This year we asked this question: Do Architects have a duty to anyone but their client?
[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Introduction
I should start by stating my own position on the question and why the team at Berman Guedes Stretton Architects thinks the question merits consideration. Building is an act that, self-evidently, has physical and environmental impact, but it also has significant social and political impact. Albert Speer and similar propagandists have long appreciated that buildings can control the human spirit - but also, as Aldo van Eyck put it optimistically and so succinctly: ‘Architecture can assist man’s homecoming.’
Every act of design should be made in the knowledge of this fact - and, hopefully, aim to achieve van Eyck’s vision. But, in the daily struggle to survive as an architect and to build, the duty that architects owe to the wellbeing of their public is all too easily forgotten. While almost all of the 82 submissions accepted that architects do indeed have duties beyond their client, few discussed this wider constituency: most focused on the client-architect relationship.
Each of the four judges came to the meeting with their own shortlist of possible winners and, interestingly, we had all independently applied similar criteria in making our selections. This made agreeing a long list of 16 essays quite easy. We had all decided that an essential initial criterion was whether, after reading the first few sentences, a piece contained sufficient interest to make us want to read further, and so we had all rejected the many essays that read like answers to an exam question on the RIBA Code of Conduct, or which plodded through a definition of terms. We had also rejected pieces that used poor language: what we were seeking in addition to engaging content and interesting ideas was their expression in fluent, clear and descriptive language. A number of pieces were well written and had an interesting focus on the work of one architect, but none of these managed to move the discussion from the particular to the general and thereby illuminate the conundrum that the question poses.
By applying these criteria more rigorously to the long list in a second round of readings, a small number of potential winners was identified. At this point our meeting became more lively: one of the judges announced he would resign if we others proposed as a possible winner any piece that took the position which he found unacceptable in many of the essays: the idea that the client is the enemy. Many of the submissions took it as axiomatic that clients and architects will be in opposition - the architect as holder of the moral high ground doing battle with a Mr Bad Guy whose interest is narrowly limited to financial gain.
This idea is clearly nonsensical: throughout history the best buildings have had their genesis in a coincidence of aspiration between architect and client. It was sad, therefore, to read so many pieces which framed the architect’s task as a battle with the client, although a few did adopt the valid position that the architect has a duty to educate his or her client to expect more than they may have initially required. In light of the prevalence of this attitude, it was easy to warm to an entry that was positive about the client-architect relationship: this described an interesting example of how a priest and his architect worked with one vision for the wider community. This piece engaged our interest from the start; it is clearly and eloquently written, and manages to move from the specific and unusual instance described to illuminate the general issues about an architect’s wider duties.
Alan Berman is co-director of Berman Guedes Stretton and the author of several books on design and sustainability
The winning entry was very well constructed and combined readability and good journalism that made you want to read more. There were some very well made points which other pieces touched on, but which this piece discussed in a very concise way. The winner was also constructive about the potential of the collaboration between the client and the architect. I got the impression this was something he had actually seen and experienced.
Everybody raised in their essays issues of community, sustainability, longevity, the fact that everybody has a duty to the urban context. All of those things are correct. There was a slight arrogance in the idea that only the architect is capable of understanding and delivering those aspects and that’s worrying. I like the message of the winner’s entry - an architect pulling people away from where they thought they were going and getting the trust of community, planners, everybody who goes along with it.
What strikes me about the winner and the runner-up is that they are both written in the first person, and they are both about an experience. One is very much a narrative, involving arguments with other architects; the other is a short account of a meeting with a client. But they are both about an experience, and this is what makes them winners.