The Customer is (Not) Always Right // Jake Rose
For as long as they’ve been designing buildings, architects have had to balance their vision for design with the wants and needs of their clients. Some clients may be harder to please than others, but ultimately, the support of a project’s financier is essential if it is to be built. Even the work of the greatest architects could not have come into existence through the efforts of the architect alone. Often, the best designed buildings are conceived by a designer who is not afraid to challenge the preconceptions of their client, and sometimes, persuading a client to another way of thinking about the project is the biggest challenge faced by the designer.
Despite (or perhaps, because of) the necessity of their involvement, architects often have complicated relationships with their clients. Some clients may become too involved in the design process. Others may be completely hands off with very few requirements for their project. Whatever the case, the job of the architect is not to simply take the exact description of what a building should be from a client, draft it out, create renderings, and figure out how it should be built. Architects must possess technical skills, yes, but contractors and engineers have long been involved in the technical side of construction. Conceptual skills are really what separate the value of the designer from the value of the engineer or the builder. Architecture, then, has become about the crafting of creative solutions to the problems that the client presents. Without this conceptual involvement, a project is simply a building, crafted by builders, not a work of architecture, conceived by an architect.
Though the phrase “the customer is always right” is an often heard phrase in business, in some ways, architects must challenge this notion in order to provide truly exemplary service. Almost always, a client will have preconceptions about a project, but part of an architect’s job is to challenge these notions. A good architect who is fully engaged in the design process will usually craft a solution which differs from/expands upon what his/her client had envisioned. If this were not the case, why would the client even hire a designer?
Christopher Wren, one of Britain's most famous architects, was commissioned to design a replacement for St. Paul's Cathedral after it was destroyed in a fire in 1675. The conservative church commissioners in charge of the project requested a typically ornate gothic church with common Renaissance frills, and they approved a proposal from Wren that met those criteria. As the project progressed into construction, Wren managed to significantly alter the early design that they had approved into the noble building that stands today, crowned with one of the world's finest domes. Though the cathedral is now a treasury of Baroque architecture, for its time, Wren’s work was revolutionary and met with criticism. The end product was not what his client had originally wanted, and in fact, differed significantly from what had been approved, but Wren’s refusal to blindly follow his client’s expectations speaks volumes to the manner in which architects today must take responsibility for design innovation. Wren’s decision to alter the design, though it went against the wishes of his client, ultimately ushered in a new era of Baroque architecture in England, and helped to propel the field of architecture in a new direction.
(2) Christopher Wren's approved proposal
for St. Paul's Cathedral
(3) Wren's cathedral as built
Are architects obligated to listen to and consult with their clients? Of course we are. But the role of a design professional goes far beyond delivering a proposal that meets a checklist which has been provided to them by their client. Architects must reach beyond basic guidelines to disrupt the status quo. Curiosity in design is the only way to reveal unimaginable pathways and solutions that actually push through the goal to a higher order of “problem solving.” This is what design is about: revealing potential, imagining the future, envisioning radical change, innovating. With this in mind, clients must sometimes be convinced that they are wrong. Design+Make Studio (unlike Christopher Wren) has been fortunate to work with a client who has been very open to our design vision. Ken Wold (the director of Camp Wood) will readily admit that he never would have imagined the solution that has been conceived for the Preston Outdoor Education Station. Neither could veteran architect Tom Nelson of BNIM, a decades long volunteer who has designed many of the buildings at Camp Wood. And this kind of unexpected solution to a unique design problem is exactly what good design is all about.
Written by Jake Rose
(1) Riscica, Michael. Client-Architect-Contractor. Digital image. Architects in Schools. Young Architect, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. <>.
(2) St. Paul’s - The Warrant Design. Digital image. St Paul's Cathedral. Wikipedia, 02 Mar. 2006. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. <>.
(3) St. Paul’s - The Final Design. Digital image. St Paul's Cathedral. Wikipedia, 02 Mar. 2006. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. <>.
Image courtesy of Mike Sinclair