Design Competitions Raise Questions of Compensation
Few occupations require as rigorous a set of academic courses and professional exams while promising so little by way of remuneration as architecture. And, for early-career architects, salaries can be precarious—and in some cases nonexistent—while emerging designers chase dream commissions, and prioritize prestige over pay when taking jobs.
Recent questions about the internship practices of this year’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion winner, Junya Ishigami, have again brought the topic of competition compensation to the fore. Shortly after the February announcement of Ishigami’s selection, designer Adam Nathaniel Furman circulated an image purporting to be a screenshot of an e-mail soliciting unpaid work at the firm. Although Ishigami’s office could not be reached for comment, the Serpentine Gallery later issued a statement requiring Ishigami to pay all those working on his commission for the annual summer pavilion. (The same issue arose in 2013 when fellow Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto won the Serpentine commission.)
In the United States, unpaid work is illegal. Federal law prohibits employment without a minimum wage, which varies from state to state, but student internships offer a loophole, allowing non-employee interns to receive on-the-job training or school credit in lieu of payment.
The AIA’s official stance on internship payment is as hard to pin down as its exact definition of an intern. “If you, as an AIA member, want to run for office or want to submit a project or your firm for an honor or award, you have to state that you do not employ, or have not employed, working students or unpaid interns,” said AIA deputy general counsel Terence F. Canela in a video for the organization. Beyond that, the AIA’s Code of Ethics requires its members to follow federal laws, which are murky on the subject at best.
Design competitions also remain a complex realm within the profession. Many offer more in the way of prestige and recognition than they do in prize money. Some open competitions are criticized for soliciting thousands of hours of design work with pay reserved for a small group of finalists. Other invited competitions offer build budgets and travel stipends, but leave employee overhead to be covered by the firms.
There’s no doubt in the mind of 2017 Young Architects Program (YAP) winner Jenny Sabin that designing Lumen for MoMA PS1’s annual summer pavilion is one of the biggest highlights of her career. According to the museum’s press office, the year Sabin won, the YAP began offering finalists $5,000 to develop their designs and produce an exhibition model; the ultimate winner receives an additional $15,000 toward design development, and $100,000 for build-out. But even with those designated funds, Sabin says that “part of the creative maneuvering of producing the design is finding ways to bolster the budget in support of the project.” YAP winners are not allowed to fund-raise, but “there are ways of thinking creatively around the budget,” Sabin tells record. “You have to organize a team of professionals, such as structural engineers and contractors, and because of the size of their companies, many of those people are able to do pro bono work.”
A relative newcomer on the American competition circuit originated with Exhibit Columbus, the annual program in Columbus, Indiana, celebrating art, architecture, and community. Named for the philanthropists who helped shape the city’s notable architectural legacy (in 30 square miles, one can find works by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, I.M. Pei, and others) and meant to encourage the next generation of architectural creativity, the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize offers $70,000 build budgets to each of five winners. But Richard McCoy, who is director of Landmark Columbus, the organization behind the Exhibit Columbus program, admits that organizers have never verified a firm’s accounting for Miller Prize–winning projects. “We offer to help the winners find local fabricators and people to build or work with them, and we’ve had a tremendous amount of in-kind donations to all of the installations,” McCoy tells record. “But I also recognize that some studios don’t view this as a profitable enterprise,” he adds. “They all do it for the love of the art, and because it’s a chance to experiment in an interesting context.”
While, generally, these types of commissions are not money-making ventures, for Sabin, participating in the MoMA PS1 program yielded creative dividends, and the exposure for Lumen was “stratospheric.”