Workplace - Dank Lloyd Wright - We Could All Be Less Complicit

We Could All Be Less Complicit

Dank Lloyd Wright

Images: Dank Lloyd Wright.

November 2021

From myriad sources, including the lived experience of our own lives, we know how deeply problematic practices of labor sourcing, organizing, and regulating are within the field of architecture. This is an ongoing source of trauma and inequality for people who enter the industry.

Stories about office culture abound, a world of salient bits that is more telling than the actual architectural histories we fall asleep to in school. “How was it working for X?” “What was the process like at Y?” “Late nights, low pay at Z?” Talk spreads quickly among architectural workers. We know more than you think. This process of collectively authoring an oral history of architectural exploitation is more productive than continuing to read a footnote under a microscope hoping it will turn into a novel. We are all so polite on camera, but off camera the petty deluge of gossip resumes.

This doesn’t mean that entry-level low-wage workers and the managerial elite are two separate groups who never overlap; one can certainly achieve responsibility according to experience. But this is to say there is a split between the arriving thirsty talent and the established operator who relies on said talent to make the work happen. Upward mobility happens, but unfortunately many who are successful enough to become leaders repeat the exploitative conditions of their youth, thereby modeling unhealthy routines for the next generation. It’s a shame that a (false) dichotomy exists between “creative office” and “healthy office culture.”

It should be clear to anyone who has spent time in “the discipline” (if it sounds like punishment, it can be) that the architecture economy relies on the ambitions of young people as its jet fuel. Part of our frustration is that there remains a narrow, conservative sense of what is thought of as “practice,” while instead we should be broadening what it means for one’s labor to be considered “architectural.” Sure, maybe it’s opening up, but it needs to happen faster. This could happen by expanding architecture’s public: who is an audience, who pays for it, who understands its value. With more appetite, there’s more interest in doing things differently. And as tiring as it is to hear about the identities of architects, there should be even more ways of being an architect, which would showcase the importance of architecture itself; not even the things that architects make, necessarily, but as the set of people interested in how its structures shape our lives.

Our architectural consciousness of what is possible and what is beautiful is shaped by where we work and how we allocate our labor, which gets super sad when those situations are toxic workplaces filled with exploitation. The more you know about these conditions, the less likely you are to perpetuate them, or tolerate them. Light makes the roaches scramble. Like all workers, architecture workers deserve fair compensation and a safe place to work. Capitalism makes this difficult. It would be a worthwhile but depressing exercise to sort out which manner of travesties are the result of our economic system, and which are the special delicacies of our chosen affliction.

What follows are some work stories. They might not be the worst ones, but they’re parts of ours.

My first architectural job was an unpaid internship. My memory of that summer was positive because of the great group of people I worked with. It was fun to move to the big city, even if it was for just a few months. For years I justified taking the job because of the doors it opened. But now I think I’m gaslighting myself in the same way my boss gaslit us. He took us on field trips, told us insider stories, and gave us lectures and insights on his academic work. I learned a ton and am thankful for that. However, the reality was that he was able to keep an unsustainable practice alive through extorted, unpaid labor. The only payment I received for three months of fifteen-hour workdays and working weekends was a dinner at the end and an IOU for a letter of recommendation to grad school.

My first job was an unpaid internship. Such internships are now rightly ridiculed, but I’d be lying if I said the job didn’t help me later on. I had saved from prior summer jobs to finance this gig. The internship materialized into a salaried position, and I stayed on for a fairly happy year.

I then worked at an office going through a tumultuous restructuring as its founder stepped down, then retook control, only to step away again, but never fully. The numerous directors jostled for power in a manner that could only be described as a shit show. People were fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. I was one of 170-odd employees; when I was let go five months later, I was one of around seventy. The overriding feeling about the experience I have now is angst, due to the stated reason for my termination. Part of my role was being in charge of the company’s Instagram; I was let go for not posting enough! I later found out that I was axed due to cost cutting, but the office’s bizarre decision to not tell me this at the time seems particularly cruel. The company now has less than forty staff.

I found a new job. This one seemed exciting: I was told that I might curate a show! Alas, it was too good to be true. The boss had already “curated” it and it was my job to promote it, which meant I had to harass my friends and contacts and ask them to cover it. Within a week of starting the job I knew I wanted to leave; I ended up stuck there for eight months.

