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Architect Frank Gehry has designed some of America’s most respected examples of contemporary architecture, from Los Angeles’s steel-draped Walt Disney Concert Hall to IAC’s (IACI) undulating white glass headquarters facing the Hudson River in Manhattan. Yet with real estate development in the world’s largest economy stalled, Gehry is chasing projects in Asia.
Gehry, whose design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region was voted the most influential piece of architecture of the past 30 years in Vanity Fair’s 2010 World Architecture Survey, says he’s currently in the running to design a museum in one of China’s fast-expanding metropolitan areas, as well as a “very spiritual kind of a building” in India. He declined to give details.
Gehry, 82, has plenty of reason to look for projects abroad. The Architecture Billings Index, an indicator of American construction, plunged to 46.9 in September from 51.4 in August, reflecting lower demand for design services, according to the American Institute of Architects. Any score below 50 indicates a decline in billings. Last year, architectural revenue for the top 250 architecture firms in the U.S. fell to $9.4 billion, from $10.2 billion in 2009. That compares with a year-over-year rise of 8.7 percent, to $12.5 billion, in 2008, according to Architectural Record.
Experts in the building industry don’t expect the slump to end anytime soon—especially for the big marquee commissions for which Gehry is known. “The U.S. domestic market is not in the position right now to fund [major] projects in the private or public sector,” says Clark Manus, president at the American Institute of Architects and chief executive officer at San Francisco-based Heller Manus Architects. “This is the new normal.”
Gehry isn’t the only major architect busy in Asia. Norman Foster, the British architect who designed London’s Swiss Re (SSREF) tower (popularly known as the Gherkin), is designing Hong Kong’s new museum and cultural district in West Kowloon. “The work opportunities internationally are greater than they’ve ever been, whether that’s in the Middle East or Asia,” says Manus, whose firm in October opened an office in China with five employees.
In December, Gehry unveiled the design for his first Australian project. The 16,030-square-meter (172,545-square-foot) business school building at the University of Technology, Sydney, will have a “treehouse” design, incorporating a core yellow brick and crinkly glass structure, with “branches” spreading away from it, Gehry says. Still, he views the Asian mainland as his prime target. China this year announced plans to build or expand four major state museums by 2015, including a massive new art museum to be constructed near Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium. “There’s an art explosion in China,” Gehry says. “It’s really great—very exciting.” Gehry expects to sign a contract within three to four months should an agreement be reached for the Chinese museum project he’s pursuing.
One challenge of designing on the mainland is the lower pay for projects, Gehry says. Architects get paid a percentage of construction costs, which in China are about a third of those in the U.S., he says. “If you take a percentage and you work with Western salaries, you can’t make it work,” explains Gehry. “So it almost forces you to open an office in China and work with local people.”
Gehry says he would prefer to travel less and focus on projects closer to home: “At my age, I would love only to work in Los Angeles, maybe Santa Monica, maybe Beverly Hills.” Yet the lack of development in the U.S., along with a wish to keep business going at his Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners—where the head count fell from 250 in 2007 to 120 last year—is forcing him to look elsewhere.
Pursuing foreign projects isn’t a panacea. Construction of one of Gehry’s projects abroad, the 450,000-square-foot Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, was halted last month by property developer Tourism Development & Investment as the emirate scales back plans made before the 2008 financial crisis. “The Abu Dhabi building we’ve been working on in the last five to six years has been stopped, and that’s painful,” says Gehry.
The bottom line: With U.S. building stalled, architect Frank Gehry is looking for jobs in Asia. But building costs—and commissions—can be two-thirds lower.