On the day in 2008 that Sharon Samuels, AIA, was laid off from her big-firm job in Chicago, she wasn’t sure what her next step would be. Firms were making staff cuts all over town. The bad news came on a Monday, and Samuels dutifully sent out the standard message to all of her contacts, with all of the usual transition details.
Five days later, that message paid off in an unexpected way: A contact had passed her name along to somebody who was embarking on a small retail build-out, and by the end of Friday Samuels had launched her own firm, SolQuest Design Unlimited, to handle that project and the succession of jobs that followed.
Almost six years later, Samuels’s workload has been steady with design projects and LEED certification consulting. None of it has been gift-wrapped—she’s worked hard, plied connections, and promoted SolQuest on a daily basis—but Samuels says Chicago has been a receptive, supportive market to be in during the down years. “In entertainment, if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere,” Samuels recently told several groups of young architects. “And in architecture, if you can make it in Chicago you can make it anywhere.”
Last In, First Out—But Where?
With nationwide economic recovery sputtering along, making it in Chicago is becoming a little easier. In mid-2008, there were about 9,800 architects in the 13-county metro region, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, and—like Samuels—some of them were out of work by year’s end. Three years later, the number of architects in Chicago reached a post-crash low of about 6,600. That figure has improved since 2011, if slightly, and there are now almost 7,200 architects employed there.
Crain’s is also reporting that construction firms signed $8.5 billion in development deals in the Chicago area, an increase of more than 16.5 percent from the prior year’s $7.09 billion tallied by McGraw-Hill Construction—making it the third year of growth in a row.
JinHwa “Gina” Paradowicz, AIA, welcomes the news of expanding hiring as a sign that younger architects will again see Chicago as the place of opportunity that it was for her a decade ago. The downturn, she says, “put a lot of burden on young architects.” Paradowicz, a senior associate at Perkins Eastman, points to the last-in/first-out effect when times are lean. Senior architects dug in and held on, forcing a lot of younger architects to the curb, back to school, or into other creative fields for what she calls “the dark years.”
Another effect? Many aspiring architects—on the cusp of graduation—extended their stay in school, either by re-enrolling in a higher degree program or teaching studio courses. “Opportunities are opening up again,” says Matthew Dumich, AIA, a senior architect and project manager at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the Chicago firm that designed the Kingdom Tower—which will be the world’s tallest building, now under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia—and has an outsized portfolio of other projects going up around the world.
“In the last six months, you’ve seen quite a lot of people make moves who had been stuck in a situation for five years,” Dumich says. “There was nowhere to go for a long time, but now there’s competition for really good, experienced people.”
Dumich, who worked for a few years in Milwaukee before moving to the Chicago firm DeStefano and Partners in 2004 and joining Valerio Dewalt Train in 2006, believes that in Chicago sharp young architects don’t only find work, they find challenging and substantive work. His own experience bears out that trajectory: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill has him traveling regularly to Kazakhstan, where the firm is designing the vast Astana Expo 2017, a world’s fair themed on“Future Energy.” That’s three more years of billable hours for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill and three more years of rewarding work for Dumich.
“It’s an incredible project, with very ambitious sustainability goals, and it meant a career jump for me and we’re having fun,” says Dumich. But he’s quick to point out that he’s not the only young Chicago architect experiencing this level of excitement: “This community of architects is very accessible,” he says. Recently, an architect who’s just starting out told Dumich in a mentoring session that she was given a major piece of a project to design and resolve on her own.
“It’s truly collaborative at our firm, with more of a studio culture than any firm I know. Everyone contributes to the conversation, not just the guys whose names are on the door,” says Dumich, who sees opportunities for himself and his younger colleagues to connect, particularly through AIA Chicago’s Young Architects Forum and Bridge, a leadership and mentorship program he co-founded in 2009. During the down years, he jokes, the Young Architects Forum became “a place to commiserate,” but now news of job opportunities percolates through its events again. Samuels suggests that the global economic recovery will provide a specific kind of relief to younger and smaller Chicago firms like hers. For several years, she says, the competition for relatively modest local projects sometimes took on a David-vs.-Goliath nature because the giant firms whose international work had slowed down were showing up to present for jobs in town that they would have ignored during the boom years.
“Firms that you never would have thought before cared about projects like a small school in Chicago were turning out full-force,” she says. As their major-project work revs up, she believes, those firms will step out of the smaller ring again, easing up the competitive pressure that smaller practices felt.
On a practical level, Chicago supports young architects simply by being a more affordable place to live than other U.S. architecture centers such as New York and San Francisco, where salaries are a bit higher than other parts of the country but the cost of living is a lot more. “Living here, you feel like you can actually have a balance of life because of the cost of living,” Paradowicz says. Dumich agrees. He and his wife, who is also a designer, can afford to live in one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods without being stretched financially.
Economics aside, the culture of Chicago is highly supportive of architects and the work that they do—it’s practically part of the city’s DNA. Many Chicagoans who aren’t related to the profession will happily tell visitors that the city is an “open-air museum of American architecture.” Because of Chicago’s rich history of design innovation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, plus its deep inventory of mid-20th century modern buildings, the average citizen there seems to have a greater awareness of architecture as a profession, according to both Paradowicz and Dumich.
They add that taxi drivers identifying landmarks by the names of their architects makes it feel like an industry town. “People feel a strong connection to the architectural heritage,” Paradowicz says. “The city respects it, and people are proud of what architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Daniel Burnham did here.”
Speaking in his office in Chicago’s downtown Loop, Dumich observes that “there are, like, 2,000 architects sitting within a half a mile of me. There’s a great synergy that makes you feel lucky to be an architect in Chicago.”
Dennis Rodkin is a writer and former editor of Chicago Architect, published by AIA Chicago.