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Weekend roundup: Architecture’s illegal long-hours culture

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Architects ‘pressured’ into opting out of Working Time Directive • Cass set to stay in East End • O’Donnell and Diller’s Budapest connection

Architecture has a reputation for long working hours. Apart from the adverse effect on architects’ general wellbeing, it has been blamed for entrenching the profession’s male domination. Women still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities, which are generally incompatible with a long-hours culture. 

But now it appears that many practices are breaking the law to perpetuate these conditions. 

The AJ’s recent Working in Architecture survey has revealed that employers are forcing staff to opt out of the EU Working Time Directive, which enforces an average 48-hour working week. A large number of respondents said their employers told them they would not hire them unless they signed away their rights. To be clear, this is illegal. 

The working time directive’s prime purpose is to protect working conditions for employees; but also, by creating a statutory level playing field, to make it easier for employers to provide good conditions without the risk of making themselves less competitive compared with less caring businesses. 

It’s important to stress that the 48-hour limit applies to average hours – usually measured over a 17-week period. If architects have to work longer hours in the run-up to a key deadline, this is fine so long as it is balanced out by shorter hours at other times. 

Which would all be great except that when the measure was first implemented in the 90s, the UK government insisted on an opt-out clause, whereby employees can agree to waive their rights – a loophole that this country has exploited somewhat more enthusiastically than others. It is, however, optional, ‘you can’t be sacked or treated unfairly for refusing to do so’ spells out the gov.uk website

Even if the opt-out is part of an architect’s contract, they can choose to cancel the agreement by giving up to three months’ notice. But the reality surely is that anyone doing so might be feeling particularly nervous the next time their company needed to make job cuts. 

RCKa’s Russell Curtis is unimpressed, tweeting that this approach suppresses fees and diminishes quality, while Victoria Simpson of DLG Architects was one of several to suggest the RIBA should strip offending practices of their chartered status. 

With the end of freedom of movement looming, a shortage of architects could mean longer hours become even more widespread. Though on the flip side, once we’re freed of the yoke of EU restrictions, the entire Working Time Directive could be dropped, with no legal limit to working hours. Roll on progress! 

Poll: How should the RIBA respond to practices that force architects to opt out of the Working Time Directive? 
• Take legal action 
• Revoke chartered status 
• Strongly urge them not to 
• It shouldn’t get involved 
Vote here 

Our previous poll asked whether you agreed with the High Court’s ruling against Neo Bankside residents, who wanted Tate Modern to close off part of its viewing platform. Eighty per cent agreed with the ruling.

Cass backtrack – something to mull over

Cass staff and students protest outside Central House

Cass protest 2

Staff and students protest against plans to move the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design from east London

London Metropolitan University is set to confirm that its Cass School of Architecture is staying put in east London – a major U-turn on long-standing plans to move the department to the university’s main Holloway Road campus in north London. 

How will the school’s former dean, Robert Mull, feel about this news? He was suspended by the university in 2015 after refusing to support the planned move and resigned a few weeks later.

The department’s home at Central House had been described as the ‘Aldgate Bauhaus’ and included an interior designed by Florian Beigel’s Architecture Research Unit, which was based at the school. 

And Mull was far from the only person not to embrace the university’s ‘exciting plans’. They were opposed by large numbers of the school’s students and staff, who expressed concern that the move would be used as an excuse to cut courses and reduce the generous space they enjoyed. 

Indeed their campaign was backed by Richard Rogers, David Chipperfield, Eric Parry and Peter St John as well as then Tate director Nicholas Serota. They were among the signatories to a letter, published in The Observer, which argued that moving the Cass ‘would destroy its own rich ecology and diminish the diversity and opportunities of its East End location’. 

Certainly the move wasn’t motivated by any urge to improve the school’s educational experience. Rather it was part of attempts to recover from major financial problems

In 2008, London Met was caught misreporting data on student dropouts and the funding council sought to claim back £56 million. Then four years later the UK Border Agency banned the university from taking non-EU international students as part of then home secretary Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. 

The upshot was it lost half its international students and a significant amount of income. The hope was that selling the Cass’s Aldgate home – for £50 million – would help ameliorate the situation. 

The sale went ahead and the building is now being revamped and extended by AHMM. The architecture students, meanwhile, moved to a ‘temporary home’ at the university’s Calcutta Complex also in Aldgate. There they joined the Cass’s art and design departments, which had moved from Commercial Road the year before. 

And there they now seem set to stay, following the appointment of a new London Met vice-chancellor, Lynn Dobbs, who is apparently less hell-bent on centralising the university’s various outposts. 

Cass head Andy Stone has expressed delight that all three departments are, for the first time, ‘working under one roof’, while stressing that, by staying in Aldgate, the school can strengthen its local relationships. 

The arguments made by the staff and students – ie the people who actually knew the school – appear to have prevailed. However, the Cass has emerged from these shenanigans a depleted force, with considerably fewer architecture students and a tarnished reputation. At least with its future settled, it can start to rebuild.

O’Donnell and Diller’s Budapest connection

Sheila O’Donnell

Sheila O’Donnell

Sheila O’Donnell

Congratulations to O’Donnell + Tuomey, which has another award that isn’t the Stirling Prize to add to its collection. Specifically, founding director Sheila O’Donnell was yesterday (Friday) named Women in Architecture’s Architect of the Year for her work on the practice’s recently completed Central University Building in Budapest. 

O’Donnell picked up the prize at a glittering ‘luncheon’ where New York architect Elizabeth Diller was collecting her Jane Drew Prize, which celebrates those who have raised the profile of women in the profession. 

The two will have had plenty to talk about. Not only are they both designing schemes for the V&A’s east London outpost, they now both have projects in Budapest, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro this week winning a contest to design a new home for the Hungarian Museum of Transport in the city. 

That victory has left a trail of disappointed major names in its wake – with Fosters, Chipperfield, Caruso St John and Amanda Levete’s AL_A all on the shortlist. 

It’s a sign of the practice’s increasing international dominance. While it made its name with a host of imaginative cultural schemes in New York, the Budapest job comes hot on the heels of wins for a £150 million art gallery in Adelaide, the V&A archive in east London and the Centre for Music in the City of London. 

Diller will be hoping her Budapest experience turns out better than O’Donnell’s. Future phases of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s project for Hungary’s Central University seem unlikely to complete following attacks on the institution by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. The university is now looking to relocate to Vienna. 

The Women in Architecture event also saw the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture awarded to Xu Tiantian, founder of Beijing-based practice DnA. 

Former AJ editor Christine Murray put together a little something to mark the event.

Also this week

  • Hawkins\Brown has launched Studio Scotland, a new office with a presence in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The practice already has branches in London and Manchester and is expanding after winning work at both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities. The office will be run by Edinburgh-based Peter McLaughlin.
  • UNESCO has added its voice to those opposed to David Adjaye’s Holocaust Memorial in central London. The organisation’s International Council on Monuments and Sites says the structure will ‘dominate’ Victoria Tower Gardens and detract from how Westminster World Heritage Site is experienced. Meanwhile, Adjaye has been commissioned to design Ghana’s first national pavilion for the Venice Art Biennale, which takes place later this year.  

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Diller Scofidio and Renfro only just missed out on seeing their reworking of Union Terrace Gardens, in the center of Aberdeen, adopted - but the real tragedy there was when the brilliant previously consented design by Brisac Gonzalez was foiled.

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