I made a deal with God, said the priest. I prayed he let me live long enough to see my church completed
[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Winner: J Schützer-Weissmann
I made a deal with God,’ said the priest. ‘I prayed that he let me survive the crash and live long enough to see my church completed.’ In the humid Ugandan afternoon, fine pins of sweat condensed on his brow and across his architect’s shirt there spread patches of dark damp; in the oil palms above us the clusters of bats appeared to shimmer greasily in the haze.
Looking back, this was the first time I was present at a meeting between a client and his architect. That I attached little significance to this at the time is not surprising, since the building had clearly been completed some years ago, and - perhaps - because we were surrounded by a small gang of men with sledgehammers.
The architect’s brief for some years since the completion of the original building - a church with a café, an office and a small residence - seemed to be to maintain it in a state of perpetual incompletion; adding a conference hall, a bell tower, filling every inch of the plot and now, at his client’s behest, advising which bit could best be knocked down to make way for something else.
It was clear he did not object to his complicity in the modification of his original work; we all saw the link between the practice of architecture, the development of the site and, maybe, the lifespan of the client, this good and lively priest.
In retrospect, there had clearly developed a great bond of loyalty and sympathy between priest and architect that negotiated the transition of the brief from constructive to destructive, from ordinary to slightly surreal. But generally such relationships are based around the client paying the architect to promote his lifestyle, not prolong his lifespan; to further a business, rather than a vocation.
Broadly speaking, the function of the architect tends to revolve, even 2,000 years post-Vitruvius, around his triad of functionality, durability and beauty. But, the first of these, the ‘Utilitas’ is chiefly driven by the client’s brief and the second, ‘Firmitas’, the client could probably supply without recourse to a fee-taking professional. These days more often than not it is the ‘Venustas’ that draws a client towards the dotted line; it is widely assumed, from developers to corporations, from celebrities to status-anxious housewives, that an architect’s duty is to add to this functioning, sturdy structure a certain aesthetic, a recognisable expression of beauty.
If we accept an architect’s duty is to satisfy the demands of his client, then we should accept unquestioningly so much of that is drab and uninspiring in the built environment. There are countless apartment blocks and shopping centres, houses and office parks that ‘function’ admirably, that do not leak and which, with stripe of cladding or an amorphous blob of roof, seem to satisfy their clients’ every demand. If ‘duty’ can be defined as simply satisfying the demands of the client, the architect need go no further than providing him with a preconceived symbol of his desires that doesn’t leak.
When I jog around the leafy suburbs of Cape Town I see a client’s Tuscan demands satisfied on one corner, Provençale requirements on another; next door we have calls for Balinese and opposite an Olde English thatch. And each winter I see Tuscan tiles ravaged by the storms, wooden frames buckling under the sort of rain you never get in Provence, and I dread to imagine the electricity required to heat the drafty Kampong hut-mansion.
Sadly, the damage of this kind of architect-client relationship extends beyond buildings that are out-of-place and impractical, environmentally unfriendly and uninspiring. Architecture as a profession becomes redundant, architects are seen as functionaries of fad, clients are left ultimately unsatisfied (even if their ‘demands’ are not) and our built environment is rendered wasteful, unsustainable, transient and devoid of meaning.
Rahul Mehrotra, the inspirational Indian architect and academic, provides a corollary to this model in defining the duty of the architect through his practice. This must include, he maintains, not only the design of buildings but an active involvement in historical and technological research; advocacy for social change, preservation and documentation of important structures and crafts, and an understanding of sustainability as something provided by design rather than by technology.
The end of his recent lecture at the South African architecture biennale was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation. What moved the hitherto unanimated audience was the way in which his body of work in Mumbai demonstrates that a client’s demands should be treated with imagination and freedom, that the duty of the architect is, in fact, to convince his client that his needs can be fulfilled in rather unexpected ways.
A telling example of this - and one that resonated in the South African context - is a country house outside Mumbai. The client came with the predictable demands of luxury, security, convenience and exclusivity.
Mehrotra managed to convince the client to build the house around a generous living area in the form of a large portico-like canopy. When they go back to the city after a weekend at the house the owners move light furniture inside, close large barn doors and leave the portico with its shade, pool and its tap for the villagers to use. The blurring of social - and in this case, caste - boundaries through a shared threshold resulted in a sense of ownership by the community and a level of security that high walls and electric fences cannot provide.
Mehrotra further demonstrated his astonishing ability to transform his clients’ demands beyond their preconceptions with an office building in Mumbai. A young tech company commissioned him to put their company on the physical map with a tall glass tower intended to out-consume, outshine, or at least out-reflect the other glazed symbols of wealth and power around it.
Mehrotra gives them the glass box but convinces them to transform it according to the most humble of models. In the streets of Mumbai the municipality provides small straw huts, windowless except for a small hatch. From this hatch the occupant of the hut pours cool water from a kettle into the hands of thirsty passers-by. Every half an hour or so he takes some of the water from the large earthenware jars on the floor of the hut and sprinkles it on the thatch. By evaporation the hut and the water remain cool.
By cladding the glass box in an aluminium trellis covered with creepers the light is modulated, the flowering facade is brought alive with seasonal change and the building, cooled by a misting sprinkler system, appears every half an hour transfigured into a prismatic cloud of mist.
At the end of the ovation I asked Mehrotra how he managed to convince his clients to put their money so far away from their initial demands and preconceptions. He joked about the respect afforded him by his grey beard and described the bond of trust that developed during the initial design stage. But it was clear it is his integrity as a practitioner that wins them over - his conviction that his duty lies beyond merely overseeing the erection of an edifice, that he has the responsibility to transform what he describes as the ‘parasitic’ and ‘bullying’ invasion of ‘impatient capital’ into our cities.
Mehrotra’s work also seems to question the definition of ‘client’ as exclusively he who commissions, demands and pays. If an architect has a duty to this client he surely must balance it against his duty to those who will actually use the building, now and in years to come. These ‘other’ clients, namely the users, and the passage of time will ultimately transform the building beyond its brief and may give it meaning and value beyond a professional fee.
The architect in Uganda extended the use of the church, adding functions and benefits that had never been part of the brief and, in so doing, seemed to sustain the life of its client and the community he served. The resultant building with its many functions, myriad users and generous programme stands today in that humid often destitute town as a symbol of transformation and equality and may continue to do so when architect and client are no more.
It reminds me that the duty, as well as the joy, of an architect is not merely to promote (or even sustain) a client through fulfilling a brief but to add value to the place in which it is built and to benefit and delight those who use it and change it in years to come.