This episode is the second of a two-part interview with Marisa Cortright (the first episode is available here). Marisa is the author of the Failed Architecture article “Death to the Calling: A Job in Architecture is Still Just a Job” and, more recently, Can This Be? Surely This Cannot Be?, a book composed of three essays on the subject of architectural workers organising in Europe.
In this second part, Marisa and host Charlie Clemoes start by speaking about the Pritzker Prize and the problem of design solutions. They then go on to explore why it’s taken architects so long to organise and, the real burning question, are architects oppressed? The episode ends with a discussion of various organising efforts occurring across Europe and an assessment of the consciousness-raising function of the meme account Dank Lloyd Wright.
Below is a transcript of the conversation.
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Charlie Clemoes: I was wondering what you thought about more recent Pritzker Prize winners Lacaton & Vassal and Francis Kere and maybe some historic movements within architecture that actually hint towards how architecture could be a bit more locally embedded. Do you see some of these newer Pritzker winners pointing the way? Can architecture reconstitute itself to better pursue these ends?
Marisa Cortright: Yeah, I should be clear upfront that I don’t hold much to truck with actual buildings. I don’t show any in the book. I don’t discuss any. I have seen the work of Lacaton and Vassal and Francis Kere in the past and I think it’s beautiful. I haven’t followed them closely enough to distinguish them from earlier winners of the Pritzker in terms of how they practice or whether they engage in different modes of architectural production from those that have come before them. My guess is that in large part they aren’t so different.
I’m wary of the Pritzker in general as this kind of kingmaker of, again generally private architectural firms when that is the dominant mode of architectural production today. I don’t know if it’s particularly interesting to give them more credit than then they might be due in the broader scheme of how we might want to be doing architectural production, how we organise architectural workers, in what ways architects find, finance and construct their projects and n what ways those projects are maintained and administered over time. I think we have a lot more to see in that regard. I’m sure there are so many small uncelebrated versions or formations of people who are doing interesting kinds of work, but that are operating at such a scale and without such an interest for notoriety, that they simply won’t be known. And that’s okay, in some respects, because it’s probably more important that they’re doing their work on a scale where they have contact with people at the most meaningful local level, and in some respects, maybe that’s what we should be aiming for.
The horizon doesn’t need to be a Pritzker Prize. It doesn’t need internationally renowned architectural offices to reify what kinds of architecture are good or beautiful or worthy of celebration, maybe there are going to be certain forms of architectural production that come out of those kinds of places that we can be happy about. But on the whole, we need to maintain a critical stance towards them, not to shift some kind of media attention to other kinds of formations, but just to recognise that we need to have some critique of power in how we think about what does new forms could be, how do they try to reinvest the power dynamic in architectural production in a for more local, democratic way.
CC: I think I pretty much totally agree. I don’t get many opportunities to lay my cards on the table and admit that I’m personally very sceptical of design solutionism, especially when it comes to design fixing the problems of artificial scarcity, extractive economies and global iniquity etc. It’s not like you can design the perfect space where suddenly we have a little bit of rest from the churn of ever-increasing speed that makes us all stressed, tired, angry, unhappy and anxious about the future. Then again, I don’t think that in a utopian scenario there isn’t a place for design to facilitate and consolidate the gains of a movement towards redistribution of resources.
MC: Yeah, I think between John Patrick Leary and Sasha Costanza Chock, we have this idea of design thinking as a problem unto itself precisely for what you’ve just said, which is that it really locks designers and architects into this idea that at least their primary mode of problem-solving should be offering design solutions. And that means that they interpret problems only in such a way that design would be the answer. I find that certainly limiting but also in another way, tragic. Like hitting the square into the circle or the circle into the square, whichever it is. How can you ever do anything properly if you don’t diagnose it properly in the first place? If you don’t have the humility or the capacity to understand what you’re not fit for, then how can you really properly address something that you are fit for?
I agree with you that there is no design solution to the climate emergency insofar as architects will never find a design solution to ending oil and gas production. That’s simply not going to happen and the fact that they would try to bring design solutions to problems of such magnitude when there are, from other sectors and disciplines, approaches that would actually work but require far more political engagement, signifies only their own irrelevance and in fact, their own hindrance to those problems being solved. And that’s what’s tragic about it is that architects, through the calling, have been told, “you’re going to do such an important thing, you’re going to have such an important role in the future of improving the world”. When you’re taught that you can only design a solution to a problem and none of these problems are design problems, well, what are you bringing to the table? I hope that it’s not too late, maybe for architectural workers, and design professionals more broadly to walk back from that a little bit and have some humility about what they’re not capable of doing but also try to bring other kinds of skills to those problems. This is the point of talking about organising: architects are not architects before their workers. This is the point of insisting on the term “architectural workers” that workers organise and organising is how we can address the climate crisis. Organising is how we can address police violence. Anything that we really want to solve it has to be through organising it can’t be through design.
