Architectural Wage Theft

Architectural wage theft: Rethinking the master-apprentice relationship

15 min read

In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes. But I would argue that there probably needs to be a third item added to Benjamin Franklin’s quote – architectural wage theft. It’s fair to say that the architectural profession is undergoing some much-needed self-reflection due to recent occurrences. The last few years have seen everything from toxic learning environments, unionization and even professional fee rigging. It is also abundantly clear that architecture has a long-hour culture that remains deeply problematic. At its core, this article suggests that wage theft stems from both bad actors AND our innate desire to learn our craft from people we respect. It questions the master-apprentice relationship commonly used and explores how artificial intelligence may be the key to the solution.

How not to be in the office

In March 2022, news broke of two Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) faculty members who were put on administrative leave for suggesting that architecture students should work long hours for low pay.1 During the round table discussion called How to be in an office, Marrikka Trotter, SCI-Arch history and theory coordinator and an associate at Tom Wiscombe Architects, compared the experience of working at large and small practices: “Is it like a 40-hour workweek that you can barely get through, or is it a 60-hour workweek that you can’t wait to start every day?”2. She explained how pay rates and conditions differed depending on whether you worked in a design office or a corporate office

A Twitter thread #HowNotToBeInAnOffice quickly emerged with allegations about questionable labour practices of SCI-Arc faculty members.3 Multiple students alleged that Tom Wiscombe, SCI-Arc’s undergraduate program chair, had asked them to work for free on projects for his studio Tom Wiscombe Architecture as part of the curriculum. In the petition, the students alleged this practice was an abuse of institutional power. Following an independent investigation, Tom Wiscombe and Marrikka Trotter resigned from SCI-Arc.4 We may conclude that maybe this was just a few lone actors who made some poor choices. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated event.

A toxic learning and teaching culture

Across the Atlantic, an independent investigation into the Bartlett School of Architecture, part of University College London (UCL), revealed “unforgivable” bullying, harassment, racism and sexual misconduct by staff. The report uncovered a “toxic learning and teaching culture” spanning decades at the school.5 Misconduct included mocking and demeaning students and physically and verbally abusing students.

To add insult to injury, the school has previously refused to respond to a barrage of freedom of information requests by a former student investigating alleged racial and sexual discrimination, claiming the requests were “vexatious” and had “little obvious value”.Maybe this is just a reflection of high education institutions, not the architectural industry at large?

Towards unionization

In December 2021, employees of New York-based SHoP Architects announced plans to form the US’s first union of architecture workers since the 1940s in response to an alleged culture of “endless overtime and deadlines”.7 The letter, which was reported in the New York Times, states, “We have grown accustomed to unsustainable practices such as endless overtime and deadlines which result in burnout and a lack of work-life balance.”8 It continues, “We have accepted the lack of value of the architect within the building industry. We have normalised the exploitation of our time and our talent.” Employees purported to work between 50 and 80 hours a week, but that conditions were even worse in other New York firms.

Weeks after filing the paperwork, SHoP employees withdrew the application. In explaining their about-face, they cited a “powerful anti-union campaign.”9 While SHoP employees were unsuccessful in their attempt to unionize, it opened the door to others.

In September 2022, New York studio Bernheimer Architects became the first US private-sector architecture studio to unionize.10 Although workers at Bernheimer Architecture believed that they were being fairly compensated and worked reasonable hours, Bernheimer Architecture principal Andrew Bernheimer told the New York Times that he and his studio “know that architecture is a discipline and profession that has a legacy of exploitation.”11

Defending architecture’s long-hour culture

Recently, Patrik Schumacher, principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, defended architecture’s long-hours culture, arguing that protecting students from working too hard could have a paralysing effect on companies like his:

In my world, talk about protecting students from working too hard, from late-night working or in firms like ours, that’s kind of the wrong story. This is a competitive place where people are eager and have passion and want to succeed and want to do something. And you can’t do that if you’re told that if you work beyond eight hours, you can observe exploitation, and something is wrong with you.

Patrik Schumacher 12

Schumacher is a strong advocate for using academia as a vehicle to drive corporate innovation. As co-founder and current staff member at the Architectural Association’s Design Research Lab (AADRL), many graduates go on to work at Zaha Hadid Architects. He has previously credited Zaha Hadid Architects’ success to access to student labour:

We could have not been Zaha Hadid Architects as the way we work and continue to innovate without this very strong link to education and schools of architecture like the AA, because when you are in the weeds of the business, and you have only three weeks for a project, you simply can’t innovate…

Patrik Schumacher 13

The link been academia and practice is often framed as a symbiotic relationship whereby an organisation can pursue a research agenda at little to no expense. At the same time, the student gains a foot in the door to a future job opportunity. The problem, however, as we saw with SCI-Arc, is that it can cause a conflict of interest whereby the organisation’s wants are put ahead of the student’s needs. And unlike laws to protect employees, no such laws exist to protect students.   

