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Lobbying for just labour practices and an equitable (built) environment
A conversation with The Architecture Lobby on collective action to respond to the urgencies of society and the environment, architectural education, and labour practices.

The Architecture Lobby (TAL) is a grassroots and member-driven organisation of architectural workers established in 2013 by some practitioners and academics to tackle architecture’s exploitative labour practices. Since then, its structure and targets have expanded, including chapters across the US and thematic working groups addressing the urgencies the architectural practice faces. Guided by a manifesto, TAL’s most effective and powerful device is the active participation of its members in governing the organisation to change the labour and educational system behind the architecture industry.

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KOOZ Can you introduce when and how The Architecture Lobby was born, its story, and what concerns drove its foundation?

KAEDE POLKINGHORNE We have a “younger” slate of members in this conversation, but I’ll do my best to represent our origin story. The Architecture Lobby (TAL) was formed in the summer of 2013 when a small group of practitioners and academics met in New York to discuss their frustrations with architecture’s exploitative labour practices. Since then, we’ve established and revised our manifesto, incorporated as a non-profit, and grown to nearly 200 dues-paying members across the world.

When TAL was first starting out, conversations about architects and designers as workers were few and far between. This has inarguably changed in the ten years since. A few years ago, TAL’s end goal was to form unions of architectural workers to grow our collective agency. As firms unionise, I think TAL is beginning to play a more visionary role – serving as a space of solidarity where workers can both share tools for organising and think critically about what changes we want to make with our collective power.

"TAL is beginning to play a more visionary role – serving as a space of solidarity where workers can both share tools for organising and think critically about what changes we want to make with our collective power."

- Kaede Polkinghorne, National Organizer of The Architecture Lobby.

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KOOZ How are you structured, and how does this structure reflect the way you operate and result in being a framework of your objectives?

KP The Lobby is a democratic, member-driven organisation. The major governing body of TAL is the Organising Committee (OC). The OC convenes monthly and operates like a congress, consisting of “stewards” from each local chapter, “coordinators” from each working group, and the administrative and strategy committees. Chapters are geographical groups of members, such as Boston or the University of Houston, while working groups are thematic and typically span across the United States or the world, such as the Academia Working Group or Racial Justice Working Group. The administrative and strategy committees consist of seven democratically elected members and are more or less responsible for the maintenance of the organisation’s infrastructure, including our finances, digital stack, and communications. OC meetings, which are hosted on Zoom and are open to all members, are an opportunity to discuss and make decisions about the direction of the organisation and give updates on working groups and chapters.

ADARE BROWN The working groups of the lobby are often formed organically, arising from a shared concern among members of a local chapter. For instance, the Green New Deal (GND) working group was formed by a few members of the New York Chapter after the introduction of H.R. 109 in 2019, which was the first Green New Deal legislation introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey. During the pandemic, the working group expanded nationally as virtual calls became the norm. This is actually when I joined, as I was not in New York at the time.

"The Academia Working Group (AWG), was founded by established and emerging academics, and students from around the world who saw the need to deconstruct labour practices in academia and the implicit ideology in architectural education."

- Renzo Dagnino, Member of The Architecture Lobby - Academia Working Group.

RENZO DAGNINO As a member of the Academia Working Group (AWG), I can say it's a diverse group that was founded by established and emerging academics, and students from around the world who saw the need to deconstruct labour practices in academia and the implicit ideology in architectural education. From this background, we discuss and face the challenge of reworking academia through a rich combination of perspectives and positionalities.

KP We are a grassroots organisation of architectural workers that advocates for just labour practices and an equitable (built) environment. Member Daham Marapane, among others, has described TAL as a “big tent” organisation – I think that this mode of operation is represented by our organisational structure. Working groups and chapters have a lot of agency to pursue projects that are meaningful to their members, as long as they are grounded in our manifesto and are discussed with the broader membership through the OC.

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KOOZ What I find relevant is that your activity acts on two layers/objectives: organising the architectural labour practice and achieving an equitable built environment, having the consciousness of how these aspects are intertwined. What are your focuses on these two layers/objectives, and how do you contribute to achieving them?

