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Attention, I'm quitting!

11 of August '22

interview fromA&B 04 | 2022 issue

What's on the other side of architecture? When graduating from an architecture degree program, are graduates doomed to one standard career path? Magdalena Milert decided to abandon her design career and find a different path for herself. Katarzyna Mikulska talks to the author of the blog about her reasons for quitting her job in an architectural office and what an architect (or architects) can do when she is not designing, as well as a different perspective on space.

Katarzyna Mikulska: You are an architect. How did your career develop?

Magdalena Milert: I am a graduate of the Silesian University of Technology. I started working while I was still in college to gather experience. I remember that the last year was very difficult - I lived in one city, worked in another, and studied in a third. It was hard, but by graduating, I already had a lot of experience. After graduation, I worked in an architectural office that designed office buildings. After a while I noticed that I was not developing: there was no promotion path in the studio, the projects were repetitive. I changed the office to one where I designed residential and commercial buildings. The transition from office buildings to residential was a big change in the approach to design, there were other regulations, the development was also shaped differently.
After a while, not seeing much sense in the way the architect's work was, I decided I needed a break. This break was basically forced, because I was very stressed and tired, and I had neuralgia, scared that it was heart problems. After doing the necessary tests, the doctor said that the cause of the pain was rather psychological. So I got a very long leave of absence, for several months, so that I could rest from work. When the leave ended, I decided not to return to my profession. I saw that it was possible to make a living in a different way. I took up computer graphics and was a freelancer. While still working in architectural offices, I ran, and after I switched to my own business I had more time, so I could talk about things differently. I trained myself graphically, and this also gave me opportunities to present selected content more interestingly than, for example, with photos of book pages. That's how pieing started to develop and is now a company.

Katarzyna: How long have you worked as an architect since you graduated?

Magdalena: Four years.

Catherine: That's a lot of experience and a lot of stress. What do you think the mental strain of working as an architect is due to? From a lot of work, overtime, or maybe responsibility?

Magdalena: I think for several reasons. When I cite my history, it turns out that there are many such cases. It seems to me that architecture attracts people with a vocation, with a mission. This is strongly emphasized at university: we are the ones who shape reality. Feeling such a duty, we try to do everything as long and as well as possible, even despite the loss of strength or extreme fatigue. The second issue is related to the fact that there are more girls in architecture - this was also evident in the studies. And it is in girls that the imposter syndrome is definitely more prevalent, the feeling that I have to do more to show and prove to everyone that I deserve where I am - that I am a good architect. This constant proving to myself that everything I do is correct and well done is also very exhausting and leads to overwork. This kind of behavior is indeed well demonstrated both in my studies and at work. Another reason is that in many smaller studios there is no management system. Architects and architects take care of everything - they are responsible for the project, contact with clients and authorities. There is no project manager who takes care of work-life balance. Although there are assistants who help out, the responsibility rests with one person. So there is a lot of responsibility while there are no employee benefits in the form of at least an employment contract or paid overtime.

czy kobiety mają inne potrzeby w mieście niż mężczyźni? Statystycznie częściej poruszają się pieszo po mieście, często też pchają wózek (czy to matki, czy babcie)

Do women have different needs in the city than men? Statistically, they are more likely to walk around the city, and often push a stroller (whether mothers or grandmothers)


Catherine: Usually benefits mean private medical care or a sports card, not an employment contract! Are standards in architecture that lowered?

Magdalena: Since work contracts became contributory, things have changed a bit. Quite a few employees have also been pushed out to B2B. But still a lot is demanded of the employee. He or she is instilled with the belief that work is a mission, and reality crackles. The reality of an architect's work is very much at odds with the narrative of the profession. There is also no economic argument or financial security. I can also see this from my colleagues who, after becoming pregnant and taking maternity leave, have not returned to work.

Catherine: What was the reason for this?

Magdalena: I think mainly for financial and security reasons. I see that they are professionally active, opening their studios. When they became pregnant, working on a contract of employment, it was up to the employer to decide whether he would pay them on maternity leave. In the absence of an employment contract, this is discretionary and therefore uncertain. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to get an employment contract. When an employee gets one, he considers himself very lucky.

Catherine: I am also an architect not working in the profession. A few years ago, when I worked in a design office for a short time, it was similar. However, I have the impression that since then a lot has changed in the labor market and employment standards have improved. Do you have similar observations?

