Out of Display, Out of Mind? A Discussion About the Erasure of Construction Workers in Architecture Exhibitions

Beatriz da Silva Takahashi
CITCEM – Transdisciplinary Research Centre «Culture, Space and Memory»; Group: Tangible and Intangible Heritage. 
McGill University
SAH – Society of Architectural Historians; Group: Minority Scholars

Architecture exhibitions are powerful in mediating the encounter between the public and architecture. Usually, photographs, videos, models, drawings, and interviews with architects among other objects that are part of the exhibition embody the only experience that the audience will have with architectural projects and the making of their respective built environment. Therefore, it is safe to affirm that these exhibitions have the ability in shaping the public’s eye about architecture. However, what happens when exhibitions center the architects as the sole and autonomous genius and dismiss the contribution of other agents such as the construction workers? This paper argues that the erasure of construction workers in architecture exhibitions puts a distance between the audience and architecture by offering a partial frame of the topic. Such a frame is often characterized by the promotion of dominant narratives that privilege idealized imagery of architecture and the role of architects blurs the conflicts in the making of the built environment. From the enslaved subject to the migrant, often racialized, construction worker, from the past to the present, their labor allows us to understand how architectural projects have been conceived and made, as well as the conflicts carried in them. Accordingly, the alienation of construction workers in architecture exhibitions also contributes to delaying the advancement of discussions about their working conditions – e.g., low wages, exploitation, the racialization of labor, and modern-day slavery –, and collective awareness of their placement in the limelight in the making of architecture. As mediators between the public and architecture, these exhibitions have the potential to address alternative and inclusive narratives that foment critical discussions that leads from the exploitation and racialization of labor to the demystification of the architecture professional. Finally, architecture exhibitions have the potential to contribute to the placement of construction workers in the limelight of architecture.

Keywords: construction workers, architecture professional, architecture exhibition. 

Beatriz da Silva Takahashi is a Ph.D. student in Architecture at Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture – McGill University, researching labor within architecture through photography. She has a Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the University of Porto (Portugal), and a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture and Urbanism from São Paulo State University (Brazil). Currently, she is a research assistant in the project MCHG: Design for the Global Majority Exhibition. Her interests are labor, modernist Brazilian architecture, and visual culture. She has actively collaborated in cultural and educational institutions in Brazil, Portugal, and Canada by working with museum collections and exhibitions, developing strategies for cultural mediation, and undertaking transdisciplinary research.