Should architects listen to the public?


A conversation I had recently about the CCTV HQ, Beijing by Rem Koolhaas made me think. The lady was Chinese and not connected in any way to the architectural profession but was adamant that the building was horrible, and that this view was echoed by most of the locals in Beijing.

I know Rem doesn't care, but I was thinking, do architects have a duty to design what the public wish? Especially relevant for public buildings. Or do we know best and they should stop moaning and let us get on with it?

In case you don't know, this is the CCTV HQ:

Sep 1, 12 3:28 pm

They can listen all the want, but the client has the final say. The client hired Rem Koolhaas and approved his design. For any type of government work (at least in the USA) there are multiple boards or councils open to the public that urban projects like that would go before for aesthetic and other considerations. The idea that we just do what we want or there is an option to do what the public wants and not the client is somehow a still prevalent misconception. Architecture is a service profession, not government employees. 

Sep 1, 12 3:59 pm

all architecture is political.  typically most architecture falls under already agreed-upon community standards (i.e. zoning) so it doesn't require public review.  In the case of a place where government has absolute control, they can change these "community standards" in order to push through a project with little input - the "public's" opinion in this case does not matter.  In places with an empowered citizenry and a democratic process for development of the built environment, then the client (and the architect) must be prepared to have a dialog with the public.


however - the onus for public relations rests entirely upon the client, not the architect.  We should be skilled enough to design a project where there would be less push-back among the community (and help guide the client through that process) - however  If the public hates a building, then it's often more a reflection on that organization and public process than on the architect. 

Sep 2, 12 2:29 pm

If CCTV had more color on its facade, maybe some greenerey and bunjee jumping platforms, the locals would like it more.

Sep 2, 12 2:33 pm

The issue with CCTV is more of a scale and contextual issue than just poor color choices I believe. The easiest "solution" now is either let the area become gentrified or get a time machine. 

Sep 2, 12 10:09 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

To me, that's a bit like asking physicians if they feel they should be concerned if their patients get well.

Sep 3, 12 2:02 am

Physician>patient>family, Architect>client>public

Sep 3, 12 3:04 am

Public opinion doesn't really matter because it is simply too far behind the times.  As just one example, the public howled when the Eiffel Tower was built but now it is quite popular.  It is far more important to allow the grand arbiters of taste (e.g., the aristocracy and their architects) to exercise their expertise.


Sep 3, 12 10:24 am

i think it would be a more apt analogy to say it's like a physician listening to their patient's self-diagnosis.  sometimes the physician can do better than the patient who searched webMD over their lunch break.  then again, often times the physician is kind of dumb and doesn't try that hard to find the problem.

if the public doesn't care what the architect's opinion is, i don't see how the architect could be concerned with the public's opinion.  it's not a dialogue, it's just complaining.  it's easy to be a critic.

Sep 3, 12 11:05 am

This is a issue that concerns me as well.  I keep thinking of situations where architects like a certain building, but the public hates it, or vise versa.  If the public hates it but architects like it, can it be deemed a 'failure'?

I think every architect should look to the public as their deciding critic.  Architects build most buildings for the public (the exception being private residences), and if their (the public's) best interests are not the priority, it comes off to me as being selfish and blind.

Interesting things happen however when you think about the cycle of public opinion.  You see it, lifestyles, but not necessarily architecture.  The public may hate a building when it's built, but come to like it years later.  Usually, this only seems to be the case with iconic buildings (Eiffel Tower).  It seems that fashion in consistently bouncing between loose and skinny jeans, fat or skinny heels, white or black.  People have always been bouncing between the lifestyle of living in the city, then preferring the suburbs, or both.

Sep 3, 12 11:45 am

Guys, you keep leaving out the client and acting as though the  public is the client. Even in government jobs in democratic societies, the client isn't the public, an elected or appointed representative is.