My current job is thankfully better. The office is growing rather than shrinking; it is well-balanced and transparent in structure; and instead of sowing seeds of self-doubt, it gives employees the confidence to be autonomous. After almost three years, it’s nice to be able to see tangible outcomes emerge from my input.

In October 2017, I was offered a job with an annual salary of $55,000 at an office headed by an Ivy League professor in New York City. This was the same salary as my prior job. I declined three better paying job offers in order to take this one where I thought I’d be taking on more interesting projects. In September 2020, after months of working remotely from my eighty-square-foot bedroom during the pandemic and after nearly three years of working with this firm, I was terminated.

Though it was never directly stated, it was expected that I would remain in the city during the pandemic to do construction administration. In April, when over 1,000 people were dying every day in the city and lockdown measures were the most extreme, I would make site visits using my bike at least once a week, but often three times or more. By July, the Zoom backgrounds of each of my colleagues had transformed to show exotic locations—a cottage in the woods upstate, an ivy-covered pergola next to a pool, a porch on the beach in the Outer Banks—all which revealed deep pools of private, personal resources that sustained the office (only one other colleague remained in the city, for visa reasons).

By July I was completely burnt out. My workday had exploded into chunks of time scattered throughout the day. I was getting video calls late at night since Microsoft Teams showed I was online whenever my personal computer was on. I rarely left my bedroom during the week as work demands filled all of my time. My ability to remain productive deteriorated. Around this time, a chronic prior health issue got worse and I began costly, time intensive medical consultations and treatments. In August, I found a new apartment as my landlord refused to negotiate the lease and my roommate had no interest in staying and renewing. I secured a new place to live alone that stretched my budget but felt like an appropriate expense for a home where I could ride out the pandemic in a healthier manner.

Two weeks after I signed the lease on a new apartment, I went to a project meeting in person at the office. Then I was sat down and told I was being “let go” and that I needed to collect my belongings and leave the building. I was told performance was a factor and that neither my physical or mental health were taken into account in making this decision. Two junior designers and a senior designer who were hired during lockdown in April kept their jobs; neither lived in New York and both had been working remotely from their respective parents’ homes since their start dates. I had been outsourced. Between the cost of my new apartment, medical treatments, and COBRA health insurance extensions, losing my job cost me more than $15,000 and wiped out my life savings.

At my previous job, I was replaced by a more senior hire, and at the job before that I was furloughed with two other employees in order to give the principal a six-figure bonus. The job before that, my first out of college, I made less than minimum wage for a tech investor who stole my intellectual property and subjected me to regular sexual harassment. A decade after graduation, even with a real salary and benefits, my career remains as precarious as when I started.

Cumulatively, these pressures eat away at the architectural imagination. Working 60+ hours a week leaves little space for the kind of free explorations and experimental failures that imbues the practice with invention and purpose. To work creatively today is a luxury afforded to a class of principals with the means to do so and, occasionally, to those workers who fully submit to the hustle culture. Exhaustion takes its toll.

Looking back, it’s clear that though the office I was fired from during the pandemic liked to tout itself as a generous modern workplace, it still relied heavily on the personal resources of its employees to operate. There was an expectation that I could rely on assets owned by myself or my family and tap into them so my workflow could remain stable. There was also an expectation that the disappearance of older faces would be naturally replenished through a constant arrival of fresh hires.

Despite all this, it’s hard to locate a precise bad actor. This is just the system at work. It’s crazy how we struggle to argue that we should be treated better by a pernicious economic system. As things slide from precarious to dire, it’s increasingly impossible to justify a relationship that was never designed to be healthy to begin with.

After graduation, I applied for a lot of jobs. I was unemployed for three months before my friend got me a temp job under contract for a large interior/branding/architecture firm that mostly did corporate rollouts. Whenever a huge project started there was a champagne toast; there was breakfast every morning, two dogs running around, and a somewhat pleasant office atmosphere. I worked forty hours a week unless there was a deadline; then I would work evenings and weekends. In the three months I was there, I rolled out about thirty T-Mobile stores and eight Chase banks. It was the best money I’ve ever made, but it was also the most depressed I’ve ever been at work.

