Who Builds Your Architecture?

Asking Questions and Bridging Divides
An international network of academics and educators formed to examine the link and distances between architects, their design, and the labour conditions within the construction industry


“When architects talk about embodied energy, very rarely are they talking about actual bodies. But the bodies are there, extracting, transporting and processing the materials.”1Kevin Bernard Moultrie Daye, ‘The Missing Bodies in Architecture’s Talk of Embodied Energy’, Failed Architecture, 25 September 2019 <https://failedarchitecture.com/the-missing-bodies-in-architectures-talk-of-embodied-energy/> [accessed 14 October 2022]. 

Architecture is made by people, but the increasing fragmentation of the construction industry has disassociated architects from the people who develop and produce materials, provide services, and build buildings—as well as the conditions they work in. Notwithstanding a few significant examples where architects have sought to better engage with construction sites and other places of production as spaces of labour, there is a distinct mismatch between design and conditions of production. In addition, large-scale projects and architectural services conducted across global regions further dissociate architects based in one country from material outcomes occurring in another.  


The project “Who Builds Your Architecture?” (WBYA?) was established by a group of architects in the USA, many of whom were also engaged in research and teaching, to expose human rights abuses in the building industry, to explore the lack or insufficiency of existing ethical codes, and to propose ways in which architects might collaborate on improving labour conditions.2See also Elizabeth Greenspan, ‘Who Builds Your Architecture?’, Architect Magazine, 6 July 2017 <https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/who-builds-your-architecture_o> [accessed 14 October 2022].

Following the example of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition’s protests at the site of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi,3Gulf Labor Artist Coalition <https://gulflabour.org/> [accessed 23 October 2023]. WBYA? documents global supply chains and architecture’s reliance on labour, describing labour relations and confronting the profession with its complicity and responsibility. Countering Zaha Hadid’s comments after reports of workers’ deaths during her project in Qatar (“I have nothing to do with the workers”4James Riach, ‘Zaha Hadid defends Qatar World Cup role following migrant worker deaths’, The Guardian, 25 February 2014 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/25/zaha-hadid-qatar-world-cup-migrant-worker-deaths> [accessed 14 October 2022].), Kadambari Baxi, a co-founder of WBYA?, said: 

“It’s very easy for architects to think that they have nothing to do with the workers. That it’s the subcontractors, or the sub-subcontractors, who really hire them. […] Part of our mandate is to show these connections and links—to show that we do have something to do with this.”5Kadambari Baxi, Jordan H. Carver, Laura Diamond Dixit, Lindsey Wikstrom Lee, Mabel O. Wilson with Tiffany Rattray and Beth Stryker, Who Builds Your Architecture?: A Critical Field Guide (New York, 2017) <http://whobuilds.org/who-builds-your-architecture-a-critical-field-guide/> [accessed 14 October 2022].

The WBYA? project began as a panel discussion in 2012 at the New School in New York, growing into a multi-year series of exhibitions, workshops, and publications. A second panel in 2013 explored architecture’s connection to climate by placing “what architects do within a complex system of relationships that include users and owners, energy and material sources, climatic and site conditions, and architects and buildings”.6wbya?, ’WBYA? 2.0: Sustainability and Sustaining Human Life’, Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?), 22 April 2013 <http://whobuilds.org/wbya-2-0-sustainability-and-sustaining-human-life-2/> [accessed 14 October 2022]. The panel explored links between green-building certifications such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and architectural and labour practices. The panel found that the climate impact of building is not only material and atmospheric, but also human, though conventional “sustainability” discourse often excludes the latter.7See also Ann Lui, “Sustainability of Workers’ Rights”, Archinect, 23 May 2011 <https://archinect.com/features/article/7370136/sustainability-of-workers-rights> [accessed 14 October 2022].

Informed by research, WBYA? employs the language of architectural drawings and diagrams in its publication, “Who Builds Your Architecture?: A Critical Field Guide”, but unlike many architectural publications, this one centres workers in its narrative.8Baxi, Carver, Dixit, Lee, Wilson, Rattray, Stryker, ‘Who Builds Your Architecture?’ This publication, available freely online, discusses workers’ living conditions, employment rights, and safety concerns, in relation to practices of architectural design and specification, professional codes, and industrial regulations. This relating of one domain to the other is crucial in bridging conventionally separated remits.  

By bridging architects and workers, WBYA? builds connections in and between different areas of architectural production, connecting issues of materials, energy, and labour to form a network of solidarity. Such networking is crucial for intervening in architecture’s often exclusionary and privileged systems and proposing spatial practices that are at once more socially and ecologically careful.  


External links

Gulf Labor Artist Coalitionbegan as a boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2011 in response to reports of working and living conditions of migrant workers on the building