We are supposed to have the publics best interest in mind, but we have to find creative ways to react to it if the client is against. Remember, even architects design Wal-marts and strip malls, and no matter what the architect says will change that clients mind. It is the responsibility of the public to express their opinion to the client, not for the architect to take someone's money, and then design for someone else.

HCMY, was that supposed to be comedic or were you being serious?


Sep 3, 12 12:09 pm

Anyone who ever submitted their design through councils know that there is always someone who object to your design.

The more controversial, the louder group of objections. The same applies to politics.

If you try to satisfy everyone, you end up producing something totally bland. Everyone's taste bud is different, thus the love of diversity in design. Ask the client, ask the user, are all we need to do. 

Sep 3, 12 12:20 pm

The Architect should listen primarily to his/her client and the users of the facility being designed.

However, the Architect - both individually and collectively as a profession - should LEAD the public to a better place, through education and by example.

Sep 3, 12 2:57 pm

what he said^

In the case of the walmart, the architect may at least try to offer a more efficient big box design.  Incorporating daylighting would be a good start.  Things like this can be beneficial to the client and the public.  The architect should educate the client as to why it is a good idea to make the public happy.  Ex: daylighting saves money, shoppers will spend more time in a space that has natural lighting.........IMO the architect of the mundane walmart may have one of the best opportunities to make some significant changes in society, since there are 100 walmarts for every museum or library.  It's not going away, so we should embrace it and try to make it better.  I am also guilty of this all or nothing attitude, but that is just not the reality of the world, and if the shitty architects are the ones doing the walmarts, then maybe better ones should snatch those projects away from them and engage the crap that makes up 99% of the built environment.    

Listening to the public in the case of a public facility does serve the client.   

Sep 3, 12 3:38 pm

how can an architect not listen to her client?! 

ultimately : jia-x begins to state, it is up to the architect to educate the client.  Any good architect should have the ability to convince the client that their ideas are being mined and brought to reality...otherwise, we're just a bunch of egotistical assholes building for the sake of our own aspirations..

this is probably a small facet of why architects are now marginalized in the process of building...majority of the authority resides with the GCs now.  That's why we're seeing a rise in popularity of marketing oneself  as design-build service firms.

Sep 3, 12 4:39 pm

" I keep thinking of situations where architects like a certain building, but the public hates it, or vise versa.  If the public hates it but architects like it, can it be deemed a 'failure'?"


It bothers me when architects see themselves outside of the public. We are not oblivious outsiders. We are part of the public and often live our lives in the same community as our critics.

Just because a segment of the public is unaware of the logic behind a design does not make that design a failure. How many people do you know who (probably older people) who still complain about how confusing technology is or how its complicating something that used to be simple? Does that mean the internet  or computers are a failure?

Sep 3, 12 6:57 pm

maybe this isn't a question of listening to a client.  I have lots of people who pretend to listen to me and don't give a shit what i think.  the OP used the term "care" in reference to the architect and "wish" in reference to the client, so maybe if we focus on those terms it isn't so much about "listening" but rather about how much we care about our client's wishes.

if a client wants a reasonable size toilet stall instead of one the size of a small apartment as required by federal law, do i listen to them?  do i care what their wishes are?  maybe that's a hard question.  either way, we're proceeding my way or else i pretty much have to back out of the project because i don't want to get sued.

maybe if the question is about designing a pink polka dot civic structure it's less clear.  i could legally do that (if the planning dept. is inactive) but would i want my name associated with it?  would you back out of this project because you don't think it contributes to the collective public wish, even though your client contact may like it?  do you need the work so you don't care what you send out the door?  do you like pink polka dots (i guess louis vuitton does), in which case this thought exercise doesn't work?

Sep 3, 12 8:26 pm

My guess is that the issue with CCTV is that it is emblematic of the "new" Beijing - one that has undergone a massive upheaval of its urban fabric.  it's become an easy target, a symbol, of the roughshod way the chinese government is attempting to "modernize" this city.  it's all very reminiscent of the heavy-handed urban renewal projects that destroyed entire neighborhoods in american cities in the 50s and 60s.