No 9-5 mentality

Of course, Zaha Hadid Architects is not the only organisation to challenge the notion of standard work hours. Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) posted a job listing with “no 9-5 mentality” among the necessary skills.

OMA 9 to 5
OMA – no 9-5 mentality

After being called out, OMA removed that line from its listing. A spokeswoman for OMA said the job ad was intended to appeal to applicants with creativity and passion, adding that the company removed the phrase “when we saw that it was being interpreted as code for a requirement to work endless hours.”14

White-collar wage theft

Wage theft is the term used to describe failing to pay wages or provide employee benefits owed to an employee by contract or law. Some people believe only blue-collar (manual labour) workers or employees of small businesses need to worry about wage theft. Both of these claims are untrue. White-collar (office) workers can also be the victims of unlawful or immoral working conditions. There is no question some unpaid work by white-collar workers is reasonable. The problem is when unpaid hours lengthen and become a constant part of the role.

Employment standards

There are, of course, laws to safeguard employees from wage theft. According to the European Working Time Directive (EWTD), employers have to ensure that employees do not work more than 48 hours, including overtime work, over a seven-day period, calculated as an average for a period of four months. The employee may have a maximum of 8 overtime hours per week, 20 per month, and 180 per year.15 The definition of wage theft is therefore clearly defined.

In the USA, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that most employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime pay at not less than time and one-half the regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 hours in a work week.16 Incredibly, the FLSA doesn’t place a limit on how much time an employee (aged 16 and older) can work. So, in most states, the number of hours employees can work in a week is potentially up to the number of hours in a week!

‘Reasonable’ additional hours 

In Australia, the National Employment Standards (NES) states that an employer must not request or require an employee to work more than 38 hours for a full-time employee unless the additional hours are reasonable.17 So, what deems the request to be reasonable or unreasonable? If a project has a deadline the next day and an employee stays until midnight to finish it, is that reasonable? Possibly. But what if the employee is junior, the project is chronically understaffed, prone to last-minute changes by senior management, and deadlines are frequent and relentless? Is the request for additional hours reasonable? Possibly not.

Unlike the EWTD, the NES provides no black-and-white answers. What is reasonable must be determined on a case-by-case basis. In determining whether additional hours are reasonable or unreasonable, the NES states that “the usual patterns of work in the industry” must be considered. The cynic may interpret this as a loophole that rewards employers who normalise overtime. After all, if everyone does it, then surely it can’t be unreasonable?

Ryan V Rugg

Early this year, Australians were hoping to finally have an answer in determining if a request for additional hours is “reasonable”. The federal Member of Parliament, Monique Ryan, was being sued by her former chief of staff Sally Rugg for alleged adverse action after the MP purportedly dismissed her for refusing to work unreasonable additional hours. Rugg claimed to work between 70 to 80 hours a week typically. However, Rugg was in a managerial role, and her base salary was $136,000, with a “top-up” allowance of about $30,000 for “reasonable additional hours” (but no overtime payments). The Federal Court was due to decide if, in this case, the additional hours were reasonable. Unfortunately, the case was settled out of court earlier this week. As such, the ambiguity surrounding “reasonable” remains with no resolution in sight.

Architectural wage theft

Despite laws to protect employees, it is clear that architectural wage theft is endemic. The problem transcends geographical regions, building typologies, and even the design versus corporate office divide. Of course, the architectural industry is not the only one facing these issues. Just look at the fashion or restaurant industry. Celebrity chefs are constantly in the news, accused of forcing apprentices to work long hours without overtime pay. Despite industry differences, they share two main issues:

Issue #1 – Assuming longer hours equal productivity

Despite countless evidence to the contrary, many organisations subscribe to the belief that the more you work, the more productive you are. Research by John Pencavel of Stanford University highlights how the relationship between output and working hours is nonlinear: below an hours threshold, the output is proportional to hours; above a threshold, output rises at a decreasing rate as hours increase.18 Specifically, he concluded that productivity falls sharply after 50 hours per week and drops off a cliff after 55 hours. Additionally, not taking at least one full day off per week leads to lower hourly output overall.

