Unless you’ve been living under a very remote rock, you know by now that the OWS, or Occupy Wall Street movement, with its many offshoots including Occupy the Hood, has been continued for over a month, now. And what’s more, unless you are independently wealthy or a trustfund baby (and are therefore the “1%”), you are also part of the 99% of the population whom this collective movement addresses.
Perhaps that isn’t enough, though. Just to be part of a vague, demographic majority often isn’t compelling enough, in itself, to move people towards involvement. Too often, people think, “That doesn’t apply to me,” often because they feel that their youth (as is the case with many architecture students and young practitioners) inures them to the conditions that “other, older people, have to grapple with.” Or, people feel powerless to do anything. But whether it’s arrogance or helplessness, there is no excuse for passivity.
So here are a few facts that might help motivate architects, designers, all people involved in the architecture profession, into a bit more involvement.
For one, there is the issue of trenchant unemployment. Rather than blame the current president, let’s look at the longer view. Says Ari Berman in The Nation:
“Groups like the CRFB and the Concord Coalition, founded by former Congress members in the 1980s and ’90s, have long presented themselves as nonpartisan, penny- pinching critics of wasteful government spending, when really they are anti-government, pro-corporate ideologues whose boards are filled with K Street lobbyists and financial executives. The goal of much of the austerity class is to see government funds redirected to the private sector. (Their ideology, which accepts the accumulation of private debt but opposes government debt, explains why the austerity class ignored the massive housing and credit bubble, which more than any single factor contributed to an explosion of debt worldwide.)”
He then asks, “how, in the midst of a massive unemployment crisis—when it’s painfully obvious that not enough jobs are being created and the public overwhelmingly wants policy-makers to focus on creating them—did the deficit emerge as the most pressing issue in the country?”
How, indeed. Because, as Paul Krugman notes in a New York Times article, the rich “titans” believed that as pillars of a new prosperity, they have made government obsolete, presumably because their wealth would trickle down. Well, if that happened, then we wouldn’t have unemployment at the rate it is. Moreover, people who are being re-hired after months and months of being unemployed would not have to deal with significant paycuts in their salaries, being hired as “consultants” so that architecture firms are not liable for benefits (many residential firms in Los Angeles alone have privately confessed to this practice), or hiring part-time, project-based help.
Still think you’re invulnerable or powerless. Then how about some statistics? The fact is, in media polls in the U.S. (consistently the most conservative of all the developed nations), two-thirds of the public agrees with OWS protesters that the rich should be taxed at a higher rate. Because let’s think about it. If we even approach what Herman Cain suggests, the 9-9-9 or even the 9-0-9 plan of taxation, the amount of disposable income rich people have compared to poor people is an unimaginable gap. If one takes the same proportional amount from a poor person (1 person must make $10,890 or less, a couple $14,710 or less), say, arbitrarily, 5% of their gross pay, that would be $544.50. If one were to take the same amount from a person with a gross of $1,000,000, that would be $50,000.
The issue is, however, what comprises truly disposable vs. essential income for both parties. While wealthy people may insist that they need that extra $50,000, we all know they do not. It’s merely that they want to keep it. Indeed, everyone who does not enjoy such wealth will observe two phenomena amongst those who are wealthy: 1) that they are notoriously stingy, which most people think is why they continue to maintain their wealth, and 2) they don’t think the rules apply to them.
Even if a person’s gross income is even twice the poverty rate, at roughly $22,000, anyone will admit that is barely enough to share an apartment, let alone feed oneself and pay utility bills, car bills, and if one really wants to splurge, health insurance. After all, $22k gross is $18,500. Divide that into 12 months and the income is $1541.41.
In fact, poverty is at its highest rate since 1993, when Bill Clinton was president. What’s more shameful is that during the past three years according to a Business Week article, “banks have posted record profit and booming bonuses. Although Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reported a rare quarterly loss last week, Lloyd Blankfein, its able chairman and chief executive officer, was paid $19 million for his work last year, up 50 percent from the year before. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon was awarded $23 million in compensation. A prime target of the protesters in New York is John Paulson, the hedge fund billionaire who made a fortune betting on the mortgage debacle, assisted by a sweetheart deal from his banker.”
Thus far, those in the architecture profession have been conspicuously silent to all these facts. There has been a rather limp attempt at involvement by one architecture organization, but their “involvement” is merely to call for theoretical strategies of public occupation. This is an asinine and rather cynical attempt to co-opt a movement that is trying to help change people’s lives for the better, not use it as an attempt to glorify design or architecture, or worse, to aggrandize itself.
The architecture field is suffering profoundly from this recession. There are innumerable unemployed and underemployed architects and designers who are suffering and will continue to suffer if they cannot find jobs (especially if the recession does a “double dip”). Perhaps it would behoove them and those of us who are employed to stand together and do something.
What does doing something mean? Architects are very busy people…even when they don’t have many projects to work on. There is looking for projects, networking, teaching, jurying, conferences, lectures, looking for projects, drinking with people you network with, AIA events, home tours, architectural tourism, more looking for projects, schmoozing with potential clients. And if you aren’t licensed yet there are those exams to study for and all those NCARB IDP hours to document. Plus, you work twelve-hour days. Architects and future architects are very busy people. With this in mind it would be understandable if you found it inconvenient to go downtown (whichever downtown it might be) and occupy. Plus, it’s difficult to function effectively at the office the morning after being tear-gassed or pelted with rubber bullets.
One might venture to suggest that the world of architecture has its representatives who are indeed occupying. Would you be surprised to learn that a number of our unemployed or underemployed colleagues, our down but not out brothers and sisters, were out in the streets right now with their laptops?
In another form of occupation, just last week, Eric Owen Moss, Thom Mayne, and Jeffrey Kipnes engaged SCI-Arc students in a discussion—or rather the students listened to them talk—on architecture and politics. It would have been easier to hear had they employed the human mic. It seemed rather abstract and beautifully laden with references to The Right of Spring, etc, etc. I’m guessing it was motivated by #OWS, though I don’t think it was mentioned. In fact, a riot nearly ensued at the premier.
The point here is that #OWS is shifting the discourse…indoors as well as out. It’s causing a ruckus—dissonance. But, interestingly enough, many seem frightened to mention it openly. Do our political discussions have to be beautifully abstract and poetic rather than getting to the real issues of class and power?
But remember, occupying is a state of mind more than anything. It’s a stance, an orientation, an outlook, a perspective. Where do you stand right now?
Next Week: Part Two (and don't forget to participate in Archinect's anonymous #ows survey)
I write THE CRIT, Archinect's new series on criticism. I also co-author CONTOURS, Archinect's featured column on the culture, politics, and business of architecture. I'm a frequent contributor to Metropolis Magazine, GOOD Magazine, Architectural Record, The Architect's Newspaper, and Architect ...