Refusal after Refusal

Adjustments Agency

1. What if we began by admitting that we hated writing this? What if we said we did it because we needed the money? What if we acknowledged that we had fallen out of love with architecture and couldn’t remember why we loved it in the first place? That we had given up on building long ago because we had no interest in collaborating with developers, in designing money-laundering schemes or parking garages for foreign capital? And what if we told you that now we even found architectural discourse repulsive? That we had seen the logos for the oil companies emblazoned at the bottom of the biennial posters and couldn’t look away?1 That we had read the disinterest on the faces of the public and could relate? That we had watched academics lecture about labor practices while exploiting their assistants and overworking their students? That we had tried to warn each other about abusers and assaulters and were reprimanded for it by our heroes? What if we confessed that all this made us depressed, that we could barely summon the energy to get out of bed, let alone to work? What if we told you that we were beginning to think work itself was the problem?2

2. The summer was hot. The hottest on record in Los Angeles and Montreal, Glasgow and Tbilisi, Qurayyat and Belfast—though records are easily broken these days.3 Everything appeared out of focus. The edges of our thoughts were blurred. According to studies, heat makes you lazy and unhappy.4 But sometimes your unhappiness supersedes your laziness, and sometimes your laziness indicates something about your unhappiness. We decided to try learning from our laziness.

3. It was Karl Marx’s son-in-law, the Franco-Cuban radical journalist and activist Paul Lafargue who first articulated a “right to be lazy.”5 He equated work, and its valorization, with “pain, misery and corruption.”6 He argued for its refusal. “A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway,” Lafargue writes. “This delusion is the love of work,
the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny.”7

4. But, as Marcel Duchamp reminds us, “it really isn’t easy to be truly lazy and do nothing.”8

5. “Sleep is a sin,” say the architects. Equipped with coffee or speed, they avoid it at all costs—sacrificing the body for the sake of the project, for the eternally recurrent deadline. When finally the suprachiasmatic nuclei demand submission to the ticking of the circadian clock, they curl up beneath their desks. They wear all black to minimize time spent worrying over clothes. They marry other architects for the sake of having a synchronized schedule. According to a recent study, archi­tecture students sleep less than any others, averaging 5.28 hours per night.9 More often than not, this is a performative demonstration of their dedication to their studies rather than a necessity, a time-honored ritual of masochistic devotion. In his 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep, Jonathan Crary interrogates the neoliberal dictum that “sleeping is for losers.”10 Where time is money, sleeping is “one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.”11 Architects embody this attitude, imagining the stakes of the project—a luxury condominium, an arts center—as life or death. In fact, considering that sleep deprivation has been linked to premature death, it is their own lives that are put on the line.12

6. Yesterday I woke up around 8:30 a.m. and took 450 milligrams of bupropion, 50 milligrams of Lamictal, 5 milligrams of aripiprazole, and 200 milligrams of modafinil, all swallowed in one gulp of coffee. (The modafinil—a medication used to treat shift work sleep disorder, among other things—is new, added by my psychiatrist last month when I complained I was having trouble working, or doing much of anything.) A few hours later, I took 20 milligrams of Adderall. Only then was I able to write this paragraph.

7. Beginning with their schooling, architects are routinely required to invest more money than they will ever receive in compensation and workplace protections. While the typical college student in the United States accrues an average of $29,420 in student debt, the architecture student is saddled with an average of $40,000.13 After graduation, the architectural employee can expect to work 70 hours a week for approximately $70,000 per year—or $15 an hour.14 And yet, as Bjarke Ingels has stated about the profession’s long working hours, “That’s the price you pay but the reward you get is that you do something incredibly meaningful if you actually love what you’re doing and you’re doing meaningful work.”15

8. In other words, architecture is a form of labor that masquerades as a labor of love. It contains within it the promise of fulfillment, of happiness. In her book The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed interrogates the normative function of happiness, how it serves as a means of orienting behavior and, in the process, is often deployed as a justification for oppression. That is, what it means to be happy is circumscribed culturally. “In wishing for happiness we wish to be associated with happiness, which means to be associated with its associations,” Ahmed writes.16 Work should make us happy and fulfilled—even more so when it’s “creative,” an assumption imbued with classist undertones. This draws young people toward architecture school; it makes the burden of debt, harsh working conditions, and
low wages appear as an acceptable “price to pay.”

9. But, as the figure of the dissatisfied “CAD monkey” illustrates, the labor of architecture falls short of this promise. Conditioned to believe that fulfillment emerges from creative autonomy and expression, architects instead find themselves laboring over bathroom details or stair sections, and a sense of alienation emerges. It’s a feeling that parallels that of the industrial laborer described by Marx—more so than many architects would like to admit. In classic Marxist theory, workers are estranged from the fruits of their labor, which are taken away from them in the process of becoming rendered as commodities.17 Because it is understood as nonalienating work, to feel alienated in architecture becomes a sort of double-estrangement. Not only are you estranged from the labor, you are estranged from architecture itself.

