What Happened to the Great Architect-Client Relationship?
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.