Bernheimer Architecture, a small design firm of 22 employees headquartered in New York City, has become the first in the industry to form a union. An article by New York Times correspondent Noam Scheiber reports that the employees’ campaign to unionize took two years. The firm’s management said it recognized the union voluntarily. It will be affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
This is good news. Bernheimer is a modernist firm specializing in affordable and residential housing projects. Its union will push management to increase pay and shorten working hours, which will have the usual affect of reducing the number of contracts the firm can win to build more modern architecture. It may also seek to increase Bernheimer’s focus on industry issues that shift attention away from design and toward matters of equity, climate and other factors of possible importance but certainly secondary to the purpose of architecture.
Unfortunately, instead of making its designs more costly, such a focus might only make its designers more likely to produce an ugly work product. But here we are getting into tertiary effects that may or may not pan out. And yet, on the fourth hand, this “woke” focus might also make it more difficult for Bernheimer to win contracts. On the final hand, however, ugly designs might attract attention from clients who prefer to “challenge” users as a main feature of their designs.
In interviews, employees said that Bernheimer Architecture paid them fairly by the standards of the industry and that their work hours were reasonable. The firm tries to avoid the 50- to 60-hour weeks that are common at other firms, they said, and provides an hour off for each hour worked beyond 50.
Still, the workers said they hoped to start a broader conversation about the profession’s pay and working conditions. A major issue, many architects say, is that clients don’t value their work the way they value the work of other contractors, like construction firms.
These are extraordinary remarks from Bernheimer’s staff. Scheiber is to be commended for opening them up. Maybe the reality is that clients don’t value the firm’s architects because their work is ugly (see illustration above).
Workers at a larger architecture firm from New York, called SHoP (supposedly for its quirky work), started to organize a union last December but gave up after pushback from the firm, according to Timesman Scheiber in another article. (Of course “quirky” design is no longer quirky but conventional.)
SHoP Architects, employee-owned (!?) and with a staff of 135, has a much higher profile than Bernheimer, and its work is commensurately ugly. SHoP was the architect hired to design the new fitness center at Brown University. It offered a typical confabulation of glass and steel. After the chief donor objected to the design, SHoP lost the job to Robert A.M. Stern Architects, also of New York. RAMSA designed an excellent facility, completed in 2013, the first traditional building erected at Brown in more than half a century.
After the recent failed effort to unionize SHoP, which lasted only two months, the dissident workers operating under the name Architectural Workers United, released the following statement, quoted by Scheiber:
“We have seen how the fear of the unknown, along with misinformation, can quickly overpower individual imaginations of something greater than the status quo.”
The field of architecture does need to “overpower imaginations of something greater than the status quo,” but classical design and traditional practices going back many, many centuries are more likely to bring such an admirable change than “fear of the unknown” mixed with “misinformation.” Misinformation is the mother’s milk of modern architecture.