Unpaid Architectural Internships: Moral Perspectives from Christianity

Unpaid Architectural Internships: Moral Perspectives from Christianity

"Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts." (James 5.4, NRSV)

This topic treads new ground for this blog, but it is an issue firmly in the intersection of architecture and religion. Unpaid internships have been much in the news of late and hit very close to home to this blogger who has been unable to resume an architectural career after finishing an M.Arch. The topic is timely as a new class of graduates enters the workforce. It is also GK Chesterton's birthday today, and he is the inspiration for much of the underlying thought herein.

As the church in the built environment is not just about the design of churches, as architecture bears on all aspects of life, and as the church must fulfill that desperate need of our society to have a voice of morality and reason, we extend the discussion on these pages to the moral implications of the practice of architecture.

Before we address the Christian moral perspective, let us first be clear that in these United States it is unquestionably illegal for an employer to not pay wages to a worker performing tasks comparable to paid employees for long-term, full-time work. This does not seem to matter in practice, however, and there is no lack of support for the practice.

The position of the American Institute of Architects is at least nominally against unpaid internships. The only action they take, however, is to require individual architects to confirm they do not use unpaid interns before they can be a Fellow, receive an award, or hold office. Presumably they are taken at their word. RIBA takes a slightly more aggressive stance with an outright rule requiring firms to pay interns. RIBA penalizes firms by rescinding their "chartered status."

The Atlantic recently published a brief article on unpaid internships followed by two curated streams of feedback, one in defense of unpaid internships and the other against.

This set of articles is interesting mostly because they provide a well-rounded cross section of the debate... with the blatant exception of the moral perspective from church teaching and scripture. (Most of the voices against unpaid internships treat it as a class issue; this is not surprising given the occupy zeitgeist). But does Christianity offer a clear moral position on this issue?

Christian Sources on Economic Activity

Is not the quote from James which begins this article sufficient? We will examine both scripture and tradition for evidence of a Christian moral perspective. [Disclaimer: As with this blog in general, there is a bias from the author's Catholicism augmented by a conscious and earnest attempt at ecumenical expansion through other sources and, of course, scripture. And please note that the subtitle is "Moral Perspectives from Christianity" and not "THE Christian Moral Perspective."]

The Pentateuch address the justice of fully and promptly paid wages in multiple places (along with condemnations of usury and other foundational ills of our economic systems):

"Thou shalt not refuse the hire of the needy, and the poor, whether he be thy brother, or a stranger that dwelleth with thee in the land, and is within thy gates: But thou shalt pay him the price of his labour the same day, before the going down of the sun, because he is poor, and with it maintaineth his life: lest he cry against thee to the Lord, and it be reputed to thee for a sin." (Deuteronomy 24.14-15, DouayRheims)

"You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning." (Leviticus 19.13, NRSV)

As far as church teaching, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter, CCC) has the following:

2428. In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work (Cf. Centesimus annus 32; 34). Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

2434. A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice (Cf. Lev 19.13; Deut 24.14-15; Jas 5.4). In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. "Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good" (Gaudium et Spes 7 § 2). Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.

Note the last sentence there, which places onus on the employers as they are usually in the position of greater power here. They lead the trend of exploitation of unpaid interns as they take advantage of unmet job requirements (which they set) and depressed job markets (which they define).

For a contrasting view, both historically and denominationally, there is Luther's Large Catechism. Luther seems to have been very concerned about the conduct of servants; he built on Paul's exhortations for servants to love their masters and vice versa (Cf. Ephesians 6, Colossians 3). Mirroring the structure of these passages, Luther highlights the interdependence of servants and masters, all as a service to God who does not distinguish man from man. The wage earner is bound to faithfully fulfill the duties from which he earns his livelihood and the wealthy must not turn away when the wages of the destitute are clearly insufficient to constitute a livelihood.

"Therefore let every one know that it is his duty, at the risk of God’s displeasure, not only to do no injury to his neighbor, nor to deprive him of gain, nor to perpetrate any act of unfaithfulness or malice in any bargain or trade, but faithfully to preserve his property for him, to secure and promote his advantage, especially when one accepts money, wages, and one’s livelihood for such service."

"But beware of this: When the poor man comes to you (of whom there are so many now) who must buy with the penny of his daily wages and live upon it, and you are harsh to him, as though every one lived by your favor, and you skin and scrape to the bone, and, besides, with pride and haughtiness turn him off to whom you ought to give for nothing, he will go away wretched and sorrowful, and since he can complain to no one he will cry and call to heaven, — then beware (I say again) as of the devil himself. For such groaning and calling will be no jest, but will have a weight that will prove too heavy for you and all the world. For it will reach Him who takes care of the poor sorrowful hearts, and will not allow them to go unavenged."

