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WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions Productive

Tip #9: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.

By Norman Weinstein
December 2, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


Do contradictory desires define a “bad client?” Anecdotes about clients who waffle over the minutest details with their architects comprise an enormous body of occupational folklore. And not without reason. After all, clients who loudly and erratically hold contradictory objectives are costly to any professional’s practice, psychologically as well as financially. What can be done, particularly if the luxury of disengaging with an oxymoronic client isn’t financially realistic?


Because academic architectural education is so often design-driven, novice architects can fall into the trap of viewing a contradictory client as simply another form of a design problem awaiting an ingenious solution. Clients are never problems at base. You would have no livelihood without them – so the next step might involve ratiocination like “Clients are never problems – but their difficulty in articulating what they want from me is often problematic. I will listen to their contradictory desires and demonstrate rationally a design that meets some or many of their desires.”


This communications approach puts a premium on client rationality – an iffy presumption even in a healthy economic climate. An alternative approach is to enthusiastically encourage, through your conversation and writing, a full spectrum of contradictory client or committee desires. This is Frank Gehry’s way as explained in a recent book authored by Esther de Costa Meyer, Frank Gehry: On Line:


Departing from the norm, Gehry makes use of the client’s life and wealth of experiences to prod his own imagination into uncharted territory. This modus operandi gives the architect a broader playing field and helps shape the genesis and development and development of the drawing. “So instead of a house being one thing, it’s ten things. It allows the client more involvement, because you can say, ‘Well, I’ve got ten images now that are going to compose your house.’”


By encouraging a profusion of client desires, which naturally include contradictory ones – “sustainable” art museums built with unsustainable budgets, McMansions off-the-grid, etc. – the architect has more client data to consider during the design process. Rather than seeking to reduce a quagmire of apparent client contradictions into bite-sized challenges, the contradictions can inspire more refined and original designs.


Fine for a Frank Gehry, you might ruefully reply. But wait. Even with your more mundane clients, budgets, and programs, you can still successfully communicate with your vacillating clients. All contradictory expressions from clients can be considered as disconnects. A lovely definition of an architect’s profession is offered in a startling new book by Irena Bauman, How to be a Happy Architect: Bauman Lyons Architects. A happy architect, in their view, is one in the business of creatively stitching together disconnects between client and architect, between architect and community, between the profession and all other professions. They are not so Pollyannaish to claim all disconnects are solvable. But such a perspective opens architecture into a daily adventure in moving through seemingly impossible contradictions to establish a common ground.


Lurking within annoying self-canceling insistences from clients might be the lineaments of your next design. On the left-hand side of a legal pad, write all client contradictions as a vertical column – a column of provocative, mixed blessings. Which contradictory desires can be realistically stitched together within the constraints of budget and schedule? Create a column on the right of the same page evoking the opportunity some contradictions offer. Start sketching and writing possible ways to stitch together disconnects. Listen while you work to a recording of Billie Holiday singing: “The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible after awhile.”



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. He teaches communication skills to architects and can be reached at


See also:


WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients
Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight
Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.

(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2008