By ELIZABETH HAYES
It’s the end of the term at UCLA School of Art and Architecture, when graduate students must stand in front of their peers and professors to defend projects they poured their creative energy into for weeks, often putting in 18 hours at a stretch in the studio.
Rob Ley, a first-year student who hasn’t slept in a day and half, explains how his design for a children’s museum evolved from magnets on a board, to a dot field, to a drawing that looks like swirling spaghetti, to an actual structure with walls and roof.
“These magnets are points of interest, or radiating centers of energy,” says Ley, 24. “Each of the points has characteristics location, density and intensity. Some points have one, two or three zones acting in synergistic fashion.”
Meanwhile, student Amber Evans details how she designed her museum based partly on “epigenetic landscapes” (translation: near the surface of the earth) and created a series of tubes to reach the end result.
As at architecture schools elsewhere, this is where aspiring practitioners can experiment and explore concepts without the constraints of budget, politics or client demands. But they do have to impress their professors if they expect to move on.
Those students who succeed will find themselves in a burgeoning job market, as a real estate boom in Los Angeles leaves many local architectural firms looking for new talent.
“There’s never been a better time to be a graduate architect looking for a job. There’s an abundance of opportunities and choices across the spectrum of firms,” said Robert L. Newsom, senior vice president of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall and president of the L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Newsom said firms around L.A. and the country “have significant unfilled positions.” And making today’s graduates even more marketable than their forebears is the fact that many are well versed in computers.
DMJM has openings for 80 to 100 new people in architecture and engineering groups here and around the country.
Gensler Architecture, Design and Planning Worldwide has also been interviewing new recruits, said President Ed Friedrichs.
The demand is being driven by a strong economy, fueling both new construction and renovation. Some openings are for entirely new jobs, while others are for projects that have long sat on the shelf and recently been reactivated when financing came through, Friedrichs said.
Despite the demand, starting architects seldom draw large salaries, although paychecks are getting bigger. Salaries have risen from about $25,000 annually a year ago to about $30,000 today, Friedrichs said.
“There’s a misconception in the general public that architects make a lot of money,” said Jenifer Burkhard, who just finished her master’s degree in architecture at UCLA. “It’s hard to watch friends my age who went to business school, and they’re working and making $60,000.”
So why is she in architecture?
“There’s that freedom of creativity,” she said, putting the finishing touches on cardboard model of an amphitheater. “You’re constantly learning. You’ll never know enough.”
Seventy-five students received master’s degrees in architecture this spring from UCLA. Like other new graduates who hit the job market this summer, they won’t all end up at architecture firms. Many graduates go into other, related, disciplines, such as film, industrial design and computer animation.
“If I find I’m struggling as an architect because it’s so competitive, you don’t waste your three years,” Burkhard said. “The hardest part of going to a big firm is you end up being a (computer-aided design) person, sitting in front of a computer and doing drafting.”
Los Angeles has five accredited architectural schools: UCLA School of Art and Architecture, USC School of Architecture, Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), Cal Poly Pomona and Woodbury University.
In addition, there are well-respected programs without accreditation, such as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Its environmental design program focuses on three-dimensional spacial design.
Department Chairwoman Patricia Belton Oliver said that with so many accredited programs in Southern California, she has no interest in getting accreditation for the Art Center as well. To become a licensed architect, one must have attended an accredited school. Oliver says Art Center grads who want to be architects usually go on to get master’s degrees at accredited institutions.
“We have a broader spectrum and more possibilities,” she said, noting that the school has a 100 percent job placement rate within a year of graduation. About 25 percent of graduates pursue architecture, while the others go into related design and graphics fields. She said the Art Center was the only school in the U.S. to be invited to show furniture designs at exhibitions in Paris, Milan and New York in the same year.
USC’s 80-year-old architecture program is the second oldest in the state (only UC Berkeley’s is older) and highly selective, said Robert Harris, director of the graduate program. Out of 150 applicants for the program, only 20 are admitted.
“The programs are strongly focused on urban places and conditions, where architects need to work. We’re focused on issues of cities and how architects can contribute to making them more humane places,” Harris said.
SCI-Arc started as a breed apart from other programs.
Ray Kappe left Cal Poly Pomona to form SCI-Arc in 1972 with a mission of teaching architecture as a means of artistic and social experimentation.
“When we first started, we experimented with the idea that people didn’t have to lockstep their education,” said Kappe, who is no longer director. “The main philosophy of SCI-Arc was strong in self-motivation and self-actualization. We were a school without walls.”
Kappe said the curriculum evolved similar to other universities. It is also highly regarded. For the past three years, SCI-Arc has been the only independent, non-university affiliated school ranked in the top 20 architecture graduate programs in the country, according to the school.