After I graduated from college in 1994 and moved back home to the Bay Area, my dad handed me a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? A practical electrical engineer with his own business, he was well aware that the construction industry was stymied by recession. With a new B.Arch. degree and a portfolio of conceptual drawings, I was hungry to enter the design profession and dismissive of any job-hunting manual. My summer was spent sending out dozens of résumés to firms.
When I got no reply, I knew my color: It was black.
I wasn’t alone. Friends were struggling to find work. Then, as now, firms had scaled back, leaving less room for budding architects to make their way into the profession. Many left the field. In turn, they chose jobs in the tech industry that was just beginning to boom, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
At first glance, their defections are unremarkable. Architecture school training—a design degree—has long been marketed as a way to see the world, not necessarily a passport to practice. From Gordon Matta-Clark to Herbert Muschamp, there’s a comfortable legacy of graduates pursuing film, art, graphic design, or criticism. Others have ventured toward hands-on roles as contractors, construction managers, remodelers, and furniture designers. But the contraction of the architecture job market in the early 1990s left a gap in the profession that didn’t reveal itself until the boom economy of a decade later.
Previously on “Lost” …
It’s been called the “lost generation”—the cohort of architecture-school graduates between roughly 1990 and 1994 who left the profession for good. Before the current bust, firms were struggling to find talent to fill midcareer positions. “What we’ve experienced is that when we try to hire intermediate- to senior-level project architects, we feel like there aren’t many [people] who fit that experience,” explains SmithGroup principal Mark McVay. “It presents a difficult thing. You either have to pay more for someone with 25 to 30 years of experience or stretch a younger person to accommodate that role.”
Cliff Moser, a vice president of outsourcing company Cadforce and co-chair of the AIA’s practice management knowledge community, echoes McVay on the dearth of experienced project managers in the Gen X age bracket (which he belongs to). He remembers that at the 1990 AIA convention, held in Washington, D.C., there were a number of presentations on alternative careers: real estate, banking, and insurance. “At that time, if you couldn’t get a job in architecture, you [took] the problem-solving and team-building skills you got in school and [used] them in other fields,” he recalls.
Some young architects in the ’90s, especially those with top-notch computer skills, were picked up by Electronic Arts or other game modeling companies, more lucrative jobs that gave graduates a chance to quickly earn their design chops. When Peter Oberdorfer couldn’t find a job after graduating from U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design in 1991, he took an intern position at Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Los Angeles office. The pay was minimal, the hours long. He lasted nine months, then left for New York City and graduate school at Columbia University. “I was a gung-ho student of architecture and loved the profession, certainly not a dilettante,” he recalls.
Today, Oberdorfer is president of Slash FX, a global, high-end visual effects company. At Columbia, as an early adopter of computer modeling and animation, he’d shuttle between the engineering and architecture departments. Eventually, one of his architectural walk-throughs caught the notice of a movie production studio. “They came calling and said, ‘Do you want to work on designing a sci-fi city for Sylvester Stallone?’?” remembers Oberdorfer. “They wanted to pay me to create a virtual stage set. I could do that or an unpaid internship in Japan.”
McVay wonders if this aspect of the talent vacuum led to more global outsourcing of entry-level and digital imaging work. “With fewer people with those kind of skills, we started to look outside of our firm, to rendering houses in India, Argentina, Slovakia, where you could get the benefits of a lower cost of living.”
Peaks, troughs, and lateral moves
It’s a paradox for practice: Cheaper labor abroad, rather than a U.S. intern pool, fuels the production bubble, which then leads to a short supply of experienced project managers. Of course, in the current economy, the issue is moot. “Two or three years ago, offshoring and outsourcing made it seem like we didn’t have enough experienced architects,” notes Kermit Baker, chief economist for the AIA and a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “Construction, and therefore architecture, is a cyclical industry, with very rapid growth or steep declines. The steady state is never there.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, from the peak of employment in July 1990 to the lowest point in January 1993, the number of positions at architecture firms shrank by 14.6 percent. The 30-month trough outlasted the overall national recession, which ended in late 1992. Baker notes that the recession earlier in this decade is recorded as March through December 2001, but there was no upturn in design activity until 2004, and construction picked up in late 2004 and 2005—a chilling four-year downturn to generate four subsequent years of growth.
It’s tempting to see Oberdorfer’s story as both a warning sign for the profession (he is the epitome of the skilled worker cited by McVay) and as a roadmap for today’s underemployed young designers. With graduating students increasingly versed in computer-aided design, parametric design, and scripting, as well as software like Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator and Apple’s Final Cut Pro, there’s a thought that they’d be well-positioned to transfer their design skills into the digital production fields.
But is a lateral move still feasible? Oberdorfer points out that there’s no longer a Hollywood or dot-com job waiting for people cast off from architecture. Art and vocational schools now graduate thousands of students who are trained in postproduction for the film and television industries. Those programs didn’t exist 15 years ago.
“I’ve been combing through my skill set and seeing where I can apply outside of architecture,” 2008 graduate David Kuykendall says. “Architecture school provides you with this huge knowledge base, but in the end, I came out with an architecture portfolio. Maybe I should develop a photography or graphic design portfolio. I would love to stay in the field, but at this point, I’m thinking about going to a temp agency.”
