architecture and truth and miscommunication

the birthplace of arrogance

Of the many things that stand between architects and clients, none is so fraught as the architect's quest for architectural integrity which often masquerades as Truth.  Please don't get me wrong, I am not asserting that all architects are questing for Truth while our clients really were only looking for a building.  I have rarely experienced that.  But my more recent experience as a member of the local Landmarks Board has highlighted this difference between how architects and normal people view buildings. Most all architects educated in the last 50 years have been instilled with this idea of Truth in architecture.  By this I mean that a basic tenet of modern architecture has been the notion that a building, and all its constituent materials, should be true to its nature.  Wood should be and do what wood can do, a piece of stone should be real stone, not some fake imitation, etc.  Extended to a whole building, this idea manifests that a library should speak of a kind of library-ness and a house should look and feel domestic.  Most non-architects believe that we as architects design in defined styles and simply apply a style to a building and that what really matters is what the building looks like, not so much what it actually is.  Some architects work that way, but very few.

 For most architects that I know, from the first ideas through the planning, all the way to the finished construction, a building is an integrated whole and the "style" is not an applied aesthetic but rather what a building looks like is an outcome of a process, not a starting point.

style roulette

Now admittedly, this question of style is a huge problem for architects.  Many architects will adamantly protest that they don't design in any style.  Or some architects say they can design in any style.  I think this all comes back to my original point of a quest for truthy-ness in building - everything in a building, whether adhering to a specific style or not, must be true to its intended use. For some architects this means no prescribed style, for others, it means that "style" is not so important and any look will do.

brick building

brick building

(I am willingly skipping over about 30 years of architectural history here by ignoring historical Post-Modernism that played with "style" and often to subvert the true "reading" of the building)

When I am working with a client and I say something like, "let's keep the beam exposed", what I really mean is let's allow the real structure of the building be visible to demonstrate the truth of the relationship between the desire to build and the power of gravity.  I think my clients often think, "I don't like the way that looks".  To them, a simple decision like this is aesthetic, a simple question of what looks better.  As an architect, aesthetics are a big deal, but so is this question of truth and as architects we are sometimes more interested in letting a building be truthful, and hence in our mind "beautiful", than letting a simple preference of "I like this vs. that" dominate the design of a building.

To be frank, this rarely makes for a conflict between the desires of a client and the task of the architect.  Those conflicts usually have more to do with ego than anything else.  But sitting on the Landmarks Board I realized that questions of historical integrity of a building are often viewed quite differently by me as an architect, as well as the architect that presents projects to the Board, than the public.  For most of the public, it only makes sense that an addition to an existing old house should match that house.  To many architects and architecturally trained preservationists, no addition should ever "match" the older portions of the house because that would blur the difference between the new and the old and compromise the integrity, or truth, of both.

communcation gap

No one ever talks about this perceptual difference, this gap that exists between most architects and most clients.  I think as architects we either don't understand it or recognize it and most clients don't have enough experience with architects to feel the differences between their understanding and the architect's. It is all too common to have an architect explain and desperately try to get a client to come around to their point of view. And most rare is the architect that is willing to explain what this all means to their clients, and be willing to really listen to them and try to understand and tease out the real reasons why a client says "well I think I understand, I just don't really like it."