As a pre-grad-school / do-I-want-to-go-to-grad-school? / what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life? / advice-seeking therapeutic exercise, I’ve decided to interview people in the architecture profession to get a better understanding of what an architect actually does. Along the way, I hope to speak to architects, activists, academics and others about their work in thinking beyond just a building's design, to make architecture more participatory, collaborative, and political. AKA this is me wanting to scope out the flip side of white male straight ultra-capitalist starchitecture. ;)
For my first interview, I spoke with Peggy Deamer about her interdisciplinary activism using performance with the Architecture Lobby, labor + production, political complacency, and possibilities for collaborative practice in the building industry.
Please read and send me your thoughts! If you have any suggestions on who I should interview, please let me know!
After studying Philosophy as an undergraduate, Peggy Deamer worked her way toward a B.Arch and later a Ph.D. in Architecture History, Criticism, and Theory. She is principal at her firm, Peggy Deamer, and currently heads the Architecture Lobby with Quilian Riano and Manuel Shvartzberg, a group of architects, students, and professors that have garnered attention for questioning labor and management practices in architecture.
CM: Peggy, thank you for speaking with me. To get things started, can you give a brief overview of the Architecture Lobby?
PG: The Architecture Lobby is an organization of architectural workers advocating for the value of architecture in the general public and within the discipline itself. Its goals are ultimately to get better respect, influence, and financial reward from the public. At the same time, it understands that if we don’t have the rewards and power that we think we should, the problem lies not only with the public’s misunderstanding, but also with our own professional self-definition. While we want to change public opinion, we think is it more important to get the profession to recognize that if we’re marginalized, we’ve done it ourselves. Central to our focus is the question of how we can get the discipline to understand its own economic and cultural value.
CM: What are some of the ways that the Lobby is tackling this issue? What are the means and methods?
PG: Our means and methods vary. We believe that the issue is both practical and theoretical. It operates on the level of the economy, and also on the level of conceptual and ideological conditions. There are certain practical things that we do like educating new practitioners about their labor rights, offering methods of alternative practices, and asking graduating students to pledge to work for firms that pay overtime and maintain wage transparency. Researching laws that pertain to economic labor issues such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act also fall into this category. But because we also recognize that the problem is conceptual, we also engage in more theoretical acts. You might call this category performance-based or aesthetically motivated. This speaks to our belief that our problem is larger than just the economy. It’s also within the cultural sphere.
CM: I noticed that the Architecture Lobby often refers to architects as “precarious workers.” I see that as confronting the way architects are valued in society, and places this discourse within the context of other labor movements. Do you think that women architects experience this precarity differently than men? I recently read an article posted to the Lobby’s Twitter feed which stated that women get paid 25% less than men in architecture.
PG: I think it’s very much like the canary in the tunnel: Women feel it first and feel it more dramatically than men. And what we refer to as “it” is economic naivety and potential abuse. There is also certain ideology in architecture that aspires to the male hero. The issue definitely transcends gender, but gender is a really good indication of larger systemic problems. The article you mentioned was so interesting to me because it shows a systemic problem through the lens of gender, and the lens of gender is very powerful. The quantifiability around gender gives us insight into otherwise unidentifiable mysteries, such as why we tell ourselves to work for nothing and why we praise others who do it. Where did that idea come from?
CM: Are students pledging to accept jobs with better compensation? Does the Lobby expect students to make this pledge or is it more of a dialog you are trying to catalyze?
PG: I think it’s both. We are trying to make a younger generation conscious of what a normal labor discourse would be in any other profession. In any other profession you wouldn’t have to say these things. In architecture, you do. It’s very much about encouraging them to think about these things. If you feel bad about wanting better compensation, you’ve drunk the kool-aid. On the other hand, for people who don’t want to make that commitment, this opens a great discussion. It’s important to create this arena where people can feel comfortable thinking about the realities of compensation because we do have to worry about it. I think there is a real openness with students to rethink their commitment to a profession that doesn’t yield power or financial success. You can call it entrepreneurialism, but I think there’s recognition about something like “Why would I choose this over choosing to work for Apple?” This energy and aspiration works for the Lobby. On the other hand, I also think there are people who are rightfully ambitious and think that the issue isn’t around labor or questioning the paradigm of success. They would say that if you are hard-working, you will be recognized as a leader and hero; all you have to do is enter into a competitive spirit to prove your innovation over someone else’s.
