Friday, February 27, 2015

103. An unpopular proposal: An argument for why interns should work for starchitects for free.


Calm down and just hear me out!

I know, I know everybody is against free intern labor. Its slavery. it's this, it is that.
I don't agree!...I am sorry... I don't
Until the industry radically changes the way it works, then working for free is always going to be a highly desirable option.

Working for free is not so bad depending on your career path.
If you want to be a famous architect then it is perhaps the best investment you will ever make in your life.

Let me ask you this: How much does tuition to architecture school cost? and what do you get in return economically?
  1. You get a nice student debt that is so high that you will likely be paying it off for the rest of your life.
  2. You get some basic software skills that is of some value to a potential employer. However, since everybody leaving architecture school can claim to have those skills, then  the law of supply and demand makes it virtually worthless.
  3. You get to say on your resume that you completed architecture school. That's got to be worth something! Then again, there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of students finishing architecture school each year, so in a capitalist market this make it's value ... well you understand.

Since an architecture degree gives you no practical experience, you are of little value to an architecture firm. You are basically considered a person tough enough to withstand the rigor of architecture school and can survive it and you having some software skills.  Perhaps you can sit under grumpy Joe as an assistant and learn something from him and perhaps in time you might be of some value.

So what I am saying is that in purely economic terms, to an employer, a graduate with a degree in architecture is a medium risk investment at best.

So by now I hope you realize how absolutely ridiculous an argument this is.  Measuring the value of an architectural education purely in economic terms is bonkers. But it is interesting to do it, because when we discuss free or underpaid intern labor we tend to do the same thing and conclude that it is modern day slave labor and leave it there. This is bonkers too. So lets revisit this question:

Let me ask you this, how much does working for a star-architect cost? Zero.(not unless you were working for Frank Lloyd Wright in which case you had to pay him). Most starchitect firms will pay you minimum wage or something way below that if you include the large amount of overtime hours that you are expected to put in.  An up-and-coming starchitect firm most likely can not afford to pay you anything. So in terms of how much you will have to shell out to pay your employer, the amount is Zero or in some cases you actually get some small change netting you a plus. You will however have to pay for your own room and board (and if you have student debt, that too)

What do you get in return?

-You get to put on your resume that you have worked at this Starchitecture Firm for a certain amount of years, working on this and that famous project. This in return gets you membership in The Starchitect Staffers Club© with a value far more than the zero dollars that you invested into it.

What does membership in the club mean?

1. As a kid in your 20's or early 30's you want to work on the most fantastic projects, right? By being in the Starchitecture Club you get to do that.

2. You will be the envy of all your architect friends. When you meet a regular architect at a party and they ask "So where do you work?" You say quite non-schalauntly "um OMA", you can then watch as the other guy literally shrink beside you. Its an amazing magic trick!

3. You can travel and live all over the world - if you have worked for DS+R, your chances of getting a job at Fosters, OMA, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry or any othter Starchitecture firm in the world is a near certainty.

Lets say you are working at Fuksas in Rome and you get tired of the hot summers and you wanted a change of scenery, you can apply to B.I.G. in Copenhagen and move to Denmark. The Scandinavian climate is too cold for you? Apply to Frank Gehry in Los Angeles. So you work for Gehry for a year or 2 and you want to go somewhere more exotic. Why not try for Tado Ando in Japan? there is good chance that within a few weeks you will be showing off your Tokyo flat at a party there with your new found friends and co-workers.
As strange at it may seem to you (if you have never been in the starchitect staffers club) these are not unlikely scenarios. This is just mundane reality for members of this club.

Mind now, I am not saying it is a bed of roses. Compared to their less famous counterparts, the members of this club are working at the same intensity or even higher than you remembered in architecture school. Long shifts and many sleepless nights in a row are routine in Starchitect Staffers-Club. If you went to a starchitecture school, surely you remember the days of Starchitecture professors talking down to you like little children? This is a normal part of being in the starchitecture club too. All the alumni's of this club seem to agree that it is a torturous, painful, demeaning and unhealthy lifestyle, but apparently none would change it for the world. It goes without saying that you will grow to love these exploitive conditions. You will come to brag about them like you bragged about how little sleep you got in architecture school and tout saying like "architecture is not for the weak". For a more in depth description of life inside the Starchitect Staffer's Club, you can read Philipp Oswalt and Matthias Hollwich's description of what it is like to work at OMA here or Ivan Sergejev's more controversial version here.

