contemporary architecture in the US: WHERE? Nowhere, according to my colleague…))

Maria M

I posted on this forum before asking about moving to the US from the UK so this might be a bit repetitive, but I have narrowed my question down a bit: which part of the US is known for good contemporary architecture?

I have a family in California, and in Chicago, so these are my two preferred areas to move to. Recently I talked to someone who made a move back (from US to UK, he works with me now) and his assessment of the architecture in the States was quite grim (maybe a severe case of sour grapes, who knows). But it made me wonder if some parts of America are not very forward in terms of what is being built… This guy, who worked as an architect for 6 years and lived in Santa Monica, told me that the architecture in California in general is very bad - there are some high end houses but they are very few and far between, and the majority of the new stuff is not inspiring to say the least – according to him not only in CA but in the country in general. I don’t know if it’s true, I’ve seen modern buildings going up in Chicago and I’m sure there must be some good stuff out there, same as in the UK – there are crap firms and really good ones.

I guess I’m a bit spoiled as I live in London and new architecture here is generally of a very high quality. But I can safely say if you move further inland you will see some horrors and there are practices out there churning out some really grim stuff. I could easily tell you where these areas are and what type of offices you should avoid like a plague.

So, my question is – which part of the US of A is the best for modern architecture in terms of number of “named” practices, award winning designs, volume of new high quality buildings etc and which parts should be avoided? Please don’t take my question as offensive and/ or naïve as I never lived or practiced in the US and have no other way of finding out what’s going on.

Oct 10, 12 5:53 am

Santa Monica vs London - London wins

Turning that into US vs UK though, is a pretty broad generalization.

Coming from London you might have an easier time adjusting to Chicago than LA.
If you can even get a visa..

Oct 10, 12 1:59 pm
Maria M

metal - I'm going to have a green card eventually...


Oct 10, 12 2:02 pm

LA and New York is pretty much where everything happens. (I might catch a beating for saying that). Although it is very saturated at the moment.

Craigslist posts all kinds of jobs, the majority of which are average. It really depends on what you're looking for though, and how you can tailor your experience to the job. 


There is some good stuff going on in Chicago and Boston too. Without knowing more about your background and interests though it's hard to gauge what kind of office would be most attracted to your qualifications.

Oct 10, 12 2:48 pm

First thing I would do if moving from UK is network like crazy.

Oct 10, 12 2:50 pm

Look for the firms that do things in a contemporary sense, not the city. 

Oct 10, 12 3:34 pm
won and done williams

To add to Randh's point, if design is your primary interest, identify the firm/studio you want to work for. What difference does it make where it is located?

In general, I agree, most design in the US is pretty banal, but there are certainly some excellent practices doing good work.

Oct 10, 12 6:31 pm
Maria M

metal - what is the best way to network? At the moment I get to know other architects through friends etc – we play softball in summer, and most architects date other architects so the arch community in London it’s something like a big inbred village where everyone knows each other.

My interests – I specialise in high density social housing, and residential in general; also done a bit of interior and education; know a bit of urban design. Would want to work for a design led practice employing mainly architects, where you get to work on all project stages  - from inception to site to completion… I worked for a massive commercial practice before where you get a graphics department, a technical department, a town planner department etc – hated it with passion, even though the way I was treated was very good (I was a “designer”)…

I really like San Francisco (close to where my parents live, warm) Chicago (also have relatives and brilliant architecture) and NY (just love it in general) but I’ve heard before that each of those places have their downsides – SF is expensive to live, Chicago is low pay, NY is difficult to get licensed and generally tough competition…

Also – can someone please explain to me the whole licensing thing? Is it really important to get it? And as I understand it - its non-transferrable from state to state??


Oct 11, 12 7:45 am

Some Boston/NYC firms have London offices (and vice versa) - I'd use those connections.

Oct 11, 12 10:30 am

"Also – can someone please explain to me the whole licensing thing? Is it really important to get it? And as I understand it - its non-transferrable from state to state??"

You can work without a license...just means you can't stamp drawings... once you're licensed you can get reciprocity in another state although some states have additional requirements (CA- earthquakes)...generally it's not too difficult to get licenses in multiple states if you'd need least as far as I understand it.  I've been practicing for 16 years and haven't gotten a license yet since I haven't needed it.

As others have said the main cities are LA, Chicago, NY..and Boston.  Most of the first three have the larger international firms...they also have firms that are associated with the university profs there... Boston for instance has some firms for profs at Harvard, MIT etc.  NY has a large concentration of smaller firms...mostly Columbia grads from the 90s that are all in their 40-50s...but it also has a lot of larger firms.  