Note that in both Catechisms, the wages are actually secondary. The second passage from Luther echoes the last sentence of #2434 in the CCC. There is grave danger in putting to much emphasis on the money in place of the pervading attitude of service (ultimately to God) and the ultimate goal of a livelihood. In the CCC, remuneration for work is simply the method of transference for a "dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level." Expecting a livelihood is not undue entitlement; expecting monetary rewards, dividends, profits, etc is greedy entitlement.

And this is the problem with capitalism and its tendency to translate every valuation into a dollar figure. It dehumanizes both work and the worker, separating work from its proper fruit (livelihood) through financial calculations.

What then is the alternative, and what bearing do these Christian values have on architectural practice?

The Plight of the Emerging Professional

As in the vast majority of professions at this time, unemployment amongst architects remains high. The sector of architecture tied to speculative development has all but evaporated. Enrollment in architecture programs explodes as its popularity as a college major increases while out-of-work architects pursue advanced degrees. A buyer's market results and paves the way for exploitation of labor.

According to a study conducted by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce and published in the New York Times, recent graduates with degrees in architecture ("workers who are 22 to 26 years old") had the highest unemployment rate of any single major. The data were so severe that the Gray Lady titled their article "Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture." Here is their take:

"The unemployment rate for recent graduates was highest in architecture, at 13.9 percent, probably at least partly because of the housing market collapse. Even architecture majors who went on to receive graduate degrees, which usually safeguard workers from unemployment, are doing poorly in the job market. With a jobless rate of 7.7 percent, architecture majors who hold graduate degrees are still more likely to be unemployed than newly minted college grads who studied journalism (!)."

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics offered good news in its Occupational Outlook Handbook in 2010; they projected an increase of 24% by 2020 from 113,700 jobs to 141,600. But by May 2011 the number actually decreased to 83,590.

The financial woes of the industry driving this decrease result from a range of internal ills, but chief among the causes is architecture's willing complicity with the evils of real estate-driven building. Speculative development is essentially usury because real estate development is the expenditure of money with the expectation of receiving more than is put in. And usury is still a sin. And the poor are inordinately exploited, whether through predatory renting practices or eviction for "higher and better" uses.

When the financial transaction is the driving force of every aspect of the development, when profit drives projects, all decisions are weighted to the short term. Developers make their money in the initial transaction (and dissolve their liable shell corporation), so there is less interest in operations & maintenance than marketing attracting new tenants.

And in this relationship the architect is but a tool and design is but marketing. (Architects will indignantly object here). Design is a feature, a fashion; architecture is sold short as superfluous features. Try to read the Wall Street Journal's coverage of "architecture" and claim otherwise. We had hoped that when more architects became household names it would be from an increased understanding of the value of place, not its cost.

The dominant dynamic in projects is the assumption that design is the most expendable component; if the schedule needs to be shortened or the budget decreased, more often than not it comes out of design. And the architect happily does more work in less time for less pay to maintain a self-delusion of auteur status. As the profession has collectively decreased its liability and responsibility, it has traded influence and control for a niche of aesthetics and whatever fad circulates at the time. It has made itself obsolete except as a luxury. And the Architect, now a provider of luxury with an overblown sense of self-worth, seeks profit and lifestyle in imitation of his clients.

It is no wonder that the profession abhors its young. The auteur, only hired as a luxury, cannot abide competition. He must subjugate his labor.

Of course this only applies to a subset of the architectural profession, namely the starchitects (and their aspirants) and firms involved primarily with major speculative development. But it trickles down into smaller commercial projects as well. And since our society so highly values the wealthy and celebrates the flashy auteur & apparent genius, the values tacitly professed by these visible evils cannot but permeate the profession.

As an aside, I do want to offer a word in defense of the profession and the AIA. The sentiment described above is by no means that of an isolated outsider. The incredible support for initiatives such as Architecture for Humanity and the better aspects of sustainability efforts indicate an interest in decreasing or defeating the commercial/financial aspect of the profession. Alternative training after the model of the Rural Studio continue to develop in architecture schools as well. Even the rise of design-build practices, which are a conscious effort to reclaim responsibility for the whole of a building, moves the profession in a more healthy direction. And compare the winners of the AIA Firm Awards from the 1960s to those of this decade; the corporate SOMs and I.M. Peis give way to the more modest (if still luxurious) Lake | Flatos and KieranTimberlakes.

But the reality remains of the decrepit state of the profession's widely-celebrated successes (as it is popularly measured by wealth and celebrity) as demonstrated by unpaid internships.

