Dominika Janicka Talks to Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak
The new issue of the magazine is devoted to architecture. We begin with an interview with Dominika Janicka, curator of the Fair Building exhibition presented at the Polish Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice.
Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak: I remember your competition proposal; there was a reference in it how Zaha Hadid stormed out of a radio studio, having been asked about fatal worker accidents at construction sites in Qatar. We’re talking at a moment when — after her sudden death — everyone remembers her fondly, but a shadow on her image remains. Why did you decide to address the situation of workers during this particular event, the Architecture Biennale, curated by Alejandro Aravena? Why construction workers?
Dominika Janicka: Starting to work on the project, we knew only the main theme of the exhibition, ‘Reporting from the Front’. We began to ponder its interpretation. We decided to focus on the construction site, which in architectural debates is often separated from architecture itself, yet it is where the ‘work front’ runs; without construction we wouldn’t have the actual buildings. At roughly the same time, Duży Format (supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza) published a feature by Katarzyna Brejwo about crane operators, a feature that came to us, designers and architects, as a big surprise. We had had no idea of the scale of such workplace abuses in Poland. A few days later Zaha Hadid gave the famous interview to BBC radio, the one she broke off when confronted with an uncomfortable question. It had been a provocative question, of course, but we were greatly intrigued by her reaction nevertheless. Of course, she wasn’t directly responsible for the workers’ deaths, but she said very firmly that the architect wasn’t responsible at all for what happened at the construction site. This got us thinking. We wondered whether the architect should perhaps develop a broader picture of the process, pay attention not only to the end-user but also to the guy who builds the building, and the conditions in which he does so.
This connects with the perception of architecture in neoliberalism as an architecture of icons. Zaha Hadid is a flagship example, many of her comments reflected an arrogant attitude to the contractor. To what extent is the starchitect concept harmful to the discipline, to architecture? After all, architecture is by definition and by nature a collective art, and we still think of it in terms of the singular, inspired author . . .
This results from the way architecture is sold; it’s best when the building has one distinct designer. Preparing for our project, we also talked to architects. Some stressed that architecture was a collective work for which everyone took credit, including the workers at the end of the chain. Their role is actually crucial, because it’s their skills (or lack thereof) that largely determine the final effect. In fact, all of us — from the designers and engineers to the manual workers — contribute to how architecture actually looks and works. We believe that in our profession there’s a deficit of solidarity with the other groups involved in the process. We know that architects’ rights are frequently abused too, so by showing solidarity we’ll create better working conditions for ourselves.
Isn’t this utopian? Isn’t it so that the architects’ attitude and the exploitation of construction workers is a direct result of the neoliberal system and the logic of profit? Isn’t the logic inherent to the contemporary free-market system, and postulates of group solidarity can only try to put some make-up on the problem? Decisions about the process are made elsewhere anyway . . . I sense a certain noble naivety in what you say . . .
I think it’s a matter not so much of naivety as of foreseeing the consequences of your actions. The neoliberal system is so dominant that one can hardly imagine a world based on different principles. But the suggestion that the present system is the only one possible shouldn’t cause us to keep silent and turn a blind eye to what’s going on. We’re not economists and we wouldn’t like to pretend to be economic experts, but when one researches the subject, it’s obvious that something is wrong. Perhaps at this point in time the system seems logical, but it’s also temporary and we think it’s worth considering alternatives. The question remains, of course, of what has to happen for the change to take place.
I agree we should be doing something, but whatever it is, it should begin by questioning the logic of the system. Let’s return to the Biennale’s curator, Alejandro Aravena. Browsing through the competition proposals, I was struck that there was virtually not a single entry from Poland that would directly address the curator’s request for success stories, for examples from places where the neoliberal logic was being successfully challenged, where architects where getting truly involved in the community, making the built environment friendlier, better, in this world torn by dramatic injustices.
When Aravena elaborated on his vision of the Biennale’s theme, asking for positive examples, our competition had already been concluded. It’s true that the exhibition we’ve prepared is focused on a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, the norm. But still something can be changed through professional solidarity, and one example of a success story is that crane operators now have a union. Usually they are forced to work in dangerous weather conditions; if they protest, their bosses threaten to fire them, saying that many are eager to take their place. But if the employees are union members, they have more say. All agree to observe regulations, notifying the inspection authorities in case of non-compliance, so the employers are forced to acknowledge that cranes simply don’t work in such conditions.
Your project description mentions a crane operator named Arkadiusz. Will he be your actual protagonist? You also mention a documentary film is to be made.
Arkadiusz Hiller was the protagonist of the story in Duży Format (addition to Gazeta Wyborcza). Our documentary also revolves around him. Everything began with him, he introduced us to this closed world. At first, it was difficult to make those guys speak sincerely, first we had to win their trust. Researching the story involved visiting a dozen or so construction sites and a couple of worker hostels. We spent several night at those. Following the workers, we adopted their lifestyle, getting up early, working long regular hours. We slept at hostel in Łódź and Warsaw. Being a construction worker determines your life, forces you to become nomadic. They live six days a week at a hostel. On Saturday they often work, and it’s only late in the evening that they go home, to returning to the site on Monday morning.
What did you learn from those interviews?
