The architecture meltdown

One of the coolest creative-class careers has cratered with the economy. Where does architecture go from here?

Topics: Art in Crisis, Editor's Picks, Design,

The architecture meltdownAn unfinished residential building (left) is seen on a mountain in Estepona, near Malaga, southern Spain, Jan. 31, 2012. (Credit: Jon Nazca / Reuters)

When the Great Recession dawned, architecture was the glamour profession of the creative class. Extravagant, signature buildings – Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Spain’s Basque Country, Richard Meier’s white-travertine Getty Center in Los Angeles, and multimillion-dollar concert halls in seemingly every city in the U.S. – drew not only press attention but the kind of architectural tourists who once visited Italian duomos.

Brash, individualistic “starchitects” – cerebral urbanist Rem Koolhaas, Iraq-born diva Zaha Hadid, gracious, serene Renzo Piano and others hailed in the press as visionaries – became the new rock stars. Though much of the cast was international, the image built on a long-standing heroism of the architect in the United States, dating back to the magnetic Frank Lloyd Wright and the valiant, uncompromising Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” New shelter magazines like Dwell brought sustainable and modernist design to a wider public, and websites reveled in the eye candy. Graduate programs in architecture and design swelled with applicants.

For an era supposedly defined by bourgeois bohemianism, architecture – a synthesis of aesthetics with hardheaded pragmatism — was the perfect field.

But for all its soaring lines and innovative solutions, architecture is exposed to the realities of the marketplace like few other fields: The surging sense of possibility that lasted through the ‘90s and the early 2000s flagged when the housing market crashed and turned the U.S. economy upside-down. Gehry, whose Walt Disney Concert Hall has become an iconic part of downtown Los Angeles and whose widespread fame led him to a gig designing jewelry for Tiffany, complained recently about the lack of work in the States and grumbled that he wishes he could move his staff to China, where there are more opportunities. Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect (the field’s top prize) who has gone from one of the field’s rebels to one of its most successful, joked grimly about the need for a party for depressed architects.

It isn’t just the celebrity figures who are frustrated, however. A once-thriving profession, one that requires considerable education and work ethic, and which has traditionally served a wide range of functions — designing mansions for the 1 percent as well as public libraries — is in trouble.

The ups and downs became very tangible for Guy Horton, a Boston native who dropped out of an academic program studying Chinese history and literature to become an architect, entranced by both the field’s energy and seeming stability. “I thought I was being pragmatic,” he says now. “Architecture was booming, the starchitects were getting a lot of attention. I was taken by the excitement of the field,” especially the study of urbanism. “Travels in China and around Asia, and stints living over there, got me more interested in cities and how they transform.”

After graduating from the cutting-edge Southern California Institute of Architecture in downtown Los Angeles, he was scooped up by the L.A. offices of Perkins + Will, the large Chicago-based firm with a track record for sustainable projects. In 2008, as the market was crashing, he was laid off.

He bounced checks. He strained to pay student loans. Most of his income went to cover a health plan, but he avoided doctors or dentists because of high deductibles. He was pulled over by the police for his car’s expired tags. He was demoralized and frightened for his family, which included a 1-year-old daughter. After working hard to break into what seemed to be a burgeoning profession, unemployment was like being buried alive.

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Horton wasn’t alone: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment at architectural firms nationwide dropped from 224,500 to 184,600 between July and November of 2009, and the numbers have kept falling. In some cases, firms went dormant while remaining open. Gensler, the nation’s biggest firm, laid off 750 of a staff of about 3,000; British Pritzker-winner Norman Foster laid off a quarter of his. Gehry – whose Brooklyn Yards project and condo/shopping hybrid in downtown Los Angeles wilted – cut Gehry Partners to ribbons, slicing more than half his staff of 250. All over the world, even in once-vigorous regions, ambitious projects stalled. That process has continued: In November, Gehry saw the projected Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum go into deep freeze.

Many architects running smaller firms were lucky enough to keep their jobs but saw their fees – linked to falling construction costs – decline. Numbers are hard to come by and the upbeat American Institute of Architects does not track unemployment, but many thousands certainly left the field altogether. Sometimes they luck out: A former architect has become one of the best-loved baristas in Los Angeles; another runs the Coolhaus ice cream truck. Others have lost their homes and their medical insurance. “It’s the new English major,” says Horton.

Those who remain in the profession find design work scarce and are teaching, lecturing, entering competitions and moving into Hollywood production design. These gigs have always been part of the field, which revels in its synthesis of theory and practice, but the balance has shifted in a way that leads to architects doing less and less architecture.

“The recession has affected everyone, for sure,” says Kevin Daly, an established Santa Monica architect whose firm, Daly Genik, employs 10 people when at full strength. “Generally there’s a lot less work than people are accustomed to having. Clients are doing feasibility studies and then keeping their options open.”

Architect Marcelo Spina is a member of the creative class who serves the creative class: His boutique firm, Patterns, aims to design art galleries and small museums, and saw some early success. But many of those projects are drying up.

