Beyond Buildings


To Build Is to Lose Control

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Recent reports about the lawsuit brought by Craig Robbins, a Miami collector who says he was frozen out of the market for work by the South African artist Marlene Dumas because he sold one of her paintings, plus a discussion by Christopher Hawthorne about the results of Eli Broad’s patronage made me wonder: What if architects had the choice of blacklisting? What if they could refuse to work for certain clients because they felt that they were detrimental to the way in which their work was used or perceived?

Right now, all you can do as a designer is to take your name off a project—as Frank Gehry did after he had designed a house for Broad.  Gehry proceeded, however, to work with that same client to get Disney Hall built and it is probably fair to say that the structure would not be in use today if it were not for Broad’s leadership. Therein lies the double rub: Architects do not create “free” work, but usually work for hire; difficult clients are often the best for the production of good work. It is, perhaps paradoxically, the clients who just sit back and let the designer do whatever he or she wants that get the most mediocre buildings.

Whether or not Broad is a good client, or one who gets good work out of architects, I will leave to Hawthorne and history. But I wonder if it should not be possible for architects to be more active in determining the fate of their buildings. One thing architects can do is to refuse to work for certain clients. The alterative, of however, is to produce the architectural equivalent of “free” work: experimental design. However, such “paper architecture” has a very low status in the profession, if not the discipline, of architecture. From the moment you start studying architecture, you are not considered a real man (or woman) unless you get something built, and making theoretical work is considered too “easy” because it does not have to answer to the complexity of construction, use, and context.  

I would argue, however, that some of the best and most influential architecture, from Boullee to Lebbeus Woods, and from Mies van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse project to Rem Koolhaas’ Paris library project, are unbuilt or unbuildable. You can’t fire a client, and most architects have to depend on whatever work they can obtain, but you can do great work. You can get it published, and perhaps you can construct it within the confines of a gallery, and, if it is good, it will have an impact in that world. Just don’t depend on getting it built. And be ready for somebody to copy it and turn it into the kind of building that makes you cringe as you are driving out in sprawl. For that is the final part of the problem; there is no copyright for design, and, as work for hire, it is beyond your control once you finish it.  


Comments (10 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:46 PM Thursday, July 01, 2010

    WOW! The Chicago architect sets us all straight! Aaron, don't listen to all this nonsense, your piece was not polemical as all these folks would like to make it. You framed the issue skillfully, and for rhetorical effect or to bang their own drum, everyone seems to be reading all kinds of things into it. Anyway, here's to buildings, drawings of buildings, and thoughts of buildings for that matter!

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  • Posted by: NotDanBurnham | Time: 2:53 PM Thursday, July 01, 2010

    Aaron, you were ignorant of these distinctions when you were at Yale, writing in the national students' publication, and little appears to have changed. Please at least get your facts straight. You can indeed "fire a client"; the 4,000-person, 60-year-old firm I work for even has a standard protocol when that becomes necessary. Second, there absolutely are copyright protections available for design. Third, architects absolutely do create "free" work all the time. My first built work on my own stamp - a homeless shelter, built years before you decided such things were trendy - was done pro bono, and architects all over the map develop designs in community meetings and other civic contexts where their contributions are freely given to the body politic. Certainly unbuilt work can be important; here in Chicago, the fact that Burnham's 1909 plan was only executed in the smallest elements does not dilute its enduring global potency. Take the time to get licensed if you are not already and give it a whirl. You'll find that the definition of architecture only BEGINS when the project is built. Buildings have a temporal dimension, a ray forward from the day they open, that also enriches their meaning; if reconstructed, would the Parthenon have as much meaning as it does as a ruin?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:47 AM Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    Sorry, Aaron. If its built its architecture. If not, its art. Nothing wrong with that, however. We need art, too.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:04 AM Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    architects need to understand and realize that the building is not theirs. it is the client's building since they are the ones paying for it, and paying the fees of the architect. the architect is the visionary, however the client is the control and should have the control since it is their money that funds the vision. architects that do not grasp this concept need to wake up.

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  • Posted by: RFW | Time: 4:00 PM Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    After reading the biography of the author of this blog I now understand the intent of the question. The author is the director of an art museum and "trained as an architect" which means that he is not an architect. The author is describing architecture as a media, and as an art form because he has never had the experience of working with a client. Not recognizing the important role the client plays is dangerously irresponsible and shouldn't have any realistic voice in a professional forum like this. Can you imagine any other profession musing how nice it would be to practice law without a client, or conduct surgery without a patient? It is incomprehensible to think that a service profession is even possible without the client. I am not surprised that comments like these come from a non architect who is flaunting incomplete credentials of architect graduate as somehow indicating that his opinion is somehow relevant. Can this publication only review informed opinions in future blogs, commentary and articles.

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  • Posted by: RFW | Time: 3:45 PM Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    This article is a prime example of what is wrong with our profession. An architect's objective should not be to control a project or a design. An architect should not use client's projects as an opportunity for self expression. We should use the media of architecture to express our client's goals and perhaps their own previously unrecognized aspirations, but it should never be about our own control. Sadly this article also ignores that it is sadly misguided to yearn for unrealized “paper architecture” because un-built projects also yield unrealized fee for professional services, and unrealized goals for the client. As licensed design professionals in a services industry we should recognize that without clients there is no fee, and without fee there will be no architects.

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  • Posted by: Kyle | Time: 2:18 PM Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    I personally would not want someone to "copy" my work, so if you have a great design, keep it to yourself and wait for the right moment or right client to execute it. I understand it is a catch-22 because by showing great work, maybe you will gain design credence and a patron or two? If they copy or mimic your built-work then consider it flattery. Imagery is so pervasive these days that it is difficult to keep images under control - they can fly over the internet and be passed along through email chains. Keep what is unique to your art close to you.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:55 PM Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    "To Build Is to Lose Control" Is this a joke... or do you really think the destiny of an architect is to 'control'? If so, stay out of the real world.

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  • Posted by: R. John Anderson | Time: 1:52 PM Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    A false choice is framed between the option of controlling the unbuilt (or unbuildable) design and losing control over the work to be built. A third option is to design buildings that can be built by the designer. Know your own program design and build your own building, no excuses.

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  • Posted by: CharlesRoig | Time: 1:19 PM Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    A structure that is unuseable is sculpture, not architecture. True architecture must always keep in consideration the needs of the user. In addition to practicing architecture, I dabble in songwriting. I always have songs in my head that radically change once they meet the rigors of studio: the process of mixing, the idiosycracies of the musicians, the process of achieving the song onto the medium and the constraints of reality. That's what happens when one decides to transform something from the fluidity of the mind to the constraints of tangibility. It kind of goes with the territory.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.