Sep 17, 201301:03 PMPoint of View

Architects Who Listen

Architects Who Listen

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What makes successful design? Is it having your projects published in different media outlets? Is it, as many design and architecture schools imply, an aggressive design aesthetic that you promote, along with your charisma? In speaking with three established architects regarding their own work, an unexpected theme revealed itself in how they have attained success. They listen.

Victoria Meyers, partner at Hanrahan Meyers Architects (hMa), observed in an interview on architecture education,  “With clients, students will say, well, if you were just really tough, if you just put your foot down, then the clients will listen. And I tell them, no, I really can’t. There really is a budget. I really do have to do this. There really are realities that you have to deal with.”

Chapel of the Light, hMa


Peer-reviewed studies show that listening is essential to producing the best outcomes, whether we are discussing a practice in law, medicine, or in this case, architecture. The studies identify different areas important to facilitating listening. One of these is educating the client. To architects and designers this may appear to be the easiest because they are used to providing important information, and explaining it. But this is not enough.

Educating must be accompanied by a listening skill, two-way communication. This means using language the clients understand, not devolving into trade-speak that designers use to impress their colleagues, but actually convey very little. In addition, architects and designers need to respond to clients, rather than trying to “persuade” them to another viewpoint. This goes together with providing choices based on what clients’ needs are, as Meyers likes to say.

“When you start, you have limitations because you don’t have as much experience with all the materials, all the processes, how everything works, so you have compensate more with your design aesthetic, although that is also limited,” notes Peter van Assche, founder of Bureau SLA. “Over a few years, you are more able to put this aside and listen to really what is needed by the client. You act on that, which has less of [the designer] and more of what is needed. And surprisingly, it produces much more interesting projects.” For example, what may initially appear to be a design limitation, such as cost restraints, actually produced a far more creative solution regarding van Assche’s materials and program.

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