10. While working as a studio manager at a New York architecture firm, my colleagues would often remark wistfully that they could rarely attend lectures or engage with discourse as I was able to do. Models, budgets, schematics, client meetings, site visits, overtime, and weekends at the studio had ravaged both their physical and spiritual capacities to participate in the field in a role beyond producing architecture with a capital A. Their passion had become their drudgery; their very own commitment to architectural work became the barrier between contributing to what they had imagined architecture could do and how it apparently must be.

11. I read somewhere that depression is the failure of your neurons to fire like they used to. There’s something ghostly to it: you have the memory of a feeling, of an association, but can’t conjure it anymore. Is there such a thing as a depression specific to architecture? How would it be characterized? I wrote a note on my phone: “The loss of belief in the possibility of designing a different world. Nostalgia for the future.”

12. To express dissatisfaction or alienation in architecture carries deep risks. For one, it could cost you your job. “If you aren’t happy, then leave. Others would kill to have your job.” It could also brand you as an outcast, as if marked by some internal failure or incapacity for feeling what everyone else does. And such a killjoy would ruin the mood of the office. That is, as Ahmed asserts, happiness is framed as a duty to others.18 Misery is contagious and therefore irresponsible. So, regardless of how overworked you are, how alienated you are from the products of your labor, how underpaid you are, how often the boss touches your ass, you must grin and bear it. There’s a reason why architects rarely organize to fight back against exploitative work conditions. Be happy, or else.

13. According to Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, a mandate to appear happy, which they term the “performance/pleasure apparatus,” underwrites neoliberalism more broadly.19 Today, the individual must not only produce more but also enjoy more—and, pivotally, this surplus of pleasure must be performed. Pleasure serves as a signifier of the subject’s value within a socioeconomic system in which self-edification is substituted for the social and responsibility is privatized. The flip side of the burned-out professional is the determined young architect who spends their free time attending lectures or writing essays or designing their own projects. Such work is valorized as a signal of their commitment to the field and an indicator of their value as an intellectual practitioner. This fuels a culture in which the products of extra-professional labor are exhibited in journals or galleries, often without adequate compensation. We’re told we should feel honored to have such work recognized at all. In other words, today, nothing is work, and everything is work. Even our bodies and minds are objects of labor.

14. I was working hard on an essay about work—about the disconnect between discourses on architectural labor and the broader economic context in which the discourses themselves are produced. I stumbled upon an interview with Antonio Negri in which he explains how, by 1965, the architecture school in Venice had become a center for political agitation and organizing. In early 1968, students from Venice and Padua joined forces with the workers at a nearby Porto Marghera factory, the largest petrochemical complex in Italy, where “two kilometers from the most beautiful city in the world hundreds of workers were dying of cancer, literally poisoned by their work.”20 Negri states that the union of students and workers “worked out quite smoothly because they had been in constant contact for a decade: the school of architecture was a gathering place for the working class.”21

15. This struggle was a major event in the development of autonomia operaia, or autonomism, a political movement that defined postwar Italian politics and in which Negri played a central role. The solidarity between the academy and the factory was a significant aspect of autonomism, which reconceived of the position of the intellectual within leftist politics. Rather than develop theories upon which to base organizing, the intellectual should learn from work, from the workers and their lived experience. In this way, the autonomists transitioned from a demand for better working conditions to a critique of work itself, in which they understood labor as a totalizing process of subjectivization that sat­urated not only the factory but all of society. They thus displaced the centrality of the static figure of the worker and the working class with an understanding of social class as always in a state of becoming, transforming alongside conditions of work. Work itself—its valorization and the power this gave it over the experience of life—was the problem. “Refusal of work means quite simply: I don’t want to go to work because I prefer to sleep,” writes Franco “Bifo” Berardi. “But this laziness is the source of intelligence, of technology, of progress. Autonomy is the self-regulation of the social body in its independence and in its interaction with the disciplinary norm.”22

16. But wait, haven’t we had this conversation before? Isn’t the struggle against work what we studied tirelessly to ace our papers? We worked our bodies and our minds through the night to prove we understood what the refusal of work was about, to prove our political awareness, to garner a critical edge, to be diligent students. But clearly this feverish ambition prevented us from recognizing ourselves as the products of its failure. Why regurgitate the past if not in order to understand how it landed us here, at 4:00 a.m., exhausted, verging on panic, and for what?

