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Comments Posted 02.28.13 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Critique: Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer

Client and Architect

In September 1890, the architecture critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer published "Client and Architect" in The North American Review. Van Rensselaer analyzed the mutual obligations of the professional and the public, what she described as "the reciprocal loyalty in trust and service from which alone can grow a healthy, prolific, and truly national art." As a complement to Alexandra Lange's Founding Mother, we are pleased to republish Van Rensselaer's article. — The Editors

Fancy a painter unable to make pictures except when some one says to him: Paint now, paint this or that, and paint it thus and so; or a poet or musician forced to wait for similar behests, and getting them, very often, in the shape of uncongenial themes and narrow limitations. Imagine this and you will realize the architect’s actual position, and the contrast between his life and that of other artists. Of course, the difference is neither accidental nor designed, but inevitable. It is the natural result of the fact that architecture is not an art pure and simple. It has a practical side. Its products are not mere objects of beauty. They are useful objects made beautiful, and they cannot be spun out of the artist’s brain, but must cost a great deal of money. When useful, costly things which take up a great deal of space are in question, demand must precede supply. The poet or the painter caters to the public’s taste; the architect serves the public’s express wishes.

These facts mean two things. They mean that the architect must be something more than an artist, and that the client has a part to play which is only less important — which from one point of view is even more important — than the architect’s own. As neither perfectly fulfils his duty in America today, it may be worth while to define in brief what that duty is. Let us begin with the client.

* * *

The client — whether a unit or that multiple of units called a committee — should remember that architecture is not practical only, but that its aesthetic side is as inevitable and important as its utilitarian, [and] should realize that he who meddles with artistic things owes a duty to others as well as to himself, and know that this is especially the case when the result is to stand conspicuously before the public eye. It is false to say that there are structures which need not be “architectural” at all; that men may build at times, yet put all thoughts of art aside. Everything that ever was built is a good work of architecture or a bad one. If it plainly shows that its builders did not even try make it good, it is only the more inexcusably bad. We are not naïve savages. We know that if a man is hungry for good or for beauty our obligation is the same, and we must give him the best that opportunity allows. When we insist that our neighbors shall daily look upon barrenness or deformity, when we fill what before was placid, empty space with crying shapes of ugliness, we are bad citizens, brutal neighbors. Some one has said that to build a hideous house is to indulge in the worst form of selfishness, and I am not sure that he exaggerated much.

Thus the client, whatever he means to build, should look about him for an architect, in the sense of a man who values at its highest the artistic side of every problem, great or small, elaborate or simple, and has thoroughly prepared himself to treat it. This is the first and the greatest commandment: an artist is needed for an “unimportant” as well as for an “important” building. Indeed, these words should not be used as they commonly are; for architectural things are most important in their aggregate, and in making up this aggregate it is the smaller units which play the larger part. If every twenty-five-foot house in New York could be made truly excellent, inside and out, would we not gladly give in exchange our few large and sumptuous buildings?

The second commandment is that when we set an artist to work we should let him work as freely as possible. “Undoubtedly,” you may say; “but who is to decide just what is meant by these words?” In a letter I received not long ago from an American architect I find the following answer; it may sound startling, but, believe me, none could be more true and wise:
The public must first learn to trust us as it does lawyers or doctors, before architecture can develop into a great art. Only when a public has learned to put its interests in building into the hands of trustees who are architects, can the latter do their best work. Any examples otherwise produced are accidental and not healthful developments.
That is to say, the architect’s client should reason with himself somewhat in this fashion: Here is a problem to be solved which is very difficult, as demanding both a practical and an artistic solution. Here is a man whose profession it is to deal with such problems. The respect I feel for professional skill in other directions, artistic or practical, as the case may be, I should now feel with double strength. Of course, I must tell him exactly what I want, as I must describe my state of body to my doctor or my business tangle to my man-of-law. But, this done, I should feel sure that he will know best how my wants can be supplied. Of course, he is working for me, but so is my doctor, so is my lawyer. I am not more interested in the outcome of his efforts than of theirs; it is not a sign of folly, a confession of disgraceful ignorance, to defer to professional skill when they are concerned: the folly would be, and the ignorance and disgrace, did I try to doctor myself or plead my own cause, or, after engaging some one more competent to do it for me, did I dictate to him, cavil at him, and hamper his hand at every turn. And by just so much as is more subtile and, so to say, more professional than anything else, by just so much ought I to be most modest, most scrupulous, most trusting, when her ministrants are at work for me.

