The Obsolete Practice
Architecture career for the most part is a constant act of romanticizing. We idealize concepts, objects, cities, buildings, societies and individuals. The masculine and westernized figure of the architect is above all what we are implicitly taught to aspire to in the classroom. Once we enter a professional life, we undergo a transition from the creative architect to the employee. We do it by imitating the same toxic dynamics that we learned to romanticize within a teaching scheme under a completely neoliberal approach. We become practitioners of contemporary architectural culture that normalizes exploitation and calls into question the value of the work of human capital within this industry.
Mexico is one of the countries with the highest number of hours worked in the world. Working more hours and more days does not necessarily translate into higher productivity. Currently, the Mexican Senate is evaluating initiatives that seek to elevate rest and disconnection to law (the latter since the Covid-19 pandemic). At the same time, it seeks to increase paid vacation days, since in our country being able to take vacations is actually a luxury.[i] In general, working conditions in Mexico for a recently graduated architect are precarious. It aspires to tolerate behaviors normalized by a guild made up mostly of individuals who promote the idealization of the figure of the architect.
My last work experience was in an architecture office where I was working for more than a year and where I became the longest-serving employee in the design team (to give you an idea of the rotation there was). During the time I was there, I only reaffirmed that harmful practices within the university filter into the professional field. Workdays of up to almost 12 hours a day under informal schemes such as the absence of an employment contract, outsourcing payments, no benefits, having your own team and taking it to the office daily since they did not provide you with work tools, "promotions" and increase of responsibilities without incentives or salary increases, psychological violence that on more than one occasion led me to experience the "burnout" syndrome and that was strongly questioned by the owner of the office. Are these practices really something that we should continue to tolerate? By not agreeing with the working conditions, I was manipulated by an abusive entity and I began to believe that I was wrong for demanding something that corresponded to the employees of the office. I was classified as part of a "crystal generation" that can't "hold" anything. I spent more time than I should have, exposing myself to a situation that not only made me doubt my own judgment, but also my abilities, which led to a loss of self-esteem. It was a bitter experience but also one of learning and catharsis for me.
I discovered that these situations are the common denominator in architecture offices. I started talking to people who were in similar situations to me, working for self-centered architects who believe that their work is of individual authorship and that their name on our resume is a valid bargaining chip for a low-paid and completely undervalued job. I delved deeper into the subject and it is actually a global problem. In some countries they have resorted to unionization and organizations such as the Architectural Workers United and The Architecture Lobby in the US have emerged that have managed to promote debate around the labor rights that architecture professionals should have. The organization of workers within the architecture industry promotes more transparent systems and fair working conditions. Even renowned firms such as Zaha Hadid Architects have begun to implement a transition towards "Employee Ownership" and "Employee Benefit Trust" schemes, within which employees are sought to be collective owners of company assets.[ii] Employees have a voice in the firm's decisions and are reflected in economic benefits and growth opportunities for all. The more they move away from the hierarchical structure and become a space with a more horizontal operation, the results are much more progressive. This not only translates into the quality and discourse of the architecture they execute, but also into a much more dignified built environment that belongs to all of us.
It is still a system implemented by few firms, but the relevant architectural practices must start from the workplace. Awareness about mental and physical health, revaluation of our work and the evolution of the narrative within the teaching and professional world of architecture bring us closer to a discipline that has always had a vocation to be a democratic tool. Challenging relations of domination creates a resistance that advocates for our rights and seeks to repress a practice that should no longer be romanticized and actually be completely obsolete.
[i]Senado Morena (29 de marzo del 2022). Plantean en el Senado otorgar “vacaciones dignas” a los trabajadores. https://morena.senado.gob.mx/2022/03/29/plantean-en-el-senado-otorgar-vacaciones-dignas-a-los-trabajadores/.
[ii]Crook, L. (14 de diciembre del 2021). Zaha Hadid Architects announces transition to employee ownership. Dezeen. https://www.dezeen.com/2021/12/14/zaha-hadid-architects-employee-ownership/