We all make our own choices.
On how (not) to be in an office.
Last night I, along with some fellow travelers on Twitter, watched a video of a panel held at SCI-Arc last Friday afternoon. The panel was titled “How To Be In An Office” and was intended to provide career advice and reflections on professional practice to current students. Three current SCI-Arc faculty members (Dwayne Oyler, Marrikka Trotter, and Margaret Griffin) offered guidance and perspective from their own time in the field.
I wish I could say the panelists’ commentary was “provocative” or “controversial,” or that—despite my disagreements on many points—it still had value and relevance to the discipline at large. As an institution, SCI-Arc prides itself on its countercultural origins and willingness to challenge inherited wisdom. If those tendencies still exist within the school (and I firmly believe that they do), none of them were on display last Friday.1
To put it more bluntly: this panel was a bunch of, pardon the language, tired, self-serving bullshit and it’s irresponsible to promote these beliefs as “normal” or “just how things work,” especially for an audience of young students.
I’m glad to see that the event generated quite a bit of pushback, from current students, SCI-Arc alumni, and others across the profession. I’ve articulated some of my disappointment in tweet form over the past few days, but I think there’s value in engaging with some of the panelists’ claims in more detail.
Let’s get into it.
One quick note before we begin:
I want to believe that these three panelists are kind, generous people in their personal lives; that Friday was maybe an off day, for one reason or another; that the things they said aren’t an accurate reflection of how they view their students and employees; that some context unavailable to those of us watching remotely would clarify or soften or somehow balance the views they shared.
Marrikka, Dwayne, and Margaret: if you see this piece and want to present an alternative view or correct the record, please do reach out. I trust you can find me.
I. “I don’t think that anyone is entitled to be in an office.”
These were the first words that caught my attention watching the video. They’re delivered by Margaret Griffin just a few minutes in, as part of a dismissal of the panel’s title, “How To Be In An Office.”
This the type of rhetoric is common in architecture (and indeed in the workplace in general). And on some small level, it’s true: to be in an office—to have a job—requires proactive effort and entails certain expectations and obligations.
But we all know this is only half of the equation.
No one is entitled to be in an office. No one is entitled to a job.
Sure. But also:
No one is entitled to have employees. No one is entitled an endless stream of eager and capable labor for their projects just by virtue of their name or resume.
I can’t help but feel like this was a needlessly adversarial beginning to a conversation that we all hoped would contain optimism, encouragement, and a support. What is the worldview of someone who sees this as the right opening for their remarks? These are your students and this is where you begin?
Margaret Griffin, you may think that young people are resistant to hard work. You may believe that if you had to go through hard times, so should everyone else. You may think that we have a nationwide crisis of “Nobody wants to work anymore!” Hell, you may be right: maybe it really is “the children who are wrong.”
But do you have any ideas to fix it?
II. The panel does not have any (new) ideas to fix it.
For whatever its detractors may say, SCI-Arc has always understood itself to be transgressive, different, forward-thinking. If you want to study classical detailing, or new developments in sustainability, or just get a good foundation in mainstream contemporary architecture, there are many wonderful programs to choose from. But if you want to be really on the leading edge, to design far, far into the future, you should go to SCI-Arc.2
Or so the pitch has gone for the last fifty years.
SCI-Arc’s founding faculty and students broke away from Cal Poly Pomona in 1972, aiming to create different, more experimental teaching and learning environment. We can see this ethos reflected today in the pithy mission statement on the SCI-Arc website:
SCI-Arc teaches architects to engage, speculate, and innovate; to take the lead in reimagining the limits of architecture.
This is the attitude I wished I’d seen in Friday’s panel. If contemporary architectural practice is difficult to maintain (it is), if the profession needs new models to adapt to a changing world (it does), if how we work today needs reimagining (undoubtedly), then I would hope to see SCI-Arc leading the charge.
And yet, except for a few fleeting moments of self-awareness, the entirety of the panel conversation could have been written twenty, thirty, even a hundred years ago. There’s not much gained by doing a play-by-play reading but a rough list of (paraphrased) highlights includes:
We’re not an office (boring, corporate), we’re an atelier (sexy, mysterious).
If you don’t love every minute of your life in architecture, the problem is not your boss, not your school, not the profession. It’s you.
