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The Uneasy Relationship Between Architects and Money

In addition to raising the minimum wage, “a living wage” and “fair pay” are now national issues, because so many have been paid so poorly for so long. This is not news for architects as they’ve been fighting to get paid fairly since architecture was first defined as a profession.


The money in architecture issue was made fresh for me when I read that upon her death Zaha Hadid had an estate valued at $84-million. Even with her incredible success and talent, the size of her estate had considerably more to do with the funding that set up her practice: family money. Like Charles Bullfinch, Philip Johnson, and Graham Gund before her, Hadid did not have to “earn a living.”


Most architects aren’t quite so lucky; most of us do need to earn a living. But despite a cultural reputation that would suggest otherwise, architecture is notoriously low-paying. Why does it go begging when the careers of other similarly educated and (theoretically) useful professionals seem to offer better opportunities to make money?


It’s due, in part, to our passion. Architecture is a missional profession. Most of us would do it for free—and often do—simply because we cannot help ourselves. The salaries of architects reflect that willingness and the relative value our culture puts on the work we provide.


Architects may provide for public safety in buildings, but we do not save lives so the average $200K doctor salary seems inappropriate. The $130K average wage for lawyers, even for a profession that is losing jobs and prospects, is still considerably higher than architects. However, the nerd side of the building world, the licensed engineers who structurally and mechanically engineer our designs, earn  $110K per year of median pay. In comparison, licensed architects in the U.S. have a median wage of about $76K.


Perhaps architects lag behind other professions in pay because new technologies are eliminating jobs. Technology has made bank tellers, travel agents and soon taxi drivers dead professions waiting to be buried. Historically, the job pool in architecture was always heavy on those tasks that encoded the info needed to build the design—and those tasks are increasingly being done by software.


The willingness to be trained in (and thus experience) a creative art form (music, art, theater) creates a job market for the teachers of those art forms – and so, 6,000 architects are now helping to pay for their architecture habit by teaching it.


The collapse of paying jobs due to technology combines with the non-mercenary appeal for all those who are seduced into the creative and performing arts to suppress wages for everyone in the profession. The willingness to be trained in (and thus experience) a creative art form (music, art, theater) creates a job market for the teachers of those art forms—and so, 6,000 architects are now helping to pay for their architecture habit by teaching it.


Most architects, like many in the arts, don’t know how to market themselves outside their profession—to those who might actually employ them. Similarly, most firms think about design first, business management last and that often makes for brutal finances that impact wages. Nothing new with these realities, as they are as old as the profession. In James O’Gorman’s Living Architecture: A Biography of H.H. Richardson. he notes that, Richardson, the 1880’s version of Hadid (who also died early, at 47) was basically broke at the time of his death, due to the mismanagement of his insanely successful practice.


But the lack of business acumen is not the reason architects are so underpaid. Architects love what we do so much that money is often viewed as a bonus, like a fringe benefit for the joy of expressing ourselves. We value the expression more than the compensation, and we’re willing to accept what the market will bear in a system that values the work more than the money. Success is found in beauty, not a bank balance.


Money is an issue, but many architects simply define success differently. We create and enter zillions of competitions. Some architects live and die over publication of their work. We’re desperate for peer recognition, more so than the lawyers, engineers and doctors who so dramatically out earn us. Money talks but fame is a siren song, a whispered promise.


Perhaps the inability for anyone in the arts to command a “fair wage” in relation to those with similar education is due to larger human issues. Psychologist and social philosopher B.F.Skinner had a theory: Behaviorism. Its essential tenet, in terms of employment, was that we want to do what gives us pleasure (what he called “positive reinforcement”). Pleasure in work can be found in the work itself and in the money that’s made doing it. Skinner thought that money and happiness were equally valuable “positive reinforcement,” so his version of a “fair wage” meant the happier you are doing the work the less pay you should get for doing the job. For a lot of architects, this is not merely a utopian fantasy.


Artists, musicians, actors and writers earn next to no money until they earn a wider perception in the world that their work has value. Hadid started out in a familiar place for all artists, where no paying client thought her work was worth paying for—until she became famous by kicking ass in competitions—and then the money flowed.


No amount of marketing effort, branding or hype, can create monetary value for our services if we’re happy to do what we do and accept minimal pay for doing it.


No amount of marketing effort, branding or hype, can create monetary value for our services if we’re happy to do what we do and accept minimal pay for doing it. The part time Associate Professor in architecture—pulling in $40K a year when it costs $60K to live—uses free interns who willingly donate their time to create art for an unnamed jury somewhere to confer value to: there is no value other than the love of strangers.


Those who value the love of strangers are, by definition, needy. But when it comes to money, we’re all a little needy. Anxiety over money is not limited to architects, but it’s definitely a chronic condition in my chosen profession. When I was a part-time janitor one summer after high school, my boss, a delightful man who often spoke Yiddish, was shocked when I told him I was going to architecture school. “You wanna be an architect?” he gasped. “All architects are hurs!”


He was wrong. We are not whores. We’re nymphomaniacs.


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