Interview — Connor Hanna
Original Text from Caliper Journal Issue 7/8

Peggy Deamer is an educator, architect, and theorist. Her work focuses on a broad spectrum of issues relating to how architecture is practised and the objects it produces. She is Professor Emerita at Yale University, and was briefly the head of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland in 2007. As a Principal of Deamer Architects, she is also the author of Architecture and Labour, as well as the editor of many books, including ‘The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labour’, ‘The Millennium House’, ‘Architecture And Capitalism: 1845 To The Present’, and co-editor of Building (in) the Future: Recasting Architectural Labour. She is the founder of the Architecture Lobby, an advocacy group who describe themselves as “an organisation of architectural workers advocating for the value of architecture in the general public and for architectural work within the discipline”.


Connor Hanna: I wanted to start this interview by diving straight into some of the problems you discuss in your book ‘Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labour’. While reading it, I was reminded that we, as architecture students and architects, largely ignore time in a practical sense. It seemingly begins in architecture studios where we work extreme hours, which, to a large degree, continues into the profession. Why do you think this is? How do you think the pandemic has, or will, impact these working cultures in education and work?

Peggy Deamer: Well, to answer the question of why it is — I think there is a false equation that students make (and people who teach play into this) that implies that time spent on a project equals passion, passion equals talent, talent equals future success. So students play into this false scenario. There is this other funny thing which illogically plays into this: the idea of genius, which strikes like lightning and can’t in any way be monitored, but still leads to thinking: “I’ll sit around all night and wait for inspiration to strike. I know a lightning bolt moment is supposed to be instantaneous, but by the way, I’ll make sure I give it tons of time to land.” It’s all irrational.

The second part of the question was about how the pandemic and online teaching might change that, which I think is interesting. I do believe that there is a social component to the all-nighters, particularly when you’re working in school. You’re doing it with your buddies, you’re getting pizza and you’re all just going to suffer together. You know, play ping pong at 2:00 A.M. That’s a social dimension and attraction that is disappearing with the pandemic. Which is maybe sad, but I think it might be healthy in the long run. And I do think that when you’re home in lockdown, you’re more conscious of alternatives to spending your time. Maybe when your roommates are going off to bed at a normal time, or you see that you could be having dinner with your family, or go for a walk which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t working from home. You begin to see other things that add up to a healthy lifestyle. I think we have more opportunity to do that.

It’s encouraging at the very least that the pandemic may have a positive impact on these otherwise toxic cultures. Somewhere in your book, you talk about a particular problematic comment by a colleague of yours at a recent symposium, “architecture is not a career. It is a calling!”. I think it’s fair to assume this is not an uncommon statement within our profession. How is this idea of architecture as a “calling”, or the architect as an artist, problematic?

I do know that probably most of us take pride in the fact that we’re not mercenaries and that we’re not in this for the money; that our contributions go beyond some financial greed. But that particular thing for me equates to capitalist ideology, trying to convince us that our poverty, as workers, is holy, and we’re lucky to be poor. That kind of ideology works for those willing to exploit our willingness to be poor and exploited. I see it absolutely as equated with the Christian ideology: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven”. (I think we all recognise that that served to enrich the papacy). For us, it becomes, “Lucky me to be poor, the poorer I am, the bigger my contribution.” It’s naïve and unproductive.

You talk about the architect’s work as being abstract/immaterial labour: “not merely the conjuring of an object, but problem-defining, a problem-solving, information-structuring activity that defines a specific course of action.” You explain that the perception of architects as workers who produce objects is problematic, and often leads to the exploitation of our time. One example being how the architect’s fees are rarely based on time, but rather on a percentage of the construction costs of the complete object. A large part of addressing this problem might be in changing the public’s view of the work that we do. In what ways can we shift the perception that the sole product of an architects labour is a formal object? And how can we start to better value the time we spend on immaterial work?

I think that it is a matter of changing what the media presents about architecture and what architects do. I don’t blame the media. I think we feed the media the wrong thing: the glorious object or the really formally dextrous building. Instead, we should be putting forward all the analysis that precedes a design solution as well as our concerns for the success of that design post-occupancy. I think we need to describe these to the media better. I think we need to describe it to ourselves better. Our clients need to know what we really do and tell them that behind a sketch lies investigation into precedent, code, material, procurement, labour, the environment, etc..

I also think that we need to change the way we function in the office: how we value the contributions of our employees who are not necessarily designers but are doing the background work: how they are recognised, how they enter the discussion, how they’re given raises...we need a different system of measuring contribution than we currently put forward, which is primarily aesthetic.

Speaking of the media, how do you think the perception of the ‘sole genius’ or the ‘starchitect’ impact how the public values our labour and time? And how can we start to change these perceptions?

