Rethinking work culture of architectural practices - Anoop Bhatt

The work culture in architecture practices in India needs a rethink – Anoop Bhat

Anoop Bhat, partner at mamama, a Bangalore based multidisciplinary design practice, sheds light on the pervasive issues of exploitation and toxic work culture in architecture practices in India, urging the industry to prioritize ethical and equitable standards for a sustainable future.
Rethinking work culture of architectural practices - Anoop Bhatt

India has witnessed an inspiring resurgence in architectural and interior design work in the last decade or so. There have been notable advances in contextual and climate-sensitive design; Indian studios have played a pivotal role in shaping modern, contemporary design language within the South Asian context. While we celebrate these achievements, it’s crucial to address the concerning work environment in which this creative work unfolds.

Design studios in India have always had a terrible work culture. Issues like toxic work environments, egregious working hours, chronic overwork, personal sacrifice, unpaid internships, unpaid overtime, and inadequate salaries have all become part and parcel of an architect’s professional life. Over the years, this reprehensible “studio culture” has been normalized, even celebrated, in the name of “passion”, “self-discovery”, or the need to learn. It is no surprise that a sizeable portion of architecture graduates eventually abandon the profession altogether.

Unpaid internships are only the visible tip of this colossal iceberg. Fresh graduates and those transitioning from student to professional life have long been easy targets for both established and emerging practices. These dysfunctional aspects of the profession have evolved into expectations rather than exceptions. This problematic culture needs to be addressed and called out for what it is – worker exploitation. To bring about change, we must acknowledge this systemic failure and consistently address it in a public forum.

Running a design practice in a developing country like India is not easy and comes with its share of challenges. In a country where architectural work is often not valued, appreciated, or understood, practices frequently find themselves working for abysmal fee amounts, participating in unpaid competitions, over-committing timelines, providing free work and doing a whole lot more to generate consistent business. Many of these issues can be mitigated by implementing sound business practices, efficient project management, building robust systems & processes, and most importantly educating the client and establishing reasonable expectations.

While these challenges exist, they do not justify resorting to exploitative practices. Employees should not have to pay the price for the failures of firm owners, who have over generations, overseen a gradual decline in the profession’s value.

Today, the industry’s financial viability and existence hinge on the exploitation of labour. If firm owners find themselves routinely requiring architects to work overtime, meet unreasonable deadlines, and are unable to handle the financial responsibility of providing fair compensation, they must seriously rethink their decision to run a design practice.

Absolutely no word of what you’re reading is news to the industry. Practitioners, except perhaps the newest entrants, are well aware of the dismal state of design practices in India. Yet very little is being done to challenge the status quo.

There is a prevailing sentiment that architecture is much beyond employment; that it is an art, a calling, a contribution to the greater good. Architects often see themselves as artists. While that may be true, it is essential to acknowledge that architects are primarily service providers and that running a design practice is akin to running any other business.

Perhaps it’s the absence of business education in architecture schools, but creative business owners, regardless of their industry, commonly struggle to run a sound business.

Let’s get this straight: architects in an office are workers on hire and should be treated with utmost dignity, receive fair remuneration and enjoy a good work environment. Not all employees share the lofty ideals of firm owners, and it is not a given that they will. They have been hired for their skills and expertise to contribute to the functioning of the office.

The architectural school environment has had its own share in perpetuating some of these beliefs and ideals. The absurd fetishization over all-nighters, the constant valorization of lack of sleep, abusive juries, and a total disregard for personal boundaries are understood to be the defining characteristics of architectural education. These same issues have conveniently carried over into working cultures, leading to unsustainable work habits that are challenging to reform.

It is a common grouse amongst practitioners that architectural education in this country needs a do-over, and they are not wrong. The teaching methods and curricula need to evolve to meet the demands of the modern world.

While recent graduates are just starting to understand this reality, practicing architects have been aware of these challenges for quite some time. This outdated pedagogical approach has persisted for decades, and yet, firm owners maintain high expectations while hiring interns. It is often seen as an inconvenience to have to train and educate the younger staff.

In a just world, one would expect those in the industry to empathize with the students, having gone through it themselves not too long ago.

No student graduates out of educational institutions are fully primed for the workplace in any field let alone architecture. Fresh graduates typically require training or internships to gain practical, real-world experience. One must acknowledge that an internship or any form of employment, for that matter, is a mutually beneficial transaction. If the firm owner is utilizing the employees’ time, labour and effort to produce work, in any capacity, it is essential to treat the employee with respect, dignity and fair compensation.

These are systemic issues and not the product of any one firm. Change is long overdue; the industry’s future depends on it. Are we really suggesting that good design cannot be produced without exploiting the very people that help achieve it?

To continue producing groundbreaking work, we must reevaluate our work culture. Only then can we ensure that the burgeoning talent in our studios thrives in an environment that encourages creativity, values professionalism, respects work-life balance, and provides equitable compensation for their efforts.

The situation is not entirely grim, there are a handful of young practices that are challenging these yesteryear hallmarks of exploitation and setting an example. Though they are in the minority, they do exist. Let this serve as a loud and clear call to each one of those practices, professors, teachers, and thought leaders, to step forward and speak out. Let’s make running an ethical, and equitable practice a shared aspiration within the industry!

Featured Image: Canva AI Image Generator

One Response

  1. Well it’s the truth. It begins with the architectural fraternity not being one. This creates unreasonable competition to get work and lower fees and that leads to unethical practices. This then impacts everything in the profession. Yes there are numerous exceptions but the larger set of professionals have much to change and believe in themselves and what they offer.

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