“But I Still Think It’s Ugly”: Explaining Architecture to Non-Architects, Part IV

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Part 4: What the Client Wants

In the first couple of installments in this series*, I discussed some of our habits of mind that may get in the way of us architects making ourselves understood by normal people. I realize now that I left one out; perhaps I pulled a punch. In any case, before going further . . .

We hear potential clients say things like, “I know what I want. All you need to do is draw it up.” We find such remarks annoying, because “drawing it up” is not the most important of our roles. It is, however, tangible, so perhaps it is understandable that non-architects should latch onto it.

Interestingly, though, people don’t latch on in quite the same way to the tangible things that other professionals do. If you ask anyone over the age of eight what doctors do, you won’t hear, “They tap you on the tummy.” Nobody goes to the doctor because they want their tummies tapped. What doctors do is incidental; what is important is what they provide: health.

Similarly, we might think about explaining to the public not what we do, but what we provide. Easier said, of course, than done. One reason is that there isn’t a single word for it, like “health.” “Architecture” means too many different things (we can’t even agree on it ourselves), and the more familiar definitions are not helpful. Take, for example, “Architecture is frozen music”: suggestive, certainly, but people don’t want frozen music the way they want health.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a young architecture student, some of my fellow students prepared a questionnaire intended for the profession at large, one section of which asked respondents to check which of a long list of motivations properly guide an architectural project. Among these was “What the Client Wants,” and, among the students involved, this phrase was code for “Selling Out.”

This conviction—that one shouldn’t pander to the wants of the client—has had remarkable staying power and is among the more invidious of the correlates of the thesis that architecture is a form of art, a discipline meant to unsettle the public, rather than assuage it. It is a conviction not readily realized in practice, as few clients willingly pay for the confounding of their wants—exceptions being arts institutions and patrons, who are themselves occasionally conflicted around the question.

But if it is rarely possible to give—or, we should say, sell—clients what they don’t want, it is all too easy to adopt a schizophrenic attitude, grumbling about clients’ wants in the back office, while outwardly complying with them. Doing so truly is pandering, because it is offering something you believe to be wrong. The solution, however, is not to withhold it, but instead to accept the rather obvious possibility that it may not be wrong, after all.

This is not to say that the architect doesn’t from time to time have the obligation of telling a client, “No.” A professional, by definition, serves both the immediate client and the public good. An architect is responsible for advising clients against compromising the public good, just as doctors are responsible for advising patients against conduct that spreads disease.

It is to say that, if we are going to ask the public to value what we believe in, perhaps we should try to value what they believe in, as well. We needn’t abandon our values, but we would do well to frankly assess those values and the motivations behind them, taking care not to treat as moral absolutes values that are, in fact, matters of acquired taste. I’m thinking, for example, of the almost universal refusal of architects in San Francisco to design buildings with conventionally configured bay windows, not because they’re incommodious—to the contrary, under the city’s zoning ordinance, they can be larger than rectangular bays, and they typically extend the space of the room more gracefully—but because they’re not “of the time.” What this means is unclear; they certainly were popular in an earlier time, but then so were Levi’s. Both remain affordable to produce and are extremely popular today.

More important, though, than any particular case is the general and too-common attitude among us that non-architects are mostly a bunch of numbskulls and that the way to make good buildings is to avoid all but the rare client who “gets it.” Not only has this attitude further marginalized the architect’s role in shaping the built environment, it also works against any efforts to “educate” the public—that is, to make, rather than merely find, good clients—because the first requirement of teaching is that you respect your students.

One thing that has driven this point home for me is that, because my wife is a faculty member in English Literature at U.C. Berkeley, I have had the good fortune to meet many extraordinarily intelligent and well-educated individuals in a wide range of academic disciplines. These people, who are decidedly not numbskulls, are nevertheless much more likely to share the aesthetic values (regarding buildings) that we associate with the general public. Astrophysicists tend to like Arts and Crafts style houses, to like ornament, and to not understand why architects don’t want to build them anymore. Perhaps they don’t feel an obligation for their homes to represent the leading edge of twenty-first century thought, because their work is the leading edge of twenty-first century thought. They are also typically more willing to try to explain their work in a way that an architect can understand than architects are to explain our work in a way that astrophysicists—or the bus drivers whose tastes they share—can understand. So, let’s not condescend; let’s choose to respect the public and their values.

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Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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