These are the major downsides and if you will come to love them anyway, why call them downsides?

4.The positives are pretty much the same positives you enjoyed in architecture school. You make greater bonds and closer friendships since you and your co-workers will inevitably create the kind of bond that comes from working deep into the night and saying stupid stuff to each other at 3 am in the mornings and going out to the pub together and drinking yourselves silly during the little free time you have off.  Its basically an extension of your youth and collage years. You get to play and be creative and make crazy stuff and laugh and cry a lot. If you love studio life, then this will be the place for you.

What do you have to look forward to?

When you get a little older, say your late 30's or early 40's, this lifestyle might get a bit tiring and impractical for you especially if you are thinking about starting a family or just realizing that this life style is not sustainable. The great thing with being in the Starchitect Staffers Club is that you have a wide range of exit strategies. Here is just a small sample of things you could do:

1. You can go and work for a less famous non-star firm that offers more grown up policies. This means closer to normal working hours and more competitive salaries. The operative words here being "closer" and "more". A non-starcitect firm will gladly take you if your CV is glistening with starchitect names all over it. However as I have shown in note #100, it does not work the other way around.

2. You could get a job teaching at a starchitecture school. As with most institutions in this industry ( journals, museums, architecture associations, etc), universities connected with Starchitecture schools love resumes with starchitects names on them.

3. You can start your own firm and get into the running to be a starchitect yourself. See the top of note #100 for a simple outline for your business plan. You and I both know that this is the only honorable option at this point. In this case, you my want to prepare by reading notes #24 marry an architect or #73 work for Rem. My direct advice here would be to contact one of your colleagues in your network who works at OMA and let them know that you are looking to move there. Once you are in, try your best to hook-up with someone and make your exit from there.

If you don't work for free your options are limited.
Lets say you took the high road and refuse to work for free (or very little). You said free work is for slaves, I am above that or you simply said "you know what? I have just finished architecture school, I have a ton of student loan debt, and mommy and daddy can not afford to pay for me to work at Zaha Hadid" then what? What options do you have?

Well you get a job at Joe Smith & associates architects down the road from your local collage or you can go back to your home town  and take a job at Main Street Architects doing residential work, supermarkets, convenience stors etc.

Lets suppose you get bored of this kind of work later on and want to do something more "interesting", what are your options? You look in Mark Magazine, ArchDaly, Architizer or any of the other Archiblogs or magazines and you think to yourself "Gee...I want to do interesting exciting stuff like that, it looks like a lot of fun", so you send your CV to one of these starchitecture firms. Chances are they will take a quick scan and notice that you have 4 years expereince at Joe Smith & Associates Architects. They have never heard of Joe Smith's so they don't bother to look any further and your resume will go straight to the trash can. If you look at DS+R's website you know not to even bother sending your resume, because you never did any museums or cultural projects at Joe Smith's did you? You do not have the credentials, you missed that boat years ago when you turnded down that "free" intern job.


Conrad Newel
Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Ofcourse you are interested!!! in two years time you can apply to DS+R, Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid, you name-it! This is a free ticket to the Starchitect Staffer's Club!


2 comments:

Andy Sherman said...

While the arguments of career-positioning and value are on point, the problem is that working for free simply increases the income divide between students - if architects (star or otherwise) know they have a free supply of labor, they'll continue a system which pushes out students that simply can't afford to work for free.

For-credit internships are supposed to help level the playing field, allowing any student to gain experience within their academic schedule. However, if you've recently had the exhausting and discouraging experience of internship searching while in school and working, you'd realize that most for-credit internships require hours far beyond the equivalent credits.

Conrad Newel said...

Hi Andy Sherman,

Thanks for the reply.
To say that I absolutely agree with you 100% would be a huge understatement.

However, for arguments sake I am going to play Devil's advocate and pose the following counter arguments and questions:

Isn't inequality and income-divide an inherent condition of the world that we live in?

The college grad who cannot afford to intern for free is better off than the high school grad that could not afford collage. The high school grad that could not afford collage is better off than a kid in a country who can afford access to basic education, and so on and so on.

Why put in an arbitrary mechanism to level the playing field for interns alone and not for other unfair conditions?

Consider this, the international borders around your country serves to keep people from less well-off countries that are willing to work for less from entering yours?
Would you be willing to take a much lower salary and face an extremely more competitive job market by dissolving class mechanisms like international boundaries, passports and citizenships? Surely getting rid of these things would decrease the income divide between your country and a less fortunate one.