These days, he can only keep himself afloat through university teaching, and it’s the same for his architect wife, Georgina Huljich. “It’s a hugely important factor for us financially,” he says. “We’re proud academics, but we don’t want to be purely academics – we don’t want to be part of the paper architecture world. My colleagues are struggling the same way. Right now what you have is full-time employment with internship wages. There is much less meat for the same amount of animals. You see a whole lot of talented people not getting jobs.”

Spina is one of the lucky ones: He has strong connections in his native Argentina, where residential and civic projects have not died off. Because of a recent history of runaway and credit busts, designers are usually paid with real money. “You know someone is going to show up with a bag of cash.”

But those stuck working in the States are in a tight spot. In January, the New York Times ran a piece called “Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture.”  The article charted a report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce that showed architecture graduates, of all college majors, the most likely to be out of work. The survey reported that a whopping 13.9 percent of architecture students between 22 and 26 were unemployed. Experience helped only a little bit: Among experienced architects between 30 and 54, a full 9.2 percent remained out of work. Even humanities and arts majors – often the least career-obsessed of students – fared better.

The Times story, Horton says, angered many of the architects he knew. “People were getting defensive about it. ‘It’s not about that – it’s about the passion!’ People were irate!” He knows architects who’ve left the state, closed their firms, moved back in with their parents. “People don’t want to talk about unemployment anymore … we are supposed to be in recovery optimistic power mode.”

It’s part of a professional ethos, he says, that stresses idealism, dues paying, hierarchy, optimism and a heroic self-image while ignoring financial realities. It’s something he’s become intimately familiar with as he tries to chronicle the damage the recession has exacted on the field. “I’m trying to talk to architects about the economy,” Horton says. “Forget it! It’s hard to get real information. They’re so conscious of P.R. – they’re worried about what’s going to get tweeted.”

A lot of the profession, he says, has spent years in denial.

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Part of the problem with tracking the state of any creative class employment is that the numbers don’t tell the real story. Nor do the Horatio Alger stories that newspapers and magazines love running about the tiny minority of laid-off creatives who manage to “reinvent” themselves and turn their misfortune into an opportunity.

Not everyone is suffering. Eric Owen Moss and Barbara Bestor are very different kinds of designers, with sharply different lists of clients, but they show what is possible when talent and good fortune line up.

Moss has some major advantages over even the typical successful architect: He is the director of an architecture school, which provides him with a hefty salary. He has connections in China and has several projects cooking in a country that considers a redesign of the coastline within the art of the possible. And he has an architectural patron who has financed a daring series of design projects – asymmetric office buildings and an “art tower” in Culver City — that earned a 2011 rave in the New Yorker.

Though he calls himself “temperamentally optimistic,” Moss knows what’s happening around him. “If you look at the numbers, architecture graduates are looking for opportunities in other fields. Overall, commercial building has slowed to almost nothing.”

Bestor, whose hair is cut in a kind of ‘70s shag, has for years been the indie queen of Silverlake, the bohemian neighborhood on L.A.’s east side. Sitting in her retro-cool Airstream trailer, parked outside an open-plan plywood office that buzzes with activity, she compares herself to a culinary locavore: She’s tapped into the neighborhood – its boutique small businesses and pop-culture spirit — and is the first call for cool coffee shops (Intelligentsia), wine bars (Lou) and record label offices (Dangerbird) in Hollywood and points east. “People know me; they know what I do.”

But even Bestor has struggled: After laying off most of her staff after the crash, she took a university teaching gig in 2009, working, effectively, two full-time jobs. “Very much like an immigrant worker,” she says. “I sold the house I had, bought a cheaper house and worked harder.” She’s coming back, but things are still tight. “It’s a shell game: This will pay for that; this will pay for that this month.”

Olivier Touraine, a Frenchman working in Los Angeles, helped design a Japanese airport for Renzo Piano soon after graduating from architecture school in the late ‘80s. He later taught at Columbia University and worked for future Pritzker winners Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel. In 2007 the New York Times profiled Touraine and his wife, Deborah Richmond, as a green-design power couple who had recently completed a home refurb for director Wim Wenders. Living in a sleek and sustainable new house made of redwood and corrugated steel that the couple designed, not far from Venice Beach, the gentlemanly, intellectual Touraine seemed like someone destined to thrive.

These days, “We are making less than a cleaning lady,” Touraine says, sitting in Wurstkuche, the high-design gastropub that serves the architecture students of SCI-Arc. The dried-up residential work hit his firm especially hard. “Architects’ fees are based on construction costs; those are going down. When you do the math at the end, you end up with less. You have to get more work, but you have fewer employees. It was six employees, plus us. Now we have an intern two mornings a week.”

When he looks around at his colleagues, things don’t look much brighter. “Everybody has been massively laying off. Massively.” But the pain is not evenly distributed. “The bigger you are, the better you can pass through the storm. And if you are rich enough, even if [your firm] is very small, you can be OK, even if you are losing ridiculous money. They are trust-fund babies: Somehow the recession has been good for them; it has exterminated the competition.”

Another reason numbers are deceptive is that small firms often don’t technically die. “They can’t exactly close,” he says. “They freeze. Or they close their professional space and move into their backyard or garage.” Others buy cheap land in developing countries and design self-funded projects of their own to give clients a sense of forward motion. “It’s completely staged.”

