It's the Client, Stupid

R&A has made an effort to reach out to hungry developers in West Hollywood.
Courtesy R&A

What do Aaron Betsky, Martin Pedersen, Steven Bingler, and Los Angeles developer Geoff Palmer have in common?

Betsky, Pedersen, and Bingler have recently been arguing in Architect magazine and the New York Times over (among other things) whether architects should dictate their own path or follow the less effete road of consumer demand. In my opinion both approaches are valid—one doesn’t trump the other—and there is plenty of room for both radical and client-centered architecture. But neither will be effective if architects remain shut out of too much work.

This is the missing piece that architects need to address instead of fighting over their increasingly small piece of the pie. It’s the constant stream of projects built in this country without competent architects, like housing developments, retail and commercial centers, gas stations, and, yes, faux Italianate monstrosities from the likes of Geoff Palmer, who has concocted an empire from the vacuum created in a city, and a country that has gotten used to mediocrity.

 

Geoff Palmer’s Medici is an example of clients choosing profit over architecture.
Courtesy GH Palmer Associates
 

“Architecture for the masses,” as the modernists liked to call it, has been largely ceded to corporate developers, who are by their nature large, risk-averse, and sometimes leave architects out of the equation altogether. Of course they sometimes hire top architects, and many are well-intentioned, but since they, by nature, need to generate high profits they more often resort to a pro forma model, where building envelopes, plans, and programs look similar everywhere, with a few flourishes thrown in to cater to locality. This is the 98 percent of work that Frank Gehry recently called “pure shit.”

The Independent’s Jay Merrick summed this situation up superbly: “Architects serve commercial forces that are generally uninterested in the complex qualities of place, aesthetics, and history.”

After following this field for well more than a decade I’m high on the talent and sophistication of most architects. I’m less sanguine about the system and the clients that they work (or in many cases don’t work) under. All have drastically different priorities.

This wasn’t always the case. Sophisticated architects were once regularly commissioned by enlightened developers to design excellent housing developments, bowling alleys, offices, and coffee shops (like the beloved Norms that Angelenos recently fought to save). They weren’t just building houses for the rich, museums for wealthy institutions, and headquarters for the wealthiest and trendiest. They worked for everybody, and they brought style and livability to everyone’s lives. Now the type of developer who commissioned this work struggles on the fringe (burdened by unimaginative banks and corporate-favoring regulations), leaving architects to largely fend for themselves.

The AIA’s efforts to give architects a voice through well-produced commercials is laudable, and helps give them a face in the public consciousness. But dispassionate corporate clients aren’t moved by touching stories. We can best demonstrate the value of architecture through effective case studies, through the language of hard numbers and money, and by hammering home what people really want—quality. Only then can we return architecture to the masses. It doesn’t matter if it’s a starchitect doing it or a corporate firm or a struggling startup. There is a thirst for better work, in any type of language, from edgy to traditional. America is tired of banality, and it doesn’t care if the replacement is contemporary or traditional. As long as they’re carried out well, styles don’t matter. In fact, the more styles and the more approaches the better.

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