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Serpentine Pavilion architect under fire over unpaid interns


The Serpentine Gallery has been criticised over this year’s pavilion commission after it emerged its chosen architect, Junya Ishigami + Associates, uses unpaid interns in Japan

The experimental 44-year-old designer was unveiled in February as the 19th architect in the Hyde Park gallery’s annual pavilion programme, whereby international architects are given the opportunity to build their first structure in the UK.

But the commission has been questioned after it emerged the award-winning practice uses unpaid interns in its Tokyo studio. 

An email sent by Junya Ishigami + Associates in response to a student seeking an internship, seen by the AJ, outlines a number of ‘conditions’ including no pay and 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 8 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 states.

After reading the conditions, the student who received the email decided not to apply for the role, telling the AJ: ’I considered it [the internship] for a second, but then later I just realised how ridiculous the terms are. I can’t afford to do that, considering that Tokyo is not at all a cheap place to live.’

The Serpentine Gallery said it was not aware the practice used unpaid interns, and said it had contacted the architect to ‘rectify the situation’.

A spokesperson added: ’The Serpentine only supports paid positions on all of its projects and commissions, and is a London Living Wage employer.’ 

While controversial in the UK, so-called ’open desk’ internships, where students work for between three to six months unpaid, making models and undertaking office-based tasks, are still common practice in Japan. 

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.

In 2011 the RIBA changed its rules to compel chartered practices to pay at least the minimum wage to all student placements.

Simeon Shtebunaev, a student representative on the RIBA Council, described the internship culture in Japan as ‘appalling’ and said the Serpentine Gallery should ’think twice’ about the message it is sending. 

’The gallery is a British-based organisation and the convention here is strongly against unpaid internships,’ he said, adding: ’The issue of using your own laptop and software is outrageous, as this means that sometimes the practice might be profiting of student licenses and other software, therefore, putting them in precarious position legally.’

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said while he could not comment on individual cases, any exploitation of students through unpaid internships was ’completely unacceptable’.

He added:All RIBA Chartered Practices are required to pay staff, including freelancers and students, at least the Living Wage, and the rest of the profession should do the same.’

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.

Junya Ishigami + Associates has been approached for comment.


Angela Brady, former RIBA president

I think the Serpentine Gallery needs to take a look at this issue and make a public comment.

It may have only come to light after the decision was made to give them the project. However, this issue should be highlighted. It is not sustainable in our profession nor is it acceptable. In future practices could sign a charter to say that they pay all employees. I banned unpaid internships, and that still stands for RIBA chartered practices.

This is clearly exploitation of students. A six-day week of 13 hours a day with a suggested one-hour break would be illegal under EU law.

I advise students NOT to take up unpaid internships. There are better employers out there who value your paid contribution to their practices. Seek them out and boycott the exploiters.


Readers' comments (19)

  • Recently a famous Italian architect passed away, celebrated here in AJ.
    Many years ago, at the end of the interview, he asked me: "how much?"
    I explained that I could live cheaply:
    "No! No!" he laughed, "how much will you pay to work here? - all the others, pay".

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  • Fire this nonsense architect. 6 days a week 11am to midnight and no pay? Hahah it's laughable. This is 100% slavery and ruins the profession for everyone. If the Japanese find this acceptable, then let them enjoy their wild rates of depression, self-seclusion, and mental disorders, and ban them from practicing in the UK.

    As for the RIBA's response, it's the sort of tepid luke-warm response you'd expect from them. How about doing something about this problem instead of just advising students to avoid unpaid internships?

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  • For balance, can we hear from any architects who regret not taking an unpaid internship early in their career? I know you are there.

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  • Mizzi Studio


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  • I bet a few are squirming in their chairs over this one in the UK too.

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  • Well fancy that! 'interesting' architect exploits his staff, surely not!

    Thanks to the RIBA for their typically anodyne response which flies in the face of their endless campaigns on gender, pay etc. When will this madness cease?

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  • Many people from poorer backgrounds can't even start to think about applying for unpaid internships, they are simply unaffordable, some parents don't earn enough to provide help. Architecture, especially architectural education must do more to ensure it is a level playing field and people of all backgrounds have the same opportunities, so creative talent not social class or wealth matters. In line with this the Serpentine should reconsider Ishigami's appointment.

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  • and that's why recruiters don't find jobs for interns so its a double-negative whammy - % of nothing is always £0

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  • I have employed many students over the years and paid all of them. How could any self respecting architect not value the work a student does? When I was a student with no financial support I worked for architects in the holiday periods and was paid. I have a very small practice now, so if I can pay every architect should be able to pay. Clients will take advantage if you show this sort of weakness, pay students and obtain sensible fees.

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  • As a young and broke graduate I recall attending an interview at the BBC and being told there was no pay on offer. My response was to Foxtrot Oscar!