New York provides its ambitious young offices a place to grow and gain notoriety with cultural and experimental clients if the principals can support themselves through other means. In this case, the office’s elite status was being indirectly subsidized by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

During my first internship, I lived in a friend’s apartment for free because they were occupying Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street. The first project in this low-paying job was an arts-related project. This elite production scored me VIP tickets and the opportunity to connect with the artists and galleries who might be future cultural and experimental clients I’d need for my own work later. At the time my workplace felt like a lefty young office supportive of Occupy that was engaged with art, working together to design, think, and build work that related to the political moment, and gave lectures on how their work perpetuated their agenda.

Later I realized that my internship was being subsidized by people who were living in a park trying to reshape the unequal economic conditions that led to that large scale, ultra-high net worth art event I was working on. The distinction between those two conditions couldn’t be clearer to me today. Not only did I lose touch with many of those activist friends, but I’ve also been pushed deeper into the same high cultural model, one in which money from the “higher” operations of “art” slowly trickles down to the “lower” genre of taste called “design.” This is the cost of the profession. Reparations to the movement are owed. An asymmetric connection between activism and elitism is often part of architecture.

I worked for a small office operated by leadership that was independently wealthy. When I started, there was no overtime, no health insurance, and no retirement benefits. Work hard and that’s it.

There were moments when a project would arrive and after intense initial work, the job would evaporate for unknown reasons. We all sat in the same room, but important things would go unsaid or said elsewhere. It was hard, but not impossible, to gain knowledge. I was yelled at and indirectly reprimanded for making mistakes. On at least one occasion, the ambient stress had a direct impact on my health.

Like many small offices that prize their “intensity,” this was a balancing act. The people were great; things would be pleasant until the winds of fortune changed. At times, cruel assessments of other offices’ work were openly given. I later came to understand these outbursts as emerging from a place of personal insecurity. The tightness and stress of the office environment was in service of an architecture whose value was equal to its strictness. Everything was so totally coordinated that any habitation felt messy; it was perfect, and it was vacant. The thirst for beautiful images of life overruled concerns of life itself.

I spent years here and learned a lot. Eventually, I internalized the anxiety which motivated this kind of work. Only once I had fully committed myself to this regime of precision did I realize it was time to move on.

After my degree, my first job wasn’t in architecture. It used architecture skills, but I wanted to work in architecture, and to be paid more. So I interviewed at the beautiful live-work loft of this husband-and-wife boutique practice after the husband slid into my DMs to let me know he was hiring. I got the job.

Shortly before my first day, I was sent a different street address in a different neighborhood. Between the interview and my start date, the spouses had decided to divorce and split their business. The husband had moved into his own apartment and I was his sole employee. On my first day, my new boss took me to lunch at a café I couldn’t afford. I appreciated my salad until he asked me, “Have you ever dated a much older man?”

I soon learned the husband had hired me without telling his ex-wife and business partner. I was hidden like a mistress and paid via the husband’s personal checking account. “If my ex-wife finds out I hired you, she’ll kill me,” he said. I believe my “secret” status is also why he refused to register as my NCARB supervisor. He wanted no record that I was his employee. My hours went unrecorded, stolen from my licensure progress.

He asked me to specify interior textiles, a fine task when not paired with the remark of, “My ex-wife used to do this. It’s beneath me.” This disrespected her contributions and continued the archaic practice of assigning interiors and textiles to marginalized women, femmes, and queers, versus the heroism of “Real Architecture.”

On breaks, the husband scrolled the social media profiles of extraordinarily thin women of my non-white race, my age and younger. Once, he called me to his desk to view the profile of an influencer who has built her career showcasing thong swimsuits. Against the backdrop of her buttocks, he declared, “You should add her as a friend.” Why? “Because you’re both the same race.”

Initial attempts to turn our conversations prurient were soon replaced with barking insults once I established that I strictly wanted to work and earn money without flirting or tolerating come-ons. As the husband continued to be suggestive, I pretended not to notice. I hunted nascent pimples at lunch, irritating them so my face might appear covered in sores. On weekday mornings, I was motivated by one goal: dress like a potato to maximize my unattractiveness in the workplace while also layering in a way that I could rearrange to go out afterward. It was stressful and distracting, a waste of time and thought.

At some point, an offhand comment finally revealed the reason for this behavior: “I married my last employee.”

I, with others, operate a small office. Most firms near us are large corporate hospitality and branding outfits that do interiors. Some things pushed us to start our own firm: our naïve thought of wanting to change local design paradigms, our unwillingness to be corporate designers, and our distrust of other small firms who weren’t transparent in managing, overworking, and paying us.

