• Built with Blood – Labor Exploitation in US Construction

    I am Mette Aamodt. I’m an architect and founder of slowspace.org, which is basically a community of architects, designers, builders, artisans, activists, and lots of other people who care about our built environment. Together with my partner Andrew Plumb, we are starting a movement and we call it Slow Space. It is slow food for the built environment, and we have a manifesto. “Our world is covered in junk space: bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make you and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Every day more of these buildings go up, but we say, ‘Enough is enough.’ The Slow Space Movement aims to end the mindless proliferation of junk space, to educate the public on the physical and psychological dangers and to inspire architects, designers, builders and artisans to stand up for buildings that are good, clean and fair.”

    In today’s video, I’m going to talk about the issue of fairness in the construction industry and I’m going to tell you the story of Luis. This is a true story. It was reported in The Boston Globe by Beth Healy and Meg Woolhouse in September, 2016. Okay, Luis was a 15 year old boy originally from Ecuador and living in Brockton, Massachusetts, attending high school there. One summer a couple of years ago, he took a summer job for a roofing company to make some extra money for his family. The job was in Maine. He was working on a house in Portland helping to fasten roofing shingles.

    One day he fell, and he tumbled down two stories and he severely shattered his leg. His employer did not call an ambulance. Instead, a coworker transported him 75 miles across state lines in the back of an old construction van to a Massachusetts hospital where he received emergency care. Luis was in severe pain. I don’t know how long it took them to get back to Massachusetts, but 75 miles in traffic takes a long time in these parts. He said, “I couldn’t breathe, much less talk. It’s pain you don’t forget.” The general contractor on the job said it wasn’t his responsibility because Luis was being paid by a subcontractor by the name of Force Construction. The JC had run regular background checks on Force and had confirmed at the time that they hired him that they had liability insurance and Workers’ Comp.

    Luis was actually being paid by another subcontractor called Twin Pines Construction and this was a company owned by the same person that owned Force. His name was Fernandes. That summer, Fernandes had let his Workers’ Comp policy lapse a month before Luis fell off the roof. This was not an isolated incident, by the way on the jobs of Fernandes and his companies. He and his companies have been cited for more than 100 violations and have racked up $1.5 million in fines from OSHA. Luis did eventually receive the medical care that he needed. He was transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital and a rod was surgically placed in his femur. A workers’ advocate helped him navigate all of his medical appointments and paperwork, and a Medford lawyer helped him to sort through the tree of subcontractors until they finally found one who had insurance to cover him.

    Luis is one of thousands of people, many undocumented, many children, who fill the need for cheap labor in Boston’s booming construction industry. They hold slabs of sheetrock and climb rooftops and dusty scaffolds, doing often dangerous work for contractors looking for cheap labor. They’re not on the books. They’re paid illegally in cash and for much less than the prevailing wage. The workers advocate who helped Luis said this is not about catching a few bad apples. We have evolved a system for providing subsidized labor to build our houses and it’s based on the vulnerability of the workforce.

    Luckily, at least in the US, we have laws aimed at preventing this type of thing, but enforcement is difficult and there are many ways to get around it. For example, many contractors would prefer to just pay the fines rather than to change their ways. Everyone complains about the cost of construction, but actually the true cost is not even being counted. If you take the example of Luis, his suffering subsidized the cost of the roofing job on that project.

    Many prefer to look the other way and I’ve been guilty of that in the past, but this is an issue we want to bring into the light. If you care about these issues, if this is something that’s important to you, that you’re interested in, and you care about good, clean and fair buildings for all, then please join us by subscribing to our mailing list at slowspace.org and/or liking us on our Facebook page. That’s facebook.com/slowspacemovement. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you there.

  • Slow Space Manifesto

    Say No To Junkspace.

    Say Yes To Good, Clean, Fair Buildings For All.

    #slowspace

     

    Our world is covered in junkspace* – bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make you and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Every day more of these buildings go up, but we say enough! The Slow Space Movement aims to end the mindless proliferation of junkspace, to educate the public on its physical and psychological dangers and to inspire architects, designers, builders and artisans to stand up for buildings that are good, clean and fair for all.
    *junkspace credit: Rem Koolhaas, 2001

  • Williams & Tsien: Slowness and the Folk Art Museum

    In 1999 Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien wrote an article entitled “On Slowness” referring to the slow speed of hand drafting, the slow careful thought process of designing and the slow perception and experience of space. The article can be read in full on their website. They quote Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness and the powerful relationship between time and memory.

