Struggling to Build Careers as Architects

When Janek Bielski was chosen as one of five finalists in the West Hollywood Civic Center competition last summer, the 34-year-old architect had been working independently for less than two years, living on a net income averaging $1,000 a month.

The international competition took up all his time and almost "wiped me out financially," Bielski said. "But to be chosen as a finalist gave me great confidence. It helped me answer the basic question: Am I going to make it on my own or not?"

Lean, intense, with vivid green-gray eyes and a mop of curly brown hair, Bielski is typical of a new generation of Los Angeles architects who are abandoning the security of staff jobs in established offices and struggling to set up independent practices.

1,800 in L.A. Chapter

Every year about 80 newly licensed architects join the 1,800-member Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. A few will strike out on their own. Even fewer will become truly successful.

What does it take to make it in such a competitive profession? How long does it take to establish a practice that provides an adequate living? What is the struggle like, and why do they endure it?

"I do what I do," said Bielski, "because there's nothing like architecture that incorporates so many different aspects of life, from the way you live to a concern for art, history, politics, social issues, technology and people. At times I resent its sacrifices and frustrations, its disappointments and its risks. But really I love it. And I know I'll make it on my merits someday sooner or later."

"Making it" can take two forms--reputation and/or material success.

Frank Gehry, who has influenced many young architects, said that to prosper on his own, a young architect needs talent and an overwhelming desire "to see his personal vision happen out there in the world."

The problem, he said, is that the fires of youth start to wane if the frustrations aren't overcome.

'5-Year Burnout Period'

"My experience is that there's a 5-year burnout period after young designers go it alone. If they haven't established a reasonable living and a decent body of work by then, they usually succumb to emotional fatigue."

"It's only recently, after 20 or more years in practice, that I'm beginning to make a decent living," Gehry said. "And the reputation also came slowly. You've just got to be able to hang in there, come what may."

USC architecture dean Robert Harris agrees.

"Young architects have to be really aggressive and assertive in looking for work," he said. "They must seek to create their own opportunities, especially by getting involved in community concerns, like housing and schools. That way they meet people of similar interests, who may become their clients."

Many young architects are socially isolated in their obsession with design and unrealistic in the expectation that discriminating patrons will somehow seek them out, he said. Like Gehry, Harris sees a 3- to 5-year period of independence before many young designers get discouraged.

"Five years seems to be the outer limit of survival when you have to live on a steady diet of hope and fresh air," he said.

Indeed, Bielski said he tends to "eat, sleep and dream architecture 24 hours a day."

"I have no time off, I couldn't support a wife or child, I can't afford to travel though I'd dearly love to," he said, staring at the hills outside his bare white Silver Lake studio. "I've spent most of my savings and have no security whatever. I guess it's like being in love with a beautiful but demanding woman."

When he's not designing houses for a developer, working on remodeling a small downtown branch bank, or developing a proposal for a housing and shopping strip in Venice in collaboration with his architect father, Mark, Bielski spends time searching for a design vocabulary.

His intent, he said, is to fuse a regional modernism expressing the spirit of Los Angeles with a feeling for the so-called "primitive" architecture of pre-Columbian America.

Los Angeles, he said, "is one of the few places in the U.S., and maybe in the world, where someone like me can try to make it now. The metropolis is growing, changing, opening itself to fresh ideas. There's a level of unpredictability and experiment here that keeps you on a tightrope all the time."

An 'Architectural Monk'

Such attention to his profession doesn't leave much time for a social life, he said. Mostly it consists of meeting with other young architects to thrash out ideas and argue concepts.

"I'm a kind of architectural monk," he said with a shy smile.

Michael Lehrer, who teaches at USC, is smack in the middle of that crucial 3- to 5-year period. In the summer of 1984, he set up practice with his landscape-architect wife, Mia, in the attic of their Silver Lake home. Now there are five full-time architects working in his studio, plus two part-time assistants working with his wife.

"The practice is still hand-to-mouth," the 34-year-old Lehrer said. "But we are living off the income in a reasonable fashion. All my work is residential, and that can be tricky. It takes a lot of hours, and is very much at the whim of the client and his circumstances. In a year or two I hope to be over the hump."

Living on Enthusiasm

Sheer enthusiasm keeps him going, Lehrer said.

"To me architecture, for all its hassles, still grabs me as the most romantic of all callings."

Eric Kahn, 29, and Ron Golan, 31, work out of a converted beauty parlor on a run-down stretch of Washington Boulevard in South Los Angeles. Since going into business a year ago, they have shared less than $10,000 in fees, from a commission to plan the interior of a company that makes videos in Larchmont Village, and from the design of a master bedroom suite addition to Kahn's parents' house in the Pacific Palisades.

"We have sufficient savings to last us another six months or so," Kahn said. "But we'll survive. We're confident we can do good work. Being our own masters, with no dependents, we can put everything we have into our work."

Shoestring Budget

Kahn and Golan, who met as students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, rented their $450-a-month office space before receiving any commissions.

"The video office was a referral from another architect," Golan said. "The total project budget was under $50,000, including furniture, and we spent hundreds of hours doing it."

Selected to exhibit a range of their design ideas in the 1986 national competition of New York City's Architectural League, Kahn and Golan said their models and sketches were an attempt to return architecture to the level of idea.

Said Kahn: "The reality of architectural practice involves so much compromise that we find we need to refresh our minds with investigations of pure form."

Tougher for Women

The struggle to make it as an independent is even tougher for a young woman because architecture remains a male-dominated profession. Despite the increasing number of women architecture students, no current superstars and few top professionals are women.

But these facts do not faze Polly Osborn. Since graduating from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica (SCI-ARC) a year ago, she has established an office in Santa Monica, been commissioned to design several houses and hired one full-time assistant as well as a secretary one day a week, she said.

"True, I'm scraping by on a personal income of well under $1,000 a month, but I bunk in with my boyfriend and live frugally. Life is exciting. I'm so happy I set up on my own right off the bat," she said.

Architecture is Osborn's third profession. Now 38, she entered SCI-ARC after working as a photographer in New York and in the Napa Valley, and as a "human potential" trainer.

Prejudice From Contractors

Osborn said she has encountered no prejudice from clients but said some contractors can pose problems.

"Some are openly crude. One told a client that a woman was fine for picking out curtain patterns, but not for the tough stuff of supervising the building construction.

"More typical are the people who wonder why there are not many more women designers, especially in the residential field. They feel we might be more sympathetic to the challenges of domestic architecture."

Indeed, a client's character can be crucial to a beginning architect's frame of mind.

Need 'Courageous Clients'

"A designer starting out needs courageous clients," Bielski said. "The kind that like to take chances. After all, he or she would feel much more secure going with an established office. On the other hand, they know a young architect will give them heart and soul. We really earn our fees."

Developer David Green, for whom Bielski designed two single-family homes on a Woodland Hills lot, said the young architect "did an outstanding job. It was a very difficult site, and Janek gave the project much more time and care than an established architect would have been able to do. You can say we both came out of the experience feeling very good."

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