CM: In a podcast on Architect, your colleague Quillian spoke about the relationship that the Lobby would like to have with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), recognizing that they have a certain status within the profession. Can you speak to the sort of relationship that the Lobby is trying to strike with the AIA and other architects?
PG: In the very beginning, we thought of the Lobby almost as an alternative to the AIA. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, but we’re still willing to be naughtier than the AIA. The AIA feels responsible to a certain constituency that is very traditional that they have to hold onto. We’re not hindered by that. I feel privileged for recognizing the larger barriers that even the AIA feels. There is shared interest in how we change a situation that no one feels good about. Both the NY and national AIA chapters have both been very supportive and helpful in our work. I’m appreciative of that.
CM: What have you learned since starting the Lobby in terms of collaborations with other organizations and how to succeed in your goals?
PG: That’s an interesting question. I think we’ve come to align with other organization like Who Builds Your Architecture, wanting to know their work and wanting them to know ours. We’re all fighting the fight. A huge part of what motivates us is having our organizations support each other. There really are other people who think like us. We’re not crazy. It’s rhizomatic and unorganized, based on a “let’s all connect” mentality. There is a realization in different spheres that we are not helping ourselves by ignoring our existence in the economy. We should understand how we set wages and get fees, or alternatively, why we have no power if we don’t understand those things. We as a profession need to study our past, into the depths of what we have forgotten in a period of neo-liberalism. There’s a sense that “this is not new, we’ve just forgotten.” What do we gain by associating with a labor discourse has become suspicious and old-school, and is our era of economic capitalism so different from the past such that previous models aren’t appropriate anymore? What’s the new economic and representational paradigm? These are really important questions. We believe our problems are not new. In other places and other times, solutions would have been obvious.
CM: I know you’ve talked about the impact of Building Information Modeling (BIM) on the industry as well as how society values architecture work. Can you elaborate on this?
PG: I think we’re in an era where we no longer believe that there’s going to be a revolution where capitalism be replaced by a different economic model. Such an ideal and fair image of society is no longer believed. What one aims instead is to be ahead of co-option and make it difficult for the economy to work the way it does, because it doesn’t have to. How do you out-wit the economy? Tools like BIM [sorry for the corporate software plug] make architects much smarter, much earlier and really make it impossible to justify ourselves [architects] as a discipline that can’t immediately respond to client or get involved with a contractor. We can do these things; we have the technology do to it. If we don’t, it’s by choice. BIM is a tool that can make certain companies richer and more efficient. But efficiency can also be equated with abuse and not being paid. We can harness BIM in a different way. We can insist on using it as it’s advertised for collaborative knowledge. We can gain from sharing, and rethinking copyright and contracts that identify risk and responsibility. We can do it. However, the whole conversation about BIM is controversial and I’m only giving you one point of view.
Many also believe this disdain for BIM exists because the majority of users unnecessarily employ BIM in traditional forms of production. In fact, BIM encourages designers to forge a different path from the traditional progression of architecture production (schematic design, design development, and construction documents). Those steps that see a project go from a sketch to something more detailed, keep contractors out until it goes out to bid. That chain and that demarcation can go out the window with BIM. BIM can be a tool that changes our form of production. Architects can give contractors design credibility; technical knowledge actually does matter to design. I think there’s nothing scary about admitting that. The architect is still the first to articulate the economic and aesthetic vision of a project, making sure that experts, fabricators, contractors, and owners, are kept headed the right way. We can be honest in saying “Thank you” and recognize the contributions of others in seeing the possibilities of moving here to there.
CM: Taking a step back, I want to ask you some questions about how you got into architecture. I know you studied Philosophy at Oberlin College before studying Architecture. How and why did you make that transition?
PG: I was a Philosophy major, but I really looked forward to my Architecture History classes because I wanted to look at things and think about them more than the hard problems of philosophy. I thought to myself, “Boy if that’s the case, I need to rethink where I’m headed.” I also could not ever see myself as a historian, so then I considered becoming an architect. Like everybody else, I knew how to draw and had aesthetic and mathematical sensibilities. My first real foray into architecture was when I worked at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. Their work was so philosophically grounded, and I was assured that I wasn’t leaving behind important profound issues. Architecture was a place that these things were discussed. I feel very lucky about that immediate reassurance.
CM: I see many different sides to your work. You’re an academic, an activist, and a practicing architect. How did those three come together and do you see them distinct in your work or are they harmonious?
