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Towards an Appropriate Local Response: Learning from our Global Clients

The Legacy West development in Plano, Texas. Image © Gensler

Before joining Gensler I worked for a number of years almost exclusively for foreign clients on projects far from my home city of Dallas. Many of the projects were situated in China and the Middle East, in which there was clearly stated preference for something grand, iconic, or monumental in scale. Their buildings had to make a dramatic sculptural statement along the street or on the landscape giving little consideration to the immediate context. If the overall form wasn’t a major concern, then often the client’s interest turned to recreating a particular architectural style. It wasn’t unusual for clients to insist on appropriating the traditional architectural styles of Europe, even if their countries of origin had little to no European cultural influence. By catering to their wishes I developed a capability to employ all kinds of architectural vocabularies, ranging from the classical to the contemporary. Before drawing a single line or extruding a model, it became a habit to carefully browse the works of Modernist masters, the Chicago School and Art Deco landmarks of the past as well as studying Bannister-Fletcher’s 1600-page volume of A History of Architecture.

Working in this mode was making me jaded after a while. I wanted to return to creating things that were closer to my values as a designer: making an architecture that related more harmoniously to its context, that didn’t speak too loudly but instead proudly served as a complement to the activities of people around and within. Once I joined Gensler and my focus shifted to working on projects in my own backyard, I was hopeful that my approach to projects would be more closely aligned with these values. Wouldn’t local clients be less insistent on employing a style and scale alien to the region, and more attuned to a more modest architectural approach? If they were native to the region they would be at least sympathetic to characteristic visual traits, and fond of the Texan architectural vernacular.

But lately, thanks to a very hot real estate climate in our home market, developers flush with sizeable financial resources from Asia and the Middle East are approaching us to realize their grand designs on properties throughout North Texas. These clients demand from us a bold vision that will transcend all existing developments in terms of quality and stature. The dilemma I faced earlier in my career reemerged once again. How do we defend the local, both in drawing inspiration from the surrounding area and understanding prevailing local facts about cost and construction? How do we make the case for what’s vital and appropriate before following down a path with a client who pushes for something that will command too much attention to itself?

As thoughtful designers, we begin to answer these questions by trying to weigh a number of competing factors. We study the client’s program, budget, and relevant zoning for the site in question. When arriving at an appropriate architectural response, we analyze the local climate, existing cultural and economic context, sometimes taking cues from the existing built vernacular that helped form an authentic aesthetic identity to the area. We aim to create an identity for the development that distinguishes it from all the others, and to endow it with a sense of place that people in surrounding communities will embrace and create long lasting memories. Style is just one of a number of tools we use to achieve the primary goal of creating something that is appropriate to the site. What if the client is convinced that they don’t want such a locally focused approach to the site? That the answer lies in a city far away that they happened to visit during their travels?

It’s precisely because of this conflict of visions that it is very important for the design team to establish and articulate a strong point of view about what a building is and how it relates to its context. We have to know and understand better than anyone in the room what describes a place, from how it feels to be there, who you can expect to come there, and how it endures the passage of time. At the same time, we have to know our client as best as possible: what country and city they are from, what their business is about and what their long-term goals are, and even details such as their personal interest and hobbies. We need to imagine how they see the world, and what their background and experiences were like.

Going further, it isn’t enough for us to know more about them, but to know more about the things they are proud to know. It requires us to be curious about life beyond buildings and construction, beyond business deals. Being versed in culture—such as familiarity with history, philosophy, literature, music, art, travel—helps foster an enduring connection with these global clients. They are for the most part worldly, and wear it proudly as a mark of status as part of a culture that value knowledge and an appreciation for aesthetics. They come from cultures old enough to instill in people an expanded sense of time, and allows them to judge a building’s merit less for its newness and more for its potential to endure. That doesn’t mean that they are immune to short-term thinking when it comes to a project’s bottom line, but we must constantly bear in mind that these concerns are tied to more long-term objectives, a kind of legacy, and as a meaningful contribution to the overall urban environment years to come.

Educating ourselves and being conscientious about where our clients come from help ensure that initial design and planning meetings prove more productive. More than adopting a new language, it requires us sharing with the client a broader perspective about the world even as we educate them about the particulars of the localities where we build. It allows us to uphold one of our firm’s guiding principles: “we can’t be global if we’re not local first”. The benefit to us is not only a stronger working client relationship, but also a chance to significantly broaden our own development as designers. By adapting our global experience, we can innovate and raise the quality of our solutions to local contexts dear to us.

Julien Meyrat is a senior designer in Gensler's Dallas office. Contact him at julien_meyrat@gensler.com.

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