Well-informed clients come before fine architecture

Talented architects are rare; well-informed clients as precious as diamonds.

Construction (illustrative). (photo credit: REUTERS)
Construction (illustrative).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Designing even the simplest of buildings entails a long creative process, one that is in constant friction with reality; budgets, technical feasibility, building codes and building committees. Not to mention the architect having to fight off project managers who intervene in the design stage rather than sticking to what they know – implementation.
But often the most difficult of all the obstacles for the architect to overcome is the tastes and foibles of clients.
The outcome of this purgatory is, more often than not, as can be easily seen just looking around, mediocrity.
Architects must be able to justify their every move. This is because architecture is the art of prediction. Discussions between the architect and his client center around speculations regarding the future.
Everything the architect does is with the agreement of his client; their work is of a collaborative nature. For any building project to succeed, “chemistry” between the two, mutual trust, is absolutely essential.
The crucial design decision the client must make is selecting the architect. But how is he to know which architect to choose? Even the best educated and most sophisticated of men and women are largely unaware of what constitutes good design. Clients with superbly educated taste are rare. Most clients are totally unprepared for their role. A substantial part of the environment is shaped by people who have little or no visual training and who are simply unaware of the aesthetic, environmental and social consequences of their decisions. And here we must include important public officials, ministers, mayors, real-estate men and building contractor-owners who over the years have come to dominate the building industry in this country. The Holyland Park project in Jerusalem, for example, did not come into being through greed alone.
There was also the matter, little mentioned, of gross ignorance.
The best advice that can be offered the bewildered client is to embark on a crash program of self-education, and to consult professionals. Attaining superior architecture is sometimes possible through an organized selection process.
For large projects, the formal competition, although expensive to stage, lets the client see the product, taking political pressure off the public client for whom it is best suited. One of the most successful results of the architectural competition method in Israel was The Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem.
To have any hope of reaching a high-level outcome, the client’s motivation is all-important.
He or she must have, at the very least, a sense of responsibility to his or her neighbors; the community, the city. Clients like Phyliss Lambert are the dream of every talented architect.
Lambert was just 26, a divorced sculptor living in Paris, when she wrote to her father, Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Canadian distillery empire, Seagram.
“You must put up a building which expresses the best in the society in which you live,” she wrote, convincing her father to let her take over the search for an architect and following the project through to its realization.
She consulted with Philip Johnson, who for decades had been the strongest advocate of German-born Mies van der Rohe in the United States, finally selecting Mies to be the architect. Mies, in turn, took on Johnson as his partner. Completed in 1958, this exquisitely proportioned 38-story tower, sheathed in amber-gray glass and bronze, and set back from Park Avenue, stands on a pink granite podium, an urban oasis. A New York City landmark. One of the most important buildings of the 20th century.
Lambert: “I had only one thing in mind, and that was making sure Mies built the building he wanted to,” “I consider I was born when I built this building.” Her book, Building Seagram, was published last year.
Much like Lambert, Dr.
Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, set out with the highest goals in mind.
Salk sought to create a beautiful campus in order to attract the best biomedicine researchers in the world. He chose as his architect Louis I. Kahn. Salk and Kahn, both having descended from Eastern European Jewish parents that had immigrated to the United States, shared a deep common understanding. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located in La Jolla, California, was completed in 1963. It is comprised of two buildings separated by a plaza whose only significant feature is a stream of water at its center flowing toward the horizon and the Pacific Ocean.
Diagonal facades bounding the plaza allow each of the scientist’s studies a view of the ocean. As the laboratories were designed to promote collaboration, no walls separate them. Kahn’s buildings have been designated a historical landmark. The Salk Institute is today among the most prestigious biomedicine research institutes in the world.
Talented architects are rare; well-informed clients as precious as diamonds.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.