Despite worries about the current economic weakness, L.A.'s architecture firms are trying to learn from the downturn of the early 1990s and spread their practices among a variety of disciplines.

"We've noticed a softening in the commercial market," said Paul Steinke, a corporate vice president at Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall. "New construction starts are way down, but the public sector is still strong."

Those words were echoed almost unanimously by architects around Los Angeles, who said the softening had nevertheless resulted in cutbacks.

RTKL, which has a number of staff members fluent in Mandarin, is tapping the Asian markets to insulate the firm from the domestic roller coaster. "If there's a market that's showing growth, it's China," said Norman Garden, vice president and office director.

Herb Nadel of Nadel Architects also has been aggressive in Asia, as well as in pursuing projects like the San Diego Zoo.

Cannon Dworsky Managing Principal Robert Newsom said the firm is keeping busy with work for institutional interests that include the California state university system, along with some private colleges. He said hospital work remains hot as well, because of state requirements for seismic improvements.

SmithGroup has projects going with institutional clients that include the University of California, Irvine; Glendale Adventist Medical Center and a new Kaiser Permanente facility in the Inland Empire. "We have three (projects) in the works, all fairly significant size, and we've been told of no change of schedule," said Managing Director William Roger.

Even so, the commercial pinch has led firms to make cuts and, at best, look to keep pace with last year's billings.

Andy Cohen, managing principal at Gensler, said business would remain uncertain for the near future.

"We have a big airports groups and a lot of airport work is coming to a halt until security concerns are settled," Cohen said. "We're just watching our costs really closely right now.

Spec buildings and build-to-suit construction projects are hitting the skids, Cohen said. So are clients' plans to do interior renovations. Entertainment companies, as well, are holding back.

The slowing has cost jobs around town: Gensler terminated two people in the L.A. office, while Nadel said he let go one employee, but added three more in the public sector group. DMJM reported minor staff cuts, through attrition. Rather than lop off personnel, diversity of work allows architecture firms to shuffle people from sector to sector.

Most are finding savings in overhead.

"We're cutting down on unnecessary travel and attendance at conventions," Steinke said. "We've tightened the belt in advance because nobody's sure where the bottom's going to be."

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