Dear Architectural Workers

Kate Wagner

Architecture is an inherently collective endeavor. This simple fact is routinely suppressed, has been suppressed, perhaps as long as architecture has existed. The solitary genius overshadows the hundreds, if not thousands, of people working together to execute ideas into something real. Within this collective lies the lifeblood of any firm, for which the sole architect is but a figurehead, and sometimes not even that.

You are trained through years of architecture school to see yourselves not as workers—that is, people working together, subjugated by the hierarchies of labor—but rather as temporarily disadvantaged individual creators who may one day be the geniuses calling the shots. The reality of life as an architect is often shockingly different from that which is experienced in school, where one is master of one’s ideas and their execution. You may feel alienated and disenchanted, as though that ephemeral power you had to change the world has been surrendered to the drudgery of the 9-to-midnight grind. But your power never went away. It’s just in need of another outlet.

There is more to architectural work than creative exertion, especially when it comes to politics. Architectural work straddles the industries of finance, transportation, and construction, as well as the political institutions of government. Think of how powerful that is, what solidarity lies in those worlds that are so very intimate with capital itself. Imagine the fear struck within those who lord over you should workers in all these fields become connected through the house of labor.

As someone who has borne witness to union battles within my own family, I know the power of a union can feel huge, even dizzying. Imagine if your colleagues in your firm collectively decided, for example, that building a detention center was unethical, that you did not want to be responsible for a facility that would be used against some of the most vulnerable among us. Imagine your firm telling to do it anyway and you refused. You used the power of your labor to say, “We won’t do it.” You struck. And when you struck, look who stood in solidarity with you: the teamsters in charge of delivering the materials, the construction workers in charge of delivering them. Suddenly it became a community issue, a political one. Protests ensued, pressure mounted. Injustice could be stopped. The world stood still because it had to, because all we have is each other. This is but one possible scenario. Another more localized one would counteract problems within the profession itself: isolation, overwork, wage stagnation, hero worship, and very real abuse.

Architecture is a field that so often puts on a social face while being inwardly and profoundly antisocial. It will not change until you—we—change it, all of us, working together to build a better world. As frightening as this task is, it is not one we embark on alone. This field won’t care about us until we make it care, won’t let us rest until we demand rest, won’t fight against injustice until we stand together and say, “We won’t be complicit.” That fight is upon us, and it won’t be easy. There will be setbacks, perhaps many. But we keep on, we persevere, we have to—the future’s on the line. We can’t let them win. ⬤

KATE WAGNER is currently in Oman chasing around bike racers.

This article appeared in our February 2022 Issue, #26. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.