February 2008

The Slowdown Is Upon Us! Recession Looms! If you happen to practice architecture within the housing market, those terms might literally apply to you. The subprime-lending crisis subjected residential investment to the harsh glare of prime time, leaving the entire housing industry stranded like a deer in the headlights. Pick up today’s paper, and it might seem that all design professionals will face bleak times in 2008. What’s an American architect to do?

Photo © André Souroujon

Before you consider standing in the bread line, consider the following facts: For all our fascination with China and Dubai, the United States remains the most vibrant and active economy in the world. McGraw-Hill Construction economist Robert Murray says, “The pullback for nonresidential building in 2008 is likely to be gradual, especially when compared to the sharp correction that’s already been experienced by housing.” Gradual, not precipitate.

You have to know where to look for opportunity. According to Murray, “the loss of momentum will be measured” for nonresidential construction. Measured, not decimated. For example, America needs more K-12 schools to meet the rapidly evolving needs of a new generation. In higher education, buildings represent commitment to students and faculty, and a $100 million research facility can give an institution a competitive edge. In corporate America, office workers and management radicalized by digital technology require safer, more energy-efficient workplaces (see cover story on the New York Times building, page 94). Whatever the pundits may pronounce, the boom has not yet gone bust: In Las Vegas, the budgets could break a Middle Eastern thermometer, despite economists’ predictions of a slowdown in hospitality.

For proof, fly into the sprawling desert valley and watch this new city of 2 million and growing that compares to Dubai in scale and scope. Awash in wealth, the Strip and its environs are transforming themselves into a new kind of good-time urbanity, ersatz perhaps, but characterized by real (as opposed to cardboard) architecture. In today’s Las Vegas, urban density and mixed-use developments blend together hotels, condos, retail, and transportation, with more work on the way.

The numbers stagger the imagination. According to Southwest Contractor, a McGraw-Hill Construction publication, the total value of work in Las Vegas approached $9 billion in 2007–8, with $35 billion in new developments anticipated by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

At the 76-acre City Center, purportedly the largest (“most significant”—their term) private development in the United States, the total tab for owners MGM Mirage and its partner Dubai World (there goes Dubai again) will run to almost $8 billion dollars. When the dust has cleared, City Center will have employed a who’s who of architecture firms: Pelli Clark Pelli, Kohn Pederson Fox, Foster and Partners, Helmut Jahn, Daniel Libeskind, Gensler, HKS, Leo Daly, and Adamson Associates. Overall, 7,000 people or more will have been employed in the total construction. And that’s just a single development, albeit a whale of a development, in a single city.

Look around the country and find similar stories. Take a look at Chicago, site of Calatrava’s dizzying Chicago Spire, an unreal 150-floor spiraling wonder rising not far from Adrian Smith’s 90-plus-story Trump International Hotel and Tower along the Chicago River. In nearby Minneapolis, the riverfront development now includes loft conversions, condominiums such as the 42-unit Portland complex, museums, arts organizations, and a fanciful music school called the MacPhail Center, all spiced by trendy restaurants where flour mills used to predominate.

In New York City, growth spreads across the boroughs. On Manhattan’s West Side, straddling the controversial and underused Hudson rail yards, the Metropolitan Transit Authority recently unveiled plans for an immense cluster of skyscrapers surrounding an urban green. Across the East River, Brooklyn has been the focus of intense development, with activity along its waterfront, where a new state park under way signals change. Around the bend of the river at Williamsburg, new condominiums sprout like isobars, while farther inland at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, the massive new Atlantic Yards development will include 12 high-rise residential buildings.

Smaller cities have big-city aspirations. Across the Sunbelt, small- to medium-size cities are adding critical facilities that affect material and cultural prosperity. Jackson, Mississippi, is completing a major new civic/convention center, the centerpiece of $450 million in actual and planned construction. Multiply that one locale by the hundreds.

This laundry list omits any qualitative assessment. Thus far, we have not mentioned the absence of needed building types, such as affordable housing, or the lack of effective investment in the public realm. All remain real problems. We have only noted, in loose terms, the volume of design and construction.

In assessing the country’s economic health, the facts assert that much private planning, design, and construction will continue, if skittish financing doesn’t kill them. architectural record has no crystal ball, only a few estimates of construction cost, constantly subject to revision. Staring into the economic precipice, the next few months may prove harrowing, but focus on client need, keep your sights clear, then dive into the new year. We trust any drop will be shallow and safe.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.