AB Architects and designers are implicated in an economy that is inherently inequitable and environmentally destructive, where clients and market forces hold ultimate agency. We are organising together in TAL to go beyond what's currently possible in the profession. To create new ways of working, building, and living, we need collective power as workers. TAL sees unionisation as a core strategy for building this power. TAL members were instrumental in recent unionisation campaigns of private US architecture firms. They were also involved in the formation of Architectural Workers United last year, which is a division of the International Association Of Machinists And Aerospace Workers working to encourage unionisation across design firms. TAL's Unionization Working Group continues to serve as a space to develop workplace organising strategies.

"Architects and designers are implicated in an economy that is inherently inequitable and environmentally destructive, where clients and market forces hold ultimate agency."

- Adare Brown, Coordinator of The Architecture Lobby - GND Working Group.

KP We’ve also hosted public events on the national level providing a platform for student organisers at the University of Michigan and within the University of California system. These events are evidence of TAL’s power as a space of solidarity – a network of architectural workers who are united by our investment in building our collective power. We are not a union, but we’ve been a reliable outlet and generative space for mutual political education and building collective power that supports members and non-members in workplace organising.

"These events are evidence of TAL’s power as a space of solidarity – a network of architectural workers who are united by our investment in building our collective power."

- Kaede Polkinghorne, National Organizer of The Architecture Lobby.

ABThis is not to say that we don't need organisations that are focused on building union density. However, the work involved in building a union should be compensated. As a grassroots organisation in which virtually all labour is unpaid, our role is different. TAL provides a space where a broader vision is nurtured.

Still, TAL is able to collaborate creatively with organisations that share our goals. For example, the GND working group met with the Bernheimer Union –– which formed last summer, making it the first private sector architecture workers to unionise since the 1930s–– to discuss how they could incorporate climate action provisions into their collective bargaining agreement (CBA). This is important because the agreement they ratify will be, in effect, a model contract for other firms organising with Architectural Workers United. While organising a union may not primarily focus on climate action, proactive CBAs and increasing union density can empower architectural workers and provide them with new resources to address the social and environmental impact of their work. The GND working group published a pamphlet last year titled "Building a Union is Climate Action" that outlines the importance of making this connection between new unions and climate.

KP It’s also important to note that TAL is truly an organisation of workers relating to each other as workers. This year, the majority of the elected administrative and strategy committee members are full time practitioners – many of us entry level – with limited inroads to academia or more traditional “discursive” spaces, myself included. I think it’s healthy for an organisation primarily interested in labour to be made up of workers and have personally found a lot of value in TAL as a more accessible discursive space.

"Through conversations with fellow organisers in the building trades, we have found common challenges in our workplaces. In addition to experiencing the uncertainty of the construction industry's boom-and-bust cycle, we also both face the issue of deskilling in our jobs."

- Adare Brown, Coordinator of The Architecture Lobby - GND Working Group.

AB I strongly agree with Kaede here. And, as a worker-driven organisation, we have also been able to build relationships with other rank-and-file workers in our sector. This is crucial in our pursuit of an equitable built environment. Recently, the GND Working Group has conducted listening sessions with the Labor Network for Sustainability, a US-based network of rank-and-file activists and union leadership involved in climate action. The purpose of these sessions was to explore solidarity between design and building trade workers. Through conversations with fellow organisers in the building trades, we have found common challenges in our workplaces. In addition to experiencing the uncertainty of the construction industry's boom-and-bust cycle, we also both face the issue of deskilling in our jobs, which further increases our job insecurity. However, it has been particularly exciting to explore alternative models, such as the union's hiring hall and apprenticeship model, as potential solutions for our own work and education in architecture.

"The AWG’s operative approach is based on the intersection between pedagogy and organising collective action."

- Renzo Dagnino, Member of The Architecture Lobby - Academia Working Group.