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  • It's simple really - if you can't afford to pay your staff, you can't afford to run a business. If you can afford to pay your staff, but choose not to, that makes you exploitative.

    I can't understand how certain architects become so egotistical that they expect other people to invest vast amounts of their time into keeping their business afloat with no financial benefit in return.

    If architects are expecting graduates to work for free, how long will it be until clients do too?

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  • Add to that, the conditions of the studio itself. It is underground, with no proper ventilation, no windows at all. As well as not enough number of chairs for the interns, if you’re lucky... you get to sit.

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  • That sounds like an S&M dungeon (not that I would know!)...but I suppose that we are simply regressing to a laissez-faire former era, such as Victorian times. Dickens portrays this quite well in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ (1844), where his eponymous hero purchases an architectural pupillage from Seth Pecksniff Archt. for £300. This turns out to be nothing of the sort and Pecksniff is living off his pupils’ premiums, while passing off their work as his own. Some 30 years later pupils, such as Edward S Prior, got slightly better value out of Richard Norman Shaw Archt. for their £500 premium. If the present allegations have sufficient validity, it seems that the Serpentine should take the moral high ground and rescind this commission immediately. As most galleries are doing with Sackler money. Public pressure could be brought to bear by boycotting the Serpentine.

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  • The RIBA gave Sou Fujimoto an International Fellowship shortly after their 2011 minimum wage enforcement and whilst banning unpaid internships for chartered practices.

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  • It seems that the alleged turn of events dictates a rescinding of the RIBA fellowship, and the return of any money awarded so that it can be used for a student hardship fund. Any money involved is members’ subscriptions, and appears to have been used for immoral purposes.

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  • What about Zaha's interns who probably helped design the gallery, and the "volunteer" positions that the serpentine offer that don't count as internships? This place is the global epicentre of this kind of ill scratch your back and pretend its meritocracy culture. It put me off the whole profession and London approach for years. We are damaging the quality of design work by promoting under qualified children of the rich and famous for access to clients

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  • Do architects need an actual Workers Union, and more moves away from the RIBA seeing as they only seem to want to represent clients and business owners?

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  • Perhaps the ARB should 'let go' starchitects guilty of operating sweatshops - is there a latterday Charles Dickens to expose these people?

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  • Any architect can ‘move away from the RIBA’, simply by never joining it or resigning from it...it is just a private members’ club. The historical schism between the RIBA and ARB continues, with the former responsible, ostensibly, for education and the latter with a statutory duty to maintain the register of architects (protection of title only). The former institution has attempted to acquire the latter since its inception (1936), as control of the register conveys statutory power, and the levying of an obligatory annual fee from all practitioners.

    The approach of the RIBA attempts to mimic the much older legal profession, such as the four inns (Gray’s Inn; Lincolns Inn; Temple & Middle Temple) which contribute to the training of barristers (with the exception of the fact that barristers must be the member of an Inn, which calls them to the bar). The Bar Council levies an annual fee (on a sliding scale according to fee income) for barristers’ practise certificates.

    The legal profession has medieval roots, unlike the architectural profession which is a late-Victorian construct. Unfortunately, I think this historical distinction has led to a rather flawed approach for the architectural profession. Most successful professions attempt to limit their numbers to the best qualified, which usually ensures their sustainability and economic viability. Accountants do this and so do barristers, as there are only about 500 pupillages available for 1,500 ‘graduates’ of the BPTC each year (and the BPTC qualification is only valid for 5 years). This fact is conveyed transparently to aspirants in a ‘health warning’ about the competitive nature of the profession.

    I think a far more flexible and possibly lax approach has afflicted the architectural profession, in which no attempt is made to limit numbers, and new schools of architecture have proliferated in recent years. Not to mention the new RIBA apprenticeships. The withdrawal of RIBA Part I & II exemption from educational establishments is exceedingly rare (eg Hull College, recently).

    Consequently, we seem to have increasing numbers of acolytes entering a much diminished and marginalised profession, whose prospects and earnings are described as ‘mournful’ by practitioners in annual AJ surveys. The inequitable position of the aspirants and young professionals would seem to dictate against unionisation. Unions are weakened due to neoliberal legislation and diminished numbers anyway.

    The supply and demand dictates of this inelastic marketplace is leading, quite logically (if immorally) to exploitation and what can only be described as ‘workplace slavery’ in extreme examples. Internships are widespread, opportunities to some and exploitation to others, across many industries, with the carrot usually being a paid job at the end, or experience that might lead to the same elsewhere.

    Education and transparency, to allow aspirants to make more informed career choices, is one way to ameliorate some of the individual bad experiences. Legislation is another, and peer pressure yet another. Some people are well off enough to genuinely volunteer (eg some retirees), but are they denying an opportunity to a young aspirant or encouraging unpaid internships by doing that?

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