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Century-Old Architecture Office Manuals Reveal How Little the Profession Has Changed

The editors of OfficeUS Manual discuss why they delved into architecture office handbooks going back to 1890.

OfficeUS Manual book interview
OfficeUS Manual (Lars Müller, 2017) takes a close look at the operations, both historical and contemporary, of the architecture firm. The book polemically repurposes snippets from various office manuals and texts—some dating as far back as 1890—in accordance with 71 topics (e.g., attendance, hierarchy, sexual harassment), which are further grouped into seven higher-order sections, including “Policies,” “Environment,” and “Operations.” Courtesy Lars Müller

It’s an open secret that architecture firms do not run like well-oiled machines. A new book, OfficeUS Manual, attempts to explain why, through a close study of workplace handbooks from the past century. Editors Eva Franch i Gilabert, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, and Jacob Reidel speak with Metropolis’s Samuel Medina about what the volume reveals about the structure of the profession and how it might be changed.

The premise of the book invites the question: What masochistic impulse prompted this exploration into such dry material?

Jacob Reidel: Nearly every architecture firm’s public mission statement says some variation of the same thing: We’re all innovative and collaborative and interdisciplinary, committed to craft, program, and sustainability—and to successful client outcomes. What if there’s been an entirely different, parallel statement of values that’s never been public, seldom been read, and that’s been with us in one form or another since architecture became professionalized as we know it? That’s what the office manual is, and it certainly seemed like something worth exploring and examining from a critical perspective.

Eva Franch i Gilabert: In order to redefine the way in which we practice as architects, we need to learn more about the protocols, mechanisms, and regulations that have defined our contemporary professional landscape. It’s not more masochistic than any other form of research. Looking into organizational charts is as enlightening as looking into details of classical orders—if not more.

How does the Manual slot into the broader OfficeUS research project, which launched at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale and has since yielded three books—OfficeUS AgendaOfficeUS Atlas, and the Manual? Do you see the “craftwork” of workplace policy mirroring or following from the kind of statecraft established by the Atlas [which looked at the work and practices of 200 American architecture firms]?

EFG: OfficeUS was not about looking backward only, but about looking backward differently to look forward. It was an experiment on the making of history, architecture, and work. While the Atlas is more a research catalog of projects, firms, and narratives, OfficeUS as a whole had at its core a projective aspiration, where the research—as a resource—was offered to the office partners as a space of projection and critique. The Atlas, as well as the Manual, was a seminal document at the OfficeUS headquarters in Venice [throughout the duration of the 2014 biennale], where the OfficeUS Partners [the temporary architectural “practice” that operated as part of the pavilion’s programming] worked over six months investigating, researching, and developing projects through new forms of practice, and new ideas.

The research had the aim of helping us all better understand the forces at play in the production of both history and architecture. How has the architecture office adapted to accommodate those forces? Those were the types of questions that the research was trying to answer so that we can more easily identify and transform the structures of power at play.

As a kind of explanation, you note in the introduction that a parsing of these manuals might yield insights into the privileges and priorities that underpin—and have historically underpinned—architectural practice in the United States. Can you name a few of those privileges and priorities that you made note of during the process? Any that remained constant throughout the years?

Carlos Mínguez Carrasco: The Manual is focused on the document that the partners of every firm write to their employees as a set of instructions for how to operate. That top-down understanding of how an office is organized and conducted constitutes a privilege per se. You need only have a look at the “Hierarchy” section in the book, which collects office structure schemes from different offices from the last century to confirm how centralized power is in the architectural profession. There are very seldom occasions in which the manual [is set out by] the members of an office, which would emphasize a more horizontal form of management. But for the large part, there is a clear tendency to see the management process in one sole direction. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to include a contemporary text for each of the entries, so that the Manual operates like a work in progress, to be retouched, edited, and designed by readers.

OfficeUS Manual book interview
The book’s analysis sometimes takes the form of diagrams, such as organizational charts. Courtesy Lars Müller

But these handbooks also prescribe different kinds of work, including manual, skilled, and intellectual forms of labor. In what ways are these varied forms of labor obscured by office protocols?

CMC: It is true that there is a general lack of acknowledgment of specific forms of abstract labor, like the sheer production of ideas, for example. Manuals are, understandably or not, focused on the more tangible and quantifiable forms of work. But that is one of the fascinating contradictions of these manuals—they are attempts to professionalize and standardize the making of a creative project.

That reconciliation—between the ideal of an office and the reality of the profession—is at the core of many entries in the manuals we found. It is even central to the idea of the manual itself, which is, after all, a projection of a practice. It is an attempt to think about how architecture is produced, becoming the first project of architecture an office does before designing a building. I don’t know if that ambiguity is productive or not, but I believe that it is inherent to the practice of architecture.

As you’ve said, these manuals are instruments of professionalization, intended to delimit behaviors that may have negative consequences for any given firm. And yet they seem useless in reforming the messy, “creative” work environments of many architectural offices. Take, for example, guidelines aimed at preventing long office hours and unpaid internships, which are routinely, even openly flouted. This is perhaps also the case for other industries (the oh-so-creative culture of Google is pointed to by a few contributors in the book), but would you say this—perhaps we can call it “bad faith”—is especially acute in the field of architecture, where the creative veneer conceals “the unprofessionalism of the profession”?

JR: In most cases, I don’t believe it’s a question of bad faith. Rather, there seems to be an inherent structural disconnect, as revealed by some of these protocols and policies, between how architects want to work and how they actually do so. Whether or not this is a choice architects make can be debated, but one thing that’s stood out in conducting this research is how little many core challenges of architectural practice have changed over the last 100 years. Architects have been discussing and debating being underpaid, working too much, being sidelined by developers and contractors, and more since architecture became a profession.

Throughout history, there’s always been a role for the person who designs the built environment. The professional architect as we understand it, however, is a relatively recent historical development, and if there have been structural issues with this role since its very inception—as not just current discourse but any deep dive into the older professional literature will reveal—well, perhaps the professional architect as conventionally defined has never really worked to begin with. In which case, it’s time to come up with a new model for practice if we want our stated values to ever align with the realities of practice. In other words, if we want to find a way to actually work the way we say we want to, then the profession of architecture needs to be rethought— or even jettisoned altogether.

OfficeUS Manual book interview
The “Tools” section visually aggregates the apparatuses present in an architectural office, from the late 19th century to today. Courtesy Lars Müller

You end your introduction to the book on a hopeful note of resolve: “Now, how to build a better practice—and world—is up to us.” Who, in the context of this book (and even the project’s title), is “us”? Partners? Management and staff? Interns? The industry in the aggregate?

EFG: Over the last few decades there has been an exaggeration of the figure of the individual, of the starchitect, of the genius, but also of the brand or the firm. OfficeUS was an attempt to make us all aware of and responsible for all the architecture that is being produced, not just at our desk but also at someone else’s desk. We need to start taking ownership of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and to become more responsible about the work we produce not only as individuals but as a collective. The name of the project, OfficeUS, was strategic from the very beginning; while we had to comply with the fact that only work by U.S. firms could be shown at the U.S. Pavilion, the project always had the aim of reflecting on the plural, on the collective. So “US” is everyone—partners, management, staff, interns, clients, citizens.

JR: And it is our hope that the Manual will inspire others to undertake a much deeper dive into these issues. This is, ultimately, a first pass, and while no one has assembled and examined (to our knowledge, at least) 100 years’ worth of architecture office manuals, there’s far, far more work to be done.

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