Sunday, April 15, 2007


The hours add up. Fast. Soon it becomes natural to spend nine, then ten, then twelve hours sitting at your desk, staring at a screen. And what was once just a part of your life now defines your life.

In the past three weeks, I’ve averaged around 13 hours a day. And I was lucky, avoiding weekends until this past Saturday, when in a move I will never repeat, I answered the call of a number I didn’t recognize. “Can you come in, just for a couple of hours. We really need the help.” Not completely naïve, I knew it would be longer. Still, I felt like a true idiot, as I rolled out of the office that night, almost eight hours after I had arrived.

Among the other things I know wish I had known when I began my job hunt was the small detail of compensation for overtime. You see, I was under the impression that, well, it was nigh impossible, to ever get compensated for long hours. I was under the distinct impression that, especially in the architecture field, you get a salary, and are expected to get your work done, regardless of how many hours that ends up being. But, now, now I know that a holy grail exists out there, where a salary around a 40 hour work week, and anything beyond that is considered…wait for it…paid overtime, or only slightly less beautiful, paid time off. I get neither so I will dream on.

Yes my dear friends. Places exist that do pay you overtime. And they are architecture jobs. Alas, reflecting on how long I work, I have to say that those things would come in handy. My compensation for being called in on a weekend? A thank you and the offer to be reimbursed for a moderately priced main course.

Over worked and underpaid. It is a classic cliché of the virgin intern. Not just in the field of architecture. Many fields thrive on the foundations of cheap labor. It is just part of the culture, the mechanics that make this world move forward. Right?

Somehow, the culture of architecture has been engrained with the expectation that, from the beginning, you will always suffer, at least a little, for the privilege. The privilege to experiment, explore, dream and create. Because what we do is just that, a privilege, earned after sacrifice.

That seemed to be the underlying message of much of my architectural education. Work harder, longer. Spend more hours, build more elaborate models. Dive into it. Drown in it. Because that’s the way you learn. That’s the way you earn the right to stand up one day and declare yourself an architect.

The stories come and go about the great architects of our day. Starchitects, who suffered for years in obscurity, obstinately pursuing their passion. But then, reward. For the work, the effort, the time spent wondering if they would one day change the world like they had always dreamed.

And so you toil. You think, one day too, my work will reap some benefit. Be it fortune or fame, or just the right to sign off on a project. One more hurdle, and one day I, too, will feel as though I have made it, become apart of this club.

But, somehow, along the way, you forget to ask another question. Is it worth it? Because that question is harder to answer, more complicated to confront. It’s easier to stay the course, imagine yourself heading towards a goal, even if it lays as a dot distant on the horizon.

Too many times, nowadays, it seems as though who we are becomes defined by what we do; our qualifications, our resumes, our professional paths. In architecture, we seem to have fixated on the who and what – who we know, who we’ve worked for, what we’ve done, what we’ve experienced. Suddenly, we find ourselves facing the surmounting task of defying the expectations others have laid upon us.

I took a job because, at the time, it was a job. Did it fit into a larger plan of who I will become as an architect? I don’t know. At least not yet. It was certainly an unexpected place for me to land where I have, but one that may truly benefit me in my future life. I do know that I am learning. And for now, that is enough. But to others, who will read my resume in the future, what will the read from this experience? Will they assume things about me that I have not? Will they infer a path that I have not intended? Will I have limited myself by this choice, pigeonholed before I have a chance to decide?

Suddenly, the work I do takes on a dimension I am not quite comfortable with - one that I must seriously consider. And being a workaholic takes on new meaning. Because, in the eyes of others, the extra hours that so mindless add up, may have taken on a mind of their own.