I think you could also think about weather... what do you prefer designing for...because design in LA/Chicago/NY is going to be different depending on climate...just something to think about.  LA/Cali you can do a bit more because the weather is nicer and climate doesn't change so much..but you do have earthquakes so there's that.

I think you could do a lot more research on your own..."have no other way of finding out what’s going on."...this may have been true before the internet...but even then you had magazines/books...just peruse some of those and you'll start to see who is winning awards and doing work that you can also just check out firms websites...there is so much info out there.

Oct 11, 12 1:25 pm

I moved from London to San Francisco last year and was also concerned about the overall quality of work in the US compared to London. London has an extremely high density of "world-class" architecture because it is a world class city. "World-class" cities in the US will also have some interesting projects going on, but in general the US is not as experimental as Europe due to the propensity for people to sue and stricter building codes. That is not to say there aren't people pushing the envelope. Another thing to consider is that the UK is a lot more compact than the US. There is a lot of ground to cover, not to mention going after international projects. It is a lot easier for a London based firm to fly to a project in Germany than it is for a NY based form to fly to a project in California, which results in a larger amount of regional firms. Working only in a specific region will certainly have an effect on the overall architectural style of a firm and usually focuses it, which in today's world is generally perceived as a bad thing. 


There is a lot of quality work going on in the major cities and in the not-so major cities in the US. Not all of it might be internationally recognized like a lot of the stuff in London, but that doesn't mean it's not "good" work. You just have to decide what your priorities are and go from there. Just know you will be competing with a lot of other people for jobs. I would pick a city, move there and get associated with the local architectural culture and then apply to jobs.


Good luck!

Oct 11, 12 3:08 pm

"There is a lot of ground to cover, not to mention going after international projects. It is a lot easier for a London based firm to fly to a project in Germany than it is for a NY based form to fly to a project in California, which results in a larger amount of regional firms"

ummmm what?  Really bad example since NY is one of the easiest cities to fly out of... firms fly all over the country all the time if the project is prestigious enough... firms i've worked for in NYC have flown to China for work...let alone across the country... if you want the project bad enough it is not that tough to get somewhere... i'd actually be interested... do you think it'd take maybe 2-3 more hours to go from NY to Cali than London to Germany? If that's a problem than I don't really think you're trying as a firm... I think firms are more regional in the US just due to climate more than anything... but as I said...most invited projects and competitions it doesn't really matter where you're from in the US if the project is worth it.

Oct 12, 12 4:44 am
Maria M

Everyone - thanks for your reply.

I understand that the work situation is tough at the moment – same as it is over here. I have been made redundant recently and I had to look for a new job, so I know what I am talking about…I’m not planning to move immediately, maybe in the next couple of years – it’s a massive life change for me so I need to be sure this is what I want. I have been doing research online, but there so much stuff out there and not enough testimonials from actual people so I don’t know what to believe... If you wanted to find similar information about architecture in the UK I would be able to point you in the right direction and give you advice - I guess this is why I’m posting here.

Amy, a couple of practical questions – were you registered in the UK? And are you working as an “architect” now or as a “designer” etc? How long ago have you moved, and how easy was it to find a job? I’m very interested in moving to SF but I was put off by high prices of living – my stepbrother is a lawyer and even he is not finding it cheap despite his massive wage packet!!

Oct 15, 12 9:06 am

High density social housing? Sounds like what we refer to as The Projects


We have federal and regional housing authorities that provide low income subsidized housing and vouchers for individuals meeting specific guidelines.  If that is a focus you have lots of options in the cities you mentioned. HUD work is done by a small number of firms and they tend to be regional and they are sometimes not the best places if your goal is to make tons of money.  The work is mostly rehabilitation and retrofit but sometimes there are a few chances to innovate and create something new. This type of housing has a troubled history in the US and is a political third rail in urban centers.

Below are links to Chicago firms that may be in-line with your interest:

Chicago is an easy city to get around in and you can find plenty of stable neighborhoods with reasonable rents and transit connections to neighborhoods with unreasonable rents and lots of attractions.  I lived in a low rent neighborhood and the same type of apartment was 3 times the rent 15 min away by the EL (Chicago’s subways equivalent to the underground) However if you have children you need to think about private schools as the school system is in dire condition. Chicago is 1/3 less costly than LA and New York and San Francisco are the most expensive places in the nation easily twice the cost of living than Chicago and for the most part salaries tend to reflect this, you get paid less in Chicago but you don’t need to spend as much on rent and transit. Living in the Chicago suburbs is hard because of the lack of transit and the distances between schools, shops and other amenities.  All 4 cities are stellar multicultural hubs of art and culture with impressive civic institutions and lots of ethnic diversity.

Oct 29, 12 9:07 pm

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