In January, we covered an interview with Bjarke Ingels where he spoke of the role that clients play in architecture. In the article, Bjarlke Ingels mentioned that "In the world of architecture there are many more things beyond an architect's control than are under his command." The post started a debate among our readers as well as our editors at ArchDaily. Many readers bemoaned the demise of architecture at the hands of clients with big pockets. Some of us talked about how IT giants not only control our digital world, they are now also encroaching upon our urban environments. Several readers blamed big clients for creating starchitects who build grand buildings and, as they allege, cause an "infantalisation" of architecture in the process.
Here at ArchDaily, our editors got to thinking: Can architecture exist without a client? Or is it just a service, a capitalistic exchange? And really, are clients such a bad thing for the field?
We talk to some of our editors to get their perspective.
Can architecture exist without a client?
Romullo Baratto, architect, photographer, and editor at Archdaily Brasil: Well, what can be considered architecture? If one thinks about architecture as solely built things that exist in the physical realm, the client is an important determining parameter that architects must respect. The blank page is somehow terrifying for all creative professionals and the client has an authoritative role to play in defining strict guidelines to the project.
However, I truly believe in the potential of architecture as a tool for discussion, questioning and thus transformation. In this sense, architecture doesn’t necessarily need to be something of the physical realm - it can rely in the sphere of imagination and representation to foster some change within the field.
To use the same word Ingels used, architecture doesn’t need to be “built” to be architecture; and the guiding parameters can be found elsewhere rather than the client's needs and desires – be it society, theory or even the architects’ questionings.
Nicolás Valencia, architect, professor and editor at Archdaily en Espanol: The responses to Bjarke Ingels’ statement have been very revealing. Probably the statement would sound perverse if Patrik Schumacher said it; or pragmatic, in the case of Alejandro Aravena; and sensible if it were the request of a neighborhood community – yes, we need clients to build our projects!
What does this reflect? Our practice is limited by the client - people such as almighty real estate owners, or millionaires clients with unique tastes.
There is architecture without a client: there are investigations, self-assignments, experimental works. But of course, architecture is also a service often associated with the exploitation of the city, by those who want to and can invest in it.
We know that architecture shapes our cities. What can we do? Support different clients and different architectural practices. Take a community-centric approach: get the middle and working classes involved in constructing their own cities. Do not always go for the big-money clients. The more diverse the clients, the better!
Is architecture just a service for the client?
Pedro Vada, editor at ArchDaily Brasil, architect, urbanist, and professor: I want to highlight two points.
Firstly, in this interview, Bjarke is concerned about the client in the most common sense, as someone who hires a service. We have to realize this. Client, here, is different from user. Reading through the responses to the post, I see that the main criticism is that the practice suffers from reductionism imposed by those with capital. The interview calls these people with capital "predators" and treats us architects as mere service providers.
Saying that architecture only exists if you have clients to pay for it is to be purposefully ignorant of a whole range of architectural skills outside of the built product. Architects design, and this design is a multidisciplinary and multi-step process. Sure, the client can play a part in the design process, but our design-thinking is not just a product to be sold.
So let's think about this: why does a good project have to be built? Or, is a good project only worthy when we build it?
Bjarke reasons that as architects, we are but players in the client's court. After all, no matter how great you are as an architect, if you play against the flow, you will never have a building built. I disagree! I think: So what? What about the process!
This interview reminds me of many decades of discussions over questions like "Does architecture only exist if it is built?" In a world with both physical and virtual realities, with social issues and a capitalist system, the speech glorifying only built architecture no longer makes any sense. I get that we can’t save the world with our buildings, and we can’t just sell clients our “luxury” service. But the project is a complex process and we have a valuable and significant part to play, whether or not the project is realized in a built form!
It seems that within the design process, there is potential for conflict between the architect and the client. Do clients often make things difficult for architects?
Jose Tomas Franco, architect and ArchDaily materials editor: The big problem for many architects today is to see the client as a hindrance to their own ideas, when it should be the fundamental condition that guides and informs design. It makes sense for me to change the question to: "Can (good) architecture exist without the client?"
My answer in this case would be no. I think it is absolutely necessary that there are parameters that define the development of our designs so that architecture can appear correctly and appropriately in the real world, and even in an experimental or utopian level. In this sense, the client would be the most important parameter to consider; the most valuable 'informant' in our quest to achieve the best architectural project possible. Even better if the client is also the user of the building.
That there is –always– a counterpart that will be affected by our decisions, for good or for bad, makes our discipline have meaning and value. This implies a very high level of responsibility because we are doing something for someone. We have to learn to observe and guide the client.
Bjarke Ingels says that 'In the world of architecture there are many more things beyond an architect's control than are under his command.' Maybe that's true but I think we have at hand the most important opportunity: the possibility of connecting with the client, of understanding and guiding their specific requirements, and proceeding in a precise and efficient way, without excesses or faults.
Can we bring people and clients into our world in order to save our practice?
Fabian Dejtiar, architect and editor for Argentina at ArchDaily: While it is true that it is necessary to bring architecture to the non-architects, such as clients, we should not do so just because clients are necessary to feed our industry. We should do so because we ourselves want to approach the meaning of our discipline.
We need architects to be everywhere, and they have to be proactive in spreading our discipline and our commitment to good architecture. I think the more people are involved, the better. The more people can think like architects, the better our practice will be.
From Alberto Campo Baeza: if you are thinking about making a house, and you want it good, beautiful and cheap, you have to call an architect, a good architect.