We all have to work two, three, four jobs just to keep the lights on—and that’s a good thing!
A sixty-hour work week should excite you, not demoralize you.
Your reputation and success in this profession is a direct result of how much overwork, abuse, and degradation you’re willing to put up with.
Always remember to smile.
Nothing here is new or cutting-edge. None of this is transgressive. It’s hard to imagine a more stodgy, conservative piece of advice than “give your all to The Company and hope they’ll notice your initiative.”
I, like our esteemed panelists, have made sacrifices for Architecture: worked too many hours for little (or no) money, ignored serious mistreatment to maintain professional connections, been pressured to prioritize work commitments over life events, made sure the renderings were finished before going to urgent care for an injury, bought into the myth that doing work in a fancy boutique office was somehow morally superior to doing the exact same work in a more “corporate” office next door.
These experiences didn’t make me stronger. They didn’t make me a better designer or unlock some deep secrets of the discipline. They made me miserable and unhealthy and took a long time to move on from. They made me a chump and a fool, taken advantage of over and over again by people who knew they could dangle promises of reputation and success in front of a 20-year-old who just wanted to do good work. When I look back on those times in my life I have some fond memories, but mostly I have regret for the anguish I put myself through.
I wouldn’t wish these things on anyone and I wouldn’t want anyone to think they’re necessary for a fulfilling life in architecture. Because they aren’t.
III. “I’m on the first plane out.”
It’s a passing moment, but I think an important one for discussing the uncomfortable one-way relationships in play here. When the topic turns to global youth disillusionment and the climate crisis—as in, what can more experienced architects teach young people about how to be socially and politically conscious?—Margaret Griffin takes the time to declare her intentions to just fly away.3
“The way that I deal with my thoughts about where the world is going is, uh, I’m gonna go to space one day. You know, I’m not sure if I can save the planet but I don’t mind being on the first plane out of it.”
In another context, this statement maybe comes across differently. But delivered to a crowd composed largely of young people who will see the climate crisis expand and unfold for the rest of their lives, it’s such a grim moment. Work hard, stay optimistic, never get complacent, and prepare for the boss to leave town when the going gets tough: is this what it means to be in an office?
IV. “You just have to do you, okay?”
The portion of the panel I found hardest to stomach took place during the very last minutes, once the conversation was opened up for questions. After sitting through over an hour of The Worst Career Advice You’ve Ever Heard, an international student asked how one could achieve a work-life balance and even a living wage in the profession when the terms of their visa severely constrained their employment options. (SCI-Arc, like many graduate architecture programs, admits many international students every year.4)
Margaret Griffin’s response is worth quoting at length, both for how it seems to miss the structural issues at the heart of the question and for its overall callousness. I’ve edited slightly for length and clarity, but all of the below are direct quotes.
“I would just say that all of us sitting at this table made choices as well. You just have to do you, okay? Whatever that means. If doing you means you don’t want to be an architect, don’t do it. If doing you means you want to be an architect, then you work with wherever you can get yourself into…”
“There’s probably plenty of things I could be doing that I could make a lot more money at, but I personally have developed the side hustles so that I can do what I like and then have choices about what I like so I don’t have to take on projects I don’t wanna work on. I purposely made my own firm so that I can do what I like…I just positioned myself so I could have my own firm. I just think everyone has to carve out whatever it is that you wanna do, but I don’t agree that there’s not opportunities out there. I don’t think that’s true…”
“I had my first job when I was sixteen years old. I always had a job. I started saving money since I was sixteen years old…I saved money for many many years. Even before I started being an architect I have savings from when I was a kid. My daughter had a job when she was sixteen. In her generation barely anyone had jobs…”
“I think there’s plenty of ways for your education to have value, whether that’s in the field or not in the field, but even in the field i don’t think its infeasible for you to have value from your education. But if you feel that way then maybe you’re in the wrong field. I don’t know how else to answer it.”
“It’s all about choices. It’s all about what you set yourself up to do…”
“There is many times when I was an architecture student I waitressed in the summer so I could make more money…but because I didn’t have a lot of architecture internships when i was an undergrad that’s why I worked for 5 years before I went to grad school.”
“I even worked as a waitress when I had a job as an architect, because I made so little in my job as an architect in a place where I had a lot of responsibility and it wasn’t enough and I had to waitress at night to save money for grad school.”
