in Frieze | 06 MAY 06
Featured in
Issue 99

Give and Take

Questions of architectural vision versus the needs of the client can result in a complicated relationship

in Frieze | 06 MAY 06

Ole Bouman
A writer, curator and event designer. He is director of Archis Foundation and editor of Volume magazine (

The world is changing, so what else is new? Not so much. Our immediate environment, our working conditions, social contexts and frames of references are relentlessly moulded to accommodate and facilitate the forces of modernization. This may sound thrilling, but the process has become simply another kind of historical routine. For a long time, sociologists have probed and explored this notion of change, trying to define its axioms. Politicians have fought over its direction. Scientists have pursued the knowledge and technology necessary to drive it. Modernity, the shock of the new, is no longer new itself. Destiny is on autopilot. The imperative question is if we can envisage any other way for our future to unfold. Is there an alternative to progress, or for that matter, change? Perhaps the best way to come to an answer is to focus on that modality that makes change visible and tangible – let’s concentrate for the sake of this argument on: design (understood here in the broader sense of shaping things and environments, including architecture).

For this, we need to shift our attention from the designers to the ones who are truly in charge: their clients. Clients seem much closer to the magic of change than designers are. It is the clients who are the personification of the capitalist logic of expansion, innovation and increased surplus value, the three main drivers of creative destruction. So it is the clients who need to be understood if we want to come to terms with change. Designers, for a long time, labelled clients as a ‘necessary evil’, impinging upon the luxury of the autonomous zone of artistic caprice. But this evil can no longer be understood as secondary. It simply exerts too much power. What follows, in other words, is an analysis of this evil today. Is change really still its ideology, or are there other objectives in the making?

Recently, Volume magazine and Premsela, the Dutch Design Foundation, organized an evening of talks in Amsterdam, inviting one commissioner each for product, architectural and network design. The idea was to discuss how the urge to change functions in practice, and whether there are ways to make change seem less mindless and less a goal in itself. So, we asked two questions: ‘What do you want, and how do designers help you, or frustrate you, in achieving it?’ and: ‘should the design you ask for always bring about change?’

It was an enlightening debate. It was difficult, but possible, to identify design whose biggest revolutionary power was its unwillingness to revolutionize. The first client – Joffrey Walonker, product development manager at the kitchenware company Royal VKB – gave a presentation underscoring his company’s need for a product line that was simple and recognizable, facilitating activities that belong to the oldest of mankind: preparing, cooking, eating food and cleaning the utilities. He appeared to deny design’s attempts to make these activities ‘contemporary’. In contrast, he wanted design to be ‘universal’.

The second client, a very successful real estate developer (Rudy Stroink, director of TCN Property Projects), had similar claims in regard to simplicity, leading him to bash the designers as a group overtly self-obsessed with conceptual innovation at the detriment of pleasant inhabitation. He also made an appeal to respect ‘eternal’ values of functionality and a common aesthetics. Even the third client, a creative strategist for a global mobile phone company (Marko Athisaari of Nokia), and as such, completely dependent on the successful implementations of new technologies and interface design, revealed an interesting attachment towards building communities, rather than networks, grounding his work in almost archaic principles of communication.

What was striking about each of the three clients was the degree to which they saw return on investment as stemming from permanence, rather than from change. These presentations were made before a large audience of design aficionados, who of course voiced concern with the consequences of these attitudes. Most worrisome to the audience was the price the design disciplines would have to pay if there was a true conservative movement. If change were no longer to be the ultimate driver of progress, design would collapse, or so it seems. Yet beyond this predictable professional anxiety about losing the market to conservative idealism, a substantial question may be surfacing: if design loses its position at the centre of modernization, does this mean an end to design or an end to modernity? In case of the former, lost jobs can ideally be replaced. In the case of the latter, we need to address the issue whether we can find a new historical destiny. And yes, what could design mean for that one? It is at this point that we need to jump from the understanding of circumstances to the comprehension of cultural transformations. The designer’s antenna is usually oriented to specific questions. In contrast, succesful clients are the ones who perceive profound change. Not form change but value change. If design is going to play a role in this, it can no longer rely on ist reactive mindset. It needs vision.