RD One of the reasons that the AWG developed was because there wasn’t much emphasis on academic labour – architectural labour takes many forms, and academic work is one of them. We could say that not only are these objectives intertwined but are two sides of the same coin. If we expand and reframe the definitions of labour practice, our common livelihoods and wellbeing can be understood through different scales of action from an individual, collective and planetary perspective. From this holistic vision, the AWG’s operative approach is based on the intersection between pedagogy and organising collective action. We’re trying to better the livelihood of architectural workers and the architectural profession – in this sense, just labour conditions and an equitable built environment aren’t distinct goals but different ways of understanding livelihood or wellbeing.

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KOOZ Pedagogy is one of the two structural fundamentals through which to apply any theoretical framework to make the architectural discipline address the current capitalism-exacerbated issues such as patriarchy, gender discrimination, racial prejudice, colonialism, extractivism economies, and labour politics; in this sense, it is clear that reorganising it is urgent. What is your relationship with academia, and what is your agenda for reorganising pedagogy?

KP I got involved with TAL while I was a student. A professor (Azra Dawood) assigned TAL’s Statement on Trump’s Executive Order Affecting Federal Architecture. I was in my third year of a professional BArch program at the University of Houston – I had never heard architects talk that way and immediately wanted to hear them talk that way more. I became involved in student organising with TAL, starting a chapter at UH.

TAL was a crucial supplement to my architectural education and changed the way that I moved (and continue to move) through the profession as an architectural worker. In other words, actively organising with TAL was a pedagogical influence for me as a student of architecture and the built environment, and I believe that organising with students is a powerful praxis – perhaps even more powerful than organising with more established academics who may be in teaching roles – for reorganising pedagogy.

The summer after I graduated – in 2021 – I attended the first Architecture Beyond Capitalism (ABC) School, hosted by TAL’s AWG. This public facing program is an example of how pedagogy spans student organising, organising within architectural workers in academia, and TAL’s broader goals.

"Exercising collective power is necessary to bring academia into this space of possibility for radical reimagining, effective collaboration, amplifying diverse voices and empowering individuals to take meaningful action."

- Renzo Dagnino, Member of The Architecture Lobby - Academia Working Group.

RDRegarding our agenda for reorganising pedagogy, at TAL’s AWG, we consider organising as the foundation for collective power, and exercising collective power is necessary to bring academia into this space of possibility for radical reimagining, effective collaboration, amplifying diverse voices and empowering individuals to take meaningful action. That’s why each year, beginning in 2021, TAL’s AWG organises the Architecture Beyond Capitalism (ABC) School. It is a free, open and international project that brings people together through pedagogy to create an alternative model for a “school” that shares and deploys new models for educating spatial thinkers and designers within and beyond the logics of capital. We are currently planning for our 2024 edition of the ABC School – if you’re interested in joining the effort, please reach out!

I should also say that I am a part of academia. I am currently a precarious university worker (a poorly paid fellow and researcher) so there is definitely a particular bias. In this sense, I see the relationship with academia as a paradoxical one. On the one hand, academia is an institution that functions as a power structure that sustains and reproduces the status quo. It is the apparatus where subjects are embedded with hegemonic ideologies. Yet, academia can also be a critical space, a space of possibility that provides a free and diverse platform to exercise thought and collective action regarding societal problems. Because of this, it is the ideal place to both question and deconstruct hegemonic ideologies and their power structures and also where to envision, propose, and experiment alternatives. Following this, within TAL’s AWG, we envision pedagogy as a form of liberatory practice.

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KOOZ The other structural fundamental of the architectural discipline is professional practice, which also must be reorganised to tackle the current societal and environmental urgencies. What is the ideological relationship between your agenda and the one of The American Institute of Architects and The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, those institutions aimed at representing architects and regulating their practice? Do you connect and dialogue with these institutions to make your agenda achievable?

