I graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1990. Times were tough for architects, especially inexperienced ones without good contacts. I managed to get and keep a number of jobs in a few years that kept me in the profession, retreating to grad school along the way. However, so many of my fellow graduates, faced with a tough economy, low pay, student loans, layoffs and mind-numbing aggravation of the day-to-day tasks of young interns, either dropped out or were forced out of architecture. The huge glut of baby-boomer architects in front of us meant few professional jobs where actual design experience could be had and even less chance of landing one of the rare, tenure-track teaching jobs.
So it was much to my, and many of my colleagues, surprise that being an architect became cool in the late 1990's. There were architects on television and the movies and the explosive growth of the culture of international star architects all felt like actions taking place on a very different planet than the one we lived. Companies and institutions lost faith in open, anonymous competitions and these opportunities dried up for all but the few, usual suspects of the invitation-only "competition". Gone were the days that Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, Jorn Utzon, and others could make their careers winning open competitions and seeing the buildings to completion.
But I think none of this compares to the bleak landscape of recently-graduated and young architects today. The prospect of finding any job at all in architecture or a related field is extremely limited. Past recessions have seen slow-downs in a region or a type of project (residential or commercial), but the last 2 years have witnessed almost a complete stop to all construction. (Employment in architecture firms is down almost 20%). The cynical older architects are happy to see this winnowing of the crop, a filtering of only the most dedicated. However, most likely this recession will only further reinforce the reality that for the most part, architecture should be pursued by only those who are either independently wealthy or willing to work for wages that won't keep up with school loan payments.
I get a lot resumes and work samples sent to me. There is a tremendous amount of talent and drive out there that has no outlet in architecture. There are thousands of great buildings that will not come to be, an unbelievable loss to our built environment. When so much of our country fears the future, the prospects for architecture are indeed bleak. Architecture proposes the new, it looks to the future. Even the most world-weary and hip-tragic architect gets really excited about making buildings, proposing new ideas and forms. The recession hasn't just stopped or slowed the amount of work available, it has fostered an environment of fear, where architecture seems an expensive amenity in a threadbare future.
Let's hope that when things turn around, there will be some architects left who are are not so cynical or set-in-their-ways, that a new generation of buildings can designed and built that celebrate life on this planet not just mere existence.