Who do architects design for, users or clients?

In contrast to the times and works of the great masters during the ‘Golden Age of Architecture’, where the client played an active role in architectural commissions, modern clients have gradually lost their influential status, and their needs are generally overlooked. It is particularly noticeable among middle-class clients with limited budgets who aspire to have an architecturally designed house. For many architects, the end users are often abstract, as in the case of housing projects, where architects have no information about who will inhabit the flats that they design.

So the burning question is who do architects design for?

The term ‘Users’: In his book The Use of Architects, Jonathan Hill (2001) critically debates different opinions of eminent scholars and puts together a more comprehensive narrative on the role of users within architectural discourse. According to Lefebvre (1991), ‘users’ is a ‘pejorative label used to describe the inhabitants of a space or a building’, and there is an absence of ‘well-defined terms with clear connotations to designate them’ (p. 362). Supporting Lefebvre’s arguments, Hill (2001) cites Adrian Forty, who considers the category of ‘user’ as a precise apparatus through which modern society ‘deprived their members of the lived experience of space (by turning it into a mental abstraction) and achieved the further irony of making the inhabitants of that space unable even to recognise themselves within it, by turning them into abstractions too’ (Forty, 2000, p. 312).

Peter Gleichmann, a German sociologist, noted that architects who worked in such cultures were often dealing with abstractions, when they had no reference to the site, actual needs of individual users or the issues the site was responding to, they were working on the instructions of their employers (Gleichmann & Waldhoff, 1977, cited in Prak, 1984, p. 23). As such, Hill (2001), holds that the term ‘user’ denotes vicious inferences, as if buildings were merely utilitarian objects used by people. He also argues that problems arise when architects wrongfully think of the ‘user’ only as an abstraction and assume that all ‘users’ will have the same requirements.

The term ‘Clients’: Problems also lie in the word ‘client’. Not only does this word project the image of a customer as ‘someone’ who has abundant ‘funds and means’, but it also presents this ‘someone’ in a glamorous and dazzling light. The word ‘client’ fails to communicate that this ‘someone’ is also a human being with aspirations, who hopes to have his needs and desires met, ‘someone’ who is looking for ‘service’ and willing to pay for it. It is therefore essential for architects to look at their clients as a ‘critical someone’ who can bring an unrivalled source of knowledge and insight about their own needs and aspirations, from which ‘the architects, having skillfully tapped into this rich seam, can then generate unique solutions’ (Carmichael, 2002, p. 7).

Often, first-time clients take architects too seriously and give them free rein, not daring to intervene because they believe that the architect is always right. Besides, this leads architects to take things lightly and not consult the users of the building or analyse systemic shortcomings that need to be put right. It is perhaps the most common mistake, where clients assume that an ‘architect is a god or a mind reader who can solve all your problems’ (Tusa, 2002, p. 350). To reduce the risk of confusion, lack of clarity and disappointment, architects should have regular dialogue with clients and urge them to make clear choices (ibid.).

Clients’ assessment of architects

While clients are the vital source of employment for everyone, from those drawing a daily wage to an architect, sadly they are seen as just one of the many parties involved in the process of building houses. Architects somehow lack the skills to learn or draw on their own experience as possible consumers of a variety of products and services that they procure. While architects have a natural desire to spend most of their time designing, it is imperative for them to accept the fact that ultimately, their actual role is to serve clients. Carmichael warns, ‘Being client-centred is now critical to long-term success (or even survival) as an architect. It can no longer simply be regarded as an optional extra in a social and economic climate where most successful organisations have developed a customer care ethos’ (2002, p. 1). As cited in Rethinking Construction (1998, p. 19), the best companies have a customer-centric approach, where value addition corresponds to consumer feedback and the price they are prepared to pay. Likewise, improvisation or allied activities that don’t contribute to these values are considered waste and are eliminated.

Based on recent studies and mainstream media, it can be inferred that the public perception of architects is not very encouraging. People think that architects are stereotypes who would increase project costs by imposing their designs. Besides, architects rarely put in an effort to change that viewpoint; in fact, most architects follow the belief that ‘we are so unlike you and you cannot understand the way we work’ (Till, 2005). Perhaps architects have yet to reckon with the dilemma of whether the buildings they design are for the users or experimentation and celebration of their own ego at someone else’s expense?

One criticism of the RIBA publication, A Guide to Successful Client Relationships, by Carmichael, is that it focuses on and draws upon experiences from established architects and clients from housing societies and corporate organisations. Difficulties arise, however, when an attempt is made to implement its recommendation, policy and advice in the context of emerging architects wanting to establish their foothold in the market. For example, it stresses investing time to understand clients’ personalities to create goodwill and a long-term successful relationship during the whole project but does not acknowledge the reality that architects are never trained in these skills and, even if they wish to engage in such actions, there are no established pathways or mentoring available for them. Carmichael’s observations only reflect the viewpoint of practising architects and what they have learned through their experiences. However, in hindsight, her observations also signpost and expose the actualities of how incomplete an architect’s education and training is, even after spending several years in architectural school.