We need to be conscious of the massive number of workers who produce our objects. In addition to changing the content of what we put forward to the public, we need to change the narrative of the team that produces the design. I’m so conscious of the fact that when we go to a movie we see in the credits all the people who worked on the film; when we listen to podcasts, we hear the names all the people that were part of the production team. I think about why we don’t have anything like that. Well, we don’t have a captive audience like at the end of a movie or a podcast. You walk by a building, you enter a building... no captive audience. Still, one could put a sign up in the lobby with the names of all the people and what they did on the project. But even at the time of construction, most people passing the site don’t learn who the architect is. I’m always struck by construction signs that indicate who the developer is, and who the construction company is, but don’t list the architecture firm at all. I find it astounding. So in that way, I don’t want in any way to equate denying genius with denying that it is hard to produce a piece of architecture. It doesn’t fall from the sky.

It takes an army. I’d be very interested to see an image which includes all the people involved in procuring a single piece of public architecture.

The Architecture Lobby is doing amazing things in regard to the labour problems of our profession. What are some of the current goals of the Lobby, and what are its next steps?

Well, different campaigns go on simultaneously, and different chapters, or people, lead those. One is what we call the Green New Deal addressing climate justice and how to get architects to think beyond simply adding, say, solar panels, or even being conscious about sustainable materials or the embodied energy in the construction process. Rather, we are pushing firms to recognise that we need to organise architects across the profession to have influence within the larger development-architecture-construction industry. As long as we see climate justice as an office by office or object by object “green” improvement, we’re not going to make real progress. We need to meet the unions in construction and the real estate developers with collective power. We also need to listen to the communities that are most affected by climate change and make sure they participate in the discussions that shape the environmental policies that will disproportionately affect them.

We have a campaign called Just Design that gives firms with model labour practices publicity. Students need to know what they’re going into when they apply for work in an office — not just the aesthetics of designs that an office produces, but the environment within which it is produced. Will they be listened to, paid and promoted fairly, and have a healthy work-life balance?

We are working on unionisation of architectural employees. Many of us in the Lobby are going through a week of union organisation training right now. The specificity of how one builds support and membership in an office is fascinating. We have a great deal to learn and the process is slow and carefully constructed — but it is happening. And for those working in large firms who know that HR is management and not truly interested in their grievances, unions are the solution.

Then we have a cooperativisation campaign as well, which is trying to persuade small firms on the advantages of sharing resources, consultants, workers, and having better buying power when shopping for insurance. We are doing the leg work on the legalities and costs of forming a cooperative network between firms and/or establishing worker-owned firms. Basically, unionisation for large firms, cooperativisation for small firms.

There is also the academia campaign - which is bringing the demands for change that we are talking about within the profession into academic training. The habits that you’re talking about that begin in school — not just the bad habits of time management, but what students are taught to admire, and by extension, what to ignore — needs to be rethought. We need to teach how to organise; how to be agents of change; how to transcend the individuality and competition that lies at the base of so much of our education, as well as subjects that we ignore at our peril: climate change, racial injustice, lack of affordable housing, failed infrastructure….

Absolutely. I’m surprised that the Architecture Lobby is relatively new, that it has taken this much time to confront these issues. Can you elaborate more on how the lobby interacts with academia? Are there any barriers for having these discussions in architecture schools?

Initially, most of our members came from students and student chapters, and now that’s not necessarily the case. It has been interesting to watch the student chapter become city chapters when Lobby students graduated. A lot of our members are PhD students who function as the connection between students and faculty; they get professors who might naturally be indifferent on board. I do think that most schools are filled with faculty who have drunk the traditional “work-yourself-to exhaustion-for-the-sake-of-passion” Kool-Aid, as I would say. They learned one way, and they’re going to teach that one way. Those who teach studio in particular are not inclined to think as the Lobby does. I believe the students will function as the primary change agents. The PhD students are very effective members because, in addition to connecting students to faculty, they have the most time and best research skills.

Yeah, I imagine it’s harder for studio leaders to show off their students’ work if students are, you know, working only 9 to 5.


You led a design studio at Yale several years ago called ‘Future Proofing the Waterfront in Devonport, Auckland’. You also edited a book called ‘Building (in) the Future’. It seems like there’s a deliberate emphasis on the future, could you elaborate on that? The role of future-thinking in your work?

Calling the studio ‘Future Proofing’ was a way of avoiding naming it something like ‘sustainability’ or ‘environmentalism’, buzzwords that I thought were maybe gratuitous or empty at this point. Future proofing was actually a term that I got from a colleague I was relying on, Hugh Byrd, for the material of the studio. In some ways, when one is talking about climate justice, one can’t avoid the future; architects are responsible for cities and oceans remaining healthy for other generations. We can’t avoid it.

I find it interesting actually, that the idea of future thinking runs contrary to some architecture schools, perhaps bound by its connotations with utopian thought. There was a part in your essay ‘The Every Day and The Utopian’ that I really liked, where you separate utopian thought from connotations with the future: “If utopian thought is to represent itself accurately, it must be the ultimate reminder that it is not a guide to the future but a protest of the present.” Would you consider your work utopian? If so, would that still be regarded as ‘radical’ today?

I think it’s a really interesting question, and I guess it’s a complicated answer. I’ve also taught a utopia studio at Unitec in New Zealand. We gave them a utopia from the 17th century, Campanella’s City of the Sun, and asked students to take its principles and update them. So, it wasn’t just, hey, “how do you think the future city will look?” but very particular principles that had to do with knowledge, clothing, marriage, leadership, raising children, ownership, work, all of which had to do with social norms as much as governance. It asked for very specific things that were manifestations of the students’ views.

