For architects, the Great Recession hasn't really let up since its official start in December 2007. Countless projects are stalled or canceled, including Santiago Calatrava's Chicago Spire ' now a 110-foot-wide void. We investigate what's in store for architects in the near future and beyond.

Numerous projects have been halted globally, including Calatrava’s Chicago Spire, now a 76-foot-deep hole.
Photo © Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Numerous projects have been halted globally, including Calatrava’s Chicago Spire, now a 76-foot-deep hole.

If the slew of Internet posts, letters to editors, and comments to reporters are to be believed, the economy has put the architecture business in such a deep funk, it’s like a proverbial doornail: dead.

And there’s plenty of long-term statistical evidence — about unemployment, a lack of projects, tight credit markets — to back up that prognosis. Besides, architects who have lived through previous downturns often say that this one feels different in a not-so-good way.

Yet an alternate reading of the tea leaves suggests that what may really be happening is that architecture is not keeling over but molting. Increasingly, it is becoming a multidisciplinary profession that will benefit generalists over experts, however painful that transition might be, according to employed and unemployed designers alike.

“I don’t think it’s dying, but I do think it’s taking a different direction,” says Paul Mendolia, 60, of New York City. The 35-year practitioner was let go from a firm in 2009. He has since been hired back as a freelancer, though at a fraction of his former wage, for tasks like filing paperwork with local building departments.

In Mendolia’s view, the only chance he has to land steady, dignified work again is to become more proficient with modeling software, which seems to be a requirement of the few jobs that are advertised. Though classes can be prohibitively pricey, he says, “if I don’t get up to speed with CAD [computer-aided design] and the rest of it, I think I will be left behind.”

Joblessness persists in the field: Some AIA leaders put the unemployment rate at 20 percent or higher. And more gloom is spelled out by the Architecture Billings Index, compiled by the AIA. Since January 2008, the index has cleared 50 only twice, in September and November of 2010 (anything less than 50 suggests an industry in contraction).

The next generation of architects may be in a better position to weather slowdowns if they act as their own clients by becoming developers, too, says Vishaan Chakrabarti, who runs the real estate development program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

“Architecture is by no means dead,” says Chakrabarti, 44, who once worked for Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), though being successful now requires more than just making sure a structure doesn’t leak or fall down. Business savvy is key, which might explain why 55 of his 103 students, a recent spike, have architecture degrees or are pursuing them. When Chakrabarti was a student, he says, “it was sort of a badge of honor to be stupid about money, but no longer.”

That holistic spirit can be realized on the professional level as well, according to Bill Sharples, 47, a founding partner of the 14-year-old New York firm SHoP Architects, which recently created three other stand-alone businesses. These include a two-year-old construction arm that is hired by other architectural firms as a subcontractor.“Before, we were doing [pattern-design work] in-house, and we weren’t getting any fees. So we decided to get paid for it,” says Sharples about SHoP Construction, which was profitable this year and will be handing out holiday bonuses.

In fact, Sharples credits his diversified revenue stream — he also has green technology and design software businesses — with helping SHoP bounce back quickly from layoffs that cost them 30 employees in 2008. Today, the firm employs 67 people, he says.

Some sectors, such as housing, may still be R.I.P. for a while, especially in certain U.S. markets — Nevada, Florida, California — that have too much “overhang,” says Bradford Perkins, chairman of Perkins Eastman. Those woes contributed to his firm’s axing of 20 percent of its staff in late 2008, says Perkins, adding that this recession dwarfs the previous three he has worked through since the mid-1970s.

But Perkins Eastman will be hiring again in 2011, fueled largely by overseas demand, says Perkins. He predicts that other major firms like SOM, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, and Gensler will begin to boost their staffs, too.

The foreign projects that Perkins is most focused on now are senior centers in China, which by 2050 will have 300 million people over the age of 65, he says. Also, his firm, which has six offices overseas, has been busy designing schools for expatriates in Hanoi, Shanghai, and Beijing.

“It is a cyclical business, but people didn’t see this [recession] coming,” Perkins says. Studies in the mid-’00s showed there was an undersupply of architects. “Unless all the research prior to the recession is completely erroneous,” Perkins says, “I remain cautiously optimistic about a recovery.”