Deal was a fundamental reforming of the social contract in America. To confront the crisis of climate change in an equitable and just way, we need to do the same thing.
And so where do architects fit into that?
The Green New Deal working group put together an amazing statement last year. It has 21 points that are organized under four directions: reforming practice, redefining resilience, reassessing technology, and re-empowering labor. House Resolution 109, the first piece of many Green New Deal pieces of legislation, is a framework. It’s only 14 pages long, but it’s an important piece of legislation because it lays out the scope of change that is needed if we have any hope of limiting the effects of climate change. The built environment accounts for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions every year, not to mention many other forms of environmental and human degradation. Architects are licensed to uphold the public’s health, safety, and welfare. Participating in the fight for the survival of the planet and working to ensure that a decarbonized future is just and beautiful is clearly part of that mandate.
There’s this common misconception that people latch onto, especially on the right, that “there’s no there, there”—it’s all fluff and air. But the Green New Deal is intentionally a framework. If you actually read the resolution, the broad idea is: If we’re talking about doing something this big, we need to bring everyone to the table, so here’s the framework for how we do that. It goes through different issues. Something like soil health, for instance. It says, in essence: we need to talk to farmers and indigenous people. It doesn’t go into how much nitrogen you need to fix in the soil. Instead, it outlines the issue and defines the territory.
Architects for too long have believed that our power resides in design, in the making of images. Our agency as workers is much greater than that. The Lobby’s firm response is: We will keep making and designing things, but that’s not where we create political change. We create change by becoming active, by organizing workers within our own profession to create power there. But, then, also building solidarity across other professions and getting involved in changing the political landscape. The reason we’re not housing enough people in California is not because we haven’t had enough charrettes to come up with neat little pods to put people in.
At this point, it’s not a design problem.
Precisely. Our campaign is about rethinking our individual and collective agency as workers, and then participating in processes and policy around issues that will come up under the Green New Deal. The point is not: we don’t need to design anything anymore. But if we actually want to design those things, the power to create these solutions will originate from working on becoming part of this larger social reorganization.
Architecture is one of the professions that’s being rapidly transformed by technology, in particular AI. Have you given any thought to that issue as it relates to the shape of work in the future?
Yes. Where that fits into our Green New Deal framework is empowering labor. We need to ensure that those transitions occur in ways that don’t massively displace workers by solving one crisis, but creating another. It’s also important to realize how those technologies aren’t neutral. That if we look at any technology, its deployment often does have race, class, and gender biases within it that are perhaps unseen and, initially, unintended.
There’s another aspect to this as well: the nature of work, and one of the original purposes of unions. The goal used to be that we were supposed to be working less. And so if automation, or scaling back in certain ways within an economy that isn’t based purely on unbridled growth, means working four hours a day, but also receiving enough money and public services to live a dignified life, I’m kind of fine with that automation. We need to ensure that people are taken care of, both the people using and the people producing architecture, but then also get back to the idea that we can still live a validated life if we work four days a week. We can still be valid and full human beings in that scenario. In fact, we could probably be fuller ones, because we’d have a lot more time to do fulfilling things.
All images courtesy of The Architecture Lobby, unless otherwise noted.