Ishigami's Open Desk Policy Comes Under Fire

John Hill
25. March 2019
Image: Serpentine Pavilion 2019, Design Render, Interior View, © Junya Ishigami + Associates

(Updated 3/27) The Serpentine Gallery, which selected Junya Ishigami + Associates to design this year's Serpentine Pavilion, is being criticized over Ishigami's use of unpaid interns, a practice that runs counter to the UK's policy to pay all employees.

The Architects' Journal published a piece on Friday about how Ishigami's "award-winning practice uses unpaid interns in its Tokyo studio," a story that was subsequently picked up by the Guardian and other news outlets in the UK and beyond.

"Conditions" described in an email from Ishigami's office to a prospective intern that AJ obtained include a six-day work week, 11-hour days, and that interns use their own computers and software. All of this on top of no pay.

The Serpentine Gallery awarded Ishigami the prestigious commission for the Serpentine Pavilion a month ago. Ishigami is the first Japanese architect to design the pavilion in London's Kensington Gardens since Sou Fujimoto in 2013, two years after RIBA required all employees in chartered practices to be paid at least minimum wage.

Fujimoto has openly discussed his use of unpaid interns. Known in Japan as "open desk" policy, where students have the opportunity to work with famous architects and maybe be hired by them, Fujimoto described the practice as common there and a plus for both students and architects.

Given that the Serpentine Gallery must have been aware of Fujimoto's policy -- if not before his pavilion, then after it -- and that open desks are common, it is likely that it knew of the same situation in Ishigami's studio. Yet so far the Serpentine has only said, through a spokesperson, that it "only supports paid positions on all of its projects and commissions."

Update 3/27: Yesterday the Serpentine Gallery released a statement indicating that it will not allow unpaid internships on its projects, thereby forcing Ishigami's office to pay the interns working on this year's Serpentine Pavilion. A Serpentine spokesperson told AJ: "Junya Ishigami + Associates are now aware of the Serpentine’s policy that all positions working on the Serpentine Pavilion 2019 must be paid."
While this partial victory will allow the pavilion to move forward, it's certainly not the end of the controversy. If anything, it's just the start of a longer conversation about unpaid labor in a country that doesn't tend to discuss it yet also embraces it.

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