Compared with the developing countries, the situation in Poland is not the worst. But it isn’t decent either. We were surprised to find out about practices we didn’t know existed — they aren’t discussed in the media, it’s all covered up — such as that of not reporting serious accidents or reporting them as ordinary, non-workplace collisions. When someone is reported injured or killed on a construction site, work has to be halted, which would mean losses for the investor. This is what happens in the EU. Many of the men we talked to had worked abroad, usually in Scandinavia, the UK or elsewhere in the EU. All of them said that work safety regulations were observed there, whereas in Poland the contractor always knew early enough when the inspectors would arrive so he could warn the workers . . . And it’s obvious that when you comply with all the safety and hygiene requirements, the work gets slower. Many of the men said that after the 2008 crisis they found themselves under pressure to work faster and longer or start looking for another job.
How long is their average working day?
It’s very long. We witnessed that ourselves. They often work over 12 hours a day, sometimes 14, and that’s five or six days a week. It’s hard work. We were tired ourselves and we were just accompanying the workers. The latter not only strain their backs, but are also exposed to toxic chemicals, noise etc. Most work freelance, if not without any contract whatsoever, so they have no medical or pension benefits. Unlike the coal miners, for example, they can’t apply for early retirement due to heavy working conditions. Some of the guys we talked to were over 55 and it was too late for them to retrain and seek employment in a different trade — they have to keep working hard without any hope for improvement.
Does the money at least make up for it? What’s the average pay?
An unskilled worker will get 11–12 zlotys an hour for a start. An experienced one will get a bit more. Working 300 hours a month — such figures were cited to us — you can earn a decent wage. But at what cost?
Nor do they have much reason to return early to their hostel . . .
The hostel feels like a continuation of the work site, because they are with the same people, return late, have just a moment to call their loved ones or watch some TV, and they go to sleep. They said it was a myth that they drank heavily, because you can’t afford that with such heavy work. They complained about the money and contracts, but when asked what they’d change, they often said that they needed some appreciation and a simple thank-you from their employer or superior. They were treated as simple navvies, who don’t have to do any brainwork. Yet, they stressed, ‘you have to think in this work too’.
They also spoke — something that surprised us greatly — about being proud of the work they did; what they do will last and that makes them happy; they like to drive or ride past buildings they’ve built, feeling satisfied they’ve contributed something to them too.
And what about unions? If I remember well, it was Arkadiusz Hiller who started a union organisation for crane operators.
The initiative has been quite successful, but it’s only for crane operators. They’ve been postulating a single organisation for all workers in the sector, but most people we’ve interviewed say that this is impossible in Poland because they are too many sub-contractors, so the crews don’t integrate.
There is also a sense in Poland that unions are not needed, that they only make life difficult. Over the last 25 years unions have been heavily discredited. But do workers expect any kind of support from the state?
Most of them are resigned and believe that nothing will change. Some expect reforms. A lot of hopes are being pinned on the new government, whose campaign pledges aimed at the working class included introducing a minimum wage and ensuring better working conditions.
How are you going to present these issues in the exhibition?
We’ve decided to make a documentary film illustrating the process of construction: from the foundations to the finished building. Thus we’ll show the scale of the works and their duration. The collective protagonist are the construction workers, who talk to us about their work: about accidents and poor conditions, but also the satisfaction it can offer.
I wonder what kind of architect-worker relationship these interviews suggest . . .
We’ve also talked to architects to find out what they think about the workers. There were two kinds of responses. Most believe that the workers play an important role, because the building’s final look depends on their skill and expertise. They also admit that workers often know more about materials than architects. Some, though, said that the workers were just a tool for realising the architect’s ideas.
So they were displaying a sense of superiority. How does it look like from your perspective?
I’ve mostly done interiors and small-scale street furniture, but those weren’t typical projects. It was crucial for the contractor to understand the design so that he might get truly involved. Usually the workers helped us, sharing their knowledge and expertise; without them our ideas would have never been realised.
I have a sense that architects have recently been feeling a growing need for a material breakthrough. Poured concrete have been used for over a hundred years on construction sites and even advanced, parametric forms, like Zaha Hadid’s, are realised in a highly conventional manner. The question is whether the construction worker’s profession is eventually going to become obsolete.
We’ve reflected on this and we believe this won’t happen in any foreseeable future. Looking back, not so much has changed in the way we build. You need human hands, if only to start a machine. We’ve also seen innovative projects, like the brick-laying robot shown in the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice in 2008. But these are good for mass production, which architecture generally isn’t.
Patrick Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid’s office, says that architecture has nothing to do with ethics. Being an architect means designing forms, and there are no moral issues involved. Is Aravena’s a voice calling in the wilderness (even if it’s a Pritzker-winning voice) and the workplace realities are determined largely by people like Schumacher?
I think the Pritzker does change something. By the way, Schumacher criticised Aravena’s appointment as the Biennale’s curator.
In fact, he doesn’t consider him to be an architect at all.
But perhaps he’s exactly the architect 2.0? Looking at young architects in Poland, I believe they operate more consciously. They know architecture is a collective process. They form all kinds of collectives and organise community projects. Sometimes the effect is temporary only, but it still reflects the present-day yearnings or priorities, and can define the direction in which architecture is going.
Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak — chief editor of the quarterly Autoportret. Pismo o dobrej przestrzeni, president of the Institute of Architecture Foundation in Kraków, curator of architecture exhibitions.