Class and connections can make or break a career, but does a class-ist culture serve the architecture profession well? Or does it limit the industry’s relevance to the community at large? Sam Perversi-Brooks digs down into the little-discussed but all-important issue of class.

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First, I’d like to preface this by stating that I am a man, I am white, I am straight, I am pretty much 6 feet tall and I am a registered, practising architect … So, I’m probably not the best candidate to comment with any great insight on many of the issues that Parlour engages with regarding equality in architecture. However, as ‘the norm’ (male, white, straight, tall-ish, registered, practising), I do believe I have something to say on class and creed in Australian architecture. This is based on my decade or so in the industry, and in reflections on my recent experience of starting my own practice after eight years at one of Melbourne’s ‘top-tier’ design firms.

I think architecture in Australia has a problem with class. This limits the profession and stifles creativity, innovation and difference.

Of course, many people are uncomfortable acknowledging the extent to which Australia still faces issues of class. It is not the intent of this essay to go into this in any great detail – here I want to focus on the implications of class on the architectural profession. But I encourage unconvinced, or further interested readers to delve more deeply into the class issue by pursuing The Conversation’s excellent series on Class in Australia, particularly Christopher Scanlon’s piece ‘Bogans and Hipsters…’, and Tim Winton’s brilliant essay for The Monthly ‘Some Thoughts About Class in Australia – The C Word’.[1.  Class in Australia series, The Conversation, (Accessed 3 July 2016) and Tim Winton, ‘Some thoughts about class in Australia – The C Word’, The Monthly Essays, Dec 13–Jan 14, 2013 (Accessed 3 July 2016).]

Class, defined simplistically, is ‘a system of ordering society whereby people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status’. Creed, on the other hand, is ‘a set of beliefs or aims which guide someone’s actions’. Class and creed are both bound up in tradition. For example, there’s the old adage, ‘behind every great man, is a great woman’. It’s tradition in Australia for women to take maternity leave while the man returns to work a couple of weeks after the birth of his child. It’s tradition that women are then afforded more flexible working conditions than their male colleagues because they are mothers. I’ve seen many occasions when a man asking for a more flexible work environment is scoffed at, ‘Oh we don’t do that. Only mothers are allowed to work in a part-time capacity.’ It’s ingrained – a tradition – that recent graduates believe they must work long hours of unpaid overtime in order to climb the ranks of the commercial architectural practice. And it’s tradition that directors of successful architecture companies are typically old and white and well connected. All of this is part of a class system as defined above. This is why class and creed are important topics to discuss within the context of Parlour’s larger mission.

I will start with my own experience, as this is what I’m best placed to reflect upon.

While still studying I was lucky enough to land a job at one of Melbourne’s leading design practices. I worked there for the remainder of my bachelor and masters degrees. I graduated from RMIT with the Anne Butler Memorial Prize. I worked hard, and I was lucky. After graduating, I was ‘groomed’ by this large design practice – I hope primarily due to my talents and skill-set, but I think also because I fit the architectural stereotype. I was exactly the type of person you could easily put in front of a room of clients, consultants or builders and feel ‘comfortable with’ – a ‘front-end guy’ as the directors referred to me on numerous occasions.

Yet I didn’t go to the ‘right’ schools. I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Tasmania – probably the ‘wrong’ state in many ways. So I don’t have the high-school connections, the established family and business networks ingrained by many long summers spent down at the Portsea beach house. I went to a Steiner primary school. My parents were … are … an artist (author/illustrator) and a primary school teacher (music/craft). I then went to a state high school and college (year 11 and 12 in Tasmania are separated in the state system), after turning down a bursary to Hutchins – Hobart’s equivalent of Melbourne Grammar or something (much to my parents’ horror!). Maybe my first taste of how class subtly operates was as the principal of the school only became particularly interested in me once I told him who my parents were – he clearly wanted them as part of the larger school community. I probably wasn’t particularly fussed by this at the time, however. It was more the unofficial school motto of ‘Moulding your boys into tomorrow’s leaders’, repeated time and time again during my application interview that really rubbed me up the wrong way, particularly the use of the word ‘mould’ in relation to an individual …

It is only recently, as I’ve ventured out on my own establishing Perversi-Brooks Architects, that I more clearly see how class comes into play. I’ve reflected upon whether that decision all those years ago – to not go to the wealthy, somewhat elitist boys school – was the right one. Certainly having lots of high-school friends wanting to renovate or rebuild their homes, or their parents’ beach houses, helps the projects flow in during the early years of running your own business. But obviously this was not the decision that I made at the ripe old age of 14, and on reflection it is not something I would change either, even though it would certainly help the cash flow!