We’re a couple years into it. We’ve discovered how hard it is to get work as young people in a city full of old money, to secure real design fees for projects, and to find clients that care about design or haven’t already come up with their own design and just want us to draw it for them. We’re slowly learning and breaking into established networks, expanding into new cities, and seeking out the correct niche markets. Still, entrepreneurship is hard when you can’t fund your own projects or don’t come from a wealthy background.

I got my first job in architecture in 2009 during an economic crisis. Luckily, a family friend suggested a Harvard-educated architect who hired me for a paid summer internship. I was fresh, excited, and as it was just the two of us, I knew I would learn a lot. Weeks dragged on without any paychecks. I was heavily involved with some design work and thought the experience would eventually pay off. After some time I finally received an envelope with $770 in cash in the parking lot of a nearby rail station. The summer ended without any additional pay. I was owed around $3,700. I took the architect to court and won. However, he had no money to pay me. I learned later that the state registration board knew about this person’s predatory history and tried to get their license revoked, but ultimately failed in its mission to protect starry-eyed workers like myself—or the general public—from this manipulative and intolerable dirtbag.

I worked at an Ivy League architecture department. While my immediate team was great, the administration was hopeless. After two years of difficulty, I left that position and moved across the country.

The trauma of an Ivy League architecture school served as an example of workplace abuse. There, violation of work/life boundaries was not only normalized, but exalted. This produced a compliant workforce, so I expected no better when I got out, even though I knew we all deserve better. There was no reliable support network. After #MeToo, perhaps conditions have improved, but likely not enough.

I left architectural practice and academia for an architecture-adjacent career, but I’m no race-gender attrition statistic. I still engage in fancy architecture stuff when I can. My job affords me the time and resources for self-directed creativity and recreation, and the work contributes to the place where I live. I’m logging my hours and have passed several licensure exams while being treated with respect and paid what my labor is worth. That’s the bare minimum everyone deserves. Including you.

What can a meme page do to improve working conditions?

We romanticize meme space as a parallel world untouched by what we don’t like about the false binary of practice and academia. We think the meme world has the potential to showcase what criticism could be when it is detached from the profit motives of advertising, self promotion, and clout chasing. We are anonymous not because we’re embarrassed about our positions, but because our individual identities are irrelevant to the project. It’s not about us. It’s a digital exercise in architecture without architects. There’s no endgame in mind, just as there’s no material reward for making memes. They’re literally a “primal scream” into the void of the internet.

One hurdle for memes is navigating the dilemma of the trickster folk hero. In every mythology we see that the trickster was leading us to a new world, but only in hindsight. Memes can operate similarly. Now meme pages are pure entertainment; they are part of the distraction economy of social media. We operationalize the endless feed for shitposting of every variety, though there are moments of realtalk. This requires some kind of new media institutionality. We need new toolsets and new working languages. If the photogram hacked the photograph, we’re hacking Instagram. So now what? We’re trying to figure out what memes can be other than some funny ruffle that we scroll by on our hurried lunch breaks as we work 9-5 and beyond.

The work stories presented above show that the exploitative conditions we regularly denounce happen. To us, yes, but more importantly, to many architectural workers—and to workers, generally. We’re always thinking about how our positions can break out of the Instagram paradigm and exist “in the world,” as if there’s a difference. It’s not about a little socialism “as a treat” within the dumpster fire of capitalism (cue the meme of the dog in the burning house saying “This is fine”) but about establishing horizons beyond our neoliberal paradigm that we can work towards together.

These stories are a drop in the bucket of office atrocities. But maybe after reading them you’ll be strengthened to speak out against exploitative workplaces. Maybe you’re one of the shitty people who perpetuate or enable these conditions. If so, you should fucking stop now. Maybe you are one of the people who suffer from this bullshit and need to hear that you’re worth it and better jobs are out there. Or maybe you’re somewhere in between. Architecture can be a terrible place because it operates under the terrible regime of capitalism. Even still, there are additional terrors we place on ourselves in this profession. This must end.

Workplace is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Canadian Centre for Architecture within the context of its year-long research project Catching Up With Life.

Labor & Work, Architecture
Immaterial Labor, Social Media, Art Activism
Return to Workplace

Dank Lloyd Wright is an emerging theorist. They are currently Director of the Centre for Ants.


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