From left to right: Maurice Cox of the National Endowment for the Arts, Christine McEntee of the AIA, and Chase Rynd of the National Building Museum talk recession and stimulus.
Mike Morgan From left to right: Maurice Cox of the National Endowment for the Arts, Christine McEntee of the AIA, and Chase Rynd of the National Building Museum talk recession and stimulus.

You know things have really gone askew when an architect sets up shop in a lemonade stand. Seattle-based John Morefield made news this winter when he began selling design advice from a stall at a local farmer’s market—for a nickel. “I was laid off twice this year, and I decided to open my own design firm, and I needed a way to meet people,” Morefield told a local reporter. It may be unorthodox, but in tough economic times, what’s an architect to do? The question is just as pressing for the dozens of institutions that support and promote the architecture profession—museums, design centers, foundations, and colleges and universities. Endowments have been decimated; state budget cuts are forcing layoffs, furloughs, and hiring freezes; and shrinking credit lines are jeopardizing financial aid and scholarships.

While many architecture institutions are struggling, they also are busier than ever, as perceived safe harbors in the current economic storm: Applications to U.S. architecture schools are up by as much as 60 percent, and the design division of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal grantmaking agency, is seeing a dramatic rise in proposals. The division’s applicant pool doubled in the third quarter of 2008. “I can’t tell you how many nonprofits were born when people got laid off and saw it as an opportunity to become a design entrepreneur,” says Maurice Cox, the NEA’s director of design.

At the Institute

Amid the hand wringing, there is some hopeful news. This winter, the national AIA galvanized a massive political advocacy campaign called Renew and Rebuild to support funding of architecture in the stimulus package. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but it does represent the largest investment in green buildings in history,” says Marvin Malecha, the AIA’s president.

Malecha credits the stimulus success to the mobilization of architects. “We could see the effect of our members on what actually was accomplished on the Hill,” he says. “Eleven thousand AIA members sent messages to Congress. Architects’ voices were heard.”

The AIA, at least in the first quarter of this year, is seeing its membership hold steady at about 87,000, in spite of a rash of layoffs, and is anticipating slightly lower revenue than in 2008. “When we prepared our 2009 operating plan and budget,” notes executive vice president and CEO Christine McEntee, “we prepared a plan that could be well executed with less revenue. We [focused] on keeping certain programs really strong, and some areas where we saw we had duplication, we consolidated”—for example, separate committees on education that were combined into one.

Meanwhile, AIA components are trying to broaden the help they provide for members, even as they work harder to secure funding for their programs. By September of last year, Margie O’Driscoll, executive director of AIA San Francisco, was fielding daily calls from principals looking to place employees they’d had to lay off with other firms. “I was amazed by their concern and care,” she says. “They were trying to be proactive, but not many people were hiring.”

O’Driscoll and her staff began pondering how their Center for Architecture + Design, which opened in 2005, could evolve to serve this emerging reality. “We decided that we needed to think holistically about the profession, and become the place where people could go in this difficult time.”

They developed a series of free and low-cost events, such as roundtables at which emeritus members counsel young architects about riding out a recession. Programs that would have attracted 50 people in the past are now seeing audiences of 150 and more. Membership is higher than projected, and the number of volunteers has “grown dramatically,” according to O’Driscoll. She believes this has to do with the role that a design center can play during a downturn.

“Say you are in your 20s and you lose your job. Your connection to architecture [was] your firm. So now, how do you keep that passion alive? You go to your Center for Architecture + Design.”

As with all AIA-affiliated centers for design, San Francisco’s is a separate, nonprofit entity. Unlike AIA San Francisco—a 501(c)(6) organization—the center is a 501(c)(3), and therefore eligible for foundation dollars. Its $45,000 annual budget is composed of grants and individual sponsorships. “We’re at the point where we are going back to funders and asking to renew our grants, so we are hopeful that we will stay on track this year,” O’Driscoll says, though she notes that competition is likely going to be more intense. (Of course, foundation income is usually tied to endowments, which are invested in various financial instruments; if endowment value sinks, giving may sink along with it.)

AIA North Carolina members are also attending programs in higher numbers, according to executive director David Crawford, but they are expressing concerns over dues. “If we have to work with them on dues reduction, we will. We want to keep all of our members in the family.” A proposed new headquarters designed by Frank Harmon is still going ahead, albeit with caution. Some prospective donors are asking if their pledges to the project could be spread out over a longer period of time, Crawford says. “Everyone is walking on eggshells, but everyone is still behind it.”

Museums, Etc.

Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), is seeing a decline in sales at CAF’s retail store and predicts a 20 percent decline in outside donations, factors behind a hiring freeze and no raises for staff this year. Yet architects are still supporting the organization. “Architects in this community are fabulous,” she says. “They are not able to donate at the same level, but they are trying to remain involved.” The CAF puts on more than 100 programs a year, many of them free, and Osmond says that every program for 2009 will be planned with the new economy in mind.

The National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., instituted a hiring freeze this fall, leaving 14 staff positions unfulfilled. It also eliminated two positions and cut travel budgets. Another cost-cutting measure will see exhibitions extended by several months. Yet Chase Rynd, the museum’s president, remains optimistic about the future, in spite of the cuts. Rynd, who used to work in the financial services sector, sees nonprofits as lean and mean—in other words, well positioned to survive a down economy.