CC: This is potentially a nice point to get to the last part of the book, you brought up the articulation of architects as architectural workers. Most people working in this profession are architectural workers and that then creates the conditions for organising. I’m wondering if you could kind of unpack some of the problems with that process. To riff off the title of the book: how could it be that it’s taken so long to get to this point? I had this mildly cheeky question that you also point out in your book: are architects really oppressed? Do they deserve to organise?
MC: Let’s start with our architects oppressed. This is why it’s so important to make this distinction because “architect” often means the person who owns the company, or rather, it refers to someone who might someday start their own company. And I don’t think those people are oppressed. Not in the Marxian sense of class oppression, because they are or they hope to become the owners of capital. So let’s follow that and say, architectural workers. yes; architectural business owners: no; and keep it there. One magazine that I cite in my book which was put together by Foreign Architects in Switzerland addresses precisely this question. They tackle the assumption that because they’re in Switzerland, they’re getting paid loads of money because it’s such a rich country. But they make the case that, in fact, based on the cost of living, based on how expensive it is to get an architectural education, yes, architectural workers in Switzerland, especially foreign ones who are not themselves Swiss and lack some of the same rights or knowledge of the sector that Swiss architects would, are indeed oppressed. They are working too many hours. They have underpaid labour. So, even in what we consider to be the best case scenario, working in Switzerland, their too architects are having a rough time of it. And I think that’s really important to bear in mind, that there is no ideal country even as much as Switzerland. might try to barricade itself against the EU and other market forces that would affect it. There is no safe haven from this. We see that architectural workers struggle to make ends meet all over Europe as well as in the US and the world over.
So let’s also conclude that second question by saying yes, they are more than entitled to organise, not only because they should improve conditions for themselves, but because they should be looking through their organising to change the broader conditions of architectural production. The point isn’t just that architects should get paid more or shouldn’t have to work so many hours because it’s not nice for them, but because they participate in incredibly harmful activities, the result of their labour is often incredibly unjust right in terms of the environmental cost of architectural production in terms of the social inequalities that architectural production reproduces. Architectural workers should be concerned about that and they should be cognizant of what they might be able to change should they organise.
Why haven’t they done this so far? You mentioned the first part of the title of the book, which is a shoutout to Ivo Andrić, one of the most acclaimed Yugoslavian writers, and his novel that I referenced The Bridge on the Drina which ends with the protagonist having this really difficult reconciliation with himself. He thought, “wow, I, I’ve worked and saved my whole life. I did what the church told me. I did whatever the town told me. But still, I have come to ruin.” And I think that’s part of why architectural workers haven’t organised yet. It’s because you think you’re doing everything by the book, you think you’re called to do this thing. You’re going to put in all the time in school, you’re going to put in all the time at work, you’re going to spend all the money, you’re going to go into such debt and you think it’s going to be okay, but it’s not. And there is this sense of not only frustration but disbelief: “can this be? This simply can’t be what I did all of this for?” And I think without any foundation for collectively expressing that frustration or that disbelief, it quickly turns into a kind of anomie, that’s just “I’m going to wait it out, try to get through this” And there have been structural factors that have stopped people from organising. The simple fact that architectural workers work so many hours is one of the main reasons why they don’t organise. They simply don’t have the time for it. But as we’ve seen, not only in the architectural industry but for instance, in other sectors in cases of multinationals preventing people from organising there are strong anti-labour forces at work, Amazon has to the tune of millions and millions of dollars. Conducted union-busting activity Starbucks is doing the same, right now. Of course, it doesn’t only happen on that mass level, but it’s the most visible in terms of the money and energy that goes on. But we can imagine far more local and maybe even more subtle forms of union-busting or anti-organising happening in smaller companies and architectural firms. In the UK and the US, there is the rise of these so-called employee-owned companies that try to grant employees some buy-in, some shares or financial stake in the companies, but don’t meaningfully change the balance of power such that workers would have any control over the company. So management will be pointing out, “look, now you own part of the company. We’re a really democratising company. You don’t need a union. You don’t need to find any other way of talking to your co-workers because we have this new ownership plan. So they’re finding ways to distract from this move to unionise, and we could think of many, many more. Those are enough to say that there are plenty of things preventing architectural workers and workers more generally from organising.
