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Peggy Deamer, Tsz Yan Ng
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Would that Hannah Arendt had never written her famous essay “Work, Labor, and Action”!1We wouldn’t be pondering what work vs. labor really is, trying to decide whether architectural work is work (if we like it, and/or if it pertains to “architecture”) or labor (if we don’t like it, and/or if it means only “building”) and, in that lack of decision, walking away. Nor would we be able to pay lip service to Arendt, as do many architectural theorists who engage with these terms, only to avoid any analysis of the protocols that shape architect’s labor/work. Arendt herself was not primarily interested in either labor or work; she saw them as the thesis and antithesis, respectively, of what she really advocated—action. Hers was a post-WWII critique of Marxists whose emphasis on labor/work failed to instill consciousness about public life or to bring social change to a complacent world. Shifting to the contemporary context, we want to suggest a different view of work and labor, one that corresponds less with philosophical tradition and more with today’s neoliberal culture. Work is what we do in our personal lives—we go to work—and labor is work’s financial institutionalization—it is a function of the GDP. Thus, while we called this issue of JAE “Work,” we could just as easily have called it “Labor,” except for the fact that “Labor” brings up negative connotations associated with differentiating blue- and white-collar work as well as the potentially off-putting thought that we are in service to neoliberalism’s demands. Instead, in this theme issue, Work, we sought to understand the personhood in all of this—the subjective experience of what we really do when we teach and/or make architecture.

What then is architectural work? How can we begin to analyze it? And what do we gain by analyzing it? To start with the last question: analysis admits that we, in fact, do work, not just make art and/or donate our aesthetic gifts to the world. It leads to a realization that we might want to make our work-life balance better. It has us consider how we, as workers, relate to other workers, not from above or below but alongside them. It indicates that the difference between blue- and white-collar work is less important than the difference between those who organize and/or overlook labor and those who don’t and can’t. What we gain might be where we can and should assert our values.

To analyze architectural work, we can examine various outcomes: Where was money lost or gained? Did the building live up to its promise in terms of an architectural intention transparent in its outcome? And who benefited from the work? Alternately, we can analyze its diverse inputs: Did the team perform well? Were all voices heard? Was my voice heard? What did I learn? What did I contribute? What did others contribute and under what leadership? What, for me personally, was sacrificed for what was gained?

So what exactly is architectural work? Staring at a computer. Learning the ins and outs of BIM. Phoning consultants. Negotiating with owners. Dealing with environmental inputs and constraints. Researching products. Moving from one software to another and digesting the interface. Scripting in every sense of the word, from planning spatial divisions to optimizing building performance. Aestheticizing elevations. Dreaming. Collaborating. Managing teams, finances, and brands.

It used to be the case that architectural education was the “ideal” to the profession’s “real,” that architectural work in the academy, while grueling, was enlightening, if not fun. Where the profession dealt with the constraints on imagination and aesthetic exploration—zoning, budgets, client demands, construction problems—the academy nurtured what was possible socially, formally, and materially. The profession looked to the academy to ensure that those in practice were not limiting their range of possibilities and/or merely reproducing the status quo. Now, it is not so clear that this is the case. The profession, whether we like it or not, has had to respond to neoliberal demands for more efficient modes of production and better performance—hence the need for BIM, AI, AV, robots, 3D printing, offsite production, and ecological apps and hence, apps that have dealt with a new reality. Yes, some academies have helped develop these tools, but only to serve the business needs of the profession. In other words, even if we are frustrated by a profession that is increasingly ineffectual, it is pushing innovation more than the academy is.

The academy’s lack of leadership with relevant vision might be understood historically. Late modernism brought with it an intense interest in style and autonomy, and the academy was uniquely equipped to explore formal/stylistic innovation—postmodernism, deconstruction, folding, blob, box, etc. Now that we have more urgent needs to which we must respond, the academy hasn’t quite adjusted. Indeed, we still model teaching on the Beaux-Arts tradition that privileges studios, charrettes, competition, design virtuosity, heroic programs, precedents, and honoring past masters—a system unable to respond to today’s reality. Today, efforts to escape this are being heard. Those teaching history and theory are increasingly anxious about the discrepancy between what we currently teach and what we need to empower; professional practice faculty are increasingly teaching skills that bypass the profession as we know it (the assumption being that if we want to know the truth about the business of architecture, we’ll find out after graduation); and structures and environmental faculty are increasingly focused on the effects of an earth that pushes back on our “we can do whatever we want” approach to design and construction. But these voices for change, marginalized in “support” courses, are largely, so far, prevented from providing pedagogical leadership. The result is a discipline led by outmoded notions of studios that neither lead the profession nor serve contemporary social and environmental needs.

