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  • Writer's pictureDavid Hornstein

Thinking about Collaboration

If you read most architect’s blurbs these days, one of the common selling points is their ability to collaborate with the client. It takes the form of “we turn your dreams into reality”, etc. That sounds great, but as I’ve said in many other blog posts, the devil is in the details. What exactly is collaboration, and is it always a good thing?

The most famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was infamous for his disinterest and often outright hostility to his clients’ input. He felt that a properly designed house that responded to the site and the clients’ program (list of requirements) would be both beautiful and practical in ways that the client could not necessarily know they wanted or needed. This could be described as arrogance or iconoclasm, and perhaps it was, but few were disappointed with the final product (except the ones that went broke in the process).

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the fully collaborative architect who in some cases may just end up “drawing up” the clients napkin sketch into a serviceable house design. It’s unlikely that this process has resulted in a “Fallingwater”, but many clients are probably quite happy to live in a manifestation of their own design ideas.

Given that range- from “I’m the creative genius, please keep your mouth shut” to “just tell me what you want and I’ll draw it up”, where is the sweet spot? Of course, it depends…

First, it depends on the client and the quality of their ideas. If their ideas are bad (impractical, ugly, or both), the architect is not doing them a favor by incorporating their input. Henry Ford’s famous quote (which like many famous quotes, was probably mis-attributed) “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” arrogantly captures the legitimate point that clients often want what they have seen and are familiar with, and are not generally able to imagine truly original solutions to a problem. It takes years of experience to be good at anything, so hopefully the architect is bringing something to the table that the client is not, despite the ready influence of HGTV, Houzz, Pinterest, et al.

That said, some clients do have a sophisticated design sensibility and may have spent years thinking about the design of their dream home. It would be a serious disservice not to respect and try to incorporate as much of their vision as possible.

But this conundrum about how much to incorporate the clients design input is probably asking the wrong question. The client is not a design expert, but they are an expert in what they want and need. The collaboration should really be focused on a through understanding of how the client wants to live, and as much as possible and understanding of their deep aesthetic preferences. I don’t mean their affinity for a particular material or fixture, but rather their more fundamental preferences for dichotomies like open/closed, colorful/monochromatic, simple/complex, etc. The client is often not consciously aware of these preferences, so part of the work is to attempt to uncover them in the schematic design phase.

In the end, collaboration is probably not the correct term. One doesn’t “collaborate” with their doctor or lawyer, or even their mechanic. You explain to these professionals as clearly as you can what your problem is and trust them to make the right decisions on our behalf. My favorite quote (can’t remember where I read it) is “I want to design the house that my client would design for themselves if they were a good architect”.


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