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Architectural Anorexia

Posted by: Michael Arndt on May 19, 2010

When I wrote about the Icarus-like plunge of star architects in the May 3-May 9 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, the industry had been shrinking for an unprecedented 26 months in a row. Today the American Institute of Architects issued its latest billings index, for April. You can now make that 27 months in a row.

A reading of 50 or above signals overall growth in billings; anything lower means contraction. The latest index, based on a survey of nearly 600 architectural firms, came in at 48.5. The institute nonetheless saw hope. The index was at its highest level since January 2008 and has risen for three months. “It appears that the design and construction industry may be nearing an actual recovery phase,” Kermit Baker, the institute’s chief economist, said in a statement.

Some firms are, indeed, winning new work. Pickard Chilton, for instance, announced recently that the New Haven, Conn.-based partnership has been commissioned to design a world headquarters for Eaton Corp. on a 53-acre site in suburban Cleveland.

Still, being encouragement by the April below-50 figure seems to me something like a parent being relieved that her too-thin child lost only 1.5 pounds last month, instead of 3.9 like the month before. The child is still losing weight.

Reader Comments

Cynthia C. Spray

May 20, 2010 12:26 PM

Absolutely the child is still losing weight!

Ralph Hawkins, FAIA

May 20, 2010 3:25 PM

Our profession is continueing to search for some sign of recovery for our industry. As you say this has lasted 27 months and has put over 27% of registered architects out of work...but more importantly as high as 44% unemployment for some of the commerical firms as a whole. It is restricting the hiring of new graduates coming out of the architecture schools. This will leave an impact on our profession.

John Henry Architect

May 21, 2010 8:31 AM

Different regions are experiencing varied economic signs. Architects have been doing poorly overall and are comatose in some states. The spigot for construction lending has been turned off, particularly for residential construction. This cannot be allowed on an indefinite basis. Many firms are in debt, closing offices, filing bankruptcy. No 'financial planning' has prepared the architects from California, Nevada, and Florida for the extreme downturn. Like the oil crisis of '86-'87 (OPEC sold oil at $10/bbl vs. the prevailing $30/bbl rate and decimated the entire oil producing group of states, primarily in the south) the government did not act to save the states worst affected. Now, they are working on band aid approaches while the big picture is indicating massive hemmoraging: foreclosures strategic and due to hardship, shadow inventory, short sales, value drops, etc. which are killing off the construction industry and its direct effects on local economies. This is the leg of the tripod that cannot be allowed to crumble any more. Construction is too big to fall.


May 24, 2010 1:58 PM

We probably should have learnt the lesson that anything "too big to fail" perhaps shouldn't have gotten so big in the first place. Construction, like banks, may have been the victims of their own uncontrolled success.

I for one will not be missing starchitects, hubris and some of the follies of an era where navelgazing amongst architects was not just tolerated but actively encouraged. Harsh words, but these are harsh times and I am sure Zaha, Rem, Frank and Daniel have enough set aside for retirement. Hopefully they'll be around long enough to see some of the muted criticism that has followed these guys around for years come up to the surface and for some real public debate to see if maybe the emperor had no clothes after all.


May 27, 2010 12:15 PM

My boyfriend used to be a blueprinter before 2004. The company he worked for started getting plans from the internet from countries like China and India. He was let go. Then construction started to collapse. The architecture industry's not going to come back because the work can be done so much cheaper in Asia, then shipped to the US via internet.

Lynn S.

June 12, 2010 11:15 AM

This could be an opportunity for architects, many of whom are artists in permanence, to share their forward-thinking approach with impoverished communities like Appalachia and Haiti by designing simple but attractive housing for poor families. These buildings' construction could provide local jobs while serving as a living illustrations of green principles, earthquake tolerance and energy conservation. Is it possible that during this slowdown, architects of means might be able to donate their time and expertise in a magnanimous gesture (much like Doctors Without Borders) and show us the future?

jeff darbee

June 13, 2010 7:51 PM

I salute Maria (May 24 posting) for being right on target. Maybe it's time to stop falling all over ourselves praising the dubious concoctions today's starchitects keep grinding out. Hint to the profession: just because you can doesn't mean you should. Can we please get back to real design work that is respectful of clients, efficient in energy and materials, and respectful of the existing context? Most of these people are like dogs who have to leave their mark everywhere they go. I wonder if what's-his-name still gets away with charging a "genius fee."

Bah, humbug.

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