Salon Examines Architecture in Crisis, but are Architects “Very Much like Immigrant Workers?”
February 6, 2012
An unfinished development in Spain (c) Jon Nazca / Reuters, via Salon.
A Salon post on “architecture in crisis” has the (tiny, insular) world of architecture abuzz this morning. The author of the piece talks to Guy Horton, Eric Owen Moss and other young architects about their expectations and subsequent disappointments with the profession.
Unsurprisingly, their sentiments tend towards the grim, and for good reason: as a January report on unemployment noted, it’s not unusual for a young architect to have more than $50,000 in debt, while employment is highest among architects, at 13.9%.
Horton’s scenario will be familiar to any young graduate in the era of the recession:
“He bounced checks. He strained to pay student loans. Most of his income went to cover a health plan, but he avoided doctors or dentists because of high deductibles. He was pulled over by the police for his car’s expired tags. He was demoralized and frightened for his family, which included a 1-year-old daughter. After working hard to break into what seemed to be a burgeoning profession, unemployment was like being buried alive.”
Author Scott Timberg goes on to expose the cycle of ruthless exploitation of young designers by their employers, who disguise the unpaid (or barely paid) internships as a “rite of passage.” Hardly surprising, considering those employers were themselves subject to the same treatment as young professionals. Architecture, explains Timberg, is built on a “wait-your-turn hierarchy, a sense of self-importance, and a culture of sacrifice.” Values which are increasingly irrelevant considering the grim financial realities of the construction market.
The saddest part of Timberg’s piece regards architects who must take teaching jobs to keep their practices afloat. They must teach to keep working, and so they must encourage students to keep going to architecture school – even though they know it’s a faulty bargain. “As an educator,” says one architect, “I feel like an ayatollah sending kids running into the minefield.” Horton follows up on that point, saying “How do you keep the KoolAid and the boosterism flowing when there are no or few prospects after graduation?”
Unfortunately, the op-ed’s relevance is overshadowed by a quote from a seemingly oblivious architect who compares teaching and running an office to that of “an immigrant worker.”
As a young graduate wracked with debt myself, I chose to take a job outside of traditional architecture, faced with the endless hierarchical cycle of internships and stipends. Do I regret the decision? I’m not sure yet. But I can say with a certainty that, like the decision to take on student debt, it was entirely my own. Immigrant workers – who, yes, work long hours for meager wages – are not doing so for the “passion” of the job (as one architect says when asked about his motives for staying in the profession). The comparison spoils an otherwise thoughtful comment on a community struggling to keep itself financially afloat and culturally relevant.