I believe class plays a big role in architecture, one that is not often spoken about other than in jest, ‘Oh you’re just not hanging at the right bars!’. We’ve all heard the stories, true or not, of the radical architect, who can somehow ‘afford’ to do only great, interesting projects, because (so it is told) she/he is already independently wealthy, or has got a sugar mumma/daddy taking care of the bills behind the scenes. Isn’t it a great loss to the profession to have to be able to ‘afford to do great work’…?

Many (read most) of my architecture friends and colleagues, male and female, from university, and from the broader industry went to private schools (the right ones) or at the very least come from pretty comfortable backgrounds – they are what I would consider reasonably privileged.

I see myself in this light too, I’m certainly not the first one in my family to attend university, and both my parents are tertiary educated professionals who encouraged their children to pursue creative, meaningful work. For this I realise how lucky (and privileged) I really am. But they are certainly not upper class, and not working class, or what I would consider middle class either. Perhaps this lack of definition undermines my own argument – I don’t even clearly know what class I am. I guess if pushed I’d have to label it ‘creative class’. But that just sounds pretentious, and I don’t really even know what it means anyway.

In ‘Some thoughts about Class in Australia – the C Word’ , Tim Winton writes:
‘Range of choice, I discovered, was a key indicator of class. Some choices are conferred by birth, while others have to be won by hard work …The soundest measure of a person’s social status is mobility. And the chief source of mobility is money. Whether you’re born to it or accumulate it, wealth determines a citizen’s choices of education, housing, health care and employment. It will be an indicator of health, of longevity. Money still talks loudest. Even if it often speaks from the corner of its mouth. Even if it covers its mouth entirely.’

I’ve certainly been lucky to have parents who supported me to pursue a career in architecture, financially for the first year-and-a-bit when I moved to Melbourne to study, and earlier as a child when I expressed interest in architecture as a career. But I’ve also worked hard and now have a huge range of choice – I chose to leave my job in order to start my own practice, I can choose to travel to foreign countries for holidays and architectural inspiration, I can choose to say no to certain types of projects as fortunately I have enough money at this point to not worry about having to take on anything and everything that comes my way (mainly due to the fact that I never bought a house while I was employed, so have the deposit sitting in my bank account!)

Recently I bought a new car. After arriving on site for the last two years in my girlfriend’s 2003 Daewoo Kalos with dinted and scratched panels, I felt it had to be done. The poor old Daewoo was on its last legs anyway … When I told my mum that I’d just spent $20,000 on a two-year-old VW Tiguan she initially thought this was ridiculous – ‘More money than I’ve ever spent on a car and I’m 60!’. So I explained how it felt having potential clients size you up on arrival in a crappy old car. She also thought this was ridiculous – ‘You don’t want the type of clients who judge you on a car…?!’ But this is sometimes the reality, and I think it is money well spent. If you’re effectively in charge of how your client will spend their hundreds of thousands of dollars – for some, the biggest single investment they will ever make – then you want to be seen as a reasonable, diligent, professional person. Call it class-ism, call it what you like, you don’t want to be rocking up to site in a beat-up old Daewoo Kalos.

My girlfriend often comments that it is a privilege to be an architect (or an artist, or a musician, or any such creative field). And indeed it is. But the assumption that one has to be comfortable, wealthy, rich, or at the very least privileged in order to ‘indulge’ in a career such as architecture is very problematic. Yet sadly it isn’t hard to see how this can occur. To me it feels like it is increasingly becoming difficult for kids of a more humble, ‘working-class’ background to attend university, often having to move from a rural or outer suburban area to a big expensive city such as Melbourne or Sydney to study. That, combined with the many years of study, costs of living, and general lack of resources, probably makes it incredibly difficult to ‘indulge’ in the fantasy of studying architecture, or some other creative discipline. The ongoing Americanisation of the tertiary sector and the proposed deregulation of university fees, in my view, can only have an increased detrimental impact.

I often guest crit at Melbourne’s architecture schools and it is evident that the pool of students is becoming increasingly narrow. Yes, there are many international students (which is a good thing), but they are mostly from wealthy Asian backgrounds, which makes sense because they are the only ones who can afford to send their children here. In addition to this, the commodification of Australian tertiary education – the package deal: pass your university degree, gain PR, parents can now buy real estate to support your next project – seems an incredibly short-sighted thing for our universities, for the students, and for our education system.

The vast majority of architectural discourse has, for as long as I can remember, been so incredibly elitist that, frankly, it probably alienates many who may have longed to study architecture. It simply beats the desire out of them. I feel our institutions, and the industry more broadly, suffers because of this. Imagine the amazing contributions that could be made to our built environment if the architecture industry was much broader? I remember reading an article some time ago that mentioned how few indigenous architects there were practising in Australia. At the time I think it was two – now, I believe there are around ten. Just imagine the wealth of knowledge that just this one small demographic could add to our architecture schools, our understanding of Australian history, the landscape, and architectural culture in general.