Magdalena: I don't keep track of advertisements on a regular basis. I unsubscribed a while back from various news groups. It seems to me that the labor market in general, not just in architecture, is changing. We have as a society a greater awareness of labor rights. I remember when I published a post on Instagram three years ago about why I left architecture, no one talked about it. It was an open secret locked in the architecture bubble. Only later did many circles pull the subject. Recently, my architect friends admitted that it's good that it's being talked about what it's like to work in a design office. It seems to me that more Western labor standards are also contributing to the change, if only by showing salary ranges. There is also a younger generation entering the labor market, more "demanding" and concerned about work-life balance. The younger ones care about their boundaries and don't want to work if the conditions don't suit them. This is a fundamental change taking place in the labor market. I don't know if it is happening dynamically enough, but the process is certainly ongoing.

jeden z celów zrównoważonego rozwoju w architekturze zwraca uwagę między innymi na redukcję negatywnego wpływu inwestycji oraz powtórne wykorzystanie istniejących budynków czy materiałów budowlanych

One of the goals of sustainable development in architecture highlights, among other things, the reduction of the negative impact of investments and the reuse of existing buildings or building materials

© UN Information Center in Warsaw

Catherine: It's interesting to juxtapose the perceptions from my college days with the reality of working in an office. I remember listening with disbelief to lecturers who said that only some of us would stay in architecture. After all, we all really wanted to design! Now we have an employee market that is already affecting change. What else can be done to bring imaginations closer to reality? Is it a matter of investors not wanting to pay for more expensive projects, so salaries are low and uninviting? Or is it that architects are used to working hard and are not open to changes in the very way they work?

Magdalena: I think it's multi-faceted. The great projects we do in college teach us to design different functions. It seems to me that if there was more practice at the university, the projects would be more realistic. For example, if at the semester review someone said: let's find an investor who will pay for this. Or if there had been an exercise in budgeting and finding cheaper substitutes for particular elements. I think such elements introduced at the end of a student's career would at least somewhat equalize expectations with reality. The second issue is the CSR of the office and the bosses and office management. Very often in companies there is a paternalistic system. There is a boss - the creator, the creator, the demiurge - and a whole host of ants who do not feel in any way honored in the creative process. I see many solutions to this problem, and you can start by honoring everyone in the tables. That way you can see the whole team that worked on the project, and not just the name of the boss signing for the whole studio, who at the same time can't operate Autocad or Revit. It also seems to me that not enough is being done by the Chamber of Architects, which should be a protective and supportive trade union. My perception of the Chamber, meanwhile, is that it's a big building, inaccessible, with a high staircase, where you certainly don't seek professional help or support. Of course, I'm speaking figuratively here, and it probably looks different from place to place.

One last thing that comes from personal experience. The profession is sometimes talked about using the image of architects of the interwar period, who created a new and better world, with the Athens Charter or the Lviv School. However, we live in a capitalist world, where the role of the architect is often reduced to squeezing PUM (usable residential area) out of a plot of land and keeping the investor happy, because if we don't meet his requirements, he will simply go to another studio. Later we are ashamed to admit what the work in the office actually looks like. And shame is a very difficult feeling that we don't talk about - especially with people unrelated to architecture, such as parents who paid for drawing classes and years of study. Often architects are compared to doctors or lawyers, because the beginnings in the job are similarly difficult. There is one difference - at some point a lawyer or doctor starts to earn well. In architecture, to succeed, you have to leave the office and start your own studio. There are no career paths or equal treatment.

Catherine: What is it like with salaries? According to various sources, the salary of a senior specialist is from 7 to 17 thousand zlotys gross, and a junior specialist - about 5. What is your experience in this area?

Magdalena: I wonder how these data were collected. I have the impression that a five-person office is not necessarily included here, and there are many such studios. Unfortunately, I have a very different experience, but I also do not monitor the offers on a regular basis. Recently I saw an ad: 7.5 gross for a lead architect, B2B billing, but with their own Archicad. From conversations with architects and female architects, it seems that if you have a license, you can earn 4-5 thousand on hand. You need to hit a good, large studio, which is formalized, structured, to have better conditions. Unfortunately, I do not have access to accurate data to verify this.

continued conversation on next page

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