Chicago Architects Search For Foundation

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In Chicago, a city known for breathtaking architecture, some design firms have had to lay people off and alter their business. With construction of residential and commercial buildings down, architects are looking for different things to do.


Before every house or shopping mall or towering skyscraper is built, it's designed. Daring, originality, form and function are often the hallmarks of great architecture. But with the economy on the skids, American architects have to scale back both their operations and their ambitions. That's true even in a city known for its architectural landmarks.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports from Chicago.

CHERYL CORLEY: A giant symbol of the state of architecture in today's economy might be right where I'm standing, here at a more than 100-foot hole in the ground, near the Chicago River and the city's Lake Shore Drive. Now, this was a planned site for a grand, spiraling tower designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Well, there's no construction cranes here, only fencing. And the architect has sued the developer. It's not clear when, or even if this project will ever be finished.

Mr. MARVIN MALECHA (President, The American Institute of Architects): What I hear from architects is that they're very hopeful that they're going to see some uptick in the fall.

CORLEY: Marvin Malecha is president of the American Institute of Architects, and says it's been really tough for architects all across the country. His latest surveys of large architectural firms show client billings dropping to historic lows in January and February.

Mr. MALECHA: Things are not going to improve for us until we see the ability of municipalities to raise bonds, and business conditions need to improve. And we've got to get a clear sense of the credit lines that are being made available by banks. And all of that has to kick into some kind of gear that allows people to have faith and confidence that they can move ahead with projects.

CORLEY: In Chicago, buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and others have made this city an architectural wonderland. And last decade's building boom added more than 200 high-rises to the city's skyline.

Mr. SCOTT SARVER (CEO, DeStefano and Partners): As you can see from our building and out here, this was a, you know, it was a Great Lakes shipping port…

CORLEY: Scott Sarver, CEO of the architectural firm DeStefano and Partners, can look right outside a bank of office windows and see condos and townhomes along the Chicago River that the company designed. Until the recent downturn, about 130 people were working at the firm at a near-record pace. Then late last year, 15 were let go. In January, another 15. And other belt-tightening measures were put into place.

Mr. SARVER: We just recently instigated a 32-hour work week to keep people employed, to keep them with health insurance, to keep them in a survivor kind of position and all that.

CORLEY: Architect Lynne Sorkin has worked at DeStefano's for 10 years, focusing recently on design work for elementary and high schools.

Ms. LYNNE SORKIN (DeStefano and Partners): I think that your love of just design and the industry is probably what gets most people into the field.

CORLEY: And now, with fellow employees getting laid off…

Ms. SORKIN: I think I'm just kind of going day to day. Obviously, the economy is horrible and it's affecting everybody, not just architects. And it's, you know, hard to predict what's going to happen to you the next day, but I just have to focus on the work at hand.

CORLEY: The workload at DeStefano's has been nearly cut in half. Like a number of other architectural firms struggling to pay its bills, CEO Sarver says the company's projects are diverse.

Mr. SARVER: From big, tall buildings in China to, you know, little, small renovations of a school in Chicago, etc. So part of the adjustment is, we're trying to do everything we can.

CORLEY: And what used to be a saving grace for many of the big architectural firms - overseas jobs - have also largely dried up. AIA President Marvin Malecha says President Obama's economic stimulus strategy may help, even though it focuses more on shovel-ready projects like repairing highways. Malecha says there are potentially thousands of jobs for architects.

Mr. MALECHA: We can't ignore the growth that's required in our school systems, in our universities; health care in our country requires attention. So these projects need to be done. We're hopeful as a profession that we will start to see this in later part of this year and that into next year, we will see real improvements.

CORLEY: But for now, it's likely that designers will ignore the advice of famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who said, make no little plans. These days, it's those smaller jobs that are helping architects survive.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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