Issue 2 – Churn and burn culture

And as one would expect, longer hours have also been connected to absenteeism and employee turnover. Many workplaces expect young employees to ‘pay their dues’. This type of attitude creates a churn and burn culture, and many organisations are clearly using this technique for financial gain. As the BBC reports:

…[these organisations] hire young employees that have little, if any, opportunity for upward trajectory, and then load them up with demanding tasks. In these situations, employers often expect that these young workers will leave the organisation at some point – whether it’s because they’re at a dead-end or they’ve burnt out from the position. Then, they are generally replaced by other young workers, destined for the same fate.19

What magnifies the problems is that those who stay and absorb the behaviour they’d been subjected to end up putting newcomers through the same kind of abuse. It becomes a rite of passage and a breeding ground for a toxic work environment. And worse, when they do eventually leave, they bring those toxic habits and infect other companies.

Master-apprentice relationship

So why do employees not only tolerate these conditions but actively seek them out? At its root, I would argue that it is about the desire to learn your craft from someone who inspires you. In other words, it is our belief in the power of the master-apprentice relationship.

Human expertise is not a recent phenomenon. But professionals and professional bodies, as we know them today, only originated in the nineteenth century.20 Before professions, knowledge was transferred from one person to the next via apprenticeships. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft.

This type of thinking still permeates the architecture industry (and most likely the fashion and restaurant industries as well). We may have substituted the term apprenticeship for internship and master for starchitect, but make no mistake, the premise is the same. Find an architect you respect, work for them for little to no money, learn their trade secrets, go off on your own, and become famous. Rinse and repeat. Consider the following:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Sullivan
  • Arata Isozaki worked for Kenzo Tange
  • Renzo Piano worked for Louis Kahn
  • Bjarke Ingels, Zaha Hadid, and Winy Maas worked for Rem Koolhaas
  • Shigeru Ban worked for Arata Isozaki
  • Jesse Reiser worked for Aldo Rossi
  • Greg Lynn worked for Peter Eisenmann21

So what separates master architects, so-called starchitects, from other architects?

The fox and the hedgehog

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus, ancient Greek poet

In a famous essay, philosopher and scholar Isaiah Berlin extrapolated from Archilochus’ parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends simultaneously and see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels”, says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organising idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.22

If we put aside egos and dubious labour practices, what defines a starchitect is their focus. They are hedgehogs. Each project, while different, builds on previous work until, over time, an architectural repertoire is established. They don’t try to be all things to all people. They’ve developed an architectural approach, often resulting in a formalised style, and each project is an opportunity to refine that approach. Management books may refer to this as a Northern Star or Why, but it is the same. The trajectory is set, so either get on board or get off.

Contrast this to organisations that proudly proclaim to have no style, no single leader. These organisations are foxes. Without an overarching focus, projects are pushed and pulled in different directions from multiple parties. While the opportunity of endless variety is personally rewarding for creatives, it comes at the loss of mastering a style.

Mercenary vs missionary

If you are going to throw your time, energy, and youth at a company, you want it to make a difference. You want to work somewhere that is changing the status quo. Somewhere where there is a greater purpose. This is the allure of the starchitect. And the people they attract are what the startup world refers to as missionaries.

Missionaries are engaged, motivated, and have a deep understanding of the higher purpose. Conversely, mercenaries feel no real sense of empowerment or accountability and no passion for the problem to be solved. I’m not convinced the distinction is as binary as Silicon Valley would have you believe. But if we reframe this a continuum, it is clear there are varying levels of motivation and passion within the architectural industry. Does this mean missionaries should be overworked and underpaid? Absolutely not. But consider this.

Zaha Hadid waited over ten years from when she founded Zaha Hadid Architects (1980) before her first commissioned project, the Vitra Fire Station (1991-93). Rem Koolhaas founded OMA (with Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis) in 1975 but had to wait six years for their first major commission, the Netherlands Dance Theatre (1981). Few would have the means or motivation to preserver for six to ten years without seeing a pay day. This is missionary at the extreme.

The medium of knowledge

Whether you are mercenary or missionary, fox or hedgehog, it doesn’t really matter. The choice is up to you. The point is than many of the contributing factors of wage theft, stem from both bad actors AND our innate desire to learn our craft from people we respect. And our vehicle for achieving this has historically been via the master-apprentice model.

And this model make perfect sense in a time when knowledge was transferred orally. But the medium in which we communicate and transfer knowledge has changed and continues to change. We now have unprecedented access to specialist knowledge. I can browse the Architectural Association’s YouTube account and watch lectures from Bjarke Ingles, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid; undertake free architecture courses from Harvard University; learn software skills on LinkedIn learning; navigate in Google Earth or the Metaverse and visit realised and unrealised projects; and buy almost any architectural book and have it instantaneously downloaded onto my laptop or Kindle. Would I be able to learn as much as if I did an internship? Probably not, but the knowledge gap is narrowing.

The AI panacea?