17. As Berardi elaborates, struggles for autonomy produced a new monster, laying the foundations for neoliberal economics and governance.23 When workers demanded freedom from regulation, capital did the same. The monotony, rigidity, and harsh conditions of the industrial factory gave way to flexible hours and jobs (in the Global North), but also deregulation, precarity, and the withdrawal of social protections. This shift was ideological and cultural, as well as economic.

18. “Work is the primary means by which individuals are integrated not only into the economic system, but also into social, political, and familial modes of cooperation,” argues Kathi Weeks. “That individuals should work is fundamental to the basic social contract.” Under the contemporary neoliberal regime, work has come to be regarded as “a basic obligation of citizenship.”24 Within the realms of politics, the media, and even sociology, the persistent messaging of its importance has generated a singular world-building experience where working remains the only means of belonging. “These repeated references to diligent work,” as David Frayne remarks, “function to construct a rigid dichotomy in the public imagination.”25 Those who work acquire social citizenship, while those who do not are leeches. Within this dichotomy, work becomes a choice: there exist only those who choose to be productive and those who choose to do nothing. “Which are you? The sleeper or the employee, the shirker or the worker?”26

19. What if we told you we don’t refuse much of anything? What if we told you that we ate up praise like a spoonful of honey? What if we said that the validation always evaporates too quickly? Like a sugar-addled rush, we work on the premise that the next project will leave us satiated. We make promises to stop, to slow down, to regroup, to prevent the inevitable burnout, which leaves us languid and shrouded in shame. We wonder what all the research amounts to, what the interviews and panels in galleries and lecture halls even do or mean.

20. If the autonomist refusal of work helped produce a society in which there is nothing but work, what strategies are left for us? What would it mean to refuse after refusal? To stake out a position of alterity to the contemporary work ethic in order to find the room to question where we’re going, what’s driving us, and to what end?

21. To work is to be normal. To work is to be socially acceptable. In order to comprehend the commitment to the drudgery and exploitation of working life, Lauren Berlant argues that normativity must be understood as “aspirational and as an evolving and incoherent cluster of hegemonic promises about the present and future experience of social belonging.”27 To rally for any kind of alternative beyond the moral imperative to work would be to cast oneself almost entirely outside the realm of affiliation, and even personhood.

22. Architecture, today at least, is like work, an end in itself. It is autotelic—or, more precisely, a constituent element within the autotelic metabolism of contemporary capitalism. The need for shelter is hardly the driving motivation behind the majority of new builds. Rather, demolition and construction serve as the two poles of a coiling system of endless production for the sake of production. Financial speculation, warfare, and environmental desecration belong to its arsenal. All together, this system constitutes a global force responsible for the lion’s share of global carbon emissions. It results in the mass displacement of the poor and marginalized. In short, shelter is not the ends of architecture—it is its collateral damage. It is a question not of architecture or revolution but, rather, of architecture or survival.

23. “If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design,” said Adolfo Natalini of Superstudio. “[I]f architecture is merely the codifying of the bourgeois models of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalization of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities—until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then design must disappear. We can live without architecture.”28

24. Let’s back up a bit. What produces this all-consuming, obsessive indifference to architecture? On the one hand, the profession and the academy are sites of violence, ridden with sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism. But, perhaps even more than that, we have yet to find a work of architecture that is capable of changing the status quo. On the other hand, we’re obsessed with the belief that it could, since, at the end of the day, all architecture changes the status quo—converting land into capital, emitting carbon dioxide, displacing people. In other words, we acknowledge architecture as immensely powerful but find ourselves—and all architects or architectural thinkers—powerless. Architecture, it seems, has been swallowed up by external forces and put in the service of the smooth functioning
of the city and of flows of capital. We can’t imagine an architecture capable of disrupting this. Formalism is a dead end—novel forms are just a means to produce new terrains for the expenditure of surplus capital. We have little control over program since we’re beholden to patronage. Meanwhile, criticism has no bite; speculation, no value; theorization, no impact. Academia and institutions defang all thought.

25. We believe that the problem of work is at the center of all this. The need to work—a shared condition for all but the very wealthy—means we can’t really turn down a client or an opportunity to exhibit or an adjunct teaching position. Refusal, done alone, is a privilege few can afford. But, alongside that, the culture of work has seeped into our souls. Affirmation produces dopamine. Success signals
security (even if, in actuality, it doesn’t offer it). Everything we do is for the sake of capital, whether social or material. We look for opportunities to tear each other down so that we can rise up an imaginary rung on an imaginary ladder instead. We are cowards, unwilling to bite the hand that feeds us strychnine-laced food. We can’t pause to think. We’ve lost all hope in the future.

26. When commissioned to write this essay, we were asked to provide “concrete alternatives” to the present—but how could we? All we can speculate on is having the time to do so. All we can imagine is a horizon, hazy and distant, in which we discover, or remember, how to refuse—together.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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Issue No. 1