Whose Design Is It Anyway?

Robert P. Davis, Architect
revised 13 August 1998

Artistic License

The controversy surrounding artist Richard Serra and his sculpture "Tilted Arc" made clear to me how differently architects and their clients can view design. The architect's work begins in the imagination and is substantially completed when the documents are done: a virtual reality where simulation is the substance: words, images, and models to be built by others. As construction begins virtual reality fades and when the users move in, it's gone; design becomes the thing itself, the building and all its consequences. The designer would like the quality to be judged by the work alone, but the user is not so fastidious and lumps the building with its context. The "Tilted Arc" destroyed the utility of the building plaza it was meant to serve, and was thereby condemned by the users as "bad" art, which they fought so tenaciously to remove. And while the designer may promote and defend the product of his imagination, the user could care less.

Paying the Piper

The architect's job and the client's privilege of shaping and directing the work are usually terminated by occupation of the building. The developer's attention span is equivalent to a manufactured product's shelf-life: when sold or leased, he's gone. When building ownership changes hands, all the architect's effort to please the client goes up in smoke. Professional prizes notwithstanding, if a building's design prevents adjustment to altered use, if its decoration becomes an embarrassment difficult to remove, if the roof or walls leak, if something big breaks, the users will condemn the building as a bad job.

Calling the Tune

Should architects try to please an audience who may not know their name and will pay them no fees? What impertinent questions can we ask? Will the building still work if the power plug is pulled? -with something less than full service? Designing for "growth and change" in the '70's often meant an unimaginative simple-simon projection of the present, creating future obstacles which less "sensitivity" and "vision" would have avoided. The developer of an office building is not interested nor inclined to pay for time spent worrying about its future use as an apartment house, school, or warehouse. But, somebody should be, and the best qualified somebody is the architect.

Fooling Mother Nature

The real imperatives of design are imbedded in the project's natural context, terrain and weather, to which the client's requirements are subordinated. The harmony of the building with its climate and site and neighbors is nature's non-negotiable demand. Reasonable people may accede to that simple truth, but there are plenty of others for whom will and $'s conquer all: I want, therefore it shall be. How many architects would turn down Ozymandias' commission or beg to differ with his intended scope? Present technical theory supports prevailing design philosophy: protect the work of man from the alien forces of nature; insulate the inside from the outside inorder to conserve the energy it takes to achieve it. But, there is another view and it is not colored "knee-jerk" green: energy may also be conserved by not tempering the inside when the outside conditions are reasonable--just by opening windows of the right size and in the right places, an art dormant since the advent of air-conditioning.

When Things Fall Apart

The object of design is not the celebration of the designer's originality, his or the client's political views, or man's triumph over nature. It is rather the making of something of grace and utility in accord with elemental forces. It has been done before and will be done again: Romanesque churches, Victorian railroad stations, Edwardian houses. Technological advances breed temporary arrogance and we forget what we're really up against. Decay has a way of restoring good sense by removing nonsense. How things fall apart tell us how they should have been put together, and sometimes why they should never have been made at all.

Selling Good Sense

As a sales strategy, taking the long (50 year) view has a way of dividing potential clients between those who bolt for the door and those who bond for life. To some it is a sign of presumption, and to others modesty and vision. In times of rapid and unnerving change the conservative position is to go with the flow: to lag behind is to be left behind; get too far ahead and you might miss a turn of the pack. I believe design is ultimately apolitical, and when made concrete lives independently and often long after we do. It tells its own story and resists having words put in its mouth, and if we want it to speak well of us, we had better look long into the future.