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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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