On Architecture’s Implacable Whiteness: European Architects Compare Unpaid Internships to Slavery


Léopold Lambert – Paris on April 23, 2019
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On March 25, 2019, architecture news platform Dezeen published an article entitled “Architects who don’t pay interns “shouldn’t be given prestigious commissions” says designer who revealed Ishigami internships” that related a story many in the field of architecture know all too well: a young white designer applied to an internship at Junya Ishigami’s architecture office in Tokyo. The response from the Japanese firm consisted in a list of exploitative conditions for one to be an intern in their office, the main ones consisting in the absence of any salary as well as intensive hours of work (11AM-midnight). The focus of the article on Japanese architecture firms (that tend to be more explicit about their exploitative terms than their western counterparts that nonetheless share similar practices) was a little unsettling as was the idea that what was at stake was “prestigious commissions” more than dignifying labor conditions, but its general topic was legitimate: whether for internships or for the amount of extra hours worked by so many within the field of architecture, unpaid labor and other exploitative conditions must be addressed and fought in a coordinated front.

Although this article was certainly not exhuming something unknown, it could have contributed to a healthy debate about how to organize against the many forms of violence that architecture offices hosts — exploitative labor being one, racism and misogyny being two other predominant ones. Instead, the designer whose experience was related in the article shared his experience on social media using the two following hashtags: #MakeArchitectureGreatAgain and #ArchiSlavery. While the first one was addressed by several people for its connection with the violence of the current U.S. President’s policies — most likely, the designer does not approve of these policies, but the possibility of playing with a slogan that polices, incarcerates and kills says a lot about privilege — the second one is even more revealing about the overwhelming whiteness that characterizes architecture as a discipline. The designer was subsequently publicly and privately called out by some people including friends Elise Misao Hunchuck and Dubravka Sekulic to which followed the usual manifestation of denial, upset, and the “agree to disagree” of those who have the luxury to live in a world where disagreement with others does not constitute a life-threatening situation.

I have no interest in specifically citing this person here; although they should be held accountable for his public statement, singling them out would prevent to read the collective responsibility of his words. And clearly, the idea that unpaid internships is somehow comparable with slavery seems to go much beyond them and be well accepted within architecture as a field, as we can see through a recently published (again on Dezeen) tribune by London-based established architect Sean Griffiths, entitled with a quote of his text: “The master and slave mentality remains firmly embedded in architectural culture” (April 11, 2019). In it, Griffiths shares with us his dilemma when he confronts architectures he admires while knowing that they have been produced thanks to unpaid labor! Reflecting on the state of the profession, he affirms “As Friedrich Nietszche would have recognised, the master and slave mentality remains firmly embedded in architectural culture.” The post-mortem approval of the philosopher notwithstanding, it is baffling to see that this sentence represented so much not a problem for the editors, that they decided to turn it into the title of the column.

So no, dear Dezeen and Sean Griffiths, unpaid internships in architecture offices are not comparable to slavery — it makes me cringe to associate them in a sentence, even a negative one. Slavery is a European industrial racist machine of kidnapping, transcontinental displacement, imprisoning, enforced labor, and systematic death of 13 millions of African people in a settler colonial context, which still affects the life conditions of millions of Black people today. Furthermore, this machine would have never been possible without the active and willing contributions of architects designing boats, barracks, plantations, and prisons. And if we are to speak about slave labor, it was used by settler colonial architects to build the monuments and infrastructures of entire cities like Washington D.C. as Mabel Wilson demonstrates extensively in her work.

The dilemma of the discipline should therefore not be whether we can admire architecture produced within exploitative conditions, but first and foremost to recognize, study, and address how the global system of colonial, racist, and capitalist violence could simply not operate the way it does without the active contribution of architects. This is true for the physical enforcement of this system’s programs that architecture materializes (citing only a few: prisons, colonies, police stations, gentrifying housing units, gated communities, militarized/exclusive public space…), but also for the exploited labor of construction workers in most geographical contexts (not just in the Gulf or China!), which has to be fought at the same time if not before the exploitative conditions at work within architecture offices.