PG: I think they complement each other and help me see architecture in all its full dimensions. I always saw myself primarily as a practicing architect with a sideline of teaching. But teaching studio made me realize that I should probably know more about criticism, which led to my Ph.D. That was really a detour, though. I was fifty percent practicing and fifty percent teaching, until the Lobby came along.
Once upon a time, I felt that if I was going to have influence, it was primarily going to be through teaching at Yale. I no longer think that is primarily the way. The Lobby offers new channels. It’s so healthy and interesting to get out of your comfort zone primarily because you meet different people who think different things. It is constantly educational. I really like that. I can’t say being on the edge of the known is always comfortable, but it is interesting. I have to say that I just adore the people I work with in the Lobby, just like I adore my Yale colleagues. I feel that my Lobby colleagues are a totally different kind than my Yale ones, and I’m so happy that I have both. It feels really rewarding.
CM: I have a couple questions about the Lobby’s current work. I know at the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Lobby performed a series of skits titled the “Uninvited Installation, Reworking Architecture.” Is this an example of the Lobby’s more conceptual work? How did these performances bring a different set of people to the table?
PG: I certainly think our audience has broadened to engage other architects, artists, and performers in economic and labor discourses. We are harking back to more than just representations around labor, and highlight different histories between artists and architects. Artists, who are more financially unstable than architects, have taken more risks to fight economic injustice. I find it boggling.
A recent example are protests [Gulf Labor Artist Coalition] against labor abuse of construction workers at the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi (NYTimes). Artists banded together and proclaimed they would not allow their work to be shown. That was really clear. When these issues are brought to architects, they are for the most part silent. I have to say the Lobby has a friendlier audience in the art community than within our own discipline. Artists have something to teach us, and the Lobby’s performance was a way to recognize this. Collaboration that respects other forms of industry also connects to us other workers. It helps us architects see each other as workers and just not visionary artists. This is important and healthy.
CM: How might architects comply with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act while still fighting for more compensation?
PG: When I started research on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, I thought architecture had been visited differently by this act than medicine and law. After doing research however, I don’t believe that any more. We’ve learned that the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission would come after abuse in medicine if they believed that competition was being thwarted, just like in architecture. Nevertheless, it has been a lesson in civic law. Under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act you cannot ever argue against competition. Competition is understood as the goal and you can only argue against this in court. That’s where you can argue for cases in which competition ultimately hurts the common good. We shouldn’t be surprised that doctors and their relationship to insurance companies, or lawyers, who actually fill the courts, have more legislative clout than architects.
One of the ways that architects can be compliant but still get fees and wages changed is to share information. In Law there is a third party journal that publishes salaries of associates at different levels. As it was described to me, the Law profession froze the day it was first published. Low and behold, firms started charging the same fees such that now, law firms don’t compete on wages or fees. They are just known. Charging clients high enough fees then also allows Law firms to attract talent by paying well. What attracts young graduates is a good reputation, which is partially built upon benefits and labor practices. That would seem to be of interest to architecture firms in order to keep the best and brightest.
In fact, the main catalyst for the Lobby’s creation was a poster I saw at the Yale Law School which listed the “Top 10 Family Friendly Law Firms.” It indicated that law firms were competing for talent on the level of being family friendly. You’d never see that in architecture. This transparency can happen from an impartial third party through the publication of descriptive information. The AIA can’t do it, architects can’t do it, and the Lobby can’t do it. There’s a term, something like unconscious or non-explicit collaboration.
CM: What can large architecture firms do to bring change toward issues or labor management?
PG: If large firms really wanted to be a leader in this, they would have wage transparency. They would publish their wages and make them known. One of the models mentioned in the article from our Twitter page says making negotiations a possibility would instantly change the gender problem. Firms could also pay overtime in dollars and not in other benefits. It is important to note the history of large firms in this case. It is a history of identifying itself as not above these or different from these, but is connected to these. From when large international architecture firms grew, they became a model of practice that imitated their corporate clients. There was an equality across all those things. That is a healthy thing. Connectivity that allows us to understand our place within, rather than apart from, an economically powerful yet cultural important building industry is a good thing. Large firms could build on that legacy and have a different model of architectural connectivity.
CM: Peggy, thank you so much for this fascinating conversation! I wish all the best for you and your work with the Lobby.
PG: Chris, it was my pleasure. Thank you very much.
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