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Serpentine Pavilion architect rejects ‘unfair’ scrutiny of unpaid interns


Serpentine Pavilion architect Junya Ishigami has defended the use of unpaid interns at his Tokyo studio, saying it is common practice in Japan and that criticism of it is ‘unfair’ 

Ishigami was speaking to the AJ at a private viewing of the pavilion following the cancellation of the official press launch after the shock resignation of gallery chief Yana Peel.

The 44-year-old designer said everyone at the practice who worked on projects was paid, except for students on ‘work experience’.

He explained that such placements were offered to students working ‘volunteer hours’ as part of their university degrees. He said: ’This is a common practice in Japan and elsewhere, and one that allows students to gain the necessary credits required by universities and architecture schools.’

Earlier this year the AJ revealed a student had been offered an unpaid internship of up to three months ‘or more’ with a six-day working week with office hours of 11 am to midnight.

According to the email, the placement would last for a period of eight to 12 weeks ‘or more’, with interns required to use their own software and computer equipment.

It also said foreign applicants must obtain visas and entry into Japan independently. ’The maximum we can provide is one invitation/confirmation letter of your internship. Please respect that,’ it stated.

The policy sparked condemnation from many UK architects and prompted the Serpentine to write to the practice ordering it to pay all staff working on the pavilion commission.

The controversy had initially been made public in March on the Instagram account of architect Adam Nathaniel Furman, who posts practices’ responses to internship requests across the globe, under the hashtag #archislavery.

At the time, the practice did not respond to the AJ’s requests for comment, instead responding with an offer of an internship in its Tokyo studio.

However, yesterday Ishigami insisted the controversy was a ‘misunderstanding’, adding: ’I feel it’s unfair that people ask me about the interns as it’s for everyone the same situation.’

It is not the first time a Serpentine architect has been involved in controversy over internships. In 2013 the pavilion designer Sou Fujimoto, defended the practice of using unpaid interns in Japan, describing the system as a ’nice opportunity’.

And later that year the Serpentine itself was targeted by student protesters after it advertised an unpaid position at the gallery.

Ishigami, who won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010, worked with SANAA until 2004, when he set up his own practice, Junya Ishigami + Associates.


Readers' comments (4)

  • "Junya Ishigami has defended the use of unpaid interns.... saying it is common practice in Japan and that criticism of it is ‘unfair’ "

    Just because it is 'common practice' doesn't mean it is fair practice. This 'common practice' must be collectively changed to a new common practice of a paid and appreciated workforce.

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  • Hello Ishigami,

    This is so low of you that you even had an audacity to say that get work done from unpaid intern is a common practice and speak about it in public media without even getting ashamed. But I am sorry to say, it's hardly a common practice.Its practice of your firm. By the way, this is inhuman and very sad that people of Japan have such thoughts & such a disgusting social culture. Interns all around the world are paid for any project done, let's just say that you are a miser and you take advantage of people who do not have voice in the society.

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  • This simply doesn’t ring true, as it suggests that universities are requiring their students to gain unpaid ‘work experience’ to pass their degrees. In this case it appears to be on the basis of working (unpaid) for 78 hours a week for a period of months. In a civilised society that is called slavery. But it seems more likely that this is a ‘nice opportunity’ for rich kids to sit at the feet of a ‘zen master’ rather than a ‘gangmaster’.

    They might learn something in-between sipping Cappacinos and doing some light work, such as colouring in presentation drawings or making models (digitally of course, these days, with their MacBooks and software). They can then add the ‘master’s’ name to their CVs. A nepotistic practice that favours the children of the wealthy, perhaps, but hardly an inhumane sweatshop. Similar things must happen in the West.

    However, it would be enlightening if someone could unearth the truth here, and give us an insight into a potentially inscrutable culture. Can any of the universities confirm that this is indeed common practice and might even be required for some optional courses? The latter would make it little different, although perhaps less socially useful, to law students voluntarily doing pro bono work to gain work experience. Alternatively, could some of the interns give their side of the story?

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  • Some only slightly tongue-in-cheek questions -

    It would be good to hear what the interns think. Did they feel the experience of spending a little un-paid time with talent they admire gave them deeper motivation, even inspiration? Or did they imagine their schools had given them the skills to inspire their 'employers', or to be immediately fee-earning, only to discover they have almost everything still to learn?

    What salaries do schools pay their students? None? Quite. A State that really valued what education does for its population and national 'capital value', would pay for developing talent rather than leave it with huge debt. I'm one of the incredibly lucky few who received a grant covering all fees and living expenses. What we have now, as my son knows, is an expensive punishment for having talent rather than reward for spending years developing it.

    But, with such vocational subjects as medicine or architecture being best learned partly in the classroom and partly on the job, surely we can praise teaching hospitals and architecture apprenticeships? Like our schools now, Frank Lloyd Wright charged students to work for him; and it involved physically building such things as Taliesin West, which is still a private architecture school - like the AA but with boots and wheelbarrows on the ground - and some remarkable talents developed from it.

    So, perhaps the real question is why as a society do we no longer value education and training as a collective responsibility, and that perhaps high-horsed, knee-jerk synthetic indignation over a few valuable but un-paid months spent alongside visionaries and intensely-focussed makers, is misplaced. That was an opportunity I still miss...

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