Consider this letter of Christopher Wren’s to his patron, the Bishop Dr. John Fell, Dean of ChristChurch College who had commissioned him to design the clock tower over the entrance to the College at Oxford.
My Lord, In pursuance of your Commandes I send your Lordship by Mores Coach my worke these Holydayes. I resolved it ought to be Gothick to agree with the Founders worke, yet I have not continued soe busy as he began. It is not a picture I send you nor an imperfect Essay but a designe well studied as to all the Bearing…. Your Lps most obedient humble servant Chr. Wren
The date is May, 1681. Wren had just completed schematics.
The patron’s role and his architect’s are clearly defined. The bishop commands and bestows his confidence on the architect, who, grateful for the opportunity to build, remains his humble servant.
On the surface this may seem far from a good relationship. But, behind the façade of social convention, the power of the patron and that of the architect are equal and balanced.
The patron wears the crown, but the architect holds the seed of creation. He has the power to withhold his secret and this power is equal to the King’s.
Political power and the power of money entail obligations. There is a French saying: “Noblesse Oblige”. The Bishop of ChristChurch College knew that his tower was more than a self-indulgence; it had to serve his college for centuries as a timepiece and to the generations of students who walk under his tower it was to be the symbolic gate to their education for life. The tower was to be a work of quality and art. The bishop took to heart the patron’s obligations to his college, his city, his country, his students, his successors. The result is the proof. I don’t know when the architect’s patrons became his “clients” or when they were made “owners” as they are prematurely called in the AIA Documents when the building is nothing more than a dream. It signaled the change in how we are perceived by others and in time, how we perceive ourselves and our work.
The equilibrium between patron and architect no longer exists. The change which took place has destroyed a creative balance. The Client.
Without passing judgement, and recognizing notable exceptions, our clients are not patrons. Nor do they assume the patron’s obligations. Often they are corporations seeking architecture as image, no matter how ephemeral, or committees, governmental or institutional, seeking a safe, accepted product.
They are approachable, on a first name basis, and undemanding. Their respect for our profession is uncritical. They ask no more from us than a minimum response for a reasonable fee.
Unsure of themselves, their commands are based on surveys: in-house or consumer surveys, “what people want” or governmental check lists, “what people will permit”. But to questionnaires people can reply only in terms of what is familiar, not in terms of what they have not experienced or cannot visualize.
The designer’s premise is uncertain although it may be equally appealing and attractive. The result may be colorful and stimulate talk and what is omitted may not be immediately obvious but there is no point in constructing what “the heart cannot believe”.
When we architects acquiesce or conspire to create a superficial, fashionable building insensitive to social goals or human needs, for expediency’s sake or in self-indulgence, we let our client’s down. We blame our failures on him or on our world, when we should recognize the world as it is, without sentimentality with its faults and contradictory demands and bring to it harmony and order.
Our buildings make lasting impressions on a wider area than they occupy. They may bring chaos or harmony. Which it will be is up to us. Our clients may not be aware of the choice. To explain the difference is our obligation. The right choice will make our clients into patrons which they will never regret. The Selection of the Architect.
The process is scientific; the judges are experts in the particular fields the building serves.
Consultants are called in to measure the effectiveness of the evidence, the makeup of the brochure and the cleverness of presentation.
Grades are given according to: -administrative capabilities -size of staff and area of office -experience in similar projects -cost control -efficiency of energy conservation -speed of production -current work load -number of change orders -reimbursables -bank references -amount of liability insurance
The greatest sum of points equals the commission.
Forms of proposals have become standard from large governmental agencies to the small town or school district. The selection process has become codified at our own request: SHB-176. PL 38.80 RCW 18.08.100
There are architectural firms who rehearse their presentations to selection committees like theatre. Psychologists, like stage directors, evaluate the performance and tailor it to the prejudices of the interviewing committee; closed circuit TV is summoned as a tool. Can subliminal messages be far behind?
The aim of the new law prescribing the method of selection of architects by agencies of government is a worthy one: to compete on the basis of ability, not on fee alone and to give the young and unknown architect the same opportunity the large firm has.
But how can a young architect compete in the manner whose excesses I have just described? He has only his talent to show. His promise cannot be measured. It must be recognized. The Effect on the Architect’s Work. And what of the commission when it is finally obtained? The expense of gaining it comes out of the fee, no matter how well the performance was received.
“The medium becomes the message.” The building is seen as the frontispiece of the next brochure, the expression of a trendy designer. The building becomes a marketing tool. Houses become experiments in spatial effects, office buildings fairy castles, jails whimsical packages housing criminals.
Where are the buildings’s connections to life, the regard for the people who live and work in them or are confined by them? What about the passers-by who walk in the building’s shadow, the building’s relation to its place, its neighborhood, to town or city, to our time? How well all these connections are expressed gives the building meaning and brings it to life. The buildingís success cannot be measured by grading its obvious parts. Their sum does not equal the whole. “Artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images, they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form, grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come to refute them.” This is what Solzhenitsyn said about the art of writing. There is no less truth in architecture. We must try to find it. We need not create singular masterpieces, but work as “common apprentices under God’s Heaven”. The sum of many smaller works that mirror life as it is, without sentimentality, has the same impact. They breathe life and poignantly let people know, that even though we cannot change the world, we can contribute to its harmony and reflect its beauty. Advice to the Young Architect:
Do not despair.
Among the committees, the boards of selection, the paid consultants, the stonefaced interrogators, the human adding machines, there occasionally lurks a patron.
Cultivate him, treat him with the dignity and respect a patron deserves. If he is not yet one who completely deserves the title, you can make him one. Your life will be full of surprises, joy and pain, setbacks and recovery. Suffer the indignities gladly.
You will have the opportunity to fulfill your calling, your patron will be forever thankful and will become your lifelong friend.
P.S. Only for brevity’s sake is the patron and architect referred to as “he”.
Copyright ©1997 The Henry Klein Partnership
Most recent revision Wednesday, April 23, 1997
© HKP architects