Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of citymaking has carried on, albeit precariously. After a freeze on “non-essential” construction, New York City’s familiar building churn resumed in full this summer, even as concerns about workplace safety persist. Meanwhile, the public health crisis continues to metastasize into a major economic downturn, the ripple effects of which are felt far beyond the jobsite. The white-collar labor of architecture has been impacted, too: beyond the now-ubiquitous migration to virtual meeting rooms and other “cloud-based solutions,” many designers are living through the very real pain of layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and more. The status of the architect as a worker, long resisted by the profession, has been thrown into stark relief.
Under less contagious circumstances, The Architecture Lobby’s New York chapter would no doubt be hosting frequent gatherings at their favorite co-op space to meet this moment of insecurity with a healthy dose of solidarity. Such discussions have been pushed online, but are burning no less brightly. The Lobby — an international organization comprised of workers committed to reframing design as labor — has been busy organizing around a web of disasters for which it has long been prepared. From pushes to unionize large architecture offices and establish a cooperative network of small firms, to campaigns in support of the Green New Deal and against border walls, the organization’s membership has long recognized how precarity plays out within and beyond the office, and how architectural workers can leverage their collective power across multiple sites of intervention. We spoke with organizers Maya Porath (NYC), James Heard (Boston), and Shota Vashakmadze (Los Angeles) about how The Architecture Lobby is building the foundations for new ways of working to shape space.
What are the origins of The Architecture Lobby?
The Lobby was founded in 2013 by a group of architects, designers, and academics, including Peggy Deamer, who were looking to restructure the way the profession works. Long hours and poor pay have always been understood as inherent to architecture: a price we must pay for the privilege of working in the field. The Lobby, however, is trying to disrupt that notion. A main focus was reframing our supposedly white-collar work as precarious, and trying to understand what that means for architects and designers. How do we try and empower ourselves in our workplaces? Over the past seven years, the organization has grown significantly. We’ve added a number of campaigns, and the focus has slightly shifted to more specifically address how architects build power in the workplace, how academics build power in the workplace, and students, too: How we build agency and how we fight for a more egalitarian and just world through our design labor and our work.
One of the really important things that the Lobby’s done has been to offer a place with a very particular kind of political analysis and a very specific set of practices for architects to engage with. It’s not in our training or work as architects where our power comes from, but rather from the agency that we have as workers. That’s really the root of our labor politics. That has made the Lobby a really cool place for architects to get a political education.
Part of the political education is in organizing a chapter. Chapters are grown in the same way that members are encouraged to develop their own projects, push them up their ladder to the Organizing Committee, and really drive them. You have a particularly motivated member in an area who learns to organize by organizing. I think that’s a really valuable thing for architects to learn, and it’s certainly not something you learn in architecture school.
What kind of organizing is going on in universities specifically?
I think the transitional character of the academic chapters has been really important, because it’s facilitated the growth of city chapters, as it were. They’ve also contributed to very particular projects that couldn’t have happened elsewhere: for instance, specific changes to professional practice curricula that we’ve tried to implement through a large contribution by our student members, but also by academics and other Lobby members who teach. We understand what it means to engage with the specific problems of architectural labor in an academic context. Another big site for organizing has been studio culture.
Studios and academic settings have been fertile ground for developing agendas, particularly counter-agendas, when it comes to the profession and how we structure and work together.
Architects are very tied to their own educational experience, and we’ve identified a lot of challenges within the professions that are rooted in academia and studio culture. In order to really restructure the profession, we have to change the way we learn and teach architecture. Raising awareness to problematic or exploitative working conditions in architecture needs to begin before students enter the workforce. This makes organizing in universities extremely important.
How has the pandemic affected how you work together?
In New York, for example, we’ve been meeting regularly for several years now. We started at a restaurant, and once we outgrew a few tables pushed together, we moved to a bar, and then to a co-op social space run by friends, called Prime Produce, which we’ve been using for a few years now.
But since COVID has shut everything down, chapters and working groups are experiencing similar types of meetings: we all get on a Zoom call, check in with each other, see how everyone’s doing, and work together.
One of my favorite things that we’ve seen at quite a few chapter meetings has been an intro thing where we all go around and everyone says how their week, or two weeks since the last meeting, has been at work. Sometimes it’s commiseration and complaining and all that good stuff; but it also has been a great way to connect people’s immediate personal experiences to some of these larger political issues that we’ve been talking about. I think that’s been an important way for new members to feel out what the Lobby is about. It’s just a space where you can talk about how your life’s going and hear about how other people are doing. And in navigating all those things and navigating everyone’s different work experience, that’s been a huge source of where projects have come from. We’ve really tried to instill solidarity on an organizational and local level.
The things we discuss in the Lobby are often not things you can discuss with your coworkers in an office, particularly in a small open office, with your boss within earshot. So these meetings are a place to talk to like-minded people that, before the Lobby, might have been difficult to find.
