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.