Inconvenient Truths: Who Builds Your Architecture?

As construction becomes increasingly global, a coalition of New York-based designers and educators has formed to ask one urgent question: Who Builds Your Architecture?

July 2017

Words by The WYBA? Collaborative Group

Whether majestic skyscrapers, eye-catching museums or sprawling residential complexes, buildings emerge from intricate, lengthy processes of design and construction that involve a host of different actors, from architects and engineers, to clients and banks, to contractors and construction workers. These relationships operate within a global network of knowledge transfer, manufacturing and labour — people and materials moving around the world, often in uneven and unequal ways.

Founded in 2011, WBYA? is a New York-based coalition of architects, activists, scholars and educators that tackles the pressing question: who builds your architecture? As major projects unfold in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and around the globe, with architects from the US increasingly working abroad, we examine the links between labour, architecture and the global networks that form around building buildings. From workers’ rights to construction practices to design processes to new technologies, WBYA? explores the ethical, social and political questions that emerge under these relatively new circumstances.

We named our group with a question in order to jump-start a discussion among our colleagues in architecture and related disciplines. For us, this one question sparks many others. As a field, we need to rethink ethics, new technologies, professional practice, activism and education, especially in relation to architecture and labour. Ultimately our aim is to investigate contemporary forms of globalization where architecture takes central stage. What are the architects’ ethical responsibilities towards those who erect their buildings around the world? Where do these construction workers come from and what does architecture demand from them?

How do new technologies transform construction methods as well as communication? Do they address labour-intensive manual labour, workers’ rights or site oversight? And if low-cost labour enables architects’ uninhibited creative expression, what is the human cost?

Designers vs abuse: Five ways that architects and engineers can improve labour practices


Employ human rights experts on design teams

Architects collaborate with structural and mechanical engineers, facade specialists, sustainability consultants and others who are often based in offices around the globe. Project teams for global architecture projects should include regional experts who can advise on local human rights and labour issues.


Demand improvements in basic standards

In some countries, the lack of rights for immigrant workers makes protesting about poor treatment impossible and dangerous. Architects can use their position and expertise to improve the living and working conditions of migrant construction workers in host countries.

maps connections between building projects in four cities: Chicago, New York, Istanbul and Doha
Who Builds Your Architecture? maps connections between building projects in four cities — Chicago, New York, Istanbul and Doha — in collaboration with Graph Commons


Specify for higher skill levels

Designers can use architectural drawings and documents as a vehicle to raise labour standards and improve construction practices. For example, the installation of certain components requires workers with specific skill sets. Skilled workers are typically better trained than unskilled workers, they receive higher pay and they are much more likely to belong to a union.


Deploy architectural documents as toolkits

Architects already produce a range of contracts, construction sets and other information to send to clients, contractors and subcontractors. They could also send documents that pertain to local labour laws, international labour agreements and best practices for the protection of human rights on the construction site and workers’ housing.

From The Possible, issue 02

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Expand site observation to include labour practices — and boycott abusive contractors

Architects and engineers consult with on-site construction managers and contractors via daily virtual communication and regular site visits. They could broaden the scope of site observations to recognize abusive labour practices and refuse to work with contractors or subcontractors who mistreat construction workers.

The WBYA? Collaborative Group is Kadambari Baxi, Jordan Carver, Laura Diamond Dixit, Tiffany Rattray, Lindsey Wikstrom and Mabel O. Wilson

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