A friend of mine runs an excellent restaurant locally and he caused quite a stir when, as a young chef, he refused to give customers mustard if, in his opinion, it did not complement the dish. Some saw this as being wilfully obstructive, others the inevitable consequence of someone who cares passionately about food. This made me think, how much should I, as an architect, push my opinions? Should I simply take instructions from clients and blindly obey, or should I insist on buildings being a particular way?
Architects are known for insisting on things which the client does not want. I’ve heard people say things like, ‘my architect wouldn't let me do that’ and certainly the more eminent the architect, the more of a prima donna they can be. Sir Edwin Lutyens, despite his ‘bon ami’ spirit was abundantly aware of his own importance. There is an amusing story about the building of Heathcote, his first classical house completed in 1908. On a site-visit, Lutyens and John Thomas Hemingway (the client) viewed the space intended for the black marble staircase. Hemingway said, “I don’t want a black marble staircase. I want an oak staircase”, to which Lutyens replied, “What a pity.” On a later visit, when Hemingway was shown the completed black marble staircase, he complained, “I told you I didn’t want a black marble staircase.” “I know,” the architect replied, “and I said, ‘What a pity’, didn’t I?”
Lutyens evidently felt that the house required a black marble staircase for its artistic integrity and if that was not to the client’s taste that was ‘a pity’ but he was not going to let the subjective preferences of the customer get in the way of his architectural vision. Happy days indeed... for architects perhaps, but not so much for the clients. Though I admire Lutyens greatly, I would never behave like this, partly out of a fear of being sued, but more importantly because I believe that ultimately the house and its choices belong to the client, not the architect. Clients have their reasons for liking things based on their memories and tastes which cannot always be explained but these preferences are real and should be respected. Also, the architect will leave after the house is complete and rarely, if ever, return, but the client must live with these choices on a daily basis.
Lutyens’s hallowed status came out of an attitude to artists which developed during the Renaissance. Before then artists were viewed simply as the craftsmen and their opinions were irrelevant. Michelangelo, the greatest architect and artist of the Renaissance, was seen by his contemporaries as literally divine, sent by God and in effect a messiah of art. Despite our modern day egalitarian pretentious, and the wholesale rejection of so much of the Renaissance spirit, the idea of the hero artist has survived intact. Frank Gehry for example, recently said, “I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.” In other words, the client should just trust the architect to do the right thing because they are divinely inspired. This might work for Gehry’s standalone modernist art galleries which could be seen as inhabited sculpture rather than everyday architecture. For the world of domestic architecture, in which I work, the complex and personal requirements of a client need to be considered in great detail, Gehry’s ‘don’t question the architect’ approach would be a disaster.
In my experience, clients come to architects with a great deal of knowledge and they like to question everything, which I find an enjoyable and stimulating process. Clients often have Pinterest images and photos from magazines or the internet and they have done their research. The decisions come out of a discussion between the client and architect relating as equals, rather than an architect telling their client what to do. Projects are therefore more of a collaboration - which I see as a good thing.
But within this collaboration my preferences are important to the client and I would not be doing my job if I did not speak up. If the client makes a decision which I think is wrong, after respectfully arguing my point, I will support them in their wrong decision because perhaps it is right for them. Giving advice is not always easy and you need to be careful not to appear dismissive or patronising. I had an experience of this from the client side when I had my first suit made many years ago. I went to Welsh and Jefferies, my father’s tailor on Saville Row. When discussing with the tailor what sort of suit I wanted, the tailor gave me options like, do I want three buttons on my jacket or how wide do I want the lapels, or do I want turn-ups. I would, from time to time, proffer an opinion based on what was in vogue at the time. The tailor would respectfully listen and then politely explain, that though he could do as I required, what I really wanted was a passing fad and in the fullness of time the conventional width of a lapel and number of buttons was the best decision. He was a little condescending but forgivable and I was conscious that I had come to a tailor whose work I respected, and I did not want my influence to force the tailor to make a suit which was not to his taste. This led me to ask whether he had ever made a suit he did not like. Did he ever have clients with greater confidence and strong will who insisted on their choices, not his? He said he had. Karl Lagerfeld, or someone like him, had come in requiring orange suits of a vaguely military design which were not his taste, but he made them as well as he could none the less. I am sure he did an excellent job and the client was very happy with the result.
So back to the original question, would I offer the architectural equivalent of mustard even if did not suit the dish? I think I would, but if they ask for tomato ketchup, I will politely tell them they have come to the wrong restaurant.