PEGGY DEAMER Interview with DATUM
DATUM: We're wondering what responses you have seen within practice and academia in regards to the architecture lobby, any comparison between the two?
PEGGY: Definitely academia is more responsive than the profession. I think the profession is threatened because in some way what we’re doing is advocating for a different kind of practice or a different set of relationships between clients and owners and anyone who is established in that system probably doesn't want to change it. That's on the one hand, but when we talk about it as trying to do what the AIA is not doing - which is advocating for the profession - it speaks rightly for what we're trying to do, which is empower architecture within the larger social framework, the AEC industry, and different relationships with owners. Of course everyone wants to be empowered, and everybody actually thinks that the AIA isn't actually doing very much. You know, identifying the AIA as not yet adequate to the task, professionals definitely identify with that. But because a lot of the work we do speaks to the staff having rights and all of a sudden it's like "oh my God well if I have to pay my staff more than I will have to be financially viable" and then the defense of this comes in. I guess to describe it is that academia is more able to embrace an alternative idea of practice than people who are in the midst of practice. But I do think that practitioners get it that they're trained to do something that they're not allowed todo in the real world. I think there's a real disconnect between the aspirations and all the things you're allowed to think about in studio- thinking socially, culturally, politically, critically, and aesthetically for sure - that actually gets reduced to "think aesthetically, and bythe way, shove all of your aesthetics into house renovations and toilets and bathrooms”. So here we are.
D: Do you think that it's a good thing that academia has been more responsive to the manifesto, so that it might start with academia and that way those that are going through school right now might be able to take on things differently?
PD: Definitely. I believe strongly that you guys are going to be the agents of change. Because once you've heard the message that you can and should expect more, you will expect more and then you will demand more. if you don't demand more, people won't give more, that's the case. Those who are already in the system have accepted it and adjusted to it. If you're successful you'll think "well, I’ve won, I haven't changed anything". If you haven't, you've probably left the profession. This is definitely an opportunity for younger generations to think differently.
D: How do you think that individuality of design can be cultivated while still emphasizing collaboration and thinking of the social impact and thinking of designing for people as a kind of service, going back to kind of individuality that we all aspire to?
PD: I think in some way we do teach studio and design definitely; talking to the individual necessarily so that you all have a set of skills and develop a set of eyes that recognize quality design and good aesthetics, and that has to happen. I don't think that’s a group sensibility, so on the one hand, you encourage that, but then I think at a certain moment when you feel confident enough about that, you can recognize that you can get ideas from anywhere and there's not an advantage to saying "well I’m not going to listen to that because that's not my idea.” So you set up more collaborative sets of exchanges. One of the things that I do is I have the students trade projects for a period in the studio so that you can see that there are other eyes that can come on this. We all get stuck and think "well I can't do that" and then it's like "well I can." The project at the end of the semester will probably be better and no one is going to know that it wasn't your original idea. You kind of realize the fact is we're stealing ideas everywhere. Whether you're asking a colleague or going online or reading a magazine, it's happening all over the place. Why should we be embarrassed that we're actually having an overt conversation of "help me," or, "Can we have a conversation about this?" So, I think that is all apart of the process and I don't know whether it's happening here, but we have certain studios where you have to work in groups. That's farther down the line where you're less concerned about aesthetic sensibility, you're really trying to show your smarts as well as aesthetic sensibility and group work. It helps that and at that point you know that also a good design isn't just a sexy form, it's asking the right questions being intelligent about the deeper issues rather than just the brief or the square footage, that a smart design is as important as a good designer, or a good design now incorporates more of deep questions being asked or issues it's able to take on. I’ve also taught a studio where part of it students had to work with glass consultants so they would see that what they'd be doing with good practice with the world and they'd learn how to draw another expertise at a certain point if you really want to do a fabulous new curtain wall thing you’re not going to sit there and develop it yourself you're going to work with curtain wall consultants who know the limitations of glass and mullions and how the different materials react. It's kind of like you're nuts not to talk to them so I actually think that that can be brought into the academic situationearlier than we do, it's not just out there based on something your bosses heard from the other end.
D: How do you think your background in philosophy has influenced in how you approach your studio and how you design them?
