With projects scarce, architects try new avenues of work

The creative department of the real estate business has lost its swagger.

Architects, the exalted artists who design structures that will stand for generations, are feeling a lot less glamorous these days. As the recession emptied offices, stores and factories, the demand for new ones disappeared. Work for architects also went away.

When people look back, there will be few signature buildings on the country's metropolitan skylines to point to that were built in the years around 2010, said Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects.

The AIA's measurement of commercial real estate work that architects have on their boards is at a low ebb, a 40% decline since late 2008. "You need to go back to the Great Depression to see something of this magnitude," Baker said.

Southern California architects have come up with some creative ways to cope with the crisis and stay busy. One architect is writing movie scripts and stage plays. One firm is planning to develop its own building and sell off extra office space. Another is hustling to design products it can license to manufacturers.

Nearly everywhere, though, there are cutbacks. Employment at the nation's architecture firms has dropped 25% since 2008, Baker said. The pain appears to be widespread.

"There is such a sense that it is going to be so tough for so long that it's affecting middle- and upper-management ranks," said architect Ann Gray, a consultant to developers and publisher of a magazine for Los Angeles architects. "Usually they start chopping at the bottom because senior-level people can do everything the underlings can. This time cuts have been across the board."

Hiring has been so weak that firms stand to lose a generation of talent.

"We are going to have this weird demographic [void]" in the future, she said. "Ten years from now, where will we find our project managers?"

Opportunities for out-of-work architects are rare. A small Culver City firm, MDA Johnson Favaro, got more than 230 applications for an entry-level position it offered on an Internet job board last month.

Many of the respondents had a few years of experience, firm Principal Steve Johnson said, "so we were able to aim a little higher in terms of qualifications."

The firm downsized by 30% last year, he said, to make it through the recession with the work it had, and was left with eight architects. Business has stabilized enough to hire one more, but competition for contracts is still brutal.

"Before, we were competing with four or five firms similar to our own," Johnson said. "Now 20 or 30 firms are going after a job. Every firm, regardless of size, is going after every project out there to keep the lights on."

Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group is about 15% smaller than before the recession, Principal Jonathan V. Watts said, even though it was prepared for the downturn.

"We saw this coming," said Watts, who works in the Marina del Rey office. "Two years ago we started marketing in Korea and China. That's where the money and the work is." Cuningham's overseas design jobs include a large resort hotel and a water theme park.

Cuningham Group also expects to make money on an office building it is planning in Culver City. The firm and its partner, REthink Development, bought land that was once part of the MGM studio back lot and has designed an environmentally friendly building it hopes will qualify for the top-level — platinum — certification from the United States Green Building Council.

"It's the Toyota Prius of buildings, except that it's really attractive," Watts said of the design. "What better advertising is there for what we can do than being in our own building?"

He hopes to start construction by May and finish the project, called the Plant, in about 18 months. Cuningham would occupy about 20% of the office space and sell the rest condominium-style to other businesses that want to be in an ultra-green building.

Santa Monica architect Tommy Landau, who designed some of the region's prominent high-rise office buildings in past decades, has had it with the grind.

"I don't want to have another staff again," said Landau, who ran a firm with about 40 people in the 1980s. "I have no interest in marketing or sending anybody a picture of a building."

His staff bulked up again for about five years when he was working on the 25-story Glendale Plaza office tower completed in 1999, but he mostly works on his own now. He knows that more high-rise offices won't be built around Southern California again soon. "There is no sense beating a dead horse," he said.

Landau is instead cultivating his creative side, writing screenplays, drawing cartoons and hosting events such as poetry readings at his studio. His musical stage play "Woodie," about a turf war between surfers and gays in the 1960s, is perhaps his favorite project these days.

"I get more excited about artistic endeavors," he said.

Global architecture firm HOK recently launched HOK Product Design, a business based in Los Angeles that licenses products it designs to manufacturers that make and sell them. The product-design business was not prompted by the recession but was launched with an eye to the ever-more-competitive future of the profession.

"The board was looking for things that were an adjunct to architecture but potentially gave us a new type of revenue stream," said Susan Grossinger, HOK's director of product design. "Architecture is a fee-for-service business. Product design is royalty-based."

Among the firm's products is a low-cost rain garden for use in urban settings that catches storm water, cleans it and puts it into the ground. That product is unique, Grossinger said, while others are improvements to existing designs.

She sees the division as a chance to push the frontiers of environmentally friendly design into what she refers to as biomimicry. "We try to do things as nature would do them."

Well-known Los Angeles architecture firm Johnson Fain has joined the scramble for overseas business and turned some of its focus to designing buildings for public agencies such as the Los Angeles Unified School District.

It's a strategic shift for a firm known for conjuring up high-profile Class A office buildings, such as MGM Tower in Century City. The 35-story tower, completed in 2003, is the newest office skyscraper in Los Angeles, and no others are known to be planned. The firm has been pared to about 46 employees from more than 70 in early 2008.

"Donald Trump used to call us the 'Die Hard' guys," partner Scott Johnson said, because Johnson Fain designed Fox Plaza, the Century City high-rise at the center of the first "Die Hard" movie in 1988.

More recent projects include Roy Romer Middle School and Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angeles. Although work is still scarce, private developers are starting to discuss new projects again, Johnson said.

"Architects will look back to 2009," he said, "and say that was the valley."

roger.vincent@latimes.com

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