Social media has been accused of being many things: a time-waster, an intelligence-leveler, a privacy-invader. However, in the field of architectural employment, social media has oddly become a kind of virtual worker’s union, helping to expose unethical hiring practices. A recent leaked email from Japanese firm SANAA advertised an unpaid internship for three months consisting of 12-hour days, 6-7 days a week, with the intern providing his or her own computer and software. Juan Herrera tweeted the email on March 23rd and it quickly garnered extensive press coverage.
Unpaid work within architecture has a historical basis: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West thrived on apprentices paying “tuition” to work alongside the master, although in exchange for their wood-chopping and water-hauling they were housed, fed, and made to feel like part a community. Many industries rely on the currency of naïveté, not cold hard cash. They were also essentially being trained to become a part of the paid workforce. In contrast, 21st century unpaid internships are less apprenticeship and more exploitative labor, with, as the SANAA email states, “little or no chance of being hired as an architect at the end.” While the U.S. Department of Labor defines a legal unpaid internship by six different criteria, one of which is that the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at its conclusion, it also states that “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” While first-hand experience is certainly of value, its worth must not come at a net loss for the intern and pure gain for the firm. Obviously, SANAA’s version of an internship benefits only the employer, and is therefore unethical.
Or is it? Architects such as Sou Fujimoto and Peter Eisenman have come out in favor of unpaid internships, stating that they serve as an invaluable introduction to the practice, since “you can’t do anything for [the first] three months anyway” as Eisenman reportedly stated during a talk at the Harvard GSD in 2007. Fujimoto, meanwhile, is used to the “open desk” policy of internships in Japan, in which students line up scholarships and then intern for the standard twelve to fourteen hour days for three to six months along paid staff, building physical models and participating in the day-to-day office culture. Just as each studio has its own culture, so each country has its own notion of what constitutes an ethical employment contract. While certain traditions may work as long as both parties understand what that tradition entails, young people especially are at risk of being exploited when these rules are not made clear. Architects such as Sou Fujimoto and Peter Eisenman have come out in favor of unpaid internships According to architect Denise Schiller, in Peru interns need to complete a certain number of hours in an architectural studio before they can earn their bachelor’s degree, and are paid between $0 to $150 per month. Sometimes, only their transportation is covered as a form of recompense. However, no Peruvian college graduate is expected to work for free; a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree can typically expect to start making $350 a month. In The Netherlands, paid internships are complicated by the fact that students are usually paid to go to college, as opposed to the U.S. where they must either pay to attend or line up a scholarship. Regardless, students undertaking an internship can still generally expect a small stipend, usually around 300 euros a month. In Berlin, internships are often referred to as “mini-jobs” and pay anywhere between 400 to 800 euros a month. However, these “mini-jobs” are hardly menial; on her her blog, Stephanie Braconnier recounts completing a professional rendering for Nieto Sobejano. “Almost a year after this post, it has sunk in for me completely how utterly exploited I was...I was paid 400 euros TOTAL for six visualisations. I had eight days to finish these visuals. There were no computers to use at Nieto Sobjenao’s office because they only had one Photoshop license, so I had to use my own computer at home.”
Many industries, including but not limited to architecture, rely on the currency of naivete, not cold hard cash. (See: 20th Century Fox and the recent lawsuit over allegedly illegally unpaid “Black Swan” interns.) Regardless of the industry, the crucial distinction between a beneficial internship and a exploitative haul seems to be based on education. Jeffrey Dow Jones, a hedge-fund manager and owner of the financial technology company Alpine Advisor, explains that “even though an internship might technically be just another form of courtship to see if a longer-term relationship is possible, the purpose is still to educate. We believe we have a duty to our interns to provide them with an interesting, educational experience that rounds out their formal education and career development.”
Although apprenticeships and unpaid internships have historical precedent and may technically provide experience, the notion of hiring someone without any kind of monetary recompense or paid job offer is unethical. Twitter has opened a vital dialogue within the profession about ethical payThis is painfully true for the vast majority of professionals who do not have a scholarship or an independent funding mechanism to sustain themselves while they beaver away in the office. Social media, especially Twitter, has opened a vital dialogue within the profession about this issue. Ruth Reed, president of The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), announced a mandatory minimum wage for architecture students working in order to satisfy their Practical Experience and Development Record requirements as of July 2011. The NCARB, meanwhile, has launched an effort to banish the term “intern” as an employment descriptor, although there are no specific initiatives to set a minimum wage, or to address the issue of recompense among whatever architects seeking licensure will officially be called.
Social media may be the ideal method with which to address labor issues in such a globalized profession. As Alexandra Lange stated in a memorable op-ed, “Architects need to start thinking of social media as the first draft of history.” I would venture that no one is keen to create a history that reflects indifference at best and exploitation at worst. Social media can serve as a much needed virtual instigator for real-world reform, regardless of the latitude or language. Perhaps the labor slogan for the 21st century shall become: I tweet, therefore I am (entitled to fair pay).
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For up-to-the-minute job listings, please visit Archinect's job board, and keep an eye out for future installments of the "EMPLOY(ED)" series. We'll be exploring all aspects of employment, from managerial concerns to portfolio tips to the day-to-day studio culture of some of the world's largest firms. To read previous articles in this series, click here.
Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, The LA Weekly, The Nervous Breakdown, Forth, Trop, and 89.9 KCRW. She's into it.