Architecture Is Having a Reckoning Over Poor Working Conditions

After a roundtable about professional norms within architecture prompted two SCI-Arc faculty members to be placed on administrative leave, the industry is grappling with cultures of exclusion and toxic working environments that have become endemic to the practice. 

Image courtesy SCI-Arc

Early-career architects often face a tricky proposition: work demanding and poorly paid jobs around the clock or risk not appearing “dedicated” enough. The profession’s fraught work culture was the topic at hand during a recent roundtable hosted by the famously transgressive architecture school SCI-Arc, in which architects and faculty members Margaret Griffin, Marrikka Trotter, and Dwayne Oyler advised undergraduates on professional norms. Some of the advice—to accept longer hours and lower pay in exchange for working at a more prestigious firm—irked students, who criticized the comments as tone-deaf and out of touch with demands for fairer working conditions and healthier work-life balance.

The roundtable also sparked dialogue about SCI-Arc’s academic culture, which many students seem to find exploitative. In particular, they shared experiences at Tom Wiscombe Architecture, where Trotter is an associate and married to the eponymous founder, who is also SCI-Arc’s undergraduate chair. According to the anonymous students, Wiscombe used his institutional clout to convince them to accept internships at his firm, where they worked 18-hour days but ultimately quit after being asked to deep clean the studio. Further allegations of misconduct prompted SCI-Arc to place both Trotter and Wisecomb (who have since shared an Instagram apology) on academic leave pending an investigation.

The debate lands at a time in which architecture’s fraught work culture is coming under increased scrutiny. Employees at SHoP Architects recently led a failed unionization effort over company-wide working conditions, and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture faced criticism over a job listing that included “no 9-5 mentality” among the necessary skills. In response to the debate, architecture writer Sean Joyner examined the profession’s roots in medieval systems of apprenticeship: Working for a respected architect for little to no money while bending to their whims and putting up with “creative temper tantrums” in hopes of moving ahead in the field. The aim of Joyner’s investigation, he writes, is to “connect a gap between generations to understand where this conservative view came from and why it no longer holds up today.”

The Hustle Architect, an anonymous writer who spurned SCI-Arc’s roundtable, insists that architecture doesn’t need to be this way. “The worst behavior you experienced as an intern does not need to be a model for how you treat interns of your own. Having 60- or 80- or 100-hour weeks isn’t a reflection of dedication or genius. It’s a sign of an office struggling to balance its staffing and workload. Let’s not pretend otherwise.” One would expect a forward-thinking university like SCI-Arc to do more to subvert the poor working conditions endemic to the practice. The swift backlash simply shows how much institutions and employers need to catch up to changing attitudes within the profession.

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