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Book Review: "Design through Dialogue: A Guide for Clients and Architects," by Karen A. Franck and Teresa von Sommaruga Howard

A helpful communications primer offers case studies of winning collaborations between clients and architects, but as useful as this book proves, it leaves some uncomfortable questions about communication unaddressed.

By Norman Weinstein
March 5, 2010


With Design through Dialogue: A Guide for Clients and Architects (Wiley, 2010), authors Karen A. Franck and Teresa von Sommaruga Howard are courageous explorers of what architectural educators often ignore: the psychological and aesthetic dynamics implicit in client-architect dialogues. Bringing to this challenge their combined backgrounds in architecture and psychology, these writers avoid textbookish injunctions and wisely choose to present examples of superlative client-architect interactions with case studies, the most significantly detailed being those of Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and LMN Architects with the Seattle Public Library, and Douglas Cardinal and GBQC Architects with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

 

Since the professional literature on how to sustain successful communication between architects and clients is hardly voluminous or trendy, Franck and Howard deserve considerable appreciation, even if some of their conclusions drawn from interviews with nearly 60 architects and their clients seem obvious and commonsensical. The Greek philosopher Heraclites claimed that humans are most estranged from that with which they are most familiar. And what architects aren’t in a routine swirl of conversation with possible or actual clients? Some of that conversation is simply palaver, a point that the authors correctly point out early in the book. Given their psychological inclinations professionally, they focus their study on that nuanced and sporadic state of conversation when all parties concerned enter into vital dialogue.

 

Dialogue, for Franck and Howard, implies that architects and clients have entered into a serious yet freewheeling, co-creative process of refining the design process through careful and caring exchanges of words and graphics. Succinctly put by the writers: design through dialogue operates through iterations of give and take, push and pull. And often client projects don’t come with firm notions of what clients truly desire. So part of this dialogue entails architects helping clients articulate their unconscious desires, evoking a therapeutic metaphor for the architect-client relationship. This may not be news to any number of architects with more than a few years in the business, but it is a salient and very welcome reminder nevertheless.

 

The weakness and strength of this book occurs squarely in one sentence in a chapter entitled “Relating”: “Many architects appreciate clients who have the time, energy, and capacity to engage in an ongoing give and take during the design process.” What architect wouldn’t appreciate such clients? – the irony being in a world of such clients, this book might scarcely be necessary. In fact, this vision of clients who have all the time in the world, are energetically assertive about their wishes, and respectfully engage in intelligent design dialogue with architects, is deliciously utopian. In the real world of planning projects in 2010, these utopian wishes oddly push the authors into moralizing how clients should engage in dialogue:

 

“Clients need to be clear and determined in expressing and defending their needs and aspirations; they also need to take responsibility for ensuring that the proposed design is addressing their expectations. To guarantee such persistent clarity may take determined work but it is worth the effort.” (my italics)

 

This sounds strangely like a marching order to hapless clients from the architectural community: be persistently clear and assertive. It also ignores the problems associated with architectural projects unrelated to clear client-architect communication, such as: prevailing economic conditions during the design process as they impact budget and schedule; contractor and sub-contractor competency; prevailing public perception of the self-importance and greed of architects; etc. These conditions beyond the control of clients and their architects will always muddy the wished-for goal of clear communication. And part of the dialogue between clients and architects should open the door to these out-of-control factors. As the poet Jonathan Williams put it: “We are too much/in the hands of those/we can’t lay hands on.” A deep dialogue about design, to escape ivory-tower idealism, needs to engage the actual world of large contingencies.

 

But just as important – and this is where the book most disappoints – integral to client-architect dialogues are mishaps, meandering digressions, slips of the tongue (Freudian and otherwise), intentional or accidental obscurity. As helpful as the largely positive case studies are, even more helpful would have some preliminary guidelines on how these communication obstacles can be creatively worked with. The legacy of much of an architect’s educational experience can be summarized by the following communication styles: being lectured to (survey courses); being in conversation with peers (studio), and being critiqued (the crit). Where is the art of dialogue with a client – a largely improvisatory skill – embedded in the curriculum?

 

Frank and Howard offer an inspiring spectrum of client-architect interactions that are worthy of careful scrutiny. There is much to savor here – in spite of my caveats. Here’s hoping more books follow to concentrate on this facet of architecture practice in every way as crucial as digital modeling and sustainability.

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him at nweinste@mindspring.com.

 

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