PD: Well, that's a good question, I think that my philosophy background has run into how I think about architecture in lots of different places and probably there is a connection between that evolution. But certainly that first one is aesthetics. Aesthetics as a philosophical question in relation to formalism. I think that interest got me into Russian Formalism, and Russian Formalism was a certain way of thinking about form, not as just what constitutes a beautiful object, but, “what does the object indicate about the author?”. That really seemed interesting because it was a connection between form that wasn't social or wasn't political or you know,in connecting it to the subject who makes it. All of a sudden you care about what the subject is thinking about in some way or what is on display about the subject in the object. Part of Russian Formalism was that a certain sense of making that you kind of put the difficulty of making on display that the awkwardness of it was part of the important thing. So that gets to craft, so you get interested in craft and you get interested in Ruskin and you think Ruskin's really interested again in how the object is a display of the labor.When you think about the design labor that's gone into it, so from there you can really think about what is that relationship between form and the social context that allows certain parameters to happen and go from there
D: How do you think you can implement other philosophies such as the Frankfurt School and cultivate an environment that promotes opposite ways of thinking instead of focusing on the standards of history and theory?
PD: Naturally, the question I should say that another more direct way of is the link between philosophy and architecture. would be critical theory is sort of like boom, there you are. And in some way I just think that everything I do is like the Frankfurt school beginning and end of story, it is true. But I think the link between critical theory and then teaching architecture has to do with asking the right questions and I've really when I was thinking critical theory per se,, I would tell the students that critical theory doesn't tell you how to design, it tells you how to be an architectural citizen, to ask the right question. Anyone who is trying to make a direct link between critical theory and how you design is abusing critical theory. As in, critical theory again, gets you to ask the right questions as an architect, and then that's not difficult to teach in studio, and you tell the students you’re giving them the brief and that brief is a mask you say "is a layer" that you can stay in that layer, or you can say that behind that are institutional critiques are uh, contextual critiques, or historical critiques, so if you want you can see that it's just ripe for a host of other issues. I mean, critical theory does that. And not to mention that why critical theory is that many of the stories you're going to be told are about the profession or about your work probably works for somebody else, and maybe not for you, so you should be looking out for who's really set this up this way. And that's not to be too pessimistic or too negative but just to say things are not always what they seem and maybe what's behind what they seem is actually more interesting and not worse. It's other things too.
D: Do you think the methods of activism that the Lobby has taken have brought about different reactions than other forms of activism would?
PD: I think so, I hear enough things in the profession or courses that are happening or things that offices are thinking about, even words,I’m beginning to hear labor all over the place. You know, I don't know that that's us, but if it's beginning to feel like something’s happening. I think so, I hope so.
D: Have you been seeing any implementation of your manifesto in any firms you've talked to or people you've worked with or even in academia kind of seen that manifesto?
PD: That's a good question, I will just say that our new dean at Yale started her first meeting with the students by saying "the thing that matters to me most is that you're healthy and get enough sleep. if you're stressed there's a support system here, and if you're feeling wacky and losing it because you haven't had enough sleep, stop, you know, no one wants to have what might be the better project but have you dead on the floor" and it probably won't be a better project. and the fact that that was the first thing she said tothe students is like yes, I can't take credit for that, she's a smart person, but I guess, that's one place. The protest that we did at the most recent AIA convention we were in different sessions and then we met with emerging architects people and I think the emerging architects were very responsive and those are the people who are AIA types these are not the student Marxist, and so, the irresponsiveness was very encouraging and I see that as being part of a generation that is more entrepreneurial and more interested in empowerment, so they don't see a conflict between saying these things and being good AIA members, it's like it's just natural that we should all want to be more relevant and better paid and better satisfied and not leave the profession. And, so we have put in 4proposals to this next AIA convention, they were all accepted who knows what's going to happen but I think part of the reason they all have to do with the stuff that we're talking about, only slightly masked. And I think they were accepted because the AIA maybe through our protests or discussion, maybe we should care more about what the work environment actually is and that we don't just advocate for one large firm owner or two large firm owners which the AIA does represent, but we really think about the culture of that at large. So they're not positive whether we can take credit for that, but something’s happening. I haven't seen a firm change themselves yet. Maybe that will happen, but…
D: How well does the AIA represent architecture?
PD: Well, I think that's totally true and kind of what you're being taught in school as to what constitutes architecture that means reading history, theory, looking at all the magazines, how our repertoire of what we think our world is is really multiple and has intellectual depth and aesthetic depth and all of these different things, I don't think that's a world they're engaged in.
D: Where do you feel like the Biennales fit?
