Looking Farther Afield for Jobs

It takes 12 hours to fly from Frankfurt to Hanoi, and Bernhard Franken is getting to know the route very well. Franken has a half-dozen projects in Vietnam. If his struggling Frankfurt practice has an angel looking out for it, she comes from the East. With startling speed, the German economy has turned sluggish and dyspeptic. Architects from Berlin to Bonn say small practices are shutting down or on life support. Larger ones are shedding staff, and Foster + Partners just closed its Berlin office.

“We can’t survive by working in Germany alone,” Franken says. “Practices have to be more specialized and globalized at the same time.” A chance meeting through a friend led Franken to a pitch his firm’s services to a Vietnamese real-estate concern working on a large, multiuse project called Tan Lab Green City in the coastal city of Nhâ Trân. Winning that project led to four others in Vietnam last year, and Franken soon opened a Hanoi office.

But at the same time, Franken’s bread-and-butter work—interior installations for BMW and Mini at huge auto shows and dealerships—is drying up. BMW has already decided not to attend one of the big five shows this year and it is slashing budgets for the others. If Franken doesn’t make up that business in the next two months, he’s looking at cutting 10-to-15 percent of his 40-person staff.

These days, even a very young, two-person interior shop like KaiserSchönlein, based in Berlin and Hamburg, is looking to branch out, hoping to break into furniture design.

Demand remains steady, though, for green architecture, says Peter Kuczia, who is based in Osnabrück and works alone and with the firm agn Gruppe. “Almost every new client is demanding green elements in building,” says Kuczia. “The main reason is not to save the environment, but to save their own purse.” The Gruppe is also landing more school and state-sponsored projects, and Kuczia, who is from Poland, is picking up residential work there.

For her part, multidisciplinary Berlin designer Karin Ocker is doing theater set design and falling back on teaching. Ocker does a lot of work in Moscow and the east, but says that is no panacea. Private residences there are being postponed or cancelled, she reports, and a spa project she had in Kaliningrad fell through. A highrise office in Kiev, Ukraine, got through the design stage but then ground to a halt. Architects in Germany were just seeing rays of light last summer following a fairly fallow time, but then the markets turned sour in a matter of weeks, says Ocker. But she has found her own silver lining: the slowdown turns out to be a great time to have a baby. New German parents qualify for state subsidies. And by the time her new son starts sleeping regularly, maybe the Kiev highrise will start up again.