What then does this mean for architectural work in the discipline, and why did we feel the need to propose the theme of Work for an issue of the JAE? Certainly, one motivation is to promote projects that emphasize changes in how we conceive of work. Change happens with new studio models, new histories, new horizons—all demanding analysis of what we do. Another is to direct our attention to the fact that design is work. Design options do not strike like lightening, nor do they come more swiftly to geniuses. Architects think, and thinking is work! Another is to emphasize that architects think with others, especially others in non-traditional disciplinary roles: from R&D prototyping to data mining and the exposure of incongruities between the built environment and its people. Another is to draw attention to the fact that our personal experiences of work, while important and often spiritually rewarding, are habitually undervalued both in an academic setting (that judges only by the final object) and later in the field (where one isn’t asked to think deeply about a client’s brief or a boss’s assigned tasks, but one does so anyway). Another is to show that alternative ways of working in school exist, ways that do not privilege an individual’s output—perpetuating the “lone artistic genius” who does not “work” myth—but instead emphasize the benefits of exchange and mutual support. Another is to celebrate projects that link construction and design, not just because it might yield better results but also because it highlights that architectural work depends on the tacit knowledge of the construction worker. Another is to uncover projects that don’t merely use the tools and stock of materials that the profession has handed us—BIM, CLT, etc.—but transform them for more social and collaborative engagement. And another is to expose how bias affects architectural work, be it gender and race or perceptions about “respectable” types of architectural work.

What we got in response to this call was enlightening—more wonderfully varied but also more constrained than we had expected. It is more varied because the projects ranged from professional histories to activism as performance, from needle point to biogeophysical territorialization. However, it is more constrained because fewer projects than we imagined—really only two, in the end—addressed teaching today. All the essays we received shed light on the parameters that shape our conception of architectural pedagogy, but for the most part, they do so from an oblique angle: the profession, the past, technical tools, or construction. We should speculate about why this is so. One reason might be that we academics are too much in the middle of teaching (timewise and conceptually) to objectively research it as scholarly work, as this journal demands. It feels as though we need a full-time theorist or sociologist watching from the outside to objectively provide a well-framed context, allowing us to understand (and break free from) our embeddedness. Nevertheless, we editors learned from every submitted paper and are honored by the passion so many showed for this topic. We are also humbled to work with such an amazing editorial team and thankful for the generous (unpaid) work of the peer reviewers.

We are thrilled with the essays here, which cover the historical—Goodman/Lucking, Norwood, Watson, Marullo, and Cayer; the “technical”—Moe, Briscoe, Forehand, Tobey, and Amelyn Ng; the constructed—Goodman/Lucking, Stiphany, Li, and Watson; the activist—Jacobs/Utting, Weinstein, and Stead et al.; and the feminist—Stead et al. All are illuminating; all make a contribution to architectural education.

In closing, we want to note our concern about where the #MeToo movement resides in the issue of work. Architectural labor cannot be divorced from feminist discourse for many reasons: (1) writers such as Silvia Federici and Leopolina Fortunati have shed light on the fact that it is largely women’s work that goes unpaid,2 (2) women are like canaries in the coal mine—they feel the effects of abusive labor first and hardest, (3) the onus of architectural work is no longer shouldered by just the self-selected few; it falls on everyone, and everyone should share equally in its rewards, and (4) the nascent activism now evident in the academy sits on the shoulders of feminist engagement; we have to acknowledge the ground breaking work of Parlour, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and ArchiteXX as models for change in our discipline. But this important work still needs to be matched by our ongoing commitment to expose gender problems wherever they are; they keep knocking, often unanswered, on our academic and professional doors and we cannot wish them away. We received provocative and important opinion pieces from Diane Ghirardo, former Executive Editor of JAE and ACSA President, and from Judi Shade Monk, one of the women who came forward against Richard Meier. A decision was made by the ACSA Board of Directors to not include the essays because they divulged names and institutions (as they should, to identify facts and not abstract gestures) which, it was determined, could open ACSA to potential lawsuits. This judgement, weighted by fear and risk, indicates exactly why it is so hard for this important issue to get traction in our discipline. We miss their voices in this issue, and can only hope that the presence of their absence might make us and ACSA aware of the fact that a whole issue of JAE could be devoted to this topic despite the difficulties entailed in coming forward with the specific accounts and solutions for gender abuse in architecture. We cross our fingers.

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Hannah Arendt, “Labor, Work, Action,” in Amor Mundi, edited by S. J. J. W. Bernauer, Boston College Studies in Philosophy, vol. 26 (Dordrecht: Springer, 1987).
See Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (Bristol: Falling Wall Press and the Power of Women Collective, 1975). See also Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1989).