Attention Shoppers: Architects On Sale!

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We know autoworkers were slammed during the Great Recession. But also spare a thought - if you will - for those once-celebrated creative types who ruled the design world, made big bucks and graced the society and style pages.

Yes, we mean architects, who are, sad to say, suffering. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of employed architects slumped to 189,999 last year from 230,000 in 2008, a 17.8 percent decline, making that friendly designer-type who sports weird black eyewear one of the hardest hit professionals in the economic downturn (along with carpenters and airplane pilots).

We hate to kick Zaha, Rem, Frank and Jean when they're down, but hey, is this the moment to get some good design help on the cheap?

Definitely. Don't be afraid to ask. "There's lots of price cutting going on," admits Scott Frank, spokesman for the American Institute of Architects, whose billings index, which tracks demand for design services, took another dive in November.

Our architect friends say competition is fierce and discount-seeking clients are already going for the jugular.One large university, about to hand out a contract in an architectural competition, said this, in so many words, to the winning bidder: "We realize there is desperation out there and have every intention of taking advantage, so if you don't lower your price, we will take our business elsewhere."

And that's a university.

Ah, think back just a few years ago to when the economy was booming and architects were courted by stars, politicos and hedge fund types, who just had to have a Gehry in their backyard. Attach a "starchitect" name to a project, whether an oversized residence or a New York or Chicago condo tower -- and opposition would melt away (well, most of the time).

But the housing slump, tight credit, skittish developers, and cash-poor state coffers put an end to that as projects were pulled and major firms, from Frank Gehry to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill - the architects who brought us the Dubai Burj, the world's tallest building for the next 5 minutes - all slashed staff and sent thousands of starving architects into the world.

There is some work around. European retailers are arriving on our shores to take advantage of absurdly low commercial rents, and need architects to design snazzy stores. But for the most part, expect 25 shrunken firms to bid for the same job that would have attracted only a handful a few years ago -- perhaps even that extra bathroom you always wanted to add to your house.

It's certainly come-uppance for those big ego Howard Roark types. Yet don't forget that some great, groundbreaking architecture was produced over the boom years, thanks to deep-pocketed clients and investors.

We still need good architects, whatever the price. So enjoy the mark down while it lasts.
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