Based on the anecdotal evidence, the incidents of unpaid architectural interns seems to be most common in the starchitect offices or commercial large firms. These are coincidentally the most suspect forms of architectural practice. Not that they are ipso facto unethical or immoral, but for the same reason "it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye, than for a man to enter the kingdom of heaven when he is rich" (Matthew 19.24), these practices must tread with care.

In the case of the starchitects, their potential sin is vanity. It is vanity to think that you are such an incredible designer that an emerging professional would be lucky just to be allowed into your presence. It is vanity to think that the honor of slaving away for you is its own compensation. And this is precisely the first justification given for unpaid architectural internships, fed by the fact that so many of the interns believe it to be true.

In the case of the large commercial firms, their potential sin is avarice. If financial considerations play into the decision to offer unpaid internships, that is avarice. To take advantage of the fact that "someone else is willing to work for free" and disregard their dignity and livelihood for the sake of your own profit is avarice and more. This is the reality of the economic justification given for unpaid architectural internships.

The church has this to say regarding the primacy currently given to economic concerns:

"Any system in which social relationships are determined by economic factors is contrary to the nature of the human person and his acts." (CCC 2423)

"A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. ... A system that "subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production" is contrary to human dignity. Every pracitice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism." (CCC 2424)

And it is important to note that the two embattled economic ideologies of the 20th century are but two sides of the same coin: competing methods for reducing all interactions to financial transactions to consolidate both wealth and power.

"The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with "communism" or "socialism." She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of "capitalism," individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor." (CCC 2425)

Note that it is the ideology of the former and the practice of the latter which is rejected. If only there was a third way, perhaps one whose historical precedence corresponds with the height of the church's influence over society...

The other prominent justifications given are the need to "pay one's dues" and the consideration of experience as compensation. The first comes from a misconception of the architect as artist (and a very poor image of the person of the artist at that). This is the modern idea of the artist as a misunderstood tragic genius who must endure trials–indeed, must actively seek them and revel in the starving artist persona–in order to "discover themselves." Certainly it is a poetic myth and not without precedents, but to perpetuate it needlessly and forego healthier alternatives, such as the guild, is reprehensible. Furthermore, the architect is not an artist (at least not in our depraved modern use of the word); architecture is a practice and a service outside the individual.

The final justification (experience as compensation) follows from the previous and gets to the heart of the matter: the diseased state of the profession directly results in a perverse formation of its professionals.

Many of the complaints and justifications focus on unpaid internships while in school which has additional problems. Proponents offer that credit equates to non-financial compensation; which might be true if the student did not also have to pay the university for said credits and cover the additional expenses of temporary relocation. And all this while the apparent effective value of higher education diminishes even while the financial cost skyrockets.

The Cathedral Builders by Lawrence OP, on Flickr

The Case for Architectural Apprenticeships

It is very common to hear complaints that academic architectural education does not prepare graduates for the profession. I agree it fails in this, but more importantly, that is not its role. The academic is but a component in the formation of the architect. Standing on its own, architectural education is a complex and robust model of systematic and analytical thinking with applications to just about any field. It is not perfect, but neither is its content the crux of the problem.

The second portion of the architect's formation (according to the standard path) involves professional experience measured through NCARB's Intern Development Program leading up to the exams. This is the responsibility of the intern and must occur through employment under the direct supervision of an architect. NCARB and the AIA has made efforts in recent years to improve this process: IDP 2.0 seems to be a significant improvement and the AIA has begun to invested more in what they call "emerging professionals."

But we are improving a flawed system, and that can only go so far.

One of the commenters in the Atlantic piece supporting unpaid internships mentions apprenticeships:

"Internships were once called apprenticeships. They allowed (mostly) young men to spend time learning a trade by paying the company with a time of free labor."

This is entirely incorrect, but it does point to what I believe should form part of the solution and provide principles for the remainder. Or as a respondent to the Atlantic on the other side of the debate wrote:

"An apprentice would be taken into the master's household with food and shelter provided. That doesn't happen with unpaid internships. Only kids that have someone else to rely on for food and housing can take advantage of the opportunities provided."

So as a conclusion, I will outline some features and principles of apprenticeships structured through guilds as an alternative. This is not intended as a fully developed feasible proposal, rather it is a means of incorporating the perspectives from Christianity explored above into the discussion. It is likely that these points will be dismissed as idyllic medievalism (that seems inevitable whenever guilds come up), but I acknowledge what from our modern economic "progress" would need to be sacrificed to return to such a system and am willing to make some of those sacrifices. In fact, that is the very object here.

