The architects at Tucson's Line and Space have stayed busy through the real-estate meltdown by designing homes for multimillionaires on seaside cliffs in the People's Republic of China.

The commission from Vanke, the largest residential real estate developer in China, came about by accident, and had its beginnings almost six years ago.

Line and Space had hired an intern named Lei Jin, who was finishing up his master's degree in architecture at the University of Arizona.

He offered to translate an article written about the firm and submit it to an architectural magazine in China. It was published.

Two years later the firm's founder and principal, Les Wallach, received an email from a Chinese development company, proposing a visit.

A delegation of 12 arrived from China on Aug. 4, 2007. Wallach remembers the date because he had given up a chance to watch the Phoenix Mars Lander blast off from Cape Canaveral on the off chance that the visit was more than a courtesy.

Wallach and partners had prepared a presentation of their work, but the visitors weren't interested in seeing it. They knew about the firm. They had a presentation about their project and one question: Will you accept the commission?

"There was a rule in the office," said Wallach. "We do not work for developers. Developers always want to build the cheapest way, not the best way."

The firm made an exception this time.

The real-estate bubble had burst. Commissions for public buildings were drying up. The firm was finishing up its work on the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Cesar Chavez Library in Phoenix, and had only one major new building in the pipeline.

The China project was high-end, not cut-rate.

The architects signed on to design three prototypes for a 40-home development in Tianqin Bay outside Shenzhen, a village that had grown into a metropolis of 12 million since its designation as a "special economic zone" in 1979.

Some of the cliffside building sites did not adapt themselves to the prototype designs, so the firm ended up designing seven different houses, a community center, a corporate retreat and a sales office for a second community of up to 20,000 residents.

They were also commissioned to redesign some existing homes in Tianqin Bay.

The houses there are neither cheap nor small. They range from 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, with elevations up to 100 feet. The smallest version sells for about $20 million.

In keeping with the firm's ethos that buildings should merge with the landscape, the houses do not appear large from the street, where a single story is visible. On the cliffside, however, the views from the interior are dramatic, and rooms soar four stories high.

The modest exteriors were opposed by "the marketing people," Wallach said, but those were arguments Line and Space never had to wage. They worked exclusively for Vanke's architectural division, which successfully fought for the integrity of the design.

"They really, really wanted our design expertise," said Henry Tom, the firm's principal in charge.

Often, the desires of the marketing department worked in the firm's favor. They insisted, for instance, on a clubhouse in Tianqin Bay, even though each of the homes had its own gym and just about every amenity you could want.

Wallach proposed a center called Harmony and Balance, which includes spa rooms, a small cafe and a tai-chi workout space.

Its centerpiece will be an art collection, developed over generations by artists in residence who will be given housing and studio space.

For Henry Tom, the fun came when Vanke asked the firm to fully furnish some of the homes, for which they had already designed custom furniture.

"They wanted us to pick every knife, fork and bedroom towel."

The firm enlisted designer Kelly Bauer of Phoenix. "We went on the world's biggest shopping trip," said Tom.

A wall in the community center features 500 fossilized fish bought from a Tucson fossil store.

Then they went to China and spent two weeks outfitting the houses.

It was Tom's second trip to China. He had gone in 1989 with his parents, who had migrated to the United States in 1959. They visited their rural village of "Five Houses" where only four houses remained.

Tom has since shown his parents photographs of the development in Shenzhen. "They are amazed. They can't believe it. I said, 'Mom, it's all that stuff you're buying from China at Target.' "

Architect Bob Clements, who was liaison with the construction company building the homes, had never been to China and had never thought of going there. He's now been several times for up to six months at a time.

Working with the world's largest homebuilder has its advantages, he said. "They do not pause for a second to put a tower crane up," he said.

The China work has enabled Line and Space to keep its 11 full-time employees through the building downturn in the United States.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for architects is above 10 percent, but professional associations in areas hit hardest, like Las Vegas, report that half the area architects are without jobs.

In Arizona, 1,800 architects were employed in 2007 and 1,340 in 2010 - a drop of nearly 25 percent, according to the state Office of Employment and Population Statistics.

Wallach has watched colleagues scraping by and local firms shedding workers.

"We do understand how lucky we are and appreciate the serendipity of it all," said Wallach.

And while Wallach may have missed watching a rocket launch, he and his colleagues did attend the Olympics in Beijing, courtesy of his new client.

"They were so proud and they wanted us to understand their country," said Wallach.

Did you know?

Line and Space, the architecture firm founded by Les Wallach in Tucson in 1978, was selected as the 2011 Architectural Firm of the Year by the Arizona Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.