To Build Is to Lose Control
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.