William Stewart

Recently, as I was listening to a CD of chamber music, I busied myself skimming over the program notes. To my surprise, reading about Johann Sebastian Bach and an early client, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, kicked off thoughts about the special relationship that exists between architects and their clients.

The program narrative said that when the prince returned from a shopping spree in Amsterdam to Weimar, where Bach was employed, he brought copies of the latest Italian music. The impact on Bach, who had access to the prince’s library, was enormous, and the course of music was altered for centuries to come. That’s the magic made possible by an enlightened patron.

As an architect, I’m always eager to see our profession celebrated for the often extraordinary work we do on all scales, from ambitious urban plans to modest single-family houses. I also know from the findings of the research that underpins the Institute’s Repositioning Initiative that one of the highest priorities of AIA members is a desire to cultivate a greater appreciation and understanding of the value of our work.

This focus on the power of our own design thinking is all well and good, but do we give enough credit to the critical role played by those who commission us? Yes, there is the fee for our services. But far more important to the quality of our work is the nature of the relationship between us and the client, and nowhere is that relationship more intimate or more emotional than in residential design. As Washington, D.C., architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen once put it: “When I design a project for a client, my shoes are underneath their bed.”

Who among us doesn’t have a horror story wherein communication between client and architect broke down over a misunderstanding or, worse, over a stubborn demand to cut a corner? The experience is no better when working for a disengaged client whose interest stops at cost per square foot and schedule. We can’t do our best work with clients who don’t challenge us, or who don’t demand excellence.

So while we applaud one another for work well done, let’s not forget to add some praise for one of the most important members of the design team—the engaged and discerning client. It’s their support that allows us to do more and better than we could do on our own.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, 2014 President