Thursday, April 30, 2015

Architecture & Clients: To Educate and to Serve

The 2014 CRAN (Custom Residential Architects Network) symposium featured two sessions which roused my interest. The sessions had similar titles, The New Modern House and The New Traditional House. The format was the same for each. A moderator introduced three prominent architects who each spoke about their recent work and then joined the moderator for a roundtable discussion. The similarities ended there. I was struck by how different these two groups of architects were. I'll touch on a few of the differences, but I'd like to hone in on one - how differently the modernists and the traditionalists view the architect/client relationship.

Let's begin with the modernists. Gorlin introduced the speakers with a brief bio, including the number of design awards they have amassed. One could just feel that we were about to witness the bleeding edge of design, presented by the the innovators propelling the profession forward.

the New Modern House panel
Alexander Gorlin, Larcan O'Herily, Julie Snow, & Robert M. Gurney
These architects talked a lot about the site, and how they craft and position their houses to embrace the landscape. Their works tend to be comprised of large expanses of glass, blurring the distinction between the interior and the exterior spaces. The interiors tend to be open and flowing. The detailing tends to be spare. Careful placement of rich materials fill the void, if there is one, caused but the the lack of ornamentation. They were defensive at the assertion by some that modern houses lack comfort. Snow stated, "I find the world of pillows suffocating, and the world of glass liberating."

The modernists approach to handling clients demonstrated a desire to educate them. After all, the client retained them for their design expertise, did they not? The role these architects played was to take the client's program and reinterpret it in built form, guided by sound architectural principles. Modernists look forward, not to the past. One gets the sense that they consider the houses they design to be theirs as much as their clients.

Gurney directs discussions with his clients toward understanding architectural principles. They discuss such things as light, space, and relationships. "We never have a discussion about style," says Gurney. The clear implication is that style, and the shackles that come with it, are not a factor in determining the ultimate form and function of the house.

Gurney's 308 Mulberry
O'Herily, who works mainly with developer clients, made the point that it is often necessary to use the "art of persuasion" to convince a client to buy off on an idea or concept that they might not normally embrace. A client might be skeptical that he can rent a red and orange metal clad apartment building. The architect's ideas must be sold...and bought, in order for the architect's vision to be realized.

O'Herily's Formosa 1140 Housing Project
Snow expanded on this point of view, telling the audience of architects "We have a responsibility to give them [clients] your best advice." She also pointed out that her firm has occasionally fired clients who failed to follow their advice. Clearly the modernists make it known that they are the experts and they are leading the design process. This does not mean, however, that the architects think of clients simply as a means to an end - getting their creations built. They take pride in their ability to satisfy their clients, building houses that function well and are architecturaly significant.
Snow's B+W House
And now, on to the traditionalists. Rybcynski introduced the topic of traditional design by arguing that we want our buildings to have a connection with the past, but that we have to pick and choose, due to the expansiveness of the past. Indeed this is the approach of the traditionalists. Interestingly, the bios of the panelists did not mention design awards at all. It was as if these architects were just the most current group of notable practicioners continuing the practice of traditional architecture.

The traditionalists approach to handling clients demonstrates a desire to provide their particular brand of service. Their clients often come to them with a desire for them to create a house in a particular style. Their clients retain them for their knowledge of classical languages and traditions. The role of these architects seem to be taking the client's program and working with them to create appropriate design solutions. The modernists look proudly to the past. Appleton makes an interesting comment during the roundtable, saying that the work belongs to client, and when finished, it is healthy [for the architect] to let go.

the Traditional House panel
Wytold Rybcynski, Marc Appleton, Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, & Gil Schafer III
Shafer caught me off guard in his explanation of the design process his firm employs when building new traditional houses. Since new homes do not provide a historical context in which to operate, they architects create their own narrative. For example, they might imagine a young couple buying a little land and moving into a farmhouse, then updating it in the latest style as they begin to acquire some wealth, and finally adding to it as their family grows. The desired result is to have a house that looks as though it evolved architecturally over time.

Shafer's Longfield Farm
Khoury-Vogt's small practice is currently working exclusively in a DPZ new urbanist community, Alys Beach, on the Gulf coast. Their clients have already bought in on a style so the role of the architects becomes fleshing out the form, finishes, and details with the assistance of a pattern book. She starts the design process by showing clients "inspirational photos" of houses and architectural details which she uses to inform the design of their houses.

Khoury-Vogt's Frist Residence
Appleton, who was trained as a modernist and worked in Frank Gehry's office before hanging out his own shingle, chose to work in traditional styles. He explained that it took a long time to "start talking plain english and stop talking like an architect, particularly with clients." Because of his desire to serve the client, he realized that he "had to start listening to clients and what they want, rather than what I thought might be right for them." Like the others, he loves the challenge of working with different clients in different architectural styles. He mentioned his satisfaction in being asked by a client to do a house "in the style of George Washington Smith."

Appleton's San Ysidro Ranch Addition
I consider all of the architects in both panels to be talented professionals, practicing in the manner they believe is best. The question of whether it is better to educate the client, as the modernists do, or to serve the client in the manner of the traditionalists, varies for every architect.

Most objective architects can find truisms and platitudes in the opinions of both the modernists and the traditionalists. Despite differences in the way we view clients, we are much more alike than we are different. A fundamental commonality is the creative process we practice to achieve artistic expression. That is something architects share with many other artistic fields, including music. That will be the subject of the next post, 1989.