What Makes Architecture Successful? Individualization and Imagination

Architecture is about solutions appropriate to the context of the project.

Too often a work of architecture is judged unfairly because it is assumed to be the product of an ego-driven architect bullying a client into building the architect’s vision.
— Eric Spry

The architect's job is not to use the client as a means to accomplish his or her own creations, but to design a celebration of the client's life by meeting all the necessary program requirements with creativity and imagination. A piece of architecture can look great in a magazine, but if it does not meet the client's needs in a beautiful and functional way, it has failed.

How does one create architecture that is successful? The answer lies in its very purpose.

   Dwyer Design , original photo on Houzz

 Dwyer Design, original photo on Houzz

 

First, by way of background, I participated in a Houzz ideabook discussion centered around some unusual elements of a project I had recently completed. The design was provocative and elicited many comments, some kind and some not. 

As much as I appreciate a compliment, I was most absorbed by the comments that began, "If this were my house, I would have … " Or, "If it were me, I’d have done … " This unearthed a common stereotype of an architect’s work: that we are arrogant egomaniacs who bully clients into building our own visions. I will consent that those architects do indeed exist (that sentence may have just cost me any future American Institute of Architects membership), and I often have to fight back this stereotype early on in my client relationships. 

  Bruce Wright , original photo on Houzz

Bruce Wright, original photo on Houzz

 

But instead of discussing stereotypes, let’s discuss what architecture should be. My response to these comments? Of course. Of course it would be different. Of course it would reflect you.

If I were a musician, and person A from a small town in Michigan hired me to write a piece of music that was a celebration of her life, that piece of music would be significantly different than a piece of music written to celebrate the life of person B, who lives in Los Angeles. That is how it should be, and architecture is simply frozen music (or so said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

  Spry Architecture , original photo on Houz

Spry Architecture, original photo on Houz

 

Too often a work of architecture is judged unfairly because it is assumed to be the product of an ego-driven architect bullying a client into building the architect's vision. But the best architecture is in fact a product of a client willing to share his or her eccentricities and an architect who is willing to incorporate those eccentricities into a unique and imaginative structure.

As I said in my comments, if this were your home, perhaps the fireplace shown here would be wrapped in steel. If the home belonged to Colonel Sanders, the fireplace could be wrapped in chicken feathers.

That's the beauty of architecture: individualization. A detail that provokes a personal thought or feeling for the homeowner.

  Spry Architecture , original photo on Houzz

Spry Architecture, original photo on Houzz

 

This floor plan is for a client who dislikes right angles. In her own words: "If my home has a single right angle, I will be very unhappy."

What an architect misses by not picking up on a client’s small eccentricities is an opportunity for individualization that will make the architecture special and bring it to life.

Architecture is not about perfect universal solutions. Those don't exist. It's about solutions appropriate to the context of the project. The context is the client's needs, site conditions, climate, budget and so on.

  Kuhl Design Build LLC , original photo on Houzz

Kuhl Design Build LLC, original photo on Houzz

 

I love this example of individualization, because it looks like a child in a giant washing machine. Architecture is almost always best viewed through the eyes of a child's imagination.

I love the giraffe head in this home because it adds a whimsy to the space that reflects the client's humor. It's amusing, and modern architecture often takes itself far too seriously. 

  Spry Architecture , original photo on Houzz

Spry Architecture, original photo on Houzz

 

And I love the stone fireplace in the third photo from the top because the stone is personal to the homeowner, a piece of her past. The stone makes that house her home. 

That is architecture.

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This is a guest article by Architect and Houzz contributor, Eric Spry. Award winning Phoenix Architect, frequently published and best of Houzz 2016, 2015 and 2014. Spry Architecture is a full service and client focused architecture firm specializing in new homes, home renovations and small commercial projects. We’ve also designed Churches, prayer gardens, shipping container homes and cabins.