Suffering starchitects

High-profile firms chase institutional business, cut staff
By Sara Polsky | August 31, 2009 10:15PM

As the downturn continues, work has fallen off even for some of the most celebrated architects working in New York City.

In a widely reported move this June, Frank Gehry was booted from the Atlantic Yards arena job in favor of an architectural firm that would save the project money.

And last month, Robert A.M. Stern told The Real Deal that his firm has seen projects put on hold because of the economy (he declined to give specifics).

In response to the slowdown, some starchitects are scaling back their office operations and shifting to more institutional work to deal with the drought of new development projects.

“We have quite a bit of university work [and] we are also beginning initiatives with work overseas,” particularly in China, Stern said during a phone interview.

He also noted, “We have clients who are preparing projects…hoping to have something like shovel-ready drawings when the market turns.”

Even with some changes to the composition of their workloads, several high-profile architecture firms have had to furlough or even cut staff.

Stern said his firm (which, according to the company Web site, has 220 employees) has cut 50 to 60 people over the past year and was unable to take on as many summer interns as usual this year.

In July, New York Magazine reported that Richard Meier’s firm had switched to a four-day work week and also planned to close its Manhattan office for two weeks last month because there was not as much work as usual.

However, in an e-mail exchange with The Real Deal, Meier denied that, saying that the office closure was implemented to give staffers a badly needed vacation “due to our hectic work schedule.”

Layoffs and furloughs aren’t the only ways to keep firms operational in tough times.

Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter, said entering design competitions, which pay winners, is another way to provide work for a firm. Some of those competitions pay hundreds of thousand of dollars.

Stern, who is responsible for a number of well-known buildings in the city, said waiting for the market to turn around is a better choice than altering design elements to address financial concerns.

“Compromising by just sort of ripping the heart out of the design is very bad,” he noted.

But Stern said he does not think current shifts and cuts will have a long-term impact on architectural design.

“Maybe things got a little too giddy at the very end; maybe everybody had one glass more of champagne than was good for them,” he said.

“But I hope that the trend we’ve enjoyed — where really good architects have been given the chance to show what they can do — I hope we’re not losing that.”