architecture is big

Before I explain my intentions for this post, let me clarify my beliefs about serving clients as an architect. It is our preeminent duty as architects to serve our clients and serve them well. Without them, there is no project and no practice for any of us. Our ethics and attention to their needs and desires cannot be compromised. It is of utmost importance to serve and respect the client in a service industry. Nevertheless, for those clients that care beyond their own personal benefit, my many thanks as I launch into my premise.

My question is can we give to the profession while serving our clients? Or is our duty solely to the client paying our check? Do we have a duty to the local community, the larger environment and to architecture as a profession? If so, what are we doing to further the practice of architecture in our day-to-day work? See, to me architecture is bigger than just the client or their single project.

In a service industry, the premise is simple: the customer makes a request, the person offering the service fulfils the request, simple. In architecture, the client presents their needs (and wants) to the architect. The architect designs a building or space to service or satisfy the need. It sounds easy. But what happens if the architect does not want to design what the client wants? What happens if there is an ideological or philosophical disagreement?  What if we share different values or preferences? Should we simply give the client what they want? When is it appropriate to say no? Is it audacious to tell the client they may be wrong? What if it’s just their house and not a public building?

We may not think we are changing the world here, but architecture affects more than the client. It is more than their temporary use of a building that they will eventually sell or leave to someone else. It’s more than the initial pragmatic use of shelter. It exceeds us and our lifetime. Architecture is bigger than all of us.

I do not believe that our clients should simply move our arm to draw what they want. We are there to do what they cannot do and see what they may not see. Unfortunately, with some clients wanting it really cheap, it’s hard to deliver much more than the bare essentials. A good client understands what they do not know. They also understand that a good solution comes from ideas. Ideas are the intangible ingredients to architecture. What one does with them can be the difference between good or timeless. Therefore, we must present to them a variety of alternatives; ones they possible have not considered or requested.

How does architecture move forward with or without client cooperation? What if they do not want energy efficiency or to build modestly or to have any feature considered to be sustainable? What if they want ugly or completely ignore the surrounding context? How do we advance architecture by merely giving in to the dictates of the client? Fortunately many clients are educated, caring beyond their own needs and ask for a nice contribution to the neighborhood or demand for sustainable design in some fashion. Again, my thanks to those who think this way. It’s you we love to work with each and every day.

Look at our landscape of endless curving roads of suburban tract developments requiring a car to go…anywhere. Look at the ubiquitous Wal-Marts that perch above the suburban strip centers like the king of the hill knocking out small businesses. What about the relentless strip malls half empty because a new one is under construction up the road? How many square feet do two people need to live comfortably? Why do so many houses still use materials or methods that are not sustainable? Perhaps the clients got what they wanted. After all, they paid for it right?

For architecture to survive, to move forward, to express who we are as a culture and people and perhaps to remedy some of society’s ills, it must be more than drawing up another building. Architects serve more than our clients; society is our client. Buildings ought to live longer than people. But I am afraid our throw away culture acts otherwise.

Is it merely an elitist ideology secretly drilled into us in architecture school that we believe we know what people need? Some have criticized us by saying we often ignore what people want and use their project to gain another trophy. We impose our will on them at their expense. I hope that is not what we are doing.

As for what the public wants…well, they are not always right either. Majorities rule, but that does not make all of their decisions correct. It is unfortunate that when it comes to making healthy choices for our communities and planet, many people will not choose what is right unless it does not cost more and is convenient. I also don’t believe everybody has good taste.

Our role as architects requires ethics, leadership and creativity. We must be able to carefully and respectfully demonstrate the “better” and how or why the “better” is better to the client as well as to the “others.” Who will be affected by our mark on this earth?

Let me reiterate. We have an inescapable duty to our clients. It is sacred and the foundation of our profession as a service. I am not suggesting we abdicate this primary responsibility to pursue our personal whims. I am just suggesting architecture is more. What do you think?


photos are from .craig’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

architecture is big

13 thoughts on “architecture is big

  1. A great post, Lee, with the type of thoughtful and though provoking writing we expect from a practitioner-teacher.

    I was drawn to this statement of yours; “A good client understands what they do not know.”

    Lately I’ve been thinking in terms of “meta-marketing” where Architecture is promoted beyond the individual designer-client relationship, where Architecture is portrayed to the culture at large.

    Our individual blogs are a good start. Well drawn fictional Architects (in novels, film, television or web-based programing) are a next step. The idea is that some of us can present Architects and Architecture to society in way that leads to MORE clients who “understand what they don’t know”.

    Thanks for reminding us that there is a high calling here – and that Architecture is Big!

    1. Thanks for your kind words. The writing is just a start to do exactly what you said it should do, “portray Architecture to the culture at large.” The next step is conversation…with the right people hopefully.

      1. I discussed this post in my latest writing at Building Content.
        Thanks for initiating and inspiring the discussion.


        (PS; Do you have a Twitter account? I assume that’s how I discovered this blog, but I’m not sure.)

      2. Thanks for joining the conversation and the reference to this post on your blog. I don’t have a Twitter account yet. I just joined FB and I’m inching into social media one piece at a time. Perhaps that explains my opinion of BIM. With as many hits as I have gotten from this article, people are talking. Many agree with my position, many think I need to dive in to Revit and stop complaining. I tend to be the one not afraid to ask the questions everyone is thinking.

  2. What makes us, the architects, better judges of where the Wall-Marts should be build? The small business might suffer, but on the other hand they might try to find better ways to be more appealing. (There is no Wall-Mart in my country!)
    The Healthy way might be just another way, not THE WAY. I am not saying that it is not, I am just saying that an universal panacea might not exist.
    I don’t think there is anybody that will say “please, design me an ugly house!” They might perceive a “premium” design as a supplementary costs for them, so they state that they want the ugly one just because they might think it will be more profitable for them.
    I personally think that at least a part of the Green solutions are wrong: the over insulation of houses.
    Many corporations embraced the green solutions because they will have more customers. If you produce mineral fiber wool, you will LOOOVE the energy saving houses.
    Yes, the architects know many things, they can design better future, but we make mistakes as many as other people make.
    The architecture IS BIG because is a mirror of human

    1. Thanks for your input. I am simply asking questions. There is no panacea when it comes to the built environment. However, I find that architects generally care more about broader issues that affect everyone rather than developers who mostly are interested in turning a profit quickly. We are making too many decisions for the short term that sooner or later we will pay dearly. Well the later came sooner than we expected.

    1. I am not sure I understand your last comments, but I certainly am glad for your input and opinions. It’s good to get feedback from people from all over the world. Otherwise we tend to be a bit near-sighted about solving issues.

  3. Oh! You are right! To comment while speaking on the phone is not the best thing to do.

    I was trying to say that “the care is NOT sufficient!”. I will answer more detailed with an example I that seems to me very relevant.

  4. The whole idea was that the community says what and how will be build, even it is aware of that or not.
    “The kings and rulers” built again, what the society asked for: the Romans lots of public buildings. The Middle Ages rulers built just churches and palaces.
    I’ve enjoyed this small debate. Thank you very much!

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