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It’s almost impossible for architects to design for the client’s needs only, nor should they try

[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Runner-up: Gemma Owen

It’s the usual chaos outside the terminal building. An army of taxi drivers are vying for my attention in the already hot early morning air. My shirt clings to me as I negotiate my way through the crowd, cradling the delicate Styrofoam model we made late yesterday night like a newborn child.

The truth is, there shouldn’t really be a model, or a new set of drawings or a carefully and thoughtfully prepared presentation; this should simply be a design update meeting. One round of strong sugary coffee and an opportunity to reassure the client that everything is on track, we’re moving forward and could you pay your invoice for last month please? But, unbeknownst to the client, there’ll be a bit more than that to this meeting.

Of course, the easy thing would have been to move forward on the track we were navigating at speed but, as architects, the easy route is rarely the route we choose, and indeed this is rightfully so. We are rigorously trained to continually question if the route being followed is indeed the right route at all.

The built environment, unlike almost all other design disciplines, affects everyone - the client, the city, town or village around it, the society it serves and in the wider context the environment we all inhabit. It can even at times make a political statement. The building, once realised affects all these entities not only now, but critically long into the future and often far beyond the life of the current client.

For those very reasons it’s almost impossible for the architect to design catering for the client’s needs only, and nor should they even try.

Creating design in isolation, devoid of any obligation to consider the building in relation to its larger social, environmental, economic and political context both now and in the future creates poor, ill-conceived design. It is the architect’s ability to see the big picture that sets us apart from other design practices.

But it can, and often does, create some level of friction between architect and the client, and additional, often unpaid, work. It requires a robust sales pitch in explaining the sometimes complex reasoning behind the desire to push the boundaries of the client’s vision.

The taxi hurtles down the eight-lane highway, weaving in and out of the traffic at speed, occasionally briefly slowing behind an ageing vehicle. A city of rapidly constructed skyscrapers looms on the horizon.

The phone rings and I take the call, grateful for a brief distraction from the chaotic traffic around me.

It’s the London office. Am I sure I’ve got the full story? All the evidence in place? The narrative for the diagrams? Yes, yes, yes. Critically, is the model ok? Yes. I feel like an architectural warrior about to go into battle, sure of one thing, I cannot get back on the London flight tonight without having given it my best shot.

The fact is, in the long, intensive and drawn-out process of design it is virtually impossible to avoid this point. The point where as architect you come to the conclusion that a change to the client’s vision, on some scale, will deliver a better product.

Inevitably, clients and their project managers rarely see it that way. Change means time and time means money. And, while these pressures are paramount and cannot be ignored, it does not absolve the architect from challenging the client’s vision - and indeed our own - throughout the process.

This is not to say we disregard the client’s opinions, thoughts and concerns, in favour of our own. But we must complement and enhance the solution with our own unique expertise ensuring that the client’s vision is always connected to the wider context. To encourage new ways of thinking, to create something that rewards not just the client but the wider society and environment from which the building cannot be detached.

Buildings on the whole outlast their clients, they live on long after the client has retired to play golf on the Costa Brava, and we have an obligation to know that we did all we could to make the building a continuing success.

In the current economic climate where construction projects are few and far between and clients are understandably less willing to take perceived ‘risks’ with design, the architect’s desire to push beyond satisfying simply the demands of the client can be daunting - and indeed more challenging.

The goal is often just to keep the job ticking over, keep the money coming in, survive another month; there is a sense generally that this is not the time to rock the boat.

It is true that this is perhaps a time to pick your battles, to know when to tread lightly around certain matters and clearly identify when pushing to go beyond the demands of the client is worth pursuing. In smaller projects, where the architect and client are often able to form a more direct relationship, the matter of raising the issue of expanding the brief or pushing the boundaries of the client’s vision is perhaps more easy to negotiate.

On larger projects where the client is often detached from the architect by a raft of other organisations, this can be more challenging.

In all instances, having a clear objective to the meeting, a large body of research to back up your argument, and clear and concise rhetoric, will all help the cause.

But, ultimately accepting that rejection of any or all of your ideas is up to the discretion of the client. In these cases does the architect feel strongly enough about the wider cause to walk away? In certain political and environmental situations, the architect takes a great risk pursuing a project that disregards the wider issues associated with it.

The taxi screeches to a halt, leaving a dust trail whirling in the hot, still air behind us. I step out resigned to the fact that I have once again flown 3,000 miles to disappoint.

Like many clients, mine understandably resists being challenged, and stepping outside the parameters of the original vision often creates tension, albeit short-lived.

Shifting my heavy portfolio to my shoulder, I take a deep breath of hot sand air and reassure myself that eventually the client will understand why we are pushing for these changes. For the good of the city, the community, the environment, and for the simple love of good design.

I push open the door and step into the cool dark foyer, this time 100 per cent sure that this is a battle worth winning.

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