Sep 3, 12 8:33 pm

So - what if Koolhaas was being intentional in designing a building that the public would hate in order to be a catalyst for change?

Sep 3, 12 9:05 pm

He most likely was.

Sep 3, 12 10:31 pm

A property owner of a particular mall in Beijing once said, "In Beijing, it's all about relationships."

Power relationships, in this case, in the form of "guanxi" is a pervasive practice in Chinese society.  We're talking about China here, not the US/Europe.  The term "public" doesn't hold the same definition that we architects are trained to be familiar with.  Having lived in Shanghai China for a year as an expat, and visited Beijing for project related business trips, I'm convinced the "public" has very little affect in China's building craze.

Sep 4, 12 3:39 am

Here's a rewrite of my post.  Where's the edit button when you need it.

A property owner of a particular mall in Beijing once said, "In Beijing, it's all about relationships."

Power relationships, in this case, in the form of "guanxi" is a pervasive practice in Chinese society.  We're talking about China here, not the US/Europe.  The term "public" doesn't hold the same definition that we architects are trained to be familiar with.  In the US, the public is defined as a group of people separate from the dealings between architect, client, and contractor, but related in terms of a vested interest.  Sometimes it's people related to the client, e.g. "a particular group of people with a common interest", a community.

Having lived in Shanghai China for a year as an expat, and visited Beijing for project related business trips, I'm convinced the "public" has very little affect in China's building craze.  Not everyone has a say in the honey pot, and those with guanxi have the ability to eliminate and create obstacles in the building process.  The rule of law in China, while intimidating on the outside, is vulnerable to power relationships;  laws can be bent and broken as long as you know the right people.

Sep 4, 12 3:55 am
ka em

My reading of this issue is that the public's perception is largely based on the aesthetic - which is a component of architecture, but not the architecture itself. Hence SOM's Jin Mao Tower's popularity. I doubt the "public" get to experience the inside of the building as it is a government thing.

But this should not be at all surprising. A building is much more permanent than a billboard and it is something that people see everyday - just like a billboard, it forces the public to see and be physically close to it (although not necessarily in it). This is the reason why public opinion is important: Because whatever you build will affect the public. I'm not saying it should be the driver to a design decision or concept or whatever, but it nevertheless should be considered as an important factor when designing something in the scale of CCTV. The old adage that architect answers to clients and the onus is on the clients to engage the public, I found to be very limiting in the potential of what we as architects can do. Someone else said above that is absolutely true: that we are part of the public, and so we should design with them in mind.

Sep 5, 12 9:39 pm

think you meant to say "...we should design with us in mind.".

it's a hard habit to break, ennit? 

personally i much prefer that our clients come to us pre-educated.

Sep 5, 12 11:15 pm
ka em

Haha touché Will, touché...

Sep 5, 12 11:55 pm
boy in a well

listen to the public?

definitely not - they just talk nonsense about 'wholeness'

blathering in circles when all they're really trying to do is foist some shallow aesthetic preference on those of us who don't ache for their particular hometown

whoops - wrong thread


right thread.

Sep 6, 12 3:13 am

Architects should listen to the people. Listen and understand what the people say, but read into what they do, act, and say, combine it with the architects years of knowledge and experience, and, if done correctly, you will give the people what they need, even if it is not what they thought they wanted.

Sep 6, 12 11:35 pm

here in SF, it's mandatory - there are extensive public reviews - and if all else fails, then we put it on the ballot like 8 Washington an SOM condo project

Sep 7, 12 1:39 pm

Maybe its not so much as listening to the public but engaging them in the process. This is perhaps easier to suggest while working in marginalized communities in the third world. Here you don't have a choice but to engage the community in a discussion if you want the building to be built and also maintained. In this arena local people become integral to  guide the 'expert architect' and to make a building that actually will sustain. 

Sep 27, 12 1:14 pm

we are typically the puppet of the client.  people shouldn't shut up, though.

Sep 27, 12 3:07 pm

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