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Client of the Year Award acclaims a bold vision

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Client of the Year essay byJulian S Robinson

Without clients there would be no architecture and without good clients there is rarely good architecture. Sometimes, in spite of a poor client, an outstanding piece of architecture can result, but this is the exception rather than the norm.
When excellent clients and architects combine, the results can be spectacular, for example the Jubilee Line stations commissioned by Roland Paoletti (the first winner of the RIBA Client of the Year Award in 1998) are an inspiring legacy of which the UK can be proud.

The role of the client is instrumental. They can be hands-on or delegate their vital role to a project manager. Where clients do become involved, they prescribe the project vision and brief, decide how the architects will be selected and choose the form of procurement. Most importantly they can set the tone for relationships and engagement and provide the environment for creativity and opportunity.

Looking at previous Client of the Year winners, the common themes are: consistency of commitment, courage and boldness in not just going for the selection of safe or obvious architects (ie those who have designed a similar building before), patronage of younger/up-and-coming practices, and a clear client vision. A prime example of the latter was last year’s winner, the National Trust. A sustainable legacy is also considered important and, in 2012, the Olympic Delivery Authority was commended for this as well as its commissioning of a wide variety of practices and of course some impressive architectural set pieces both large and small.

It is self evident that a successful client has to appreciate architecture and be knowledgeable about trends in design and construction and the emergence of new talent. A commitment to design quality, experimentation and innovation clearly counts, as demonstrated by Peabody in 2004 and Urban Splash in 2002. Large commercial clients have also followed this path, including the 2007 winner Derwent, and Hammerson in 2010.

What is not always apparent from the citations is how clients go about commissioning high-quality architecture and, once said architect is appointed, how they maintain a presumption in favour of design quality throughout the often tortuous and fraught design development and construction process. For pubIic authorities, who cannot indulge in private patronage, it depends on the ambition of those running the design competition process. A clear vision, a stimulating and challenging brief and a well-crafted design competition not automatically weighted in favour of the established players are all key ingredients. Once in contract, a strong relationship built on trust and mutual respect leads to a full engagement and creative tension.

What strikes me is that notable clients are those who take on a leadership role within the industry, proselytising for good design, and are prepared to take risks to further this agenda. My checklist for being a good client would therefore be as follows:

  • Provide a clear design vision.
  • Provide clear design expectations.
  • Provide a clear but not over-prescriptive brief
  • Ensure your budget is aligned to the expectations in your brief.
  • Be open to new ideas and perspectives.
  • Put yourself out - don’t use lazy procurement routes for selecting architects.
  • Hold well-structured design competitions.
  • Employ new and emerging talent, using them on small jobs to start with.
  • Be engaged throughout the design and construction process.
  • Be prepared to take risks.
  • Be prepared to listen and understand where the architect is coming from.
  • Don’t compromise on design quality.
  • Go and see stuff and experience what is out there.
  • Pay fee bills on time.
  • Understand that the creative process is not linear and there will be stops, starts and route diversions along the way.

Finally, although perhaps obvious, it’s essential the client actually likes architects, enjoys the design process and is passionate about architecture! In addition it helps if they appreciate what good architecture can do for their organisation and indeed wider society. After all the product of our collective endeavours is there for future generations to view, experience and hopefully enjoy.

Julian S Robinson, director of estates, London School of Economics and deputy chair, Higher Education Design Quality Forum. LSE is the 2014 AJ100 Client of the Year

Client of the Year shortlist

  • Manchester Metropolitan University

Like many academic institutions across the UK, Manchester Metropolitan University is in the process of reorganising its building stock to meet the demands placed on modern universities.

As part of this process the university is consolidating its activities on its central Manchester campus, and has commissioned Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios to do much of the work.

Last year’s RIBA Award for the practice’s Manchester Metropolitan University Business School has been surpassed this year with the Stirling Prize shortlisting for the university’s Manchester School of Art.

  • Arts Council Collection and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The The Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is an international centre for modern and contemporary sculpture, based in the grounds of the Bretton Hall estate near Wakefield.

The park has a track record of commissioning high-quality architecture, including a gallery and visitor centre that won National RIBA Awards in 2003 and 2006, and provided the land for the Adam Khan Architects’ Seizure Gallery.

This year’s win for Khan’s gallery, commissioned by the Arts Council Collection (ACC), means the park can now boast three RIBA Award-winning buildings.

  • Argent

Established in 1981 as an investment for British Telecom’s pension fund, Argent is a leading British property developer, best known for its work at London’s King’s Cross where the developer has employed many of the UK’s leading architects.
So far five buildings commissioned by Argent on the central London site have won National RIBA Awards - a testament to the quality of the scheme.

Argent also operates in other major cities across the UK, most notably in Manchester at Piccadilly Gardens and in Birmingham where the developer led the regeneration of Brindleyplace and is now developing Paradise Circus.

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