That said, it's the house's interior where clients often feel they have more of a right to express themselves. In a tug-of-war, Teague has found it's better to pull clients along than to push against their wishes—a lesson he attributes to noted architect Charles Moore. “If you push against their wishes, that builds resentment, and it's not a very effective way of getting a good result,” he says. In contrast, pulling is, by a conscious process, embracing what they want and moving it forward—a stepping-off point for something creative.

In one Teague project, however, every effort to take a different tack was rejected—not by the client, but by a dogmatic design review board. In response to a dormer mandate, Teague tried “dustbin” dormers instead of peaked ones and redesigned some window screens to satisfy another guideline, but he was thwarted at every turn. “It didn't kill the house, but it wasn't where we wanted to go,” he says. “A lot of people come to us because they want the exposure, and we aren't excited about having it photographed and published.”

Architectural review boards notwithstanding, Cass Calder Smith, AIA, San Francisco, notes that clients often think they want something, but it turns out they aren't actually set in their ways. “Most people don't really want a copy or something fake,” he observes. “If you can show them how to make their ideas more unique or interesting, everyone is better off.” Calder Smith's clients are typically looking for the user-friendly minimalism for which he's known, though he is open to variations on the theme.

spin doctors

Firms whose work is rarely pure in style have more latitude to explore ideas jointly with their clients. At Centerbrook Architects and Planners, which prides itself on eclecticism, it's up to the architects to make something beautiful out of the bits and pieces of client preferences and priorities. Partner Mark Simon, FAIA, also credits Charles Moore with the notion that the more particular a client is, the more freedom a designer has—and the more interesting he or she can make the architecture. “It's a very different vision of how you design,” Simon says. “We don't imagine there's a perfect solution out there for any project. There are good and bad solutions, and there may be many good solutions. It doesn't have to be any one way.”

Has Simon ever been overruled? “Yes,” he says, “especially when I was younger and didn't have the skills to work with whatever I was handed. If you practice working with a variety of different people's visions, you can get very good at making things you're proud of.” When there's a disagreement, Simon goes back—sometimes to the beginning—to work out new options and end up with something that has integrity. “That's really what I'm looking for, not to make a particular kind of statement,” he says. “You figure out a way of using that thing the client wants and making it your own. The trick with clients is to make them think they thought of it, and that takes some pretty good dancing.” And if the client asks for a pink marble foyer? “I'll come back with six different choices, all of which I like,” he says. “It gives them a sense of control. The first rule is to show respect—‘Oh, that's a very interesting idea; let's see what we can do with it.' Then you regain control.”

Indeed, in an ideal relationship, what clients are paying for, among other things, is frank advice. They bring magazine images to early meetings that reflect their style and wishes, expecting that the architect will sort through those things and create something that adds up to a coherent whole. Tom Meyer, FAIA, a founding partner and principal of Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Minneapolis, looks for that attitude to determine whether a relationship should go forward. Over the years he's learned to gauge whether the clients are set in a package of conflicting ideas that he's going to be expected to literally execute, or whether they see it as a starting point.

“Sometimes when there's a great site, it seems like a wonderful and rare opportunity, and it makes you overly optimistic,” Meyer admits. “Yes, they are wanting to put Gothic arches all over the front, but you think you can talk them out of that. Or you imagine that there's some wonderfully creative thing in this type of architecture that it's time to revive. But the older I get, the more I trust my intuition. You occasionally run into people who take quick offense to being challenged, and there's a direct correlation between the end quality and the quality of the relationship between the client and architect.”

When there are inherent conflicts—a request for a tropical-looking house in a northern setting, for example, or a budget mismatch—Meyer works with alternatives. He politely points out the problems and tries to find the essence of what's interesting to the clients. To illustrate, he shows several options that respond directly to their requests, but he also brings sketches that reveal other aspects of their wishes—ideas he thinks will lead in a better direction.

“It's like herding,” agrees Max Jacobson, founding principal of Berkeley, Calif.-based JSW/D Architects, whose four partners encompass a collection of design proclivities from contemporary to traditional. “We're using our design instincts to keep the process well-ordered,” he explains. “Once we start in a direction, we're not shy about using our aesthetic sensibility to encourage and discourage ideas that come up from the client.”

That can be harder for some projects than others. Currently on the boards is a project for a couple whose trip to Mexico in mid-design sparked a totally different idea of what they wanted to do. The architects scrapped the original concept and are now banging up against requested elements that are inappropriate for a house that's not on the water. “We're drowning in this project,” Jacobson says. “We have to work harder to make the house work for this site, but isn't this true of all custom residential work? People are always traveling around getting images and trying to apply them to wherever they live. It's America.”

Jacobson doesn't win all of his battles, but for him, success is relative. Even if the clients decide to go ahead with something he thinks is an aesthetic mistake, he doesn't throw a tantrum; instead, he gives it his best shot. “Sometimes we've said, ‘You were right; that's pretty good,' and our aesthetic gets broadened,” he says, summing up the optimal architect-client relationship.

“As I look back,” he continues, “it's hard for me to remember which decisions were ours and which were theirs. People always think architects know what they're doing. But the creation of a building is such a mysterious process. We are never unsurprised when we walk into these buildings.”