Elemental ends internships amid growing row over unpaid work in architecture studios

Chilean architecture studio Elemental has announced it is ending internships after getting caught up in an escalating row about the practice of unpaid labour in architecture.

Elemental, headed by Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena, wrote to Dezeen today to announce the decision, saying that “given the current state of the debate … we have decided to close our internship positions.”

Elemental “could not afford to pay” its interns

In its email the studio, which has built a reputation for socially aware design and innovative affordable-housing solutions, set out its reasons for hiring unpaid interns in the past.

“Knowing that we could not afford to pay the interns, we suggested candidates to apply to scholarships in their country of origin, and many students came with grants for such professional training purposes,” it wrote.

“Following these conditions we have had more than 150 interns, with an average ranging from three to five at a time.”

Elemental ends internships
Pritzker Prize-winner Alejandro Aravena’s studio Elemental has announced it is suspending its internships scheme

The studio complained that Dezeen had failed to contact the studio when reporting claims of unpaid internships at the firm in a recent news story. In fact, Dezeen submitted questions via the architects’ contact page last week.

Campaign against unpaid labour in architecture gathers pace

Elemental was one of the first architects named by designer Adam Nathaniel Furman in his #archislavery campaign on Instagram to tackle unpaid internships in the profession.

His campaign hit the news this week after it emerged that Serpentine Pavilion architect Junya Ishigami was offering unpaid positions. Yesterday the Serpentine Gallery ordered Ishigami to use only paid employees on the project.

In its email to Dezeen, Elemental defended its internships, saying it felt they provided “a fair exchange [of] time for experience” and that interns could gain experience of designing social housing that they couldn’t get at university.

Following a survey of past interns in 2015 the studio said it had made improvements, such as providing medical insurance and improvements to the shared workspace.

However the studio said it was ending internships in order to protect its professional reputation.

Elemental focuses on socially responsible design

Based in Santiago, Elemental is renowned for its socially driven architecture. Projects include the Qunita Monroy affordable housing project, which provides residents with a shell they can later add to themselves.

In 2016 Aravena directed the Venice Architecture Biennale and was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture the same year. Following the honour, he released plans for several of his housing projects free to the public as open-source designs.

Photography is by Christobel Palma.

Here is the letter from Elemental in full:

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