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The Architecture Lobby uses performance to advocate for labor rights

Architecture Lobby

On the weekend of October 30, Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere hosted an event with the somewhat unusual theme of labor rights in architecture. Suggestively called (re)Working Architecture, the event was organized by the Architecture Lobby, an organization of architectural workers––students, architects, firm owners, teachers––founded in 2013 in New York to advocate for better working conditions within the profession. Since its creation, the Lobby has founded chapters in nine cities, launched initiatives for research in architectural work, and made appearances at the Venice Biennale and conferences of the American Institute of Architects.

With the announcement of the Chicago Architecture Biennial came the realization that, despite the Biennial’s diverse program, the issue of labor in architecture would not be discussed in any form. The Chicago chapter of the Lobby decided, then, to organize what they called “an uninvited installation for the Chicago Architecture Biennial.” Over the course of three days, the group discussed the main issues in architectural labor with the aid of ten role-playing performances. Each performance was based on a point from the Lobby’s manifesto and relevant workplace experiences as related by Lobby members. Following the performances, they held a ball on Saturday evening and a tour of Bridgeport on Sunday.

Establishing basic labor rights and respect for existing laws is the first item on the Lobby’s manifesto, and was a frequent theme in the performances. According to Lobby members, architects work over seventy hours a week without overtime payment––and are expected to work 24/7, if needed––making just over $15 per hour. They don’t usually have employer-provided health care plans, and they frequently have irregular contracts and hiring policies, particularly for unpaid internships. In the first scenario, a recently graduated architect discussed an employment opportunity with a firm owner. Although the internship was unpaid, the interviewer revealed that the candidate would be doing the same work and working the same hours as the paid employees, but would receive a “likely offer of position” within around two months––all illegal practices, according to the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act .

This exemplifies a common situation: young architects in need of experience walk into unfair employment arrangements without questioning the practice. According to Keefer Dunn, an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Lobby’s Chicago chapter, one of the organization’s main objectives is to inform and advise students, giving them agency when seeking employment. In the performance’s alternative ending, a candidate aware of internship regulations questioned the interviewer and eventually refused the offer.

What seemed an odd way of introducing discussion proved to have interesting results. After the first reenactment, participants were surprised by the method’s effectiveness. “There’s a catharsis,” said Dunn. “You get angry, you throw the legal and the moral arguments, but that’s just the starting point—then it switches to seeing how we can change the dynamic.” Elaina Berkowitz, a graduate student at Yale University and member of the Lobby’s Yale chapter, noted its practicality: “It’s surprising how role-playing puts you in a real life situation, and it feels like it’s giving you tactics to deal with it.”

The event’s collaborative acting was based on the theatre of the oppressed, a theatrical form largely used by social justice movements, in which the audience participates in the conclusion of a sketch. Dunn, who helped organize the event, says that the method was chosen with the intention to foster discussion and to make something that was “generative” rather than “didactic or finger-wagging.”

The theatre of the oppressed is one of several methods adopted by the Lobby that derives from traditions of labor rights movements in other industries: a manifesto, a fictional patron saint called San Precario—an ironic figure derived from Italian workers’ movements, and the collective reading of the manifesto during meetings.

At times the Lobby’s methods, as well as its motto, “We are precarious workers,” seem decontextualized, perhaps even illegitimate. The terms they use are reminiscent of the language used by advocates for the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, and the stark contrast between the conditions of the two groups makes the comparison difficult to accept. No matter the architects’ dissatisfaction with their industry, it is still one of relatively high prestige, often formed by individuals from privileged backgrounds; they at times seemed to be appropriating the strategies of other workers’ movements in order to maintain this status. The event also gave little attention to discussion of racial, social, and gender diversity within the profession.

But the Lobby members maintain that they are able to do good for more than just themselves by pursuing their goals. Berkowitz pointed out the role of these methods both in engaging the public and in bringing architects closer to other workers. “As architects, part of our problem is reaching out to the public, so this ends up being a very good way of bringing in all the things we have in common [and of] making this not exclusive to architects, but relating to labor issues in general, relating to other people that are part of our profession, which we need to do better,” she said.

“If we’re identifying as workers, which is maybe the novelty to this, to a degree, then we’re putting ourselves in the history of working class traditions of struggle,” added Dunn. “Part of this is to reclaim that history, represent and repurpose it. We stand on the shoulders of giants.” One such giant, the famous American union leader and socialist politician Eugene Debs, appears in the fifth scenario as a ghost, calling for the unionization of architectural workers. The creation of a union would give architects the agency they need not only to better their own working conditions, but also to stand up for the rights of other affiliated workers.

The first step towards unionization, one of the Architecture Lobby’s primary goals, would be to encourage architects to think of themselves as workers and to dispose of the idea of the architect as an individual artist. The sixth performance tackled this idea, which, according to Columbia University professor and member of the NYC chapter Manuel Shvartzberg, is “a very oblivious conception” that doesn’t acknowledge a large and necessary staff and promotes a distorted image of the profession, epitomized in the celebrity of the “starchitect.” The second, third, and tenth performances also explored the perception of the architect as a designer, which generally results in a focus on the product—the building––and disregard for management, research, planning, and all the knowledge invested by teams of architects in a project.

However, not all architects consider unionizing feasible. Quilian Riano, a professor at the Parsons School of Design and member of the NYC Lobby chapter, says that the first problem is legality, specifically the Sherman Antitrust Act, on the grounds of which antitrust suits have been filed against architects’ groups in the past. The second and perhaps more deep-seated problem, Riano said, is that if architects don’t see themselves as workers, they won’t understand how a union might help them.

The culture that fosters the image of the architect as a “solo creative genius” is the same that that encourages overworking and glamorizes the all-nighter––a culture that participants at the Co-Prosperity Sphere event unanimously agreed has its roots in architecture school. The Lobby university chapters therefore have a great responsibility in changing this culture and training architects to be able to demand better conditions, argues William Martin, a professor at the University of Michigan and founder of its local chapter. But changing such an ethos requires getting in touch with the entire “ecosystem of architecture,” including firm owners, academics, students, contractors, construction workers, and with the general public, both through public engagement and research.

The Lobby is not, however, a union. Architects still have a long way to go in gathering their peers, especially in a time when the union may seem like an old-fashioned format, as Riano points out. But with the Architecture Lobby’s completely horizontal structure, lack of authoritative statements, and focus on collectivity, collaboration, and assistance, it is, as Dunn says, a “support network”–– a foundational step for any organized workers’ movement in the 21st century.

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