Zero Value Theorem

It’s hard to tell what was the first instance of modern “crowd-sourcing.” I remember being in college back in 2008 and encountering a website where graphic designers would compete to design logos for anonymous clients. The compensation was usually less than $1000, which anyone in marketing will tell you is a complete rip-off. But at the time I thought, wow, if I just pump out a few logos a week, I could make a substantial living. After a few attempts, I was left exhausted, frustrated, and most of all, still broke.

Crowd-sourcing sites like this were not new concepts. In architecture, “crowd-sourcing” is just another word for “competition,” a tradition dating back to the Medicis in Florence; the political dynasty responsible for most of the big works of art and architecture in the Renaissance. Competitions have yielded most of the canonical pieces of architectural history, such as the dome of the Florence Cathedral, the British Houses of Parliament, the Chicago Tribune Tower, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Guggenheim Bilbao, One World Trade Center…the list goes on. If this is how architecture has operated for five-hundred years, then what’s the problem with competitions and crowd-sourcing?

The issue is primarily related to labor and value, or simply, economics. Designers do not want to work for free (nor should they have to). But the concern is also that competitions are quickly becoming inefficient and over-saturated. In a recent video speculating on the magnitude of effort put into the Helsinki Guggenheim Competition in 2014, labor estimates put the cost at around 18 million Euro.1 This staggering statistic shows that the 1715 entries to the contest could not have been judged evenly given the time. Something was off there.

The video also illustrates a short history of architectural competitions in the 20th century. An infographic puts Helsinki as having almost double the response rate of any other design competition in the last century. The A1 boards alone are shown to take up over 20,000,000m2 of physical space. For a discipline increasingly concerned with its carbon footprint, these numbers are a little hard to justify.

However, quantity and saturation were already issues back in 2008. Referring back to my story, I’m convinced my frustration grew out of the quantity of competitors. This was the time where online graphic design courses were growing in popularity and Adobe products were readily accessible to anyone familiar with online piracy. Nevertheless, I maintained that I could stand out from the crowd through personal quirks, cleverness, and self-diagnosed talent; in other words, intangible values. After submitting over twenty designs, I never won any commission.

Before giving up, I had convinced myself that this was how the design fields operated. In school the phrase, “you must pay your dues” was always circulating, and the idea of unpaid internships was not completely abandoned yet. For recent graduates, labor value was something to be earned, something that would accumulate. While that may be true to some extent—experience is a key component of work—the general consensus was that the lower you are on the totem pole, the harder you must work. Regardless of how long you studied, once you enter the professional field, your labor value is zero.

Eventually it becomes impossible to feel good about the profession: architecture graduates with $100,000 in debt begging for internships that pay little more than minimum wage, honored to be working 15 hour days, seven days a week as a sign of their being needed…2

This is what critics of Helsinki and competitions in general have largely been addressing. Competitions were not as problematic in the past because, let’s face it, no one really paid much attention. Now there is a desire for more transparency within our culture. In Guggenheim’s case, their PR move was to publish all submitted projects on their website. However, the attitude was less of a congratulatory salute and more of a pat on the shoulder. Good job, kids. They could have at least had some mock awards like, “ugliest proposal” or “shiniest material.” Then, maybe the response would have been less cynical.

But the fault is as much ours as it is theirs. We, as designers, have adopted an outlook that devalues our work. Though we accept that there are dues to pay, we should set limits to the kind of labor practices that promote intern abuse and unpaid overtime, especially as these habits trickle down into schools where they become simply facts of the field. Luckily, a recent organization, The Architecture Lobby is actively bringing these issues to the front in the form of exhibitions and manifestos. Their mission is stated as “advocating for the value of architecture in the general public,” a goal to make the depiction of the disheveled entry level worker just as obsolete as the image of the rich architect. And architecture is not unique in this regard, particularly as other fields become more and more saturated. If Hollywood is any indication, there is no dearth of mistreated youngsters in the creative industries. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.

1. Taller de Casquería. Guggenheim Helsinki – Architectural Competition Data.
2. The Architecture Lobby.

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