Real Estate Bust Leaves Arcitects Holding Their Nuts

by | Oct 18, 2010

“Buildings, too, are children of Earth and Sun.” -Frank Lloyd Wright

I work in an industry–marketing communications–that has taken a beating during the recession. But people who build brands for a living are not alone in these tough times. In fact, this Los Angeles Times article paints a dour picture for another design-centric profession.

Architects, the exalted artists who design structures that will stand for generations, are feeling a lot less glamorous these days.

When people look back, there will be few signature buildings on the country’s metropolitan skylines to point to that were built in the years around 2010, said Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects.

The AIA’s measurement of commercial real estate work that architects have on their boards is at a low ebb, a 40% decline since late 2008. “You need to go back to the Great Depression to see something of this magnitude,” Baker said.

Employment at the nation’s architecture firms has dropped 25% since 2008, Baker said.

No one wants to see idle talent on the sidelines. Personally, I think we need to find new ways of working together to keep our collective balls rolling in the right direction. Maybe out of work architects can band together to do public works. Naturally, someone needs to pay for this valuable work and there’s no question there’s a real need for the work.

During the Depression, the federal government put a lot of talented engineers and others to work on infrastructure needs. The Obama administration is doing this again, but on a much smaller scale. Yet the need isn’t reduced today, just our will to use tax dollars to make it happen is reduced. That’s why a combination of private sector solutions is, once again, necessary to address our public needs.

I think The Nature Conservancy’s model for saving habitat is instructive here. The Nature Conservancy buys sensitive habitat outright and protects it in perpetuity. It’s a simple and highly effective way to get the job done. So, “a Nature Conservancy for architecture” would endeavor to identify significant project opportunities and then raise the money to get the public-minded projects designed and built–all of which would require a great deal of work from lots of skilled people.

It’s also true that these type of efforts will need the support of writers, designers, filmmakers and the like, for someone needs to communicate the value of all these public-minded projects before, during and after the construction phase.