A number of years ago I attended a wedding at a vineyard in the Mornington Peninsula and, in order to sample some of the local wines, I car-pooled there and back with some friends of the bride and groom who I’d never met before. I recall the bloke – a middle-aged factory worker – asking on the return journey what I did for a crust. When I replied that I was studying architecture, his response astonished me –

‘Oh yeah? I’ve never actually understood what architects actually do …’
I mumbled something in reply: ‘Oh well, I design buildings and stuff …’ I was a bit drunk and didn’t really want to engage in a discussion about the merits of architecture on the way home.
‘Yeah, but … I mean, all houses are pretty much the same … ya might have an extra bedroom or two, and the layout might be a bit different, but they’re all pretty much the same. So, what is it you guys actually do?’
Oh shit, I thought. ‘Well, I don’t actually design houses at the moment. I mostly work on university and public buildings …’
Coming to my senses a little bit ‘ … And what about people who live in apartments, aren’t their houses different to the ones you’re talking about?’
‘Yeah I guess so … hadn’t thought about that!’ he responded.

And on it went for a bit, until it was clear the conversation had passed the point of no return and I’d managed to divert it on to something much more innocuous, like how great the wedding band was. I felt unnerved. I wasn’t equipped at that point to defend the profession, as a mere student, on the way back from a wedding after a few too many reds, to this guy who ultimately couldn’t have cared less. But this conversation has stayed with me for years. I think what struck me so much is the extent to which we have marginalised ourselves as a profession by our exclusivity. We often only do projects for the wealthy, so much so that this guy, a pretty ordinary working-to-middle-class Australian, actually didn’t understand what we do, and couldn’t have cared less. It mattered so little to his life (in his eyes).

The sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argues in his book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, that class fractions are determined by a combination of the varying degrees of social, economic and cultural capital. Bourdieu argues that, in the main, people inherit their cultural attitudes, the accepted ‘definitions that their elders offer them’. According to Bourdieu, tastes in food, culture and presentation are indicators of class because trends in their consumption seemingly correlate with an individual’s fit in society. Each fraction of the dominant class develops its own aesthetic criteria. A multitude of consumer interests based on differing social positions necessitates that each fraction ‘has its own artists and philosophers, newspapers and critics, just as it has its hairdresser, interior decorator, or tailor.’ ‘[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a “sense of one’s place”, guiding the occupants of a given … social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position.’ Thus, different modes of acquisition yield differences in the nature of preferences.[3. Pierre Bourdieu Wikipedia. Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction. (Accessed 3 July 2016).]

Perhaps we architects are not engaged to work on the 97% of houses that are built without an architect, because we tend to come from the 3% who do engage architects. Perhaps the public (and the profession) would be better served by actively engaging with this issue, rather than pretending that class plays no role. Perhaps as Australian architects we should look at ourselves rather than blaming everybody else for the marginalisation of work (and it is marginal when you talk about only actively engaging with approximately 3% of the housing stock.) Blaming drafties, builders, developers, legislative or planning constraints, the reduced fees, the urban sprawl and the lack of infrastructure in our outer urban areas, will not help us address the oft-complained-about erosion of our profession.

We rarely acknowledge the extent to which personal connections support the careers of some architects. I recall reading a quote where, having won a business award, a young architect said something along the lines of ‘Anybody could do what we have done. You just need to be good at what you do, and work really hard.’ I agree that talent and hard work matter, but luck and circumstance also come into play – connections enable opportunities in which talent, hard work and initiative can flourish. Acknowledging this does not lesson the talent of the individual, but it does help us to understand the structural circumstances that we operate in, and to engage with them strategically.

Tim Winton finishes his essay ‘The C-Word’ by saying, ‘I have no illusions about overcoming class distinctions completely. Nor am I discounting the role that character plays in an individual’s fortunes.’

I too am firmly of the opinion that class distinctions can be partially addressed on an individual level, as can any limitation or issue of equality, whether it’s sex, race or religion. Of course, none of us choose our family background, and good (and bad) luck plays a massive role in anyone’s career. The bigger structural issues, however, are harder to overcome. But it is helpful to reflect upon how class impacts architecture, rather than simply brush it aside and argue that we live in an egalitarian society, a meritocracy where hard work and creative initiative will prevail.

Perhaps class is so under-discussed because there’s no clear fix. It’s not simply a case of eradicating bias, like so many of the other issues facing architecture (although these too are proving to be harder than one would hope). I don’t purport to have any answers to the issue, but I do hope that this article in some small way contributes to the start of a discussion.

Sam Perversi-Brooks is a Melbourne-based architect.