Living Labor

Rendered depiction of the architectural intervention that add programming for ‘living labor’ at an automotive plant.

From Master’s Final Project with Vahan Miskayan as critic, Spring 2019

The activity of work comprises a vast amount of human history, human life, and the built environment. Design innovations have historically led to new working conditions - creating the machinery that enabled the industrial revolution and the modern metropolis, transforming the medieval chaucery to the first modern offices. These designs do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of a complex web of politics, technology, and culture. Commenting on contemporary events, Mark Fisher suggests:

After the bank bail-outs neoliberalism has, in every sense, been discredited we are now in a political landscape littered with what Alex Williams called ‘ideological rubble’ - it is year zero again, and a space has been cleared for a new anticapitalism to emerge which is not necessarily tied to the old language or traditions.

While the neoliberal dream of transforming the commons into a profit generating ventures tenuously lives through the ambitions of Sidewalk Labs, WeWork, and Facebook, “Year Zero” presents new opportunities. Architects and designers have the chance to reimagine programmatic and formal configurations in light of the ideological rubble that populates the world. This rubble is the leftover of what once was - from the morality tales of “when I was your age” to the shared ideologies tacitly perpetuated in work lunches and commutes. As work becomes increasingly unrecognizable to those who created these ideals, the utility of these rituals, the shared belief in their proletarian value, is worth examination and preservation.
What sorts of modes of living and working can be imagined to address the privatized commons, the collapsing of work & life, and the blurring of public & private? The project investigates places that have been left out of the shared futurist imagination - coal mining towns, manufacturing communities, truck stops, and the industrial exurbs of an economy transitioning into hyper-automated, disparate, globalized, system. This project proposes that architecture can be a vector of the future and medium for utopian imagination.

LEFT: Diagram mapping work-live environments. RIGHT: Axonometric project of the Ideal Monastery at St. Gall.

What’s so terrifying about a world without work?
John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek in the 21st century his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes thought that the primary challenge for future people was to figure out “how to occupy the leisure.” Despite Keynes’ predictions, the working day has become the center of American life. Samuel P. Huntington writes that Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later than people in comparably rich societies.”

Atlantic writer Derek Thompson suggests in his article “The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable” that working has morphed “into a kind of religion, [that promises] identity, transcendence, and community.” Technological advancements threaten negating the opportunity for many to participate in the culture of work; this population could become adrift without workism to organize time and dictate value. Automation is reconfiguring who and what can perform work. As robots begin performing more and more jobs, there will be less work for human beings. It’s not just automation, but outsourcing, cost saving, environmental concerns, and government regulation that also drives people out of work. The fear of loss of work has caused such uproar that it is now a political issue - a currency that produces massive taxbreaks for “job creators” and has become a central issue in a political campaigns around the United States.

Why all this fear? What is so terrifying about a world without work?
It could be the loss of job: a full-time job allows access healthcare, pension, groceries, housing, an identity, transcendence, and value. It could be the loss of feeling useful: the working day is the central organizing principle of American life.
This project accepts Year Zero as a challenge to identify the rituals that support working life and attempt to preserve them; assuming a tumultuous shift for those individuals whose jobs are lost, and posing an architectural intervention to mollify the transition through preservation and creation of living labor.

Surplus Rituals
The infrastructure and rituals surrounding the working day will now make up the ideological rubble in a world without work. These rituals are the mundane, often overlooked aspects of daily life that surround and support the working day that is - the alarm clock, morning coffee, the daily commute, lunch break with co-workers, the break room, and the subsequent happy hour, night life, and so on. Without the working day as an organizing element, these rituals become surplus.

Mark Fisher describes Year Zero as an opportunity for something new. This project proposes that the world without work is a one full of living labor which preserves the rituals of the working day in order to construct a new commons out of the spaces left behind by capitalism. What is the world without work? This answer requires deconstructing what work really means. To Hannah Arendt, the difference between work and labor is clear: work is the production of human artifice, and labor is the cyclical maintenance of life itself. A world without work need not be a world without labor.

LEFT: Satelite imagery of the existing truck stop.  RIGHT: Mapping a working day for a Truck Driver in the American Midwest.

Notation analyzing the rituals of truck driving.

Mapping the Working Day
Using YouTube, documentaries, and other primary sources, typical days for a coal miner, surface miner, steel worker, automotive manufacturer, and a truck driver were mapped. Each of these maps began in the domestic space - the home, the apartment, or the truck stop (see page 2). Days typically started with an alarm clock, then a shower, followed by changing clothes, grabbing a cup of coffee, making breakfast, and packing a lunch before beginning the commute to the workplace. After the commute, the rituals of the working day diverged as they were defined by the type of work being performed: social or commercial productivity. These rituals were then translated into a notational system that transcribed the rituals out like music using attention, duration, social productivity, and working productivity as the basis for the diagram.

The intention of this notational drawing was to defamiliarize the working day in order to see these five places anew. The logic of the notational system was then applied to the hypothetical Year Zero work day: more time at the workplace is dedicated to social productivity, as opposed to commercial productivity. This projected mapping imagines what a day would look like if it were full of living labor, the starting point for the architectural intervention.

Rendered depiction of the architectural intervention at the Truck Stop.

Modified notation of the rituals of a truck driver that transitions the truck stop to support living labor.
Plan of an existing truck stop with added programming for ‘living labor.’

LEFT: Satelite imagery of the existing coal mine outside of Welch, WV.  RIGHT: Mapping a working day for a coal miner. 

Notation analyzing the rituals of mining.

Rendered depiction of the architectural intervention at the Truck Stop. Modified notation of the rituals of a truck driver that transitions a coal mine to support living labor.
Plan of an existing coal mine with added programming for ‘living labor.’

Rendered depiction of the architectural intervention at a Steel Mill.

Rendered depiction of the architectural intervention at a Surface Mine.