Architects and Clients

Architecture occupies some strange space in the professional world. It lives in one of the soft places between art and engineering, right at the edge of the creative careers, just to one side of the service industry. In some ways the architect is all-powerful, in others hey have no power at all. An architect seemingly wields a kind of magic, where each click of the mouse has the power to bring a building into reality and each keystroke with the power to wipe it out again. But before anything can be built, it must be approved and paid for by the client.

Architects and their clients have a nuanced relationship. The client needs an architect, yes, but in reality they have all the money and therefore all the power. Most firms aren’t in the position to be turning away clients, so architects endure all manner of disrespect from their clients. There are the ones who cut the architect out at every turn then call the architect with every little problem. The ones who won’t pay for changes, and the ones who won’t pay for anything at all. Worst of all, the ones who know just what they want and just need you to “draw it up”. Some days, it’s enough to make you fantasize of a world without clients …

… but be careful what you wish for. It’s tough to do architecture without a client, but there are some examples. Many early (and ultimately misguided) urban design theories were the products of architects who thought they knew best. More recently, disaster areas have attracted designers to where it looks like they can do the most good. Some groups, like Architecture for Humanity, have a strong track record in that department. But too often there are cases like this one in Greensburg, Kansas:

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Seven years ago, just hours after the tornado shredded Greensburg and its schools, Superintendent Darin Headrick stood in the rubble, under black clouds, promising rebirth.

DARIN HEADRICK: Towns are about people. They’re not about buildings. And as long as the people are willing to stay, the way of life stays.

MORRIS: After the tornado, architects and volunteer workers swept in, fueled by at least $75 million from taxpayers and insurance companies. Now, Greensburg is a patchwork of houses, placed around bleak vacant lots, and more than a dozen very modern, super-efficient buildings.

Daniel Wallach, founder of Greensburg GreenTown, says it’s the highest concentration of them in the country.

DANIEL WALLACH: Quite remarkable but, frankly, since that first year not much has happened.

MORRIS: The tornado money is long gone and the population is still stuck at about 800 – right where it was just after the disaster.

WALLACH: The town is struggling. There’s a lot of fear and concern in town, that it may not be sustainable as a community – ghost town. And some people in the community are blaming the green initiative itself, which is crazy.

I’m sure all the architects meant well. Maybe their hearts were stronger than their abilities, or maybe the funding fell short of such a tall order. Whatever the case, it looks like architects tend to get ahead of themselves without a client holding the reins.

And so it is that the client-architect relationship mirrors the uncertain nature of architecture itself: somewhere between friendship and business partnership, right at the edge of obligation and just to one side of simple transaction. The best clients and architects, like the buildings they create, are greater than the sum of the parts; they push each other to create something that is better than either could have created on their own.

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