Victoria Pomery
The Director of Turner Contemporary, Margate.

The recent decision by Kent County Council to abandon Snøhetta AS + Spence Associates’ architectural design for a gallery in Margate owing to an escalation in the costs has highlighted a number of the difficulties of working on high-profile architectural projects in the cultural arena.

In 2001 Kent County Council launched an international architectural competition. The aspiration was to have ‘a building of real quality that will be an attraction in itself’, to celebrate J.M.W. Turner’s links with Margate and to provide a much needed venue for contemporary art. The design by Snøhetta AS + Spence Associates, an Anglo-Norwegian partnership, wowed the judging panel, and they were awarded the prize unanimously. Five years on, after a great deal of work by many people, the scheme has been reduced to an unrealized project. Margate, in particular, has missed out on a welcome addition to its urban environment by leading international architects, and there is still no major gallery in Kent.

Kent County Council, acting as the client, demonstrated considerable vision throughout and made a bold and ambitious decision in selecting the winning design, which was by no means conventional. In the first instance the architects decided to place the gallery building on a site not specified in the competition brief. Furthermore, part of the building rose out of the sea, its sculptural and organic form visible from all parts of the town and from various sites along the coast. The design was innovative and inspiring and captured the imagination of many; it became the leitmotif for Turner Contemporary, the visual arts organization established after the architectural competition to run the building.

Like many people, I wonder what went wrong, why we find ourselves without a building and back at the drawing-board. There is no simple answer; nor do I believe that any one person or side is responsible for this state of affairs. At the outset of the project both the client and the architects had demonstrated that vision was required to restore Margate to its former glory. However, as the design and procurement process unravelled, the scale and scope of that vision, which had been among the most endearing elements of this grand projet, were being eroded, almost as though the extraordinarily iconic nature of this design had become too familiar and overexposed before it had even gone on-site. The computer-generated images of the building on the stone pier were so realistic that visitors came to Margate, often to be disappointed. Where was Turner Contemporary?

It was difficult for people, especially locally, to sustain belief in the design when there was nothing to see and no indication of when anything might begin to happen. Behind the scenes an incredible amount of activity was taking place, especially by the engineers whose job it was to ensure that the building would withstand the buffeting of the waves on this exposed site. Amongst other things, their investigations necessitated a change in the method of construction from a concrete to steel structure. In 2005, the client procured the project as a design and build contract. The estimated costs for the entire building in 2001 were less than £10m and by February 2006 the contractor’s figure was £48m with no assurances that it would not rise still further.

The relationship between the client and architects was at all times very good. Indeed colleagues and I spent time in Oslo and London refining the design to ensure that it was fit for its purpose. The architects enjoyed working in a collaborative way and were open to our suggestions for changes. We were keen, for instance, to make sure that the education space had a central location in the building rather than being tucked away down a corridor. In spite of this fruitful working relationship, there were certain imbalances. The architects and the design team had considerable experience of, and expertise in, working on international architectural projects, while the client, represented by a diverse set of people that included senior local government officers, local politicians and gallery staff, might best be described as a group of laymen. Although the county council regularly works with architects, particularly on the construction of schools, this was a very different type of building.

The decision not to go ahead with the project was ultimately about cost. Delays, misunderstandings and budgetary issues have beset the development of many of the high-profile architectural projects in the cultural sector over the past few years. Clients often speak of the sheer physical and mental energy required to realize such projects as they are faced with criticism and mounting challenges on many different fronts. Maybe a more enlightened view of contemporary architecture and the role of the cultural sector is required to ensure that such projects are easier to deliver for all parties?
Kent County Council is still committed to ensuring that we have a new gallery building of architectural merit in Margate, and plans are already being developed for Turner Contemporary – Mark 2.