KP Chapters and working groups of TAL have occasionally connected with local chapters of the AIA over a specific issue or initiative, and student chapters often collaborate with chapters of other student organisations such as the National organisation of Minority Architecture Students or the American Institute of Architecture Students. However, we often find ourselves in ideological opposition to the institutions you ask about. For example, TAL has advocated for licensure upon completion of a degree and restoring apprenticeship pathways to licensure. In general, we are more ideologically aligned with other grassroots organisations within and outside of architecture, like Design as Protest or Democratic Socialists of America.

"TAL has advocated for licensure upon completion of a degree and restoring apprenticeship pathways to licensure."

- Kaede Polkinghorne, National Organizer of The Architecture Lobby.

AB Professional groups like the AIA are largely captive to development interests. For example, despite some meaningful steps by professional groups to respond to environmental concerns, the construction and maintenance of buildings still have an enormously destructive social and ecological impact. In response to these existential threats, the AIA’s code of ethics merely asks that professionals “make reasonable efforts” to inform their employers of their social and environmental obligations. This is clearly not enough; TAL advocates for a deeper rethinking of the role of architects and architecture in a truly equitable and sustainable built environment.

KP Recently, TAL re-issued our statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people. When we were discussing potential additions to the statement, some members brought up the AIA code of ethics – would it be worthwhile to call out how drawing design details for the apparatuses of apartheid goes against this code? However, as Adare notes, our vision is so far beyond a watered down platitude about doing no harm or “making reasonable efforts”… Similar conversations have come up on topics like Stop Cop City – we have the freedom to advocate explicitly for the world that we want to build together. This advocacy is necessary to move the needle in the profession more generally, particularly because for a long time there wasn’t much of a counterpoint to the AIA. Personally, I do not think it’s worthwhile to get distracted from doing that by trying to compel professional institutions to adopt one piecemeal measure or another.

"When we were discussing potential additions to the statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people, some members brought up the AIA code of ethics – would it be worthwhile to call out how drawing design details for the apparatuses of apartheid goes against this code?"

- Kaede Polkinghorne, National Organizer of The Architecture Lobby.

AB Still, we have been impressed with our friends in the Just Transition Lobby. This activist disciplinary platform brings together organisers from the Future Architects Front, Architect's Climate Action Network, Neurodiversity Architecture Network, Section of Architecture Workers, and is open to anyone. They are working to retool the Royal Institute of British Architects, a professional organisation in the UK equivalent to AIA in the US. Their focus is to address the interconnected crises of architectural education, training, and pay within the context of climate change. Organising for the world we want to build together does not exclude the possibility of a similar movement stateside. However, coordinating that movement is not our focus in TAL.

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KOOZ What is your theoretical framework and operative approach to achieve new architectural labour models and empower architectural workers' role and rights?

KP We work concurrently on many registers, which include labour organising, policy advocacy, research, pedagogy, and writing. Working Groups and Chapters formulate their own campaigns, with support from the OC– so our operative approach is ever-evolving, but always guided by the manifesto.

That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that our relationships with each other are our most foundational praxis. Overcoming white supremacist professional culture is paramount to building our collective power and moving towards new labour models. In recent years, TAL has prioritised confronting and dismantling harmful behaviours inherited from our schools and offices. The Racial Justice Working Group has taken the lead on implementing strategies like phone banking and text banking membership, doing one-on-one and group check-ins, and creating content that thoughtfully and intentionally unpacks these behaviours.

"We’ve adopted a Just Transition framework which allows us to recognise that our livelihoods as architects are compromised: that we are fossil fuel workers."

- Adare Brown, Coordinator of The Architecture Lobby - GND Working Group.

AB In addition to our members' continual advocacy via the press, speaking engagements, and collective writing, the GND working group is deeply involved in political advocacy. We’ve adopted a Just Transition framework which allows us to recognise that our livelihoods as architects are compromised: that we are fossil fuel workers. The Just Transition platform also enables us to forge alliances within the environmental and the labour movements ––including the Just Transition Lobby, Labor Network for Sustainability, the Alternative Building Industry Collective, organisers in International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 98, among others. The alliances are formed around shared goals of enhancing the livelihoods of workers and caring for the environment.