But this, American Public, is exactly what you do not say to yourself, except of very recent years, and in the very rarest instances. You do not see that it is just as foolish to refuse professional help in building as in law or medicine, and a great deal more selfish; nor, when you ask an architect’s help do you follow and help him with half enough docility and trust. You must have your own say about his work, and your own share of credit if it succeeds. Truly, you own the result. But it belongs also to the artist and to the world at large, and their interests are quite as important as your own. The architect, it cannot be said too often, works only when you give him the chance. and only as you permit. Just now our art is in a transition stage. This is a crucial time, when every effort is of such importance that you would be glad to escape from all responsibility, eager to shift it all upon the architect, if you were only a little less ignorant with regard to the depth of your own ignorance. What you ought to know is that in any profession, and especially in so complicated a one as this, the weakest professional is likely to do better than the cleverest amateur.

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
Augustus Saint Gaudens, Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer (Mariana Griswold), bronze relief, 1888. [In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Whatever you want, then, go to an architect for it; not to a carpenter, or a mason, or your own still more profound incompetence. Tell him all your practical, material desires, and insist that they shall be respected. That is to say, if you are quite sure what they are, and quite certain that it is possible to respect them. This is by no means always the case. To be unsettled, vague, self-contradictory, unpractical, impossible, is one of your most common faults, and one for the inevitable results of which you are only too apt to blame your architect. Settle your practical desires and state them clearly; and, if you will, pour out your vague aesthetic wishes; try to explain those crude artistic preferences, those misty, formless visions which you are pleased to call “my own ideas.” But then go home, and leave him who is a trained artist, an experienced planner and constructor, to work out your problem in his own way. If what you get is exactly what you want, be very thankful; say that you are; and give the credit where credit is due. And if what you get is not quite all you want, or exactly what you think it ought to be, why, be thankful still; for the chances are (nay, the certainty is) that, had you interfered, the result would have been more unsatisfactory still.

This, then, American Public, is, as I conceive it, your duty in matters architectural. Or — for I must now confess that I have been playing the part of special pleader — this would he your duty, everywhere and always, and without possibility of doubt, if the architectural profession also recognized its duty clearly and was unanimously bent on its fulfillment.

* * *

In turning now to you, The Profession, can it be said that you have no shortcomings? Are there not many things in your attitude towards your client and towards your art which must be reformed, if you, if he, and if that art are to profit and to prosper as they should? Of course, you will agree that the public should trust you as it trusts the legal or the medical profession. But are you sure that you deserve to be trusted to quite the same extent? We are pretty certain that any lawyer or physician “in good standing” will do his very best for us. He may be stupid, but he is not likely to be uneducated, careless, or unfaithful. They would teach us to have the same confidence in you; but does experience prove that we always can? When we ask you and pay you to do a certain definite thing, can we feel confident that you will know how best to do it, and will do it as exactly as you can? that you will not slight it in favor of more interesting work, and will not causelessly alter it into something more like your own idea of what we ought to want? Can we feel confident that, if the task is small and cheap, you will approach it as carefully as though it were large and costly, or that, when we name the sum we want to pay, you will scrupulously respect the limitation, and scrupulously give us the most and the best you can within it? Many men in other professions sin by making things cost more in the end than they said they would in the beginning; but do they sin as frequently, frankly, and light-heartedly, or with as many specious maxims in excuse, as you? Do not say that the conditions differ. Of course they do, and of course in your case they are singularly complex and difficult. But your responsibility is increased, not lessened, by the fact. If it is peculiarly hard for you to make your clients understand the difference between a desirable or necessary increase in cost and an increase which comes merely from wilfulness, carelessness, selfish ambition, or stupidity on your part, then it is peculiarly needful that you should never be careless or selfish or more stupid than poor mortality is sometimes allowed to be. If it is essential that your client should have more confidence in you than in his lawyer or physician, then you should be still more conscientious. You should work unusually hard to inspire that trust which to you, and to the general progress of your art, is so absolutely indispensable. And this I do not think that, as a profession viewed in the mass, you yet have done.

