The printed word is a powerful tool. It can convey so much to so many. Oftentimes, that’s a good thing. But sometimes it’s insidious. I just read a description for a course on single-family housing at a top-ranked architecture school. It was intended to be “en famille”—architects addressing architecture students—but the description is posted on an open website for all the world to see. It declares that “houses are an experimental outlet for architects,” and it calls residential clients “indulgent and idiosyncratic.” Furthermore, it attributes the paucity of architects in the housing industry to this “lack of rigorous constraint.”
Whew! There is so much wrong with this language and this attitude, I don’t know where to begin. So, I guess I’ll begin by saying: Architects, bite your tongues. If you really want the world to understand and appreciate the value you bring to buildings, the profession must drop the disdain for non-architects and for residential work—one of the biggest, most important industries in this country. Architects love beautiful things, we get it. But this attitude is ugly. And it only serves to marginalize the profession and blunt its impact.
Are clients really “indulgent” when they pay architects to design something they like? Is it “idiosyncratic” of them to express an opinion about what they want? Unless architects are developing their own projects, they provide work for hire and it’s their job to make their clients happy.
Most residential architects understand that, but this cynical view of housing and clients is pervasive in academia and among architects whose primary work is nonresidential. I’ve seen similarly patronizing descriptions in “House of the Future” competitions. And I’ve heard architects who want to diversify their practices beyond residential mimic the same haughty attitude.
Houses are not experimental outlets for architects. They’re people’s homes. They’re places to raise a family, care for an elder, pursue dreams. Architects, experiment on yourselves. Treat others with respect and empathy. Learn from each house you design and make the next one better.
I think the truth is that architects are more idiosyncratic than their clients are, searching endlessly for novelty. For the most part, housing is an iterative discipline, where incremental design progress is most likely to resonate and succeed with the public. Creativity, originality, and design rigor are still possible within these parameters.
There’s certainly more leeway for architectural invention with private clients and custom homes than there is in speculative and production housing. We in the design business love these explorations of new ideas. But private clients need to understand the level of risk they’re taking on and must revel, just like their star architects, in blazing new trails. If you have the good fortune to find that willing patron, remember that their home is not your laboratory. This is a journey you take together.
I fully admit that, like you, I am a design snob. I understand what drove that professor to write that course description. We all want to see a more beautiful world before us. But we must present a prettier face to the public if we’re to be trusted with that opportunity. It’s time to stop the superior dance and share a heaping slice of humble pie.