How apprenticeships might translate into today's economic reality without losing its fundamental benefits remains a daunting question. Is it feasible for a master to house his or her apprentices? Or can their livelihood be fully accounted for in a more modern way? How would it integrate with the academic component? The object of this study is not to propose a system but to outline its principles which should also be sought in the current system. Note also that this borrows heavily from Distributist thought, beginning with GK Chesterton and his contemporaries. The Distributist Review and the writings of Chesterton and Belloc can provide much greater detail into a return to guilds and related economic structures.

Apprenticeships, as I see them, supply two components lacking in internships. The first is the provision for the apprentice's livelihood. The apprentice was not paid, but he was taken into the master's household. He (for apprentices would have been predominantly male) probably had the least and worst of everything and his family may have paid so that he could enter (which we might now equate to tuition), but he was not reduced to a financial transaction and left to fend for himself. Even paid internships only provide monetary renumeration and cannot be coordinated with a long-term holistic formation of a whole person outside the office.

Granted this results from the vastly different economic structure, but that is precisely the point. It was one based not on individuals competing in a market–where the intern is trying to get ahead of his employer–but on households. And consider that "there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market" (Centesimus annus 34).

The second feature of apprenticeships lacking in internships rises from the organization of these households into guilds. A guild is the ideal format for mutual support through solidarity and subsidiarity. And it can far better give structure to holistic professional formation. Pope Blessed Leo XIII listed the abolishment of guilds as one of the four primary causes of "misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class" in his encyclical Rerum novarum of 1891. Later, Hilaire Belloc outlined the detailed functions of guilds in addition to its "primary object of mutual support" in his essay on The Guild System (this is a good place to start for more information on guilds).

"The corporate union of the Guilds guaranteed the independence of each member. The right working of the craft in which he was engaged and the restriction of competition within reasonable limits were assured. Its general effect was to prevent the undue enrichment of one member at the expense of others, and though the rules were elastic and the margin for differences in earning corresponding to differences in talent and opportunity was wide, the Guild was the safeguard of continued property and independence."

"The Guild, one might almost say, comes into existence, and has always come into existence, with the object of preventing men from being destroyed by the demon of unrestricted competition, which is only another word of unrestricted greed."

Trade unions are perhaps the closest point of reference in recent memory, though Belloc referes to them as "imperfect." Keep in mind also that the unions of today have deteriorated greatly since he wrote this. The primary difference according to Belloc, however, is that unions "are concerned with the limiting of production instead of the excellence of it." Among the benefits of guilds to ameliorate the ills of current architecture practice are:

  • the increase in the quality of the practiced craft
  • more reasonably-scaled independently-owned firms sustained through well-distributed small property (means of production)
  • co-operation enabled as needed for projects too large for smaller firms without the need to sustain inflated offices for the long term
  • a revaluation of design work through decreased and more amicable competition
  • greater adherence to more demanding ethical standards
  • an environment of accountability for the formation of new professionals

With guild-based apprenticeships, the commitment (and relationship) is much longer, even up to the eventual inheritance of the practice, so the master can't as readily exploit in the common manner of interns without also damaging his own practice and status in the guild. In a guild the importance of mutually accountable honor would carry far more weight than a professional association with a non-binding code of ethics. The closer and more mutually beneficial relationship also gives the apprentice increased ownership of the work over that of the intern (who is simply a hireling). This benefits the apprentice's development, but it benefits the master even more. Consider:

"The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, whereas the hireling, who is no shepherd, and does not claim the sheep as his own, abandons the sheep and takes to flight as soon as he sees the wolf coming, and so the wolf harries the sheep and scatters them. The hireling, then, takes to flight because he is only a hireling, because he has no concern over the sheep." (John 10.11-13, Knox)

The master/apprentice relationship favors smaller firms, with less drive for short-term profits from large-scale development work. It shuns those types of practices discussed earlier as more apt to defy Christian principles related to economic activity. Although it may appeal to certain egocentric starchitect practices, if followed earnestly (and it is in fact the starchitect involved directly in the training) it would be for the amelioration of such a practice.

What institute-based internships provide that guild-based apprenticeships cannot is high volume and short turn-over. Again, these are good for business (measured in dollars) and very bad for young workers. With an apprenticeship model the guild does not grow as quickly as the number of enrollees into the architecture programs today. At this point we encounter a significant barrier to both an apprentice model and the current one: namely the over-abundance of aspiring architects. The status quo encourages enrollment and seems gives "opportunities" right out of graduation. They then dry up when the next batch of graduates willing to work for free flood the market and the realities of life in a "free" market hit home.

Due to this apparent limitation and the imperfection of human behavior, apprenticeships may at best only be able to serve a small portion of the population. But for those for whom it is best-suited (sign me up!) it would be a far preferable model for both parties and the profession as a whole.