The long-term impact of recessions is often most evident on projects altered by the economic realities. The most obvious example in the New York region this year was Forest City Ratner’s decision not to have Gehry Partners of Los Angeles as master architect of its massive $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards complex. In a statement about removing Gehry specifically from the complex’s signature sports arena, Bruce Ratner, CEO of the development firm, stated: “The current economic climate is not right for this design, and with Frank’s understanding, the arena is undergoing a redesign that will make it more limited in scope.” Forest City announced it was tapping Ellerbe Becket to finish the arena.
The need to scratch bigger ideas plays out in smaller scale as well, such as the newly redesigned plans for the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y., by Switzerland-based Herzog & de Meuron. Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times recounted in an August column how the firm originally presented plans for an $80 million structure but this year unveiled a replacement that fits a budget only a third as large. “Yet the design is also a major step down in architectural ambition,” he wrote. “And it suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of financial insecurity. It is a creeping conservatism – and aversion to risk – that leaves little room for creative invention.”
Economics are simply a central part of the design process, says Guy Geier, senior partner at FXFowle. “Everyone is putting more pressure on us and the supply chain relative to looking at construction costs,” he adds. “It’s a constant process from the beginning of design.” He adds that to date his firm hasn’t been asked to significantly redesign projects because of the recession.
Owners are paying more attention than ever to “value engineering” to save on project budgets even during construction, adds Roland Ericsson, v.p., area manager for New York for Hatch Mott MacDonald, an engineering firm.
For now, it may be too soon to say whether this recession will spark a new design thinking, says Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York City chapter. The rapid spread of glass-and-steel skyscrapers in Manhattan in recent years was driven partly by modern design tastes but also by project economics that made such materials and processes accessible and affordable. Now, with fewer active projects, it’s hard to see whether those trends will change, though there is clearly an effort to save money.
“We’re seeing the boom-era aesthetic being done more lightly and frugally,” he adds.