I know that as a whole — as an Architectural Profession really worthy of the name, as something different from a mere body of building creatures — you are very young in America. Everyone who cares for our art must recognize this fact, must see in your youth lusty strength, right ambition, and healthful promise; must have followed your progress thus far with admiration, and must believe in your future. If you could hear all that is said about you by serious and critical observers, I am afraid you would grow conceited. You are by no means conceited now. Indeed, you hardly realize as yet what surprisingly good work you have done as compared, not with your fathers only, but with your rivals over sea. Yet with all the respect, gratitude, and admiration that they feel for you, I think such observers see that you have faults, and that they are faults of character rather than of artistic endowment. Now, faults of character do not greatly matter with artists who paint or carve or even write, but with you they matter in the most vital way. An architect cannot shut himself up in his closet. He must come in contact with the public both as artist and as man; the public must trust him, while it need only weigh the poet and the painter after the act; and their product it may take or leave, while it is obliged to keep whatever you bestow. Therefore it is that, as men and artists, you must set yourselves a lofty standard. You must respect yourselves, respect each other, respect your client, and respect your art (each for its own sake and always all together). ...

Let me hasten to say that there are some among you who fulfil this ideal. There are American architects who come pretty near to being models of all an architect should be. That is — for I want to explain myself quite clearly — they have prepared themselves in a thorough, all-round way to deserve the professional title; they think in the first place of their art and what it demands of them, in the second place of their client and his inalienable rights, and only in the third place of themselves; and in thinking of themselves it is still for art they care more than for pecuniary profit. To do all this means much labor and constant self-abnegation. But they know that they are artists, and if they did not mean to do it all, ought they to pretend to the artist’s name or standing or reward?

Does this look like a fancy picture in your eyes, American Public? It is a faithful portrait, drawn from more than one original. As a picture of the whole profession it would, indeed, be flattering; yet it ought to be such a picture; and until it is, or, at least, until some distinct approach is made to the qualities it exhibits, the profession as a whole will never win the position it should, the public as a whole will never take the attitude it ought, and our art as a whole will never have the best chance of development. I may quote again, as a summing-up, from the letter already cited. It was written hastily for private reading, not as a formal confession of faith. ...
I have never spoken to you on the subject of the responsibility of my profession in this new country, where we have to create its status, but I feel its importance most keenly.The public must first learn to trust us as it does doctors or lawyers, before architecture can develop into a great art. ... Therefore, every architect, no matter what his genius, who shows any lack of conscience or devotion to the responsibility his client has laid upon him, does more to ruin the cause of true architectural advance than any design of his creation can counterbalance. ... 

Is not this, in truth, the heart of the matter — loyal trust on the client’s part, loyal service on the architect’s? When we say that the architect should think first of his art, do we not mean that he should prove that some kind of art may result from the faithful solution of the given problem? If he reveres his art, and wishes to make the public revere it, he should never doubt of its capacity. And if he is sure that in the given problem his capacity cannot keep touch with the capacity of art, then, as an artist, he has no right to meddle with it — whatever he might decide to do as a mere money-making man.

* * *

Which, now, will be more in fault, public or profession, if there does not soon grow up that happy accord upon which the future of our art depends? If loyal trust is not the rule, and does not always meet with loyal service, where chiefly rests the responsibility of developing a better state of things? Chiefly, I think, upon the public; and for several reasons.

In the first place, it is the public which in each given case must take the initiative. The architect cannot choose his client; the client must choose his architect, and it is his own fault if to-day he does not choose a good one. Then, in the second place, the profession, with all its faults, has certainly gone further than the public on the road to ideal excellence. The great advance it has made in recent years towards loyal service — which means, be it remembered, both competent and conscientious service — has been due to its own right instincts. The public has never asked that its architects should fit themselves better for their work than they did in former years; nor when they have thus fitted themselves is it properly conscious of the fact or properly grateful for it. Do we clearly see the kind and degree of difference which marks off our good buildings from our bad ones? Do we so intelligently, so persistently, encourage trained ability that untrained incompetence need feel greatly discouraged?