CC: You mentioned the bit about time. I mean, that’s definitely the experience I’ve been getting: it’s easy enough getting someone to respond to an Instagram message asking “Architects in The Netherlands, Is Everything Ok? Tell us about your experiences at work.” That takes five minutes. Moving from that to having a meeting, working out some demands and seeing what level of capacity people have to follow through with them. (It’s early days yet, but with a small group in The Netherlands, we’re trying to work out “what do we want to do here? Everybody seems to be in the same sort of boat, and there are enough of us, probably hundreds of people that could potentially be motivated and pissed off enough, to stop drinking the Kool-Aid, stop playing the game and actually want to tip the table over. But time is a real resource. That’s it in a nutshell: it’s much easier to carry on because it’s a lot of effort to both give up on dreams and also give up time to follow through with giving up on those dreams and actually like fighting against that. I wanted to quote one of your interviewees on this, this person from UVW-SAW, who wrote “none of us really want to get into a fight. But all of us want stuff to change, and I still need to go through that process of realising stuff isn’t going to change without putting up a fight.” I thought that was really telling in a way like that really chimes with my general vibe. I don’t really want to tip the table over. I just want to meet with people and talk about it and then see where that goes. But even that’s actually quite bold at this point. I feel like that was somewhat indicative of the tone of many of the interviewees that you spoke to right? They weren’t complete firebrands.
MC: No and I would say the people that I interviewed from United Voices of the World Section Architectural Workers. They’re probably the furthest along if I can frame it as going in a certain direction, they’re the furthest towards taking this oppositional stance and understanding the relation of struggle that’s involved in having to, as she says, “get into a fight”. They’re not firebrands, but they’re cognizant of that and not everyone I spoke to even would have put it in those terms. But once you’re taking the move to join a union, you’re accepting that there has to be this collective action, that you need to form some kind of collective because you are not going to be able to do very much and perhaps unless you position yourself in this relation of struggle, if you try to work with the management of your company, it may not go quite the way you would like it to. You might find yourself back in our rhetoric discussion of being co-opted in some way. The people who are in UVW SAW put it most clearly in terms of there needing to be this fight.
CC: In the book, you talk to an admin of Dank Lloyd Wright. Initially, I was a little bit sceptical of their role in all of this, inasmuch as it seemed like a lot of coverage of this subject of working conditions, which is just describing an issue, but missing the nitty gritty of actually getting people to do something, which is really hard. But what’s your assessment of the importance of Dank Lloyd Wright’s work, particularly as a form of consciousness-raising?
MC: I think they start to burst the bubble in a number of different ways for people who are related to the architectural industry. Of course, they have followers who are just there for the LOLs, but most of their followers are either architectural students or young architectural workers who have, to some extent, been indoctrinated into what we’ve been talking about in terms of the industry’s expectations of overwork, underpay etc. Dank Lloyd Wright does talk about that. They do talk about these unhealthy expectations that the architectural industry has of its workers and they point out all of the problems with that. That’s certainly high on the list of their priorities because that ideology needs undoing. It’s not just about learning what should this be, but it’s about unlearning what it definitely shouldn’t be and what we’ve in many cases been indoctrinated into. I think they’re really helpful in that respect.
But another thing I think they’re helpful for is initially attracting an architectural audience. People who think of themselves as architects but not as architectural workers. So not only do they introduce people to this idea of the architectural worker (based on having some understanding of themselves as precarious, they may know that, maybe in their own personal way but, DLW tries to bring out the precarity as more systematic in the profession), but they also connect architectural audiences to important issues that are not considered to be architectural. They’ve spoken out a number of times about Palestine, for instance, and that might be one of the reasons why they’re facing shadow banning or other forms of censorship from Instagram. So I think that’s important to plant as a first step.
They also bring up people who are engaged in other forms of architectural production as we were talking about before, and they’re, importantly, not trying to do everything themselves. They point to other groups in architecture like UVW-SAW, the Future Architects Front, and others I’m forgetting now, but to say they are drawing attention to other kinds of groups who are doing things that are related and complementary but not exactly the same. And I think what’s maybe most crucial about them is that they are one of a number of Instagram accounts or social media accounts or small voices that are pinging in the back of people’s minds. Even if they disappear, even if their account gets deleted for whatever reason, there are going to be other people who are also doing this. So they haven’t tried to make themselves the standard-bearer. The one and only architectural meme account to end all other meme accounts. But the point is that the floodgates have opened. From here on, we will have at least a minimal degree of consciousness-raising across the architectural industry for young people to be more aware. It doesn’t mean that it’s done everything, but it means that we’re at least off the ground. And I think they’ve been really helpful in spurring that growth of people wanting to check in and wanting to be aware, and hopefully, there will be thousands more of them. There already are so many little offshoots. The point is that everyone has to at least log on to this bare minimum level of following an account on Instagram and then, okay, let’s see where we can go from there.