Back To The Drawing Board

How to survive the bust

It's quiet out there in the building business. Too quiet. Drafting tables stand empty and Luxo lamps are dark in design studios across the country as the architectural profession buckles under the worst recession since the early '70s. "For 15 years, we were used to hyperactivity and late nights," says James Polshek, whose New York firm is half the size it was five years ago. "Now at 6 o'clock, it's dead." The bust started in the Northeast more than a year ago--in Boston, at least 25 percent of architects are estimated to be out of work--but now the gloom has spread to once booming southern California, where residential construction was down 32 percent last year. As the economy sinks, the trauma of pink slips and red ink is forcing architects to rethink the way they do business, or whether to stay in business at all.

The biggest bloodbath has come at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the blue-chip corporate-tower builder where, the firm says, the project volume has dropped more than $100 million since 1989. About 200 people have been laid off in the last six months in the Chicago and New York offices. SOM's practice was rooted in the now depressed commercial-real-estate market. "Many projects have been put on hold," according to partner Joseph Gonzalez. Other big firms are also feeling the ripple effect of a sour economy. "Clients think they'll get financing, but then they don't, or the tenants pull out of the lease," says Gene Kohn, of Kohn Pederson Fox, one of the star firms of the '80s. "We're even trying to put investors we know together with some of our developer clients." KPF, which laid off 9 percent of its 210-person permanent staff earlier this year, has seen half a dozen big commercial projects stall.

For the architects who suddenly find themselves on the street, the prospects aren't cheery. David Greenspan, who got his "lead parachute," as he puts it, from SOM in October after four years with the firm, is teaching in Chicago--and applying to law school. Ed Porzio, a veteran Boston architect who has designed everything from office buildings to zoos, is driving a cab and designing neckties. Not everyone is bitter. "At first, I was really angry," says Peter Risseto, laid off in December by Boris Baranovich Architects in New York. "But this is the first block of time I've had in eight years." He's already designed a house for a national competition.

In firms of every size, the buzzword of the moment is "diversify." There's still public money to build schools and hospitals. Perkins & Will, a big Chicago firm that actually hired 27 architects recently, is deep into educational and health-care facilities. NBBJ, a huge firm based in Columbus, Ohio, is having its best year yet, with two office buildings going up in Seattle and several public projects underway in the Midwest. Even small offices, such as Peggy Fitzpatrick's in New York, are shifting focus. Fitzpatrick, whose work has been mainly residential, has gone after such projects as designing a fire station for the New Jersey Air National Guard. "I don't see this as all bad," says Fitzpatrick. "I see it as an inducement to grow."

Many firms are pursuing renovations and historic restorations. At Swanke Hayden Connell in New York, where one quarter of the staff has been let go, interior design and restoration once made up 40 percent of the business; now they account for 75 percent. "We're not building, we're fixing," says A.J. Loeffler, only half-kidding. Besides designing, his small New York firm, Loeffler, Johansen, Bennett, consults on maintenance and restoration.

Business overseas has buoyed many bigger firms, such as KPF and Murphy/Jahn of Chicago, which has just completed the 70-story Messe Tower in Frankfurt. Perkins & Will's foreign projects include building a 34,000-student university in Jidda, Saudi Arabia (the plans have proceeded despite the gulf war).

Competition for scarce projects is turning some members of this gentlemanly profession into sharks. When the trustees of the Evanston (Ill.) Public Library announced a competition to design a modest $17 million building, they were astonished to hear from 1,251 architects. Says Polshek, "Small jobs we would have politely declined in the past we no longer pass by. We're there, along with 10 top firms."

After the frenzy of overbuilding in the '80s, the bust has also given architects a pause to think. "Architecture is supposed to be about a higher purpose," says Stanley Tigerman, the inventive Chicago designer whose firm has shrunk from 30 to 15 people. While some architects are pursuing critical theory and research, others are doing such pro bono work as designing housing for the homeless. "There is a whole generation of architects trained to think about social issues who were underground and are coming out of the woodwork," says New York architect Frances Halsband. And SOM, which spent the last decade building shrines to corporate power, is designing churches. That means there will be a few more places for everyone to pray that the slump will soon be over.