Architecture Clients Are a Gift
When architects gather, the conversation can become tedious: bragging (about the “importance” of their work) and bitching (about clients “not understanding”) ensues. Architects are often self-serving—not surprising in a fine arts–based life where judgments can be instantly subjective. As a result, designers feel undervalued and defensive about their worth. This means that clients, our patrons, are seen by many architects as a necessary evil, viewed as an ATM for realizing their ideas. So our clients are either endorsing our genius or becoming the enemy when we aren’t seen as that genius.
I think otherwise. Our common humanity should allow for mutual delight in shared values and joy in the expression of those values. But architects tend to dwell in outcomes—and they hope others devote themselves to those outcomes. Architects are not objects, available for purchase; we’re partners in creating spaces and places. Unlike painters and writers, construction is a long interpersonal process that’s invisible in all the 2D images we judge. If the building is personalized to the user and the site, it needs a design. That designer and user are thrown together by mutual passion and a shared process, unlike the clean purchase of an object.
Creating a building involves an intimate interchange of information, insights, and creativity that can take months, and often years, before construction even begins. This necessary intimacy has only a few models outside of our profession. Psychotherapists need to know their clients to do their job. Clerics go beyond that, into the metaphysics of values and purpose and meaning in how their congregants live. If our rabbi or therapist loses connection with us, relevance and faith are lost for those who use them, just like clients can lose faith in their architects. And architects need those same intimacies, all the while risking huge sums of money, legal liability, and even severe judgment of the aesthetic and moral choices.
If clients lose connection with what I have to offer—my experience, competence, and, yes, aesthetic insight—I lose my value. In these last couple of years, construction’s boom/bust cycles have placed greater stresses of money, timing, and performance on everyone involved. And yet being human is not just about sharing values. We make mistakes, fall short, miss perfection, because we’re not perfect.
The vast majority of those I work with—clients and builders—know this, accept imperfection, have faith in our common motivations, and realize terrific buildings after the risk and effort of everyone is involved. Many of my clients have become lifelong partners. I often work on the same building numerous times over decades, because our relationships are born in trust. We’re transparent with what we offer, without the agendas so often seen as being thwarted in those architect bitch sessions. Similarly, many clients hire us for multiple buildings over many years, not out of convenience, but literally out of our love for each other.
One 12-year design worked through years of approvals and several life evolutions of the clients, all the while deepening our friendship, which extended to my wife. The hiring process started with a six-month, two-meeting audition, with others architects under consideration. I was hired, and we now have a friendship that was born in utility but manifested in a building—and also in a painting of the home inside that home, showing me (and the artist, Jonathan Weinberg) in the triptych. My clients-cum-friends actually met Jonathan through an article I wrote about his home, which showed a small peek at his work.
Another project had precious funding that was countered by the will of my clients. These clients were acquaintances before we started to work on their home, and they purchased time I offered in a benefit auction, several times. Over years of effort, we labored to spend the least billable time we could and created, this year, a wonderful place.
A few years ago, after we were well into the work, this client handed me a bag. We had purchased her quilts, and I thought I was the delighted recipient of another one. But more happened. Upon opening the bag once home, I discovered a full quilt that rendered Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a house I had done in Indiana, another I had done in Connecticut, and, blissfully, the house they were to build in the next few years.
These gifts are the residue of love. A love that has survived work, bills, error, change, and time. Hundreds of friendships have developed. Some acquaintances are now intimates. Strangers have become beloveds. And, yes, about 20 former clients (give or take) think that I am a deeply flawed person.
For more than 40 years, a thousand relationships have created several hundred connections. Not a bad outcome, but the most important reality in my practice is that about two-thirds of our initial contracts are actually built. I know that the vast majority of architects are fine with having under half of their contracts result in a built reality, a determination validated in those complaint sessions.
I think we have an usually high percentage of completed buildings because I never let money define success. Whether in fees or a project’s budget, my job is to see money as a vehicle, not a roadblock. Money follows values; it does not create value. Over 35 years, I have never laid an employee off or missed a payroll. I know that architecture is more than a business. Regardless of the glamor, budget, or “importance” of any project, the work is a gift of faith—one that is first given by those who hire me.
All images courtesy of the author.