Mind & Matter


What Happened to the Great Architect-Client Relationship?

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Architects’ struggles with client relationships are as old as the profession itself. Who hasn’t heard an architect grumble about making design compromises because of client demands? The story of Mies van der Rohe’s commission to design a house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth as if it were a residence for himself continues to instill longing in architects, despite the difficulties that living in the house posed for the client.

There is an even better story, however, that tells of great buildings borne out of flourishing architect and client relationships. The vigorous partnership between Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk around a shared vision for the future of medical research led to the inspired design of the Salk Institute—a building that would not have been realized by architect or client alone. In my conversations with the clients of Tadao Ando’s Times building or Antoine Predock’s Rose house, for example, the story is the same: the triumph of these projects demanded a successful alliance—occasional healthy disagreements included—for their realization.

This is why I am troubled by the recent New York Times article entitled “Architects Find Their Dream Client, in China,” in which Lawrence Cheek’s tells of a growing number of U.S. architects working on projects based in China. This is great news in one sense—who could complain about such opportunities, especially during such a lousy economy? However, this trend raises two concerns. First, by casting the China projects as more favorable experiences for architects, it highlights the extent to which conservatism and distrust now shape the majority of U.S.-based architect-client relationships. Cheek’s description of U.S. architects “who have artistic undercurrents that often struggle to find an outlet” sounds quite familiar, and sadly cannot be blamed entirely on the economic downturn.

Second, the relationship between U.S. architects and Chinese clients is thin at best, offering “a blank canvas” to architects who propose designs with little knowledge of Chinese culture, history, or geography. What is worse, the architect and client typically exchange limited or no communication, as illustrated in architect Stuart Silk’s charge to “design three high-end custom homes for clients he would never meet.”

Although I strongly support architects seeking opportunities beyond the borders of their own nation, such experiences should ideally generate sincere international exchanges that lead to a deeper understanding between different cultures—which in turn will inspire meaningful architecture. The lack of such a relationship is not entirely the fault of U.S. architects, although they can do more to encourage this kind of exchange. At the same time, we simply have to find a way to rekindle the fire in our own country that motivated great works like the Salk Institute—projects that wouldn’t have materialized without respectful, enlightened, and adventurous collaborations between architects and their clients.



Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:49 PM Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    I would have to disagree that when borders are crossed lines of communication become blurred. I work in an office whom has done overseas work continuously with no limits on our communication or creativity beyond those given by the client. In todays day and age most firms large enough to work outside the confines of our own country have staff that speaks languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and beyond. As architects it is our job to study the culture and environments that we are working with from the beginning of the project. It is nonsense to believe we would consider ourselves having a "blank slate" simply because we speak different languages. This is a pretty naive way of thinking.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:03 PM Monday, January 24, 2011

    Thanks for the great post. I also had a lot of trouble with that NYT piece. We have worked extensively in the US and in China and have had a mix of easy and more challenging clients all around the world. Your point, great buildings require a both a great architect and a great client, is right on the money. The biggest thing the NYT article misses is that the reason smaller firms are seeking work in China is that there isn't enough work in the US to keep them in business. If these firms could find work in their own back yards I'm sure they wouldn't bother with the jet lag, language and legal challenges associated with overseas work. The problem isn't American clients, it's the American economy. Thanks again for the insight.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:36 PM Friday, January 21, 2011

    Thank you for such an insightful post. My experience in the profession has certainly followed this pattern and I think that many of us are desperate to find a way toward a more dynamic and beneficial relationship with our clients. I think this will start with mutual respect and the backbone to truly partner with our clients rather than be bent to their will by their dollars.

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.