I think in some ways, the specificity of that is part of how I want to answer your question, which is, one should not adopt the hubris of “this is my vision” without consideration of how it would affect specific things related to our daily lives that we take for granted. Architects have been scolded for a modernist arrogance. We shouldn’t slam poor Corb for putting his utopian visions like Plan Voisin or Ville Radieuse out there as a point of debate, but I do think we need to be cautious about our assumptions of grand, fix-all solutions.

That is my cautious approach regarding utopianism. But I do believe that we need to look at the present and recognise that it’s not as good as it can be, and be very precise about how our acts have repercussions that either usher in a better future or allow the status quo to continue. It’s worth it to think through the vast number of problematic economic exchanges and governmental decisions that our acts are playing into, so that we’re not naive about our participation in a status quo that we may not like. We need to have a vision of a better future.

Your ‘Future Proofing’ studio at Yale looked at the waterfront of Devonport, Auckland — which as a site, has Maori heritage and a history of workerism. By the sounds of it, this studio attempted to reconcile Devonport’s past and look to its future. I was wondering if you could discuss the ambitions or the findings of the studio? What are some of the qualities of a future proofed Devonport?

The students were allowed to elaborate from the particularity of the ferry terminal in ways of their own choosing. For some, it had to do with recognising that a whole new approach to transportation in that region was needed. For some, it was how to make Devonport less dependent on the Auckland economy such that being a satellite to Auckland was no longer its economic identity. For some, it was how to make the real estate related to the area of the Ferry terminal more economically viable, especially in terms of Maori land. Others dealt with sea level rise and what land would need to be protected and what could be flooded. Others dealt with how you would build floating communities. There were very different takes on this but I think every single student recognised that the ferry terminal was like an acupuncture point for other conditions that had to do with the future of a sustainable Devonport/Auckland region.

The first problem that you discussed in terms of Auckland was about alternative transportation, which is very necessary for Auckland. There is a massive disconnect between a general idea of Auckland, its topography, and its transport infrastructure (which is mostly cars and roads). A truck crashed into the Auckland Harbour Bridge last week and threw the integrity of its structure; it couldn’t be used for a number of weeks, and without the bridge, the city could barely function. Auckland needs to start thinking about alternatives to private transportation, and the Ferry enables that.

Yeah, Auckland doesn’t see itself that way! I’m living on the East River here in Brooklyn, across from Manhattan, and in the seven years I’ve been here, a robust ferry system has developed, and I can look out my window and see at any given time six different ferries that are connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan, Queens and New Jersey. It’s just fabulous and it’s really changed the viability of living in Brooklyn. One can just see it, and it doesn’t function that way in Auckland.

My next question was about immaterial labour; I was wondering how you get your students to engage with architecture immaterially? As we discussed before, how do they do architecture beyond the object?

The ferry terminal studio was a good example. I gave the students latitude to think about what really mattered most in the problem, which certainly wasn’t a beautiful building. They were asked to think about the issues that were most deeply embedded in that context and the program. It was a way of making the studio as much like a thesis as could be — given that I gave them a program and gave them a site. The more one approaches the studio as a thesis, the more research/immaterial labor you’re asking them to do.

And the test of a thesis isn’t just a good-looking design, but the depth of the questions that you’re asking and the quality of the answers that they bring to it. And so learning about the economy, real estate, the history of transportation, manufacturing or about the history of Auckland and the Harbour bridge…all of those issues are exactly what we’re talking about when we say “immaterial”. They don’t have to do with what a designer is drawing, but they certainly frame the questions that the design is meant to answer.

We’ve obviously touched on a lot of concerns for the profession, But just before we wrap it up (and to really drive it home), what do you think is the most critical issue facing architects today?

I’m not going to be original here. I really do think that it’s climate change. We just can’t ignore it. But as we know, a lot of other issues are interconnected — social justice, black lives matter, they’re all related to economic inequality. Still, I do think that climate justice is one that comes with a particular urgency that can’t be ignored.

When I did the Devonport Ferry Terminal Project, which implicated sea levels rising, everybody in New Zealand was like: “Oh, we don’t have to worry about that in Auckland! There have been surveys that show there is little impact”. Nobody considered it an imminent threat. I was shocked at how a nation that seemed to have green as part of their political history was not dealing with this at all.

You’re right. It’s surprising, in all of my studios so far, both in New Zealand and Melbourne, none of the institutions have brought climate problems to the forefront. Weirdly, being environmental in these studios is a polemic, when it could just be the norm.

I just want to come back to your comment when you started out this interview, you mentioned you were surprised that the Architecture Lobby and the things it’s advocating for hadn’t been done before. Well, I agree entirely. It’s just shocking that this feels new, ‘cause it’s so obvious, yeah?

Connor Hanna is a Master’s thesis student at RMIT Univesity, and an architectural designer for NH Architecture in Melbourne, Australia. His interests lie in mechanising different fields of discipline to better understand and address problems within architecture and our cities more broadly. He is also one of the current editors for Caliper Journal and an NBA fanatic.

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