    “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time. In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

    They describe how as their work has evolved its essence become more difficult to capture in photographs. The spaces need to be experienced, quietly, slowly, particularly as the buildings relate to the landscape. It is difficult for them to describe their work as well. “So there is no quick take on our work; no singular powerful image that is able to sum it all up.” Perhaps this makes the work more difficult to appreciate in the sound-bite and media driven world we live in.

    There is no singular powerful image able to sum it all up.

    In 2001 Williams Tsien inaugurated their biggest work to date, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Opening to critical acclaim and numerous awards the exquisitely detailed building embodied all of the aspects of slowness that they wrote about. Michael Kimmelman wrote in a New York Times piece “Those bespoke, domestic-size spaces, like the building’s sober hammered bronze facade, share something with the handicraft of the folk art museum’s collection; the building has a rootedness, a materiality, an outsize claim to significance.” The hammered bronze facade even included a panel inscribed with the names of all the workers who helped to build the museum showing their respect to the craftsmen who gave the building their love.

    The Folk Art Museum was located on a small site surrounded on three sides by the Museum of Modern Art. Kimmelman writes “It stands proudly on the street, the unfashionable antithesis of generic, open-ended modernism, the opposite of what Diller Scofidio now envisions in its place, with its paradigm of indefinite and perishable culture.” He is referring to the fact that in 2014 the MOMA swallowed up the Folk Art Museum and demolished it to make room for its own never-ending expansion. After only 13 years the building was consumed by fast growth and a gem of Slow Space was lost.

    Update: I just learned that so many architects and others were upset by this and the hashtag #folkMOMA was created in protest of the demolition of the Folk Art Museum and the MOMA in general (also Diller, Scofidio & Renfro).

    Image: “NYC, 45 West 53rd Street” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Detlef Schobert

  • Architecture Has Become Disposable

    With every new innovation architecture is creating its own obsolescence. The race for taller, greener, more cutting edge building narrows the window of time each preceding iteration can be marveled. If every few years there is a new city chasing the Bilbao effect won’t there be a point of diminishing returns? Will tourists race to one city only to find they then have to turn around to get to another?

    If it is the newness that is so exciting what happens when these iconoclastic buildings become old? Do they retain any value? Or do they quickly become passé?

    This is not just the case for “it” buildings. In many parts of the US people don’t want to buy a “used,” I mean old, house. It’s like a car. There is always a newer model. So instead of maintaining, renovating and adapting their homes to their changing life circumstances, they trade up. Vast tracks of spec homes will be abandoned after they are no longer new. Instead of increasing in value these homes are losing value. As they should be actually. They are usually built of such poor quality that they are not meant to last more than 30 or 40 years. Then what happens? Are they demolished? That costs money too. Not to mention the waste. THE WASTE. That is the real issue.

    We see it in fashion. The world is covered in our discarded garments. There are not enough needy people in the world to give them too, and most are of such poor quality that many don’t even want those hand-me-downs (Samson). Then there are the waste byproducts of clothing production as well as the enormous water use.

    Starchitecture has been terrible for architecture and the built environment.

    Every building is an ICON, so then none of them are. The explosion of architecture blogs and publications has been feeding the frenzy of consumption, with every day a new batch of exciting buildings being published online. Design is tailored to the image it will produce, the “money shot.” Because perhaps that is all that really matters in the end? Very few people will actually experience the building and very few people will care after the initial glow has worn off. The media cycle will have moved on to something else. The trend will pass and when the newness has worn off it will likely be replaced with something else.

    Design and construction is moving faster and faster to keep pace with technology. But Starchitect Rem Koolhaas still laments its slowness (Koolhaas). But it is speed that is the problem. Architecture can and should not be fast and should not compete with technology. Architecture has a 3,000 year history. It is the (second) oldest profession. The Great Pyramid at Giza took 20 years to build by 100,000 workers. Chartres Cathedral was built over a period of 30 years. Both of these structures have survived more than 1,000 years and are celebrated as world treasures. That’s not likely to be the case for anything built today.

    Image: “Demolition” (CC BY 2.0) by MICOLO J Thanx 4, 3.1m views