PD: I think that's a good observation that we speak to each other in those things. It might be different in Venice than it is in Chicago for example, because Venice does naturally get a bigger audience in some way, and I think that proposal is meant to engage a larger public, I’m not sure that did. Even where they are more social it is probably the case that it is a reminder to those of us in architecture that we can be more social as opposed to showing the world that we are capable of this or want to serve that or know about that. The asymmetric labor booklet that we were talking about really was brought to Venice as a way of saying probably there is a lot of intelligence here, a lot of intellectual labor that is going on that was probably unpaid just at that level. All the students that were probably corralled by their institutions and the national pavilions where the curators were pulling lots of things together. At that level it masks the reality about what it takes to put on a pretty face. I’m not sure that is the public message you’re talking about. What would a biennale be that wasn’t just speaking to architects? It’s a good question.
D: How do you see social sustainability emphasized in the field? Where do you see the social aspect play in?
PD: I don’t think so. I think that is part of what springs the Lobby on. That has to be talked about too. I am always going to be struck by the fact that if you are going to talk about architecture’s social mission, you are probably going to talk about environmentalism oryou’re going to talk about urbanism and that is it. There is not a larger social project about the organization of work and the organization of professionalism and all of those different things. I’ve started doing a lot of work on capitalism and labor and capitalism, I really do believe that historically you can see that, as the economy and capitalism has shifted from being primarily production focused to consumption focused, you can see that once you leave a production focus discussion you’re leaving work and labor behind and as you move to a consumption focused one you’re interested in the consumer, which in architecture kind of means the owner, the developer, and all of those different things. It is interesting to me now that we are beginning to enter into a phase of capitalism about the knowledge worker and a knowledge economy. And all of a sudden the word work, and even material labor, brings those terms back after they have really been gone for all of the 1900s. All of a sudden it’s like “oh, we can talk about work again” and the knowledge worker. These are the Facebook, Google you know the people who are apart of Stanford design and you design things and work now is supposed to be like a lab and like a studio. It’s like “oh my gosh, they are kind of imitating architecture”. All of a sudden you can see that architecture can visualize itself within that kind of conversation, which I think is interesting. There is hope that this conversation, that this kind of social conversation sustainable at a work level is beginning to operate in a context that thinks about these things, or has identified words at least, and understand what we are talking about.Which I don’t think would have been the case 25 years ago. I feel like I’ve written this in so many places, but my being so struck about what I read in the history of details of modern architecture that in the 19th century and if you were an architect and if you were socially motivated you cared about the worker, in the 20th century if you were socially motivated you cared about the user. Which is really the shift from a period where they were concerned about production and industrialization and what did that mean for craft and the worker and what did that mean vis-a-vis Taylorism. How do you still have a creative, engaged, satisfied worker in the 19th century and then all of a sudden that falls off the table? It really is how do you produce a new citizen? How do you produce a modern citizen? How does what we do make a modern society? You lose any sense that how we produce it, as an industry, whether it’s construction, engineering, architecture, whether it’s the agencies. We’re talking about it and hopefully in a context that is ready for it.
D: Do you think that the collaborative aspect of BIM is a good thing?
PD: I think that the inspiration is part of what architecture has held on to about why we’re valued people and why we’re different fromengineers and why we’re different from fabricators. I think that’s one step forward and three steps back. That makes us elitists, thatmakes us unnecessary, that makes us expensive, that makes us do leaky buildings. That image of it which we have clung to as ourdifference in terms of how we are better is not helpful in the end. So the fact that we collaborate and are interested in help frompeople who know about how things are built and know about materials and sustainability, makes us look like we actually care. Weshould get paid for how much we actually care. I think as a platform, BIM (if we think of it not as just a production process or are presentation thing, but as how it is that we can share easily) is really important. The model in my head from practice really is,when we first started practicing, the client coming after you’ve done DD or schematics and saying how much is this going to cost, are we on budget and basically saying “I don’t know” and basically we’re not going to know until all the working drawings are done and we’re all down to path. That’s nutty and it feels irresponsible to be like you know what I’m just showing right now that as anarchitect I don’t give a shit about your budget, I don’t know about your budget. It’s like that’s not helpful. My feeling is that pre-BIM we had a right to be stupid because we didn’t truly know. Now we have access to that information. We have no right to be stupid. It doesn’t help us to keep on doing that.
D: How do you control the difference between being a business and being an architect? How do you dance with the relationship between needing to be successful as a business, but also staying true to our profession and what we’re skilled at?