Kuykendall earned a B.Arch. degree from the University of Arkansas last May. A month later he moved to New York City. Since then he’s picked up a bit of freelance drafting, but nothing full-time. Kuykendall has a lot of experience for a recent grad—he worked in Dubai one summer, studied in Denmark and Rome, and is LEED accredited. And he’s frustrated. “I am looking for entry-level work, but I am vying for jobs with people with five or more years of experience,” he says. “It’s impossible to compete.” He’s considered slinging café lattes at Starbucks or waiting tables, but still comes up short: “Since I’m in New York, all the starving artists and actors out there have a lot more experience in the service industry than I do.”
Educated, but prepared?
The subtext of today’s “lost generation” discussion is not the uncertainties in the economy, but queasy misgivings about architecture-school training. Are graduates prepared when they enter the profession with a general design degree? Will more specialization give an edge in a tough market—or does it smack of vocational school? And then, what kind of specialization guarantees a job?
“It’s not as easy as the old master-builder model,” cautions McVay, who has taught at the University of Southern California and SCI-Arc. “Lately, the emphasis in architecture programs is on computer-based design strategies, not old-school building technology, not materials and construction. This doesn’t lend itself to using green technology in the profession. It seems that green technology positions are suited to technically driven skill sets. If you only have computer-design training and a philosophy, then you many not be able to apply.” Ironically, then, the very skills that allowed Oberdorfer to segue out of the field could muddle the progress of the next generation of young architects.
Connie Caldwell, director of career services for Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, counsels the class of 2009 to take the LEED exam, complete courses in Revit, and participate in design/build community service instead of waiting for the phone to ring. Her advice is born of necessity, especially if you take the job fair Syracuse hosted this spring as a predictor. According to Caldwell, the School of Architecture invited 20 firms to campus to interview prospective hires. Fourteen firms came, and only three of them arrived with open positions.
“A lot of us are really are confused and disillusioned about the whole thing. Even a year ago it didn’t look as bad as this,” says recent Syracuse graduate Theresa Franzese, who hopes to take her B.Arch. degree in a sustainable-design direction. “I think a lot of people are counting on the stimulus package to create jobs.”
However, shovel-ready infrastructure projects and green jobs may prove red herrings. Baker, the AIA economist, is circumspect of the federal stimulus money slated for energy retrofits and weatherization, seeing only short-term growth in that area. The Obama administration may promise 5 million green-collar jobs, but those would include, for example, solar-panel and insulated window installers, which don’t add up to the kind of job bailout needed for the architecture profession. Besides, turning public worker isn’t sexy: It requires a kind of managerial mindset not taught in many design programs.
“Most of the work available right now is federal or institutional,” says McVay. “So either you are interested in that work and all of the consensus-driven limitations that come with it, or you are going to go back into academia to explore individual expression. If I had to speculate what’s going to happen next, I’d say we’re going to see an even bigger gap open up between public- and private-sector work.”
Giving back and trying to get by
Whether public or private, socially conscious design appeals to students who came of age under the grassroots Obama campaign and Architecture for Humanity’s rally to design like you give a damn. David Krantz is co-director/producer (along with Ian Harris) of Archiculture, a film that tracks the final semester of five architecture students at the Pratt Institute. Krantz noticed the strong interest among his colleagues when he worked in an office (he holds a landscape architecture degree from Clemson University) and while shooting the film. “I don’t know if it is our generation or not, but I see a desire for architecture to have a social impact—to give something back,” he reflects.
But in a straitened economy, how many opportunities will there be to design for the greater good? “There was lot of progress, pre-recession, from a social and sustainable standpoint. We were at a point where people started to see the added value in the investment. But now times are tough, and that type of funding took a huge blow,” Krantz adds.
Last winter, Jef Zaborski was laid off from his position at New York’s Donald Blair & Partners Architects, where he’d been employed nearly two years. It was his first job after receiving an M.Arch. degree from the University of Maryland. While he had loved the job, Zaborski took the news in stride. An unemployment check has allowed him to volunteer 20 hours a week with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides support and humanitarian aid for refugees. He spends his time helping Bhutanese refugees resettle into a life in New York City; he scouts apartments and buys bed sheets, furniture, forks and knives, and other essentials.
It’s given him perspective on his own position. “When you talk to people who are dealing with circumstances beyond their control … victimized by the government of Bhutan or displaced by war or famine, it makes you think, well, maybe I should be working that much harder,” says Zaborski, who is not yet ready to give up on the profession. “I have this built-in advantage. I have this education, this network, and this cultural knowledge that makes me think, ‘How can I help people more?’ So, what can I do as an architect?”
The question resonates across the profession. Among practitioners, employed and unemployed alike, there’s a lot of finger-crossing and not much forecasting. The most recent Department of Labor numbers show employment at architecture firms peaking in July 2008 at 224,500. By this March, the figure had dropped about 13 percent to 195,100. While some budding architects are filling their time working on their LEED accreditation, bartending, or volunteering, many are itinerant, picking up freelance design or CAD work here and there. By default, they are staying in practice. A new lost generation many not be in the cards, simply because there is really no place to get lost.