Designing for the Client

By Abbie Gentry

In an earlier post concerning the Architecture Biennale in Venice, I wrote about the responsibilities of an architect and how “architecture is not only what it looks like, but what it does.” This week I would like to revisit this simple but profound statement. However, rather than exploring the “pro bono” duties, I would like to consider our greatest commission; that is, designing with the sole purpose of supplying the clients with exactly what they request and need. In the Biennale post, I wrote that, as architects, “we are charged with the task to design structurally sound, economical, sustainable buildings that will fulfill all of the needs of the clients and add beauty to the existing environment.”  Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus Social Housing Project in Nimes is, in my opinion, an excellent example of designing with the full intent of answering to the client’s needs while still maintaining artistic freedoms and innovative strategies. Furthermore, this project resonated with me in particular because it reminded me of a design/build project on which I worked this past summer.

Nouvel aimed to design a housing complex that was low budget and cost-effective with larger living spaces for the same cost as regular apartment complexes. He also designed nondescript, multi-functional spaces in order to suit the interior decorating tastes of different residents.  Similarly, the main objective our summer project was to design a pavilion that was low-maintenance, low budget, and multi-functional for the plant nursery in the South Carolina Botanical Gardens (SCBG).

Our professor, Dan Harding, encouraged us to continually consider our basic needs before becoming distracted by details. He gave us the analogy of hitting as many apples as possible with one arrow. Each apple represents a basic need or requirement. If they are all lined up in a row, in order to hit all of them, you have to change the direction of your arrow or, in other words, change your perspective. Therefore, you must always be adapting your perspective and adjusting your design in order to “hit all the apples” and to insure that the design is always functional and necessary. It would appear that Nouvel also constantly considered “his apples” because it very evident that every element of his design is rational and functional.

The two projects compare on many levels. Nouvel’s apartment unit consisted of a free plan arrangement with no interior walls. He deliberately designed the skeleton and infrastructure of the building while leaving the interior “empty and naked”. This allowed the residents to be free from restrictions when arranging their individual apartment spaces. The only permanent elements within the apartments were the placement of the water and light system. Although there were not interior walls, the exterior walls that separated the apartments from the verandas were intended to be mobile and adaptable. These walls were multifunctional because they were sound proof, provided insulation, and were light enough to be easily moved.

Our clients requested a covered space that would provide protection from the elements with a system for secure storage. Because our clients were concerned with weather inhibiting the safety of people during plant sales since it seemed to storm every plant sale day, we were also asked to provide a wall system. Because we did not want to obstruct any of the views of the surrounding gardens and forest on the site, we were hesitant to build a permanent exterior wall structure. Therefore, we proposed a moveable wall system. These walls could be multi-functional in that they would be either slat walls in order to hang merchandise or they would contain louvers that could be open or closed according to the weather in order to allow sunlight into the pavilion or to block out the rain. We also did not want to limit the use of the pavilion with permanent furniture so we designed a mobile counter system. Two counters, each containing shelving, faced each other; one anchored to the floor and the other on a track system. When the counters were moved apart, they created a “cash wrap” which was ideal for separating the vendors from the customers. When pushed and locked together, they provided the secure storage as requested by the clients. Furthermore, when the counters were together, they could function as a table in a classroom setting for events such as planting seminars. To keep with the theme of a free plan, our interior space was open with the exception of a trough that collected rain from an opening in the roof and then allowed the water to overflow into a garden space.

These projects closely relate to one another because both were concerned with creating adaptable spaces. Both involved continuously considering the clients wishes and thereby reining in perhaps grander schemes in order to create practical, flexible spaces. Both, in my opinion, are superb examples of successful architecture.

A close up of the mobile counter system (when closed)
Diagram of how the counters on the track system works

The sliding wall of the SCBG “Rain Garden” Pavilion
Free interior plan and photograph of one of the apartments

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