Nor are we more careful to foster professional honor and frankness than to foster true art. That system of competitions which has been supposed the best aid to art and the best protection for the client is answerable for much that we deplore. Open, unpaid competitions are an abomination. It is folly, and something worse, to ask the members of a respectable profession to show us their ideas for nothing, and to expect to get their best ideas or the ideas of the best among them. Limited, paid competitions, where certain chosen artists are asked to submit schemes for comparison, and are promised a fair reward for their trouble, should stand on a different footing. But they are often managed with so total a lack of respect on the client’s part, not only for art, but for mere labor, and so total a disregard for the precepts of business good-faith and common honesty, that they, too, have become a by-word and reproach. I cannot dwell upon this thorny subject here; those who care to pursue it may take a file of the American Architect and Building News and look up the references under the index heading “Competition.” Let me only beg of my reader that, whether he be architect or client, he will never countenance in any way an unpaid competition; that, if as a client he shares in the management of a paid one, he will keep the Eighth and Ninth Commandments — will mean what he says and say what he means and stand honestly by his meanings and sayings, and will not try to get something for nothing, or more than he asked for the price he agreed to pay; and that, if as an architect he takes part in such an enterprise, he will try not to break the Tenth Commandment in deed, or word or thought.

But a competition is a make-shift at best. In the majority of cases an architect should be chosen in the same way as any other professional adviser. It is easy to discover his standing among members of his own profession, easy to estimate his past results, and easy to draw conclusions from the effect he produces upon you as a man. Or, if all this is not always easy, it is not as hard or as risky as to judge from those architectural drawings which are so misleading to the untrained eye. Of course, it is more difficult to make sure in advance of conscientiousness than of capacity. But, as a general rule (which is not, perhaps, without exceptions), capacity implies at least artistic conscientiousness, for it means thorough preparatory training; and such training means right ambitions, since no strong external pressure has enforced it.

The subject of architectural drawings is too important to be passed over with a word. Much of our trouble in the past has come because the public does not understand that it takes an architect’s eye, or, at least, an experienced eye, to read an architectural drawing rightly. At its best it is a conventionalized thing; at its worst it is about as mendacious a thing as one could find. The effects a novice admires most on paper are often the very ones he will not notice or will not admire in the building. The points which on paper seem least important are often those which will tell most strongly in brick or stone. Even that picture which is called a perspective cannot easily be understood; and a plan, a section, an elevation, are not pictures at all, but signs and symbols, which the novice often misconceives most entirely just when he thinks he has unravelled every knot. It should be a maxim, therefore, that never in competitions of any kind should judgment be pronounced without the taking of expert testimony. The interests of the client and those of the architect both demand that some competent artist, not himself concerned in the matter, should be asked — and paid — to explain the submitted designs.

Even apart from competitions, the public's conduct is not what it should be to encourage loyal service. Often enough in all his dealings the client shows a disregard for truth, honesty, and business methods which he would find very shocking were the architect the sinner and he the sufferer. And when the work is complete, he constantly takes credit for good ideas which do not belong to him, blames his architect for defects that his own ignorant demands have brought about, and, above all, cries out against an excess in cost that has been necessitated by changes from the original scheme which he himself has suggested.

Finally, our building customs are not yet arranged on a genuine business basis, and this is chiefly the fault of the public. With the best will in the world, a client rarely knows what he has a right to expect from his architect in the way of executive service, and almost always expects too much. "Superintendence" is a bone of contention between them, and will so remain until the public realizes all that is meant by architectural work, as a combination of art and science, and is willing to pay a fairer price than at present for its proper execution.

In short, the American architect has less reason to trust the American public implicitly than the public has to put confidence in him. Therefore upon the client even more than upon the architect — and yet upon him, too, in no inconsiderable measure — lies at this moment the responsibility of improving our condition in matters architectural. If we are to have the reciprocal loyalty in trust and service from which alone can grow a healthy, prolific, and truly national art, the public must learn to bear itself as intelligently and honorably as the profession does today, and thus encourage the profession to still greater conscientiousness.

Editors' Note

For related content on Places, see also Founding Mother: Mariana Van Rensselaer and the Rise of Criticism, by Alexandra Lange.

On April 17 Alexandra Lange will give a public lecture, "Founding Mothers: Architecture Criticism from Mariana Van Rensselaer to Esther McCoy, Ada Louise Huxtable, and Jane Jacobs," at the Bard Graduate Center.
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Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851–1934) was an architecture critic and author of several books, including Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works and Art Out-of-Doors.
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