Question: As an architect, is your professional responsibility solely to the client paying the bills or is there a larger responsibility to the community at large?

This question was raised by Lee Calisti in one of his recent blog posts. And the question struck me as an important one and probably one that gets very little attention even in our own minds. Which of course means that I MUST talk about it here. And I think the reason there’s little real dialog about a subject like this is we tend to see architecture in two spheres – private and public. And I would go so far as to say, that separation is where client versus community comes into play.

Private projects are those that are commissioned by private citizens, business owners, large companies, etc. They are a single entity with a for-profit building proposal that they are footing the bill for. And, as long as the design meets the minimum guidelines specified by local zoning and building codes, there is little in the way of public input on overall design, materials, colors, lighting, even landscaping. These decisions are all made by the private owner in consultation with their architect.

Public projects are commissioned by governments (federal, state, local) or other public institutions and are funded with public tax monies. There can even be a series of public hearings in which design proposals are reviewed and opinions from the voting public are received and possibly incorporated into a particular project. So in the minds of most people, architects included, there is a clear separation between private and public projects.

The general consensus could be described as: A public project should be responsible to the community since there is public money footing the bill and they are typically much larger in scale while a private projects should be responsible to the private client since they are footing the bill and at least in my world are much smaller in scale. But we, as architects, know better. Each building, each structure, that is erected in the world affects everything else around it and therefore there IS a larger responsibility on the architect, whether a project is publicly or privately funded, to serve the community at large. But how far does that responsibility go? Are there limits, a line that can be drawn where the architect can say this is not in the best interest of the community and should be done differently?

I think the very simple answer is that there is no limit, no line to be drawn. After all, each project we design has it’s own unique challenges to overcome. There is no one solution for all. But I believe it is the task of all architects, whether your client is a private or public entity, to design in such a way that not only fulfills the programmatic requirements of your client but also in some small way enriches and enlivens it’s surroundings. This is one of the fundamental reasons that I was never able to get on board with, or really understand, the International Style. A building can not successfully be designed for everywhere and nowhere at the same time. All buildings have to respond to their particular surroundings. And the same design for one site is almost never truly appropriate for another. Architecture does not occur in a vacuum. We shouldn’t try to design it as such.


Lisa Saldivar