PD: For me personally, I’ve pretty much stopped practicing and teaching is my source of income. That source of income helps me do theLobby work that I have been doing, so I never saw that problem in my own way. I just built a house in New Zealand. I’m not BIM savvy, I don’t know Revit. I wish I had. I wish I could have put on display all these things that I do. I did work collaboratively with the draftsperson in New Zealand. The one who knew what kind of drawings we needed to present to the council, so the house would getapproval. There are lots of certain aspects of that I simply wouldn’t know, that I don’t think I should know, but are also really specific things that I really wouldn’t know about septic. Totally important to work with him, necessary. I really only had schematics before I hired the draftsperson and the contractor and it was completely collaborative after that. So then I could say I really do have abudget, is it silly for me to be thinking about this? Or the draftsman would say, the contractor says this but I think I could work with an engineer to do that. It wasn’t just that there was a series of yes and no's, they were really kind of helping me identify what mattered to me as a concept and differentiate between what was merely luxury and rhetorical. The house got built in three monthswhich really had to get done, it came in on budget, I adored the people and they adored me. It’s small in relationship to what we are talking about but it is an indication that getting the team on board and not making it an adversarial situation, which I think the BIM process does, is something that I have bought into.
D: What do you think about the relationship between architects and contractors?
PD: We’re not the enemy, they’re not the enemy. We are all basically trying to get a good thing out there in the world. That animosity is so counterproductive and ultimately incredibly expensive because you set up the whole legal system because everyone is going tobe worried about being sued and you put that into your price, whether you’re sued or not, it’s probably already more expensive for the owner. The owner is already pissed off that it is more expensive. The only one who gains from all that animosity is the legal profession. It is all because we are so fearful that we are going to be sued, that we set up these walls, but the chances are that therisk you take on and if you take on more responsibility to either begin to develop a new material or a new product with somebodyelse, in the end that risk has fewer financial consequences than the system that is set up. The fees on that animosity…I find it tragic that architects in those disciplines are seen as so uninterested or superior or arrogant, don’t know what they’re doing. It doesn’t haveto be that way.
D: What do you think about the role that the stereotype of staying up all night plays within the academy?
PD: Staying up all night means you’re passionate, passionate must mean you’re producing good work and you’re talented and all of a sudden you begin to look like a star and so boom, here we are, the whole scenario is laid out. It is interesting to me that you started in German because I do think that people who come to architecture from other disciplines come and just think “wow, that is not natural.” Whereas all of those who started right then you’re just like “oh, I guess it’s just that way” and you stop thinking about it.
D: How much of a role, in your opinion, does capitalism play in the big scheme of things in terms of exploiting labor, needing to be more marketable, and the establishment of hierarchies?
PD: Capitalism is a huge part of why we find ourselves in this situation. We could call it ideology that makes us feel good about being passionate without pay. Truly, and again you may have read this, but one of the ah-ha moments for me was being at a conference and women architects on the panel, really smart women, and a young audience member raises her hand and asked what could she expect with a career in architecture/ I'm thinking about this and she's probably coming at this from a feminist perspective and one of the woman says "architecture is not a career, it's a calling," which I take to be "please don't pay me unless you pay me the holier I am." Architecture is a religion and we call that an ideology in most places so we feel satisfied that the developer says "you know where I can cut money? The architect." Any developer will tell you this: If there is any place where I can save money, it is the architect because I can just have them compete against each other and refuse to pay them 10% and they are going to do it because they are desperate for the job. We as an industry have accepted that/ We have accepted that because we are "a calling" and not a career. WE haven't built up a system that would allow us to be savvy enough to come back to the developer and say "you know what, this is why I'm worth 10% and you think I am only doing this, but I'm doing this and this and this, this is why you can hire this guy for 7% but my 10% is going to get you 5% more than that 3% you are saving." It's not because you think about this correctly and we are all on board that the revolution will happen. We no longer believe in the revolution. We do believe that we can make capitalism slightly more difficult to do its smooth work than it is now. //
Ms. Deamer is a principal in the firm of Deamer Architects. Projects by her and her former firm, Deamer + Phillips, have been featured in various publications including Architecture, Architectural Record, Vogue, and The New York Times. Articles by Ms. Deamer have appeared in Assemblage, Praxis, Perspecta, Harvard Design Magazine, Log, and other journals and anthologies. She is the editor of The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design (Bloomsbury), Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present (Routledge), and The Millennium House (Monacelli Press) and the coeditor of Re-Reading Perspecta and Building (in) the Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press) and BIM in Academia (Yale School of Architecture). Her theory work analyzes the relationship among architectural labor, craft, and subjectivity. Ms. Deamer received a B.A. from Oberlin College, a B.Arch. from Cooper Union, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. (Yale)
Interviewed by Josh Frank, Bethanie Jones, Preston Mila, Christopher Perez, & Megan Zeien