Teresa von Sommaruga Howard, a licensed psychotherapist and architect, recently co-authored the "Design through Dialogue: A Guide for Clients and Architects" with Karen Franck, an accomplished author and professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In the book, the pair addresses a real dilemma in the design industry—the all-important relationship between architect and client, using their different backgrounds and experiences to generated a lively dialogue. The multifaceted professionals shares some of their personal stories and practical advice with Contract magazine.
1. What sparked your initial interest in design?
Teresa von Sommaruga Howard: I knew that I wanted to be an architect and a psychotherapist from very early in life, but, since I grew up in Aotearoa, New Zealand, I could only train as an architect. (There was no psychotherapy training there at the time.) These wishes came from two experiences that are probably linked: My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and we immigrated to New Zealand when I was a small child. In both cases, there was the loss of home, home country, and language. Our family home in New Zealand was very small—six people in a two-bedroom house—so I learned how to make use of limited physical space. It took me much longer to understand that I had been starved of emotional space also. I would spend hours designing and redesigning imaginary homes—it was my way of making sense of the world I had grown up in.
Karen Frank: I entered graduate school in psychology in 1970 largely because I was interested in studying people and because I was committed to understanding and promoting social change. Environmental psychology, with its attention to the design of everyday settings and people’s experiences in those settings, seemed the best route for pursuing that interest.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
TvSH: I have always wanted to write a book on the importance of relationships in the design process. When the conversation came up with [a book publishing company], I jumped at the opportunity. How relationships work and their influence on design always have fascinated me. From early in my career as an architect, I worked on rehabilitating 18th- and 19th-century houses that had fallen into disrepair. This experience led me to think about homelessness as an internal, emotional state rather than one of being without a physical home. The physical state of someone’s life was a reflection of his/her internal emotional state—dynamically interconnected. So I decided to train as a psychotherapist, with a particular emphasis on group dynamics and systems therapy, to get a more thorough theoretical background to support my intuitive ideas.
KF: My experiences teaching architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology inspired me. While we teach architecture students a great many things, we don’t teach them how to interact with clients. When I taught architectural programming, I found almost no material that offered guidance on how to work with clients. Indeed, very little has been written about clients’ and architects’ relationships with each other, yet this relationship is crucial to the success of a project.
3. How do you see design's role as relating to life and culture?
TvSH: I grew up in a family that encompassed many cultural differences. My parents were from different countries in Europe. When I was a small child, we moved to the southern hemisphere to a country that was, in itself, bicultural. Our household was full of books, art, and music. Our neighbors had few books, no art, and very different religious and cultural sensibilities. Unlike my parents, they kept fruit and vegetable gardens. These glaring differences increased my awareness that design needs to take account of not just physical requirements, climate, and site conditions, but also, most importantly, the expectations arising from how people live that can hardly be articulated, as well.
KF: Environments and objects frame everyday life. Because of that framing, design can make life easier and more pleasurable or more difficult and constraining. At best, design choices emerge from culture and respond to cultural circumstances, rather than being imposed. Certainly though, good design responds to emergent cultural change to support it. One example in our book is the Central Library in Seattle.
4. What is the most important issue that comes to mind when discussing the architect-client relationship?
TvSH: The architect's willingness to take responsibility for making relationships with clients work, and the importance of staying in relationship and keeping the communication going no matter what. It is really crucial that architects stay emotionally present and keep the client in mind.
KF: What comes to my mind is the significance of that relationship for shaping design choices. A “good enough” relationship is not only important for getting a project completed successfully, but also it nurtures the emergence of design possibilities. Designers too often assume that collaboratively working with a client is constraining and will never lead to innovative design. Yet, as we show throughout the book and most dramatically in the last chapter (“Transforming”), it’s just the opposite is true.
5. Do you think architects and designers receive enough education in general business relations in school?
TvSH: No. They need experiential workshops as part of their training to help them make sense of and link together their personal history, their work history, and practice. These sessions would be a place where students could talk freely in the presence of each other and with an experienced group facilitator, over at least a year. This way they would learn from the inside out what it means to be in relationship, as well as recognize where their own relationships have worked and not worked and why.
KF: Architecture and design students in the United States barely receive any education in general business relations—unless they seek out courses in management departments. They do gain some experience working with clients in service learning studios or in any studio where students have direct contact with a client. But these are isolated cases, and students are unlikely to learn general principles, approaches, or methods that would apply to a variety of cases. I definitely recommend courses, outside of studios, that focus on working with clients and their role in the design and decisions process. Other courses could give attention to management and the financial aspects of practice.
6. What have been some of your best personal experiences working with clients?
TvSH: Since writing “Design Through Dialogue,” I was commissioned to work with a landscape architect on an urban design “streetscape” project in the City of London’s insurance district. The site lies among a group of iconic buildings: Lloyd’s, the Gherkin, the proposed Cheesegrater, and the Pinnacle. We won the project because we worked with the people who lived and worked in the area to develop proposals. We resorted to accosting passers-by on street corners, going into various workplaces to run short workshops, and holding an expert-led walk around the area. A very strong set of proposals surfaced from this initially very disparate “community.” The added bonus was through this process the corporate stakeholders, who had previously shown no interest in making the spaces between their buildings more welcoming, began to think beyond their security and delivery needs.
KF: My experience working with students has some similarities to working with clients. It is extremely rewarding when students discover something they did not previously know and gain insight (and pleasure) from that experience. Often that discovery comes in the form of research for a design project or during the completion of the project.
7. What is one piece of advice you would give to design professionals?
TvSH: Aim to build real relationships with your clients. Designing buildings resonates with the most primitive parts of our being. As human beings, the need for safe shelter is paramount, but it cannot be achieved with meaning unless clients trust and rely on architects to create such spaces and places for them.
KF: I would advise design professionals to adopt an approach of not knowing—that is, to do all they can to discover what they do not already know and might never have expected. Such an approach, which requires curiosity and some humility, may be difficult for some designers to adopt, since they may wish to demonstrate to clients that they are “professional” by appearing to be all-knowing. That, I believe is a mistake. It limits possibilities for discovery and collaboration.