How has COVID-19 impacted the Lobby’s organizing efforts?
It’s increased activity and created a stronger community. Zoom has allowed us to increase our cross-chapter and cross-region campaigns and collaborations. Once COVID-19 hit, we started a response working group. We put out a statement encouraging employers to support their workers through this time. We followed that with a survey and an additional statement, and that work has been integrated into a unionizing campaign which we’ve been pursuing for many years. The way that our campaigns work, and the way that our members participate in campaigns, has also definitely shifted now that we’re exclusively online.
The kind of organizing that we’ve done has been motivated by these changing circumstances, but also by the changing role of media. We’ve been reorienting a lot toward outreach. We’ll do a phone bank; we’ll call up our members; we’ll have one-on-one conversations between organizers and people with issues in their workplace. We’ll connect with members that have a background in the labor movement to respond to specific questions: “How do I talk to my coworkers?” “How do we ask for this?” “What do we need to do in order to make sure we win this?” There’s been a lot of know-how that we’ve been able to communicate to people in light of the economic fallout that’s come out of COVID-19. Through these conversations, we’ve learned a lot.
One of the initial motivations to do the outreach work was to just get a sense of what was going on. Between horror stories, and other people brushing it off, there still isn’t a really good sense of how architecture has fared through all of this. But in speaking with people, we’ve definitely been able to reflect on what they’re experiencing. I think in the broadest sense, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. It’s made architects’ positions as workers extremely clear, through layoffs and pay cuts; small firms that would otherwise operate on a kind of an informal structure are suddenly having to float their workers. The workers who are now a burden are out the door. Larger firms have also been letting workers go, or letting project architects take over entire teams. Another thing we’ve heard about is predatory layoffs, where firms take advantage of all of the uncertainty to downsize in ways that aren’t necessarily catalyzed by the COVID-19 recession.
We have tried to sort out the picture of what architecture has been going through, but that isn’t to say that we’ve tried to take on all those problems ourselves. We are specifically working to make sure that architects are empowered and protected through all of this.
And we also want to recognize the limitations of our organization and the power that we do have to make change, specifically in light of the pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter uprisings. We encourage our members to participate in local protests, political efforts, and other organizing efforts, and we have many members that also participate in other protest or design activist organizations. Oftentimes, we can’t help with immediate needs, but we can help organize, connect, and build solidarity and relationships. For people that have been laid off, we try to find connections or rumors about work or opportunities that might come up. We try to support each other within our capabilities, really.
How has the Lobby’s organizing work around unionization and co-ops been affected by changing circumstances?
We’ve been really attentive to what are the things at stake right now and the gains that we can make immediately, but also thinking, in the long-run, that this is just the beginning of something, and this is organizing work that’s going to have to go on for years. We’re laying the foundation for building structure and building power. That’s really the kind of thing that leads to a union. Unions don’t materialize out of thin air, they need on-the-ground support and structure to back them up.
Unionization has been a very big part of the Lobby’s internal history. Thinking along the lines of labor politics was critical to our shift into a membership organization five or six years ago, and that’s always been the long-term goal. To make that happen we’ve been doing workplace outreach and one-on-one organizing, and building the structure that is necessary for successful unionization efforts to take place. The way that we’re thinking about that is really in concert with the labor movement at large, and with political happenings that we’re seeing in every sphere of life.
The COVID-19 recession has hit small offices really hard, with a lot of work being halted. Small practitioners that were already open to the idea of an alternative mode of practice have found themselves at a point where it makes sense to seriously consider transitioning the structure of their business to a more equitable and sustainable model. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the co-op network, as small business owners have joined the Lobby looking for a way to distribute their ownership among their workers and to really acknowledge the work that their employees have always been putting in. COVID-19 has just made them more aware of that situation.
I’d wager that nearly every office under four or five people really already functions cooperatively. It’s perhaps a founder or two, and then a small number of project architects, and they’re all working in close collaboration. There’s no worker-management split per se; it’s a collaborative environment. The split does occur in the way that the business is substantiated, but day-to-day, it’s not experienced that way. So making the switch from a typical corporate model to a cooperative model really doesn’t mean functionally changing the way things actually work at the office. It’s really just a recognition of the way that these offices have always worked, and then enforcing an equitable distribution of resources.
In good times, a cooperative model means that all the profits are equally distributed among everyone contributing labor. In a downturn, all of the losses are equally distributed among everyone. Cooperatives have mechanisms to retain money and increase stability, so that those losses don’t hit people’s paychecks; that’s something that makes it an incredibly robust and sustainable business model. It’s not a single person taking everything at the end of the day. Everyone’s in it together, which means everyone has skin in the game, and when the practice succeeds, all of their coworkers succeed as well. It becomes about mutual enrichment. But the reason why we push formalizing firms as cooperatives is so that, when things get tough, you still have equity. It’s really easy for everyone to say everything’s equal when times are good, but when times get hard, that’s when things fall apart. For these businesses that want to empower their workers, they need to adopt a practice model that compels them to do so, because, at the end of the day, if you are not compelled to do so, eventually you won’t.