For small firms who keep struggling, the pain bleeds into a marriage. “I’m almost more surprised when I hear people are still together,” says Touraine, who recently separated from his wife. “It’s like having two guinea pigs in the same cage – night and day, you bring the stress back.”

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Even Bestor, who is lucky enough to have boundless energy and talents that sync nicely with the state of the marketplace, worries about what awaits the younger generation.

Architecture has always been a tough field for newcomers. “Your salary starts at the schoolteacher level,” she says, “but then you watch your friends who went to other professional schools go up and up, while yours stay the same. If they went to dental school they make more than you.” It forces students to be cautious at the time in their careers when they should be taking chances.

The current uncertainty makes the old model – poverty in youth, payday sometime in middle age – harder to count on. She fears that after being a profession, architecture will return to the patronage system, in a day of dwindling patrons. Or a system where “only rich kids can do quirky stuff and everyone else has to work for corporate firms.”

Spooked by the marketplace, more and more students are going right into teaching from grad school, getting little or no professional experience. It’s hard to blame students who graduate with significant financial pressure. “If you go to a private school, you can easily come out with $100,000 in debt,” Horton says. “For a graduate program, it’s hardly unheard of to have $50,000 to $60,000. Then you have all the fees associated with getting your license.”

And due to an old-school ethos of dues paying – as well as the freeze in building – today’s students often wade through round after round of low-paying internships before getting a full-time job, only to find that salaries have declined.

“It’s not good for me,” Touraine, who now teaches at USC, says of the field’s sour state. “But I’ve had my good time. I probably won’t be able to climb the way I wanted to. But I won’t be homeless; I can teach. I’m really concerned about a generation that won’t get a chance.” As for his peers, “We’re pissed off, we’re frustrated, we’re overstressed. But as an educator, I feel like an ayatollah sending kids running into the minefield.”

Horton thinks architects are deeply out of touch with economic reality and aren’t leveling with students and young designers. “How do you keep the KoolAid and the boosterism flowing when there are no or few prospects after graduation?” he asks, describing what he calls a lost generation. “But architecture just grinds on heroically, regardless.”

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People will always need houses, cities and nations will always need schools and libraries and civic buildings, and trendy restaurants will need redesigns. Architecture will never die completely: It’s existed as a calling, in various forms, at least since the medieval master builder.

Moss, who regrets having to lay off employees, says he still feels encouraged about the future. He expects to hire this year – at lower pay and with less stability than he’s used to offering. Periods of tension sometimes produce fresher thinking. “Maybe there’s an opening for new ideas.”

The Washington, D.C.-based American Institute of Architects, which represents the entire field but is considered by some a cheerleader for corporate firms, is cautiously optimistic, projecting “a 2.1 percent rise in spending this year for non-residential construction projects,” and better numbers for 2013. The group fights to make small increments sound victorious, like the two months of slight increases in architectural billing, following dozens of months of contraction, which the AIA celebrated in January.

But overall, the state of architecture reflects the larger story of the creative class in the 21stcentury: Security and artistic freedom exist only for those who are independently wealthy. There are heavy casualties at small independent companies from which corporations are somewhat shielded. The middle levels get hollowed out. Barriers to entry tighten. And there’s a lingering sense that even when the recession lifts, these industrywide problems will not abate. Record corporate profits, after all, have not led to a significant increase in design work or construction. They’re issues, of course, that increasingly face the broader middle class in the developed world as well.

Some smell trouble in architecture’s sense of itself, as the most visible architects work for high-fashion companies – Koolhaas’ Prada stores, for example — even as the profession suffers: It’s part of a process by which the field orients itself around the top 1 percent and contributes to what some call the skyboxing of America. “Most architects in the ‘50s were building private houses – like the Case Study House project,” Touraine says of the effort by Arts & Architecture magazine to design stylish, modest homes for the middle-class. “But the idolatry of the starchitects has made it seem like architecture is only for exceptional buildings. Architecture is perceived as a luxury good. It can be, but it’s not only that.”

A decline in public spending – belt-tightening by U.S. cities and states, full-on austerity in Europe – kills off the civic projects that allow architects to develop reputations and make payroll. “I don’t feel like this is temporary,” says Daly. “The immediate future will be more like now than it will be like it was five years ago. Until we make the decision as a society to invest in things – and I don’t really see that happening.”

After two full years of pain, Horton got a new job, this time at a firm that he calls a better fit. For him personally, the recession and the blow it dealt his field has had a reasonably happy ending. But he’s less sanguine about where things are headed: The downturn has shown the contradictions of a field built on wait-your-turn hierarchy, a sense of self-importance, and a culture of sacrifice. And it showed that the world had changed from the postwar age of professional loyalty.

“You had the economic bargain that Robert Reich talks about: You work, and you’re taken care of,” says Horton, who, at 43, is old enough to have seen the transition from the old model. “This bargain no longer exists; it’s not unique to architecture. Architecture is a creative industry, but it’s also reflective of shifting paradigms of the middle class. Architects are supposed to be serving society, but I think we’re struggling to maintain our position in society.”

Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the new book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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