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The coach: ‘I’m working for a client whose enormous wealth is from dubious sources’

Frank Lloyd Wright
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Matthew Turner has advice for an architect who is troubled by the morality of the billionaire they’re working for, and for clients who feel their architect is trying to dictate how they run their life

Friends question my morality in working for billionaire

I work for a firm that does high-end domestic projects, and my client is a billionaire from overseas. The work is great in many ways – nice colleagues, and the ability to really push the limits in terms of quality of materials, plus I get to travel a lot. But even some basic research into my client indicates that this enormous wealth is from questionable sources. When friends indirectly question the morality of working for this person, I tend to laugh it off and revel in the glamour. Fundamentally, when I set out to be an architect, being linked to this really wasn’t what I foresaw. What should I do?.

We are all aware through the mainstream press that London is a magnet for the super-rich, and of course that means many are involved in servicing them, and perhaps implicated, however indirectly, in ill-gotten gains.

Architecture and interiors are generally a rich man’s pursuits anyway, a fact that so many people who have devoted their careers to architecture find very unsavoury. Many resent this reliance on the rich to feed us work.

I can’t quite tell from your email whether the fact that your career isn’t what you ‘foresaw’ is focused on only this client. Truth be told, many people’s careers don’t turn out to be what they thought they might be.

The whole of Western society is perhaps questionable ethically

Assuming your questioning is solely down to who you work for, the question in this case is do you morally accept that your working life is devoted to people for whom you harbour misgivings?

Ethics can be complex, and a very personal issue. For example, I look at the person who sells insurance as a worthless leech on people’s insecurities, and would never work for this sector. Why? Last year on holiday, my car was broken into and everything was stolen. My insurance didn’t pay out a penny; they had all sorts of exclusions in the contract. As a consequence, I consider insurance despicable. Yet I can completely understand that someone else might consider this work perfectly acceptable.

My point is that it is not my or anyone else’s role to judge you. The whole of Western society is perhaps questionable ethically. So when it comes to your morals, I would suggest it doesn’t matter what other people think, it is ultimately your choice. After all, it sounds as if this job fulfils many of your architectural interests and skills.

My architect constantly overrides my decisions

I am a client,having engaged an architect to work with me on my house, but I find him really hard to work with. Initially, I thought it was great to have his attention to the minute detail of my family’s life, but he is so didactic. He wants me to live in a way that he seems to think is right; the guy constantly overrides my decisions. Rather than take my instruction, it is as if he see this as his project, not mine. Have I got something wrong in this relationship? My son was interested in being an architect, but this experience puts me off encouraging him.

Architects generally are idealists. They are educated to encourage a visionary, somewhat singular approach, and though their work is intrinsically collaborative, many struggle with the art of compromise.

I don’t want to make excuses for your architect, who may well be unreasonable – the profession is certainly not immune from difficult characters. Le Corbusier famously showed scant interest in the clients’ day-to-day life with the Villa Savoye. And, while it was a masterpiece, the roof leaked from day one, becoming so bad it drove the clients to move out.

My architect wants me to live in a way that he seems to think is right

However, to give your architect some slack, residential work is a tall order as it is so personal, and intimate. You have essentially invited a professional to assess your way of living.

Architects can be very good at interpreting your wider aspirations, and sometimes your expressed requirements may be based in what you have been used to, rather than what might suit you.

There is a certain need for trust in your architect’s professional judgement, and a belief that there are benefits to be gained from their experience and detachment, in order to get the most out of the relationship.

Continue to be assertive of your requirements, but clearly if you feel the character clash is too strong and you cannot communicate, find someone else you can work with – you’re the boss, after all. There are many architects out there, with a wide range of ways of working.

Hopefully this experience won’t colour too much your advice to your son on his career. Not all architects are like this. Architecture is a great profession, with a lot of variety possible, as well as the potential for great fulfilment.

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com


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