Both the co-op and unionization campaigns have recognized how much variety there actually is in firm structures. There’s an understanding that firms operate pretty similarly: There are large firms and small firms; there’s a boss, and there are employees. Sometimes middle management. And these campaigns are arguing that this doesn’t have to be the case: there are different ways to collaborate and build collectivity within a firm.
It really gets down to being able to articulate what the material circumstances of employees are and how they align, or oftentimes do not align, with their compensation and agency in the workplace. That isn’t to say that management-employee distinctions are effaced in every office, because they certainly aren’t; but even in cases where they are, we’ve learned that there are a lot of forces obscuring the actual material relations in an office, and we’ve been trying to put those in the foreground. It’s about understanding both how offices run and how they see themselves: from salary transparency to knowing what your billing rate is compared to your hourly rate. That’s a distinction that people sometimes don’t make, and is really necessary to consider what kind of work you’re doing and what role you’re playing in the firm.
What else has been occupying the Lobby recently?
Following the uprisings, similar to other organizations, The Architecture Lobby has taken on an internal reckoning with its whiteness. Aside from the public expressions of our commitment to anti-racism, and to dismantling white supremacy within the profession, we have also conducted a series of internal conversations on anti-racism in the design world, in our organizing culture, in the workplace, and in academia. Those conversations were open to everyone to participate in and really relied on contribution from membership.
Our Organizing Committee is having discussions with campaigns to help them explicitly formulate how their strategies are anti-racist, but also contribute to this overall liberatory ethic of the Lobby to really ensure that these conversations don’t stop, that it’s not something that we talk about for a few months and then let hang, but something that we continuously revisit and shape over time. Because this is not something that’s short-term — and I think we’ve acknowledged that it’s going to take a long time to transform our organization.
One of our major, ongoing projects is the Green New Deal campaign. This is a national project that many chapters are participating in, including a local working group in New York City. The thing that’s interesting for us in the Green New Deal is the way our labor addresses the climate crisis and how we can work toward a just transition by decentering architects. Architects often propose tech-centered or site-specific solutions, as if buildings alone will solve the climate crisis. The way we’re trying to look at the Green New Deal is through a structural, labor lens: how we divert our resources, and talk about public architecture, infrastructure, and long-term social resilience, rather than single-building solutions.
The second campaign I want to mention is Not Our Wall. Not Our Wall originated with our California and Los Angeles chapters, which were focusing on raising awareness around the agency that architects have in refusing to work on particular projects, specifically the wall along the US border with Mexico.
We traveled down to Tijuana with a group of activists and a spent a day documenting the border wall. We compiled this documentation into a book that we then used in our organizing efforts to convince architects to talk to their bosses about this infrastructure project and threaten to walk out. It’s successfully demonstrated an alternative way for architects to use the tools of our profession to persuade and mobilize labor rather than propose so-called humane designs.
We had quite a few firms signing onto our program. We even had one firm withdraw from the RFP in response to workplace organizing campaign led by Lobby members. It was an exciting early moment where we were able to materially assert the power that architectural workers have.
In 2018, the campaign evolved to address the current administrations’ infrastructure of immigration deterrence, and to encourage architects to refuse to take part in the design of detention centers. We also issued a pledge, in collaboration with ADPSR, to withhold their labor from designing these concentration camps. Over 150 individuals and firms signed on.
The position that we take in this campaign runs counter to, I’ll say, nearly every other architectural organization out there. We’ve all seen the “better wall” prototypes — the “friendly walls,” the architectural solutioneering that doesn’t solve the core problem. In all of their solutions, or nearly all of their solutions, there still remains a border wall.
That project came directly out of our analysis that the power of the architect isn’t to propose a better wall, but rather that the architect’s participation in that space can be the refusal and withholding of labor. Labor is the territory where we suggest these problems can be worked out, rather than within architecture. We don’t see transformative potential in architectural work as such.
What’s next for the Lobby?
This is a living organization. It changes and shifts based on who participates and who brings forward new projects. We are continuously working on ourselves. Since everything is democratic and member-driven, when we feel that some of our founding documents or ideas are less relevant, or need to be modified or updated, we do that.
We’ve been working on reforming the manifesto we’ve had since the inception of The Architecture Lobby. I think everyone acknowledges how much we’ve grown and it’s important to have one of our most public-facing documents reflect the diversity of individuals and viewpoints within the organization.
Perhaps a surprising thing about The Architecture Lobby is how it empowers members to participate in a lot of its own governance. There’s no paying your dues, so to speak. Seniority isn’t particularly privileged. You have members who join and sort of hit the ground running, and immediately start working on this. We really pride ourselves on being open, and allowing anyone who would like to participate to have a voice.
All images courtesy of The Architecture Lobby.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.