Expanding Practice

Peggy Deamer

There are so many ways to parse through what expansion in architectural practice means—expand our scope of service; expand our labor pool (more women, people of color, and the socioeconomically unprivileged, to start); expand our power to shape the built environment; expand fees; expand our horizons. As a member of the Architecture Lobby, I believe that all of these expansions are related and necessary. However, it is worth focusing on expanding horizons because its expansive umbrella, far from being ephemeral, contains specific and illuminating ideological lessons.

The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Look Up campaign of 2014 suggests to the public that “Architects look up to art . . . to looking within . . . to our hearts . . .  to something higher . . . to nature.” All these nuggets are meant to indicate that our architectural vision is expanded, sincere, easily achieved, and appreciated. Just look up! Yet there is clearly more to our work than this, and if this feel-good horizon expansion is one step forward, it also is three steps back. Actually, it is six steps back, given that the promotion speaks separately to both the public and the profession.

The three steps back for the public:

1. Architects dream! And since there is no way to monetize dreaming—indeed, dreaming is self-indulgent—why pay? “Hey, this isn’t really work, right?”

2. Architects can’t explain what they do because it is so mystical. It’s not just dreamy, it’s quasireligious. “Surely the architects are getting their souls nourished; reward for them transcends the merely monetary, and why interfere with that?”

3. Architects are scattered. “There are reasons that these folks aren’t engineers; they’re thinking laterally! Should we worry about whether the house will stand? And how much would the engineering consultant, who actually knows, cost us?”

The three steps back for architects:

4. We dream! We don’t work! So why pay attention to the conditions that we work in? The #MeToo movement and gender inequity are just the side effects of dreaming together with geniuses. And why pay attention to whether we work legally or healthily? And really, why worry about how or if I’m paid?

5. What we do isn’t communicable. No one understands us. If only the world understood us! Let’s blame the world; there’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe there’s another route. Let’s fetishize that mystery! Aesthetics is something only we chosen few can master. And I am surely one, since I’m suffering so much for it.

6. I’m a synthetic thinker. Please don’t confuse me with techies or builders or mere service providers. I’m all and none of these! I haven’t figured out how to charge for my lateral work, though. But at least I’m not the only confused architect! All I really need to know to get that next job is to underbid the next guy.

If it were only the AIA that sent out Look Up-type messages, we wouldn’t worry. But because our schools teach us the same thing, which we then spout in our brochures, which our historical narratives indulge, and which the media—with its rare, often negative mentions of us—perpetuates, the message is deeply damaging and relevant.

A colleague of mine, Philip Allsopp, recently observed:

 “[At] the heart of the issues we are discussing are two different epistemologies for the way we live on this planet. One of them is born out of a convenient corporate aberration of Adam Smith's writings . . . wherein every person only does things that will result in personal gains—no matter what the consequences are for others or the world around them. The other has its roots in democracy and speaks to the power of helping others to thrive and by doing so returns large and sustained economic and social benefits.”

Architects, and architecture as a whole profession, must decide which epistemology is theirs. Looking up just guarantees that we don’t look at the dichotomy at all. I believe that the world divides on other lines: those who have the courage to look at true conditions and those who do not.

In July of 2013, the Architecture Lobby held its first meeting. Those gathered in Brooklyn—thirteen in all—had identified their frustrations with the profession of architecture: how hard architects and designers worked for little reward, debt taken on during school, projects that rarely had social relevance, firms that did not pay interns or overtime, offices with sexist protocols, impossible work-life balance, and lack of support from the AIA.

This discussion did not yield specific actions, but it did identify that the problem sat at the feet of all the actors in an architectural project: the public, or clients who don’t understand the profession and pay accordingly; firm owners who don’t negotiate good fees and hence pass down insufficient wages; and firm employees who believe that they are lucky to work for almost nothing. The group realized the need to hold meetings every third week, a policy that the New York chapter of the Lobby still follows. By the second meeting (still in Brooklyn), we had our name. By the fifth (at the East 19th Street Manhattan office of a supportive firm) we identified the content for our website—three declarations for each of the three constituents (the public, firm owners, and staff). By the eighth, we had people outside of the New York City area calling in.

Anxious to find a cause that would announce our presence and our concerns, we used the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale as an occasion to announce our presence. Two Lobby members in Venice turned the nine points of the website declaration into our ten-point manifesto and, part protest and part performance, made public our demand for change in the profession. The manifesto has since been the road map for our actions. We now have ten chapters across the country.