Our policy work has included drafting responses to proposed Green New Deal and Green New Deal for Public Housing legislation and endorsing The Climate Resiliency Workforce Act (CRWA). At the same time, we engage in direct actions, including attendance at the Climate March and endorsement of UAW Stand-Up strike with LNS. We are also hosting open, in person meetings the second Monday of each month at Citygroup in New York City.

"TAL is not only a complement to our formation or practice regarding subjects that are not usually addressed in professional circles or canonical academia but it is also a space to exercise community building and organising to effect change."

- Renzo Dagnino, Member of The Architecture Lobby - Academia Working Group.

RD Through meetings with the AWG, we find recurring pains across diverse backgrounds. These are all international and common struggles and one of the key pillars to empower ourselves to take action in these struggles is through the organised community. TAL is not only a complement to our formation or practice regarding subjects that are not usually addressed in professional circles or canonical academia but it is also a space to exercise community building and organising to effect change. When we realise that we are not alone and that we are actually many who are suffering the same precarity and injustice, the will to both speculate and materialise alternative visions is stronger than ever.

But that it's not enough to make it happen. In every order of life, and especially when dealing with the built environment and the design of our material conditions of living, because of all the interests that collide, to create lasting and profound changes the actions must be taken collectively and must be accompanied by a cultural shift. That never happens out of thin air, and by that, I mean that it requires organisation. Institutions like TAL provide the necessary network of solidarity and function as the organisational platform to raise our voices and be able to build a more equitable present and future. As the saying goes: “The people united will never be defeated!”

"Collective power – codified by a union or otherwise – is a tool, not a final destination. Our theoretical framework holds space to advocate for and beyond just labour conditions."

- Kaede Polkinghorne, National Organizer of The Architecture Lobby.

KP Collective power – codified by a union or otherwise – is a tool, not a final destination. Our theoretical framework holds space to advocate for and beyond just labour conditions. In operation, TAL gives us a solidarity network–– connecting us across our atomised workplaces to share tools and rethink our role as architectural workers.

Bio

Adare Brown is an artist and architectural designer interested in social housing, alternative development, and crafty landscapes. They are currently a coordinator of The Architecture Lobby’s Green New Deal Working Group. In their professional work at STAT, they perform construction administration and project management for non-profit organizations with roots in NYC's community housing movement. Prior, they worked for Outside Development, an architectural research practice advocating for an urban form-of-life capable of overcoming our dependence on fossil fuels.

Renzo Dagnino is an architect, PhD candidate and fellow researcher at UNC. He studied at the National University of Córdoba (Argentina) and at the University of Thessaly (Greece). He is a member of The Architecture Lobby’s Academia Working Group and one of the organizers of the Architecture Beyond Capitalism School. Renzo’s doctoral research focuses on the intersection between architecture and political economy. He is interested in the tensions between architecture and politics, the ubiquity of capital in the production of the living habitat, and the intimate relationship between architecture and capitalism as a cultural project.

Kaede Polkinghorne is a designer, organizer, and writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. They are the 2022-2024 National Organizer of The Architecture Lobby, co-founder of the University of Houston chapter, and member of the Racial Justice Working Group. With a resume ranging from landscape architecture to paid plasma donation, she is interested in how critical theory can inform canonical questions about the collaborative design of public space. Kaede is a City Planner at the New Orleans City Planning Commission and has previously worked at SCAPE, UltraBarrio, and the Community Design Resource Center.

Valerio Franzone is the Managing Editor at KoozArch. He is a Ph.D. Architect (Università IUAV di Venezia), and his work focuses on the relationships between architecture, humanity, and nature. A founding partner of 2A+P and 2A+P Architettura, he later established Valerio Franzone Architect. His projects have been awarded in various international competitions, and shown in several exhibitions as the 7th, 11th, and 14th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. His projects and texts appear in international magazines such as Domus, A10, Abitare, Volume, and AD Architectural Design.

Published
05 Feb 2024
Reading time
20 minutes
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