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Longtime architect succeeds by catering to clients

Sun., March 25, 2012

More than half a century ago, Steve Clark left Spokane for Philadelphia with the goal of becoming a physician like his father, who had died when Clark was 13.

But while studying in a secluded garden on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Clark noticed a monumental structure rising nearby. (It wasn’t until years later that he learned the building was designed by Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the mid-20th century.)

“I had no idea of architecture whatsoever,” Clark recalled, “but I admired that building, and kept coming back to check it out. And that’s what led me to switch majors and become an architect.”

Clark left Penn for the University of Washington. After graduation, he worked for architectural firms in Palo Alto, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska, before returning to Spokane, where he worked for the Plan Commission and Expo ’74, then opened his own firm, Clark Architects PS.

He discussed the challenges and rewards of architecture during a recent interview at the industrial downtown studio he shares with three part-time employees and a trio of cats.

S-R: Who influenced you early in your training?

Clark: I had marvelous teachers at the University of Washington. But the lesson that stuck with me most didn’t come from an architect. It came from (Seattle sculptor and painter) George Tsutakawa, who taught me architecture is the art of designing the spaces between structures as much as designing the structures themselves.

S-R: You are best known for residential design, which is a tough niche in this market. Why did you choose that over more lucrative institutional architecture?

Clark: I’ve done lots of institutional work – schools, hotels, banks – but I prefer working directly with residential clients rather than committees.

S-R: Have you ever worked on a construction crew?

Clark: No, but that’s part of why I like residential architecture. I like working with contractors, and have learned as much from them as I have from architects. And they’ve saved my butt in a few cases when I’ve done something stupid.

S-R: Did you design the house you live in?

Clark: No. When we moved back to Spokane, we bought (architect) Tom Atkinson’s house, and we’ve been there 43 years. My wife teaches piano and voice, and the house is set up perfectly for that. I did remodel the bathroom, and that was very traumatic.

S-R: Who are your clients?

Clark: First and foremost, they’re people who realize working with an architect is the only way to get what they want. There is an economic component – it does cost more. Some architects want you to believe they will save you money through shortcuts. But I discount that argument.

S-R: What’s your role in the overall building process?

Clark: To translate the owners’ needs, desires and dreams into something that, when they walk in the front door or sit in the kitchen, they can say, “This was built for me, and nobody else has anything like it.”

S-R: Give me an example of your range.

Clark: In 1980, I did a little 2 ½-level house on the Oregon coast for a couple of artists who didn’t have much money. They paid me $8,000 to design this $50,000 house, and they loved it. At the same time, we were designing a house in Ritzville that was so large, the Oregon house would have fit in its garage. And we had just as much fun designing the little house as we did the big house with its almost limitless budget.

S-R: When you begin a project, what goes through your mind?

Clark: First of all, I walk the site. And then I ask the owners to write a program – a definition of their dreams, desires, needs. With couples I encourage the husband to write one and the wife to write one, and then put them together to see what matches and what doesn’t. And I tell them to do all that before they talk to me, because I charge twice as much as a marriage counselor as I do as an architect. Some clients come up with whole booklets filled with photographs and magazine clippings and descriptions. My job is to take the program and the site, and merge the two within a budget they can stand. And more often than not that budget gets expanded.

S-R: Any favorite client reactions?

Clark: About two years ago, I turned on the answering machine, and there was