Dezeen Magazine

Southern California Institute of Architecture

Tom Wiscombe and Marrikka Trotter apologise for "high-pressure office culture" after being suspended by SCI-Arc

Two SCI-Arc faculty members who were put on administrative leave for suggesting that architecture students should work long hours for low pay have apologised for their comments.

"We know we have an intense, high-pressure office culture," wrote Wiscombe, who heads Los Angeles studio Tom Wiscombe Architects, in a post on his Instagram account.

Students "absolutely tired" of failures

"We acknowledge that students are just absolutely tired of being faced with industry-wide failures that reduce access, exhaust workers, and create little outlook," added Wiscombe, who is also undergraduate program chair at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).

"We completely understand that as a couple at one school, both with administrative roles, it can seem like we have unfairly consolidated power, and we acknowledge that some faculty and students feel that way."

The apology came after Wiscombe and Marrikka Trotter, who is SCI-Arc theory coordinator and an associate at Tom Wiscombe Architects, were placed on administrative leave on 30 March, after Trotter spoke in a talk called "How to be in an office" on 25 March.

Apology follows backlash over panel discussion comments

During the talk, which was part of SCI-Arc's "Basecamp" recorded lecture series, Trotter advised students and recent graduates to work at "boutique" studios to gain experience.

"When you commit to a project, to a firm, when you commit to a principal, and you really invest, then I guarantee you they will invest in you," Trotter said during the panel discussion.

"They will pay you as much as they possibly can and be happy to do it."

Trotter compared the experience of working at large and small practices. "Is it like a 40-hour workweek that you can barely get through, or is it a 60-hour workweek that you can't wait to start every day?" she said.

"So you got to choose your poison on that one."

Top image: the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. Above: The "How to be in an office" panel was criticised for promoting long work hours

Immediately after the panel, criticism of the panellists’ statements began appearing online.

Many students, alumni, and others in the architectural community, felt the panel discussion – which was led by Trotter and involved educators Margaret Griffin and Dwayne Oyler – condoned negative labour practices in the industry.

The Twitter thread #HowNotBeInAnOffice pointed out perceived flaws in the commentary, as well as general trends of exploitative labour practices in the field.

Olly Wainwright, British newspaper The Guardian’s architecture critic, shared a thread about the discussion, saying: "Wow, this thread is a terrifying window on US architectural education."

Advocacy group The Architecture Lobby tweeted: "The Architecture Lobby stands in solidarity with the students and alumni at SCI-Arc in their struggle against labor abuses by faculty."

"This behavior isn’t just a few bad actors but endemic across architecture education and it’s time we put an end to it. More to come soon!"

Trotter and Wiscombe put on leave pending investigation

The fallout led to Trotter and Wiscombe being put on leave by the school, pending an official investigation.

"We are currently reviewing both our internship policies and practices and studio culture to identify areas of improvement and reform," SCI-Arc said in a statement on 5 April 2022.

"The school has engaged an external firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations raised by students. The two faculty members in question have been plac​ed on administrative leave until the investigation has been completed".

The decision was made following a petition launched by students, citing both the statements made by Trotter and allegations of general malpractice at TWA.

Specific instances cited were not explicitly mentioned in Trotter’s talk, but the video and fallout were linked in the petition.

"They leveraged their power within our institution to persuade undergraduate students into deferring their education for a semester in order to work on a competition for their office, only for these students to be severely overworked and mistreated by them," said the petition.

"It can seem like we have unfairly consolidated power"

On Sunday 3 April, Tom Wiscombe released a statement on his personal Instagram account acknowledging the need for change at TWA.

"We know we have an intense, high-pressure office culture at TWA, especially during deadlines, which have been particularly relentless over the past months," he wrote.

"This relentlessness is exacerbated by my own drive to always improve our work until the last minute, and also my own fears of failure as we grow and take on the responsibilities of larger, real architectural projects. I know it is exhausting and takes a toll on every single person involved, mentally and physically, and we should have set clear boundaries and asked more questions."

"While we can’t answer for the wrongs of our entire field, we can and will be responsible for the things that we do in our small office."

"We completely understand that as a couple at one school, both with administrative roles, it can seem like we have unfairly consolidated power, and we acknowledge that some faculty and students feel that way," he added.

"We want to change at TWA. We have started a series of workshops with our staff at TWA on how to work in a thoughtful, sensitive way that is empowering for everyone."

SCI-Arc was founded in Los Angeles in 1972 by a group of architects and designers led by modernist Ray Kappe.

Other labour disputes in the architectural industry in the United States include the recent move within SHoP architects for unionisation, spurred on by what employees have called exploitative practices.

The main image is of SCI-Arc in Los Angeles.