“What serves a lot of nonprofits and museums well is that it’s pretty rare for a nonprofit to ever be totally flush,” Rynd says. “We are used to having tight budgets and still producing great results. I have never, in my entire career in museums, had the staff size that I am supposed to have. There is never any fat sitting around, so when we come to a challenging time, we’re already disciplined.”

New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture had a stellar 2008 that included restoration of its famous façade on Kenmare Street and the White House Redux competition, which drew an international roster of participants. Year-end contributions were good. “The economic downturn is a very complex affair, and the way that it trickles down to Storefront is very different from the way it affects the larger institutions, like the Guggenheim,” says director Joseph Grima.

Storefront doesn’t have an endowment, something Grima considers “a blessing and a curse” because he and his three full-time staffers are accustomed to raising money on their own. Most of their $500,000 annual budget comes via small contributions from individuals, as well as the dues of about 200 members. “We haven’t yet had any specific alterations to our budget. We are simply hoping to maintain the level of funding last year, and so far, we have succeeded in that. We’ve had to make more personal telephone calls,” he says.

School Daze

You might think that the construction slowdown would deter people from getting a degree (or a second one) in architecture, but so far, that hasn’t been the case: quite the opposite. Thomas Hanrahan, dean of the School of Architecture at New York’s Pratt Institute, says applications for the next academic year are up 40 percent. “We are through the roof,” he says.

Seems like a good problem to have, right? Well … “Recessions have a predictable effect on architecture schools: Admissions usually goes up,” Hanrahan says. “This one is odd, in that we don’t know if people have access to money or lines of credit. We won’t know until September what the effect will be on admissions.”

With tuition bills of $32,000 a year, many Pratt students look to student loans, financial aid, scholarships, and parental support to cover costs. But one popular way to pay for school—the home equity line—has fallen victim to the credit crunch. Lenders are capping or even closing these lines, which were frequently used as low-interest loans for college tuition. “We’ve had a couple parents say that they were using their equity lines to fund their kid’s education, and now they are not sure what they will do,” Hanrahan says.

This is compounded by the fact that Pratt’s endowment, invested in the stock market, supports many of its scholarship programs. “We’re fine, financially, but we’ve taken a hit [on the stock market] with everybody else,” Hanrahan says. “Our primary focus now is finding funding sources for scholarships.”

Applications to graduate programs in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin spiked by 30 to 40 percent, according to Frederick Steiner, the school’s dean. The other thing that’s increased significantly at UT Austin is the competition for teaching slots, by about 10 or 15 percent. Some of these applicants are adjuncts hoping to score more permanent positions; the others, Steiner says, come from two groups: “Faculty at other schools in states with more serious economic challenges, and practitioners … facing downturns in their businesses.”

Many schools, especially state-funded institutions, won’t be able to capitalize on this influx of new teaching talent. Hiring freezes are affecting schools across the country. The College of Architecture, Planning, and Design at Kansas State University is waiting on the state budget to be finalized this summer, but, says Peter Magyar, head of the architecture department, “we could face a situation where instead of 30 people teaching close to 400 students, we have to do it with 20 people.”

Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology, had to trim at least 3.5 percent of her budget this year, or up to $90,000. The College of Architecture is considering if and how it might legally eliminate tenure-track faculty slots. Dunham-Jones is also exploring the idea of splitting the cost of practitioners who might otherwise lose their jobs at local firms. “If a firm has someone they might have to lay off, we could share that person, so that they teach with us. We pay the firm instead of the person, and the firm gives us their time,” she says.

Looking Ahead

Michael Lykoudis, dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, says he is very frank with his students: “This is a sobering time. And it calls for a change in psychology of how you see yourself in the world.” But Lykoudis finds promise in the Obama administration’s emphasis on infrastructure. “The next decade is going to be critical, and we would like to position our students where they can make a difference,” he notes. “They may be going into preservation; they may be going into adaptive reuse. It may be that they have to look to government positions to see how they can serve.”

Cox of the NEA agrees that definitions are shifting. “Students are redefining how they want to practice,” says Cox, who is on leave from the University of Virginia School of Architecture. “It will be interesting to see if this downturn may accelerate the process of designers recasting themselves as social entrepreneurs.”

Cox notes that 2008 saw an “unprecedented spike” in grant applications to his NEA division from community design centers. His division gave out $1.1 million in direct, design-related grants last year; this year, it will see its overall budget increase, in addition to a separate, $50 million injection from the stimulus. With the stimulus promising major infrastructure dollars, with an urban president committed to rebuilding our nation’s cities, there is a chance for architecture to expand its reach.

“Designers possess the ability to problem-solve and offer real solutions to many of the underlying challenges that our cities are facing,” Cox points out. “Designers can become confidants and advisers to our decision-makers.”

“If adversity really forces people to think in innovative terms, then this is going to unleash an enormous amount of creative energy,” Cox adds. And if you’ve got a good idea, he’s all ears: “The next deadline for grant applications is Aug. 13.”