The Architecture Meltdown: End of An Era, or Start of a New One?

My friend Scott Timberg has been writing a very interesting series for Salon about the “creative class” and what he sees as its decimation, largely by digital technology and the internet economy (and the resulting loss of ability to monetize “creative” careers), but also by the recession and other obstacles to self-employment like staggering healthcare costs. It’s really worth a read. His latest target is the architecture profession, one that he cites as the quintessential cool creative career, that now stands in tatters.

However, on reading his story, I had a very strong sense of deja vu (and advancing age!).

I first visited Los Angeles in 1987 and the joint was then jumping for architects, as it was in many cities caught up in the building boom of that time. Then I moved from London to LA in 1991 and found all my new architect friends out of work, in the economic slump of the early 90s. The New York Times was running articles like this one, that sounded remarkably similar to the Salon piece in their “it will never be the same again” declarations about the profession.

Many architecture grads then moved directly out of school into alternative careers, like movie production design, some temporarily, some for good. In fact, at a panel I hosted at LACMA last week, Benjamin Ball, one half of noted installation designers, Ball-Nogues (see their 2005 Maximilian’s Schell in picture, above), recalled how he took that route on leaving SCI-Arc in 1994. But Ball’s work, as well as that of other very talented architects who have used the time not spent building buildings to experiment with new ideas, is a reminder that in the architecture world recessions, while indisputably brutal for ones livelihood, can be a time of regeneration for the art and science of building. Schools fill up with students and out-of-work practitioner-teachers who use the time in academe to test new theories. Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and other hotshots of the go-go late 1990s and early 2000s famously spent the recession of the 1970s dreaming up the ideas on paper that found form much later.

Architecture follows real estate, which moves in boom and bust cycles (a fact that makes me continually wonder, why don’t architecture schools teach economics and real estate development?). Even now, I sense from architects and developers an uptick in the economy and in building opportunities. The interesting question is, what comes next? What building types will dominate, where will the demand be, and what language can we expect from the next generation of recession-surviving architects?

One further note: a popular reaction to the market crash, and resultant loss of architecture work, has been to read it as a welcome end to an era of “starchitecture.” This Metropolis commentary by Thomas Fisher, lauding the architecture for humanity works by the likes of Cameron Sinclair and Emily Pilloton, makes that argument.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Back in the recession of the early 1990s, the New York Times article, mentioned above, quoted an architect who anticipated an end to the phenomenon where “developers collected architects the way they collected art in the 80’s.”

After a brief pause for breath, architecture as art — and commodity — was baaack.

Architecture is an expression of our primal need to reshape our environment, and it takes many forms and serves many kinds of clients, a diverse picture not always reflected in the media, which tends to focus on the extremes of “star” architecture and its perceived antithesis: socially conscious, collective, community projects. Those forms can be lavish and extraordinary as well as functional and socially improving (sometimes a piece of architecture even manages to be all those things at once!). They can also, at worst, be mediocre and degrading.

As the economy picks up, I think we can expect architecture to continue to run the full gamut, and for many people to continue to aspire to be architects. As the French — who gave us Versailles and Jean Prouve’s pre-fab, low-cost housing — would say, plus ca change. . .

If you have thoughts on this, let me know as we may focus on this on an upcoming DnA.

  • I agree with you Frances-Depends where you sit, honestly. When I graduated in 1977 from University of Michigan, in the deep throws of really an earlier "depression" there due to the gas crisis and the first big hit the US auto industry took. . .my fellow/a classmates who remained in MI-most didn't work in architecture for several years.

    Me, I moved to DC, got a smidge over minimum wage at SOM, people were offering to work for free all over town. . .it took me 7 years in the profession to make more than I did as a waitress during college. . .sad but true story!

  • Neo

    Please excuse the long post, this is some data I found for a discussion we were having regarding recent grad rates:

    According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 110,990 employed licensed architects in the US in May 2008, (this figure does not include self employed practitioners).

    Again according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2010 there were 78,700 employed licensed architects, or a net loss of -23,290 architects from 2008 until 2010 which would equate to a 21% unemployment rate within the profession. This does not include 2011 numbers which I think is safe to assume there was further erosion in the job market for architects.

    According to NCARB (National Council Architectural Registration Boards) in 2010 14,737 people sat for the ARE (Architecture Licensing Exam). In 2009 13,326 people sat for the ARE exam. This is undoubtedly pushing the unemployment rate higher as more people become licensed in a contracting profession.

    According to the NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board) there were 27,852 students enrolled in a NAAB accredited degree program. Of this, there were 6,017 accredited degrees awarded in the academic year of 2009 to 2010.

    So if we take 6,000 grads per year and multiple it by 3 years, we have added 18,000 individuals into a profession which has been in contraction not expansion, from 2008. Although the graduating students are not licensed architects, they are obviously entering an extremely battered profession.

    Therefore I am sorry to report the “13.9%” unemployment rate for recent grads in architecture sounds way to optimistic! Where in the world are 5,100 graduates finding jobs in a profession with a 20-30% unemployment rate?

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  • Frances Anderton

    Thanks so much both of you for these comments.

  • "Architecture is an expression of our primal need to reshape our environment, and it takes many forms and serves many kinds of clients, a diverse picture not always reflected in the media, which tends to focus on the extremes of “star” architecture and its perceived antithesis: socially conscious, collective, community projects. Those forms can be lavish and extraordinary as well as functional and socially improving (sometimes a piece of architecture even manages to be all those things at once!). They can also, at worst, be mediocre and degrading."

    Nicely put. Some 'Green' projects remind me of girls I went to college with, who found religion and then became dowdy. At the Drylands Design Conference a week ago, there was plenty of really beautiful work that was nonetheless inspired by the desire to work toward the greater good. Would love to hear you address this false dichotomy more – especially as the 'Green' thing becomes the marketing strategy du jour. Thanks!

  • People go to Architecture school for ideological reasons – not economic ones. When they graduate they learn the blunt truth of their market value. There is a basic supply and demand imbalance for architects. There are too many of them chasing too little work. Even when things are good for architects, during the boom phases, the return on investment is low compared to other white collar professions. A few rock stars make out very well but most architects scrape by for their whole career. Becoming a developer is one option (which as you say is not taught in architecture school) but you need some capital to get started.

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