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)