Patrik Schumacher recently revealed that Zaha Hadid Architects are extensively using artificial intelligence (AI) text-to-image generators, such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney, to generate design ideas.23 Since the AI engine has scrapped the internet and learnt what a Zaha Hadid building looks like, staff can simply make prompts like “Zaha Hadid eye level view, high quality” and have Zaha Hadid-esq images generated. Schumacher claims authorship of the output and accepts it into  their oeuvre.

Some readers will see this as horrifying, and the end of architecture. Others will see it as the dawn of a new era. I’m less excited about the ability to do a quick rendering. But what I do find compelling, is AI’s ability to potentially unearth unspoken rules about “how we do things”. The very things an apprentice might learn from their master. After all, if Zaha Hadid staff are using AI to generate Zaha Hadid designs, what’s to stop others from adopting the same process? Rather than learning a craft through osmosis, there is the potential to learn a craft via technology with a far better work-life balance.

Architecture, of course, goes far deeper than superficial image creation. But in a rapidly evolving technological revolution, it is not hard to imagine that more and more useful information will eventually be extracted, not only from websites, but other mediums such as drawings and BIM models. Once this occurs, not only will we be able to generate designs, but also the thinking and logic behind it. As alien as it may sound, there is the very real likelihood that we’ll be able to prompt an AI engine with “60% Frank Gehry, 40% OMA, with Foster + Partners detailing”.


AI is unlikely to solve architectural wage theft. There will always be bad actors who seek to profit at someone’s else expense. But AI does afford the possibility to free ourselves from the notion that we must pay our dues to learn a craft. This has the potential to offer an alternative learning model to the master-apprentice relationship.

Zaha Hadid once said, “There are 360 degrees. Why stick to one?” Soon, we may apply the same thinking to learning our craft. There are so many great architects to learn from, why stick to one? Until then, industry education, government regulations, common sense, and even the good old ability to just say “no” will still be required to combat malpractices.


1 Dreith, B. (7 Apr 2022). Tom Wiscombe and Marika Trotter apologise for “high-pressure office culture” after being suspended by SCI-Arc. In Deezen.

2 SCI-Arc Live (26 Mar 2022). Basecamp: How to be in an office.

3 Yaguchi, C. (23 May 2022). Suspension and investigation of prominent members of SCI-Arc are not enough. In Deezen.

4 Dreith, B. (27 Sept 2022). Tom Wiscombe and Marrikka Trotter resign from SCI-Arc amid investigation. In Deezen.

5 Crook, L. (9 June 2022). Report exposes ‘toxic learning and teaching culture’ at Bartlett. In Deezen.

6 Ravenscroft, T. (5 Aug 2021). UCL accuses Bartlett discrimination whistleblower of causing ‘undue distress to staff. In Deezen.

7 Frearson, A. (10 Jan 2022). SHoP employees plan to unionise to prevent exploitation of our time and our talent. In Deezen.

8 Scheiber, N. (21 Dec 2021). Architects are the latest white-collar workers to confront bosses. In New York Times.

9 Architectural Workers United [@arch_workers_u] (4 Feb 2022). With great sadness, we have pulled our petition to unionize. Twitter.

10 Dreith, B. (2 Sept 2022). Bernheimer Architecture becomes first US private-sector architecture studio to unionize. In Deezen.

11 Scheiber, N. (1 Sept 2022). Architects at a New York firm form the industry’s only private-sector union. In New York Times.

12 Block, I. (4 Dec 2019). Watch Patrik Schumacher and Harriet Harriss debate architecture education at Dezeen Day. In Deezen.

13 Block, I. (4 Dec 2019). Watch Patrik Schumacher and Harriet Harriss debate architecture education at Dezeen Day. In Deezen.

14 Scheiber, N. (21 Dec 2021). Architects are the latest white-collar workers to confront bosses. In New York Times.

15 European Commission. Working Conditions – Working Time Directive.

16 Department of Labor. Fact sheet #17G: Salary basis requirement and the Part 541 exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

17 Fair Work. Maximum weekly hours.

18 Pencavel, J. (Apr 2014). The productivity of working hours. Institute for the Study of Labor.

19 Christian, A. (13 Jan 2023). The companies that churn through young workers. In BBC.

20 Abbott, A. (1988). The system of professions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.3.

21 MacLeod, F. (9 July 2015). Baby Rems and the small world of architecture internships. In Archdaily.

22 Berlin, I. (1953). The hedgehog and the fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s view of history . Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

23 Barker, N. (26 Apr 2023). ZHA developing “most” projects using AI images says Patrik Schumacher. In Deezen.


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Rethinking the role of the architect

Rethinking the role of an architect

This article argues that the architectural profession must free itself from the dogma and flawed biases of what we think an architect is to save it.


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