By MORRIS NEWMAN

Contributing Reporter

The contrasting fate of two buildings designed by Frank O. Gehry, the celebrated Santa Monica-based architect, symbolize the state of architecture in Los Angeles for most of the '90s.

The first is the renowned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a building that has been met with a near-rapturous critical reception. Images of its pointed, metal-covered towers have been published all over the world.

The second is the Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., a project that also has received critical kudos, but remains unbuilt as organizers finish raising private funds for its construction.

For most of this decade, Los Angeles-area architects were finding themselves in much the same situation as Gehry. There was great demand for their work almost everywhere except Los Angeles.

The recession, constraints on development, the increasing conservatism of popular taste all conspired to keep architects cooling their heels.

But now that's changing, and changing fast. The robust return of the real estate market has brought with it a renewed demand both for new construction and renovation of existing buildings.

Perhaps more importantly, L.A. has entered a new era of public-oriented construction starting with the opening of the Getty Center last year.

More is on the way. The Staples Center sports arena downtown is already under construction, and the seat of the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the country, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, is scheduled to open downtown in 2000.

Disney Concert Hall, which came close to being written off, is now expected to open its doors in 2002.

Other big projects are on the drawing board, including proposed terminals for Los Angeles International and Burbank airports and a possible new football stadium.

"The architectural market has come back with a vengeance," said Herb Nadel, president and chief executive of Nadel Architects Inc. in West Los Angeles. The market, he added, "is as strong now as it was in the mid-'80s."

In 1992, near the beginning of the recession, architectural and structural engineering firms in Los Angeles County employed 6,200 people, according to County Business Patterns, a publication of the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1995, employment in the same category fell to 5,200 people.

Since 1996, however, employment has been growing in the category, and should soon top 6,000 jobs, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County.

Architecture is a small industry, to judge by its earning power. Architectural and structural engineering businesses in the county generated $634 million in 1992, the most recent year for which census figures available (1997 figures have been collected but are not yet published).

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