Margaret Griffin can choose to say these things into a hot microphone, live-streamed around the world. She can choose to believe these views make her a grounded, truth-telling realist.
She can choose to believe that anyone who disagrees with her is a quitter, guilty of just not wanting it bad enough. Margaret could work as a waitress on the side because she wasn’t on a visa explicitly forbidding that choice.
In 1990, when she enrolled in the University of Virginia, Margaret Griffin could choose to pay her tuition with money saved waiting tables. Her annual tuition would have been $2,966 (in-state) or $8,136 (out-of-state). If she were enrolling at UVA today, those numbers would be $20,972 and $33,452 respectively. If she were enrolling at SCI-Arc, her annual tuition and fees would come in just under $51,000. She can-and did—choose to claim that these price tags can be overcome if you just side hustle hard enough.
Margaret Griffin can choose to say these things and Dwayne Oyler and Marrikka Trotter can nod along, offering only the faintest of pushback. SCI-Arc can maintain that these pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps views represent the future of the discipline and not just the same “wisdom” everyone’s conservative uncles have been sharing every Thanksgiving for as long as they can remember.
They can say these things and do these things and people in the discipline can say “Hey, This Is Deeply Bad And Fucked Up.” Because it is and it does nobody any good to pretend it’s not.
The statistics of young people, of women, and of people of color leaving (or being pushed out of) the discipline are all just a Google search away.5 The same goes for people coming from non-wealthy backgrounds. Architecture can be an exclusive and toxic discipline, one that too often rejects anyone who can’t or won’t conform to an all-or-nothing lifestyle of “passion” and “commitment.” That culture of exclusion, too, is a choice, one that we can all stop making.
If you are reading this as a student, at SCI-Arc or elsewhere, please know that “I struggled so you should too!” is a worldview that does you no good. The practice of architecture does not need to be this way. Your “reputation” will not be ruined if you refuse a job that doesn’t work for you. Your value is not dependent on working 60-hour weeks or always saying yes to one more rendering, one more model, one more iteration. There are many talented and generous people working in architecture today committed to very different visions of what practice can be. As you move from school into practice, seek out those firms that prioritize balance, equitable wages, and a seat at the table for everyone.
If you have an office of your own, you can choose to operate under different terms. 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.
And if you are in a position of power and influence at SCI-Arc you can choose to say that these sorts of beliefs don’t represent your institution and your values. You can declare loudly and firmly that these behaviors have no place in your institution. Unless, of course, you believe that they do. That’s up to you. It’s all about choices.
All of the above is easy enough to say, but how do we actually fix things? There’s no silver bullet, but a necessary first step for any change is sharing information and getting organized. The groups below are all committed to realizing more sane and equitable working conditions. Check them out and find out how to get involved in your school or your city. Nobody builds anything alone.
Also, there’s never a bad time to read and talk and think more about architecture as work. I’ve linked two great pieces below. Share them with your friends and coworkers. Start some conversations.
I’m aware that some of the comments in the panel itself and some of the ensuing backlash are tied to an ongoing dispute between a group of SCI-Arc students and the practice of SCI-Arc Undergraduate Program chair Tom Wiscombe. (Panelist Marrikka Trotter is the Associate in charge of Communications Management and Business Development at Tom Wiscombe Architecture.) I don’t know the details of that specific situation and won’t be commenting on it here, but it feels right to at least acknowledge it up front.
This isn’t to say that other programs don’t innovate or push the envelope. Many—most—do. But SCI-Arc stands somewhat apart in how aggressively it pushes this narrative of cutting-edge innovation. For those not deeply familiar with architectural pedagogy in the U.S. another metaphor might help: SCI-Arc sees itself as the Tesla to other schools’ Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota. Everyone makes electric cars these days, but to the true believer only one company really means it.
For the record, I don’t have any sort of vendetta against Griffin—I just found her comments to be the most egregious of the day. Please don’t read anything into my omission of direct quotes from Oyler and Trotter in this piece.
For the 2021-2022 academic year, SCI-Arc reports more international students than domestic in undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate programs. See more here.
You can find all sorts of fascinating statistics and public records on Google. Don’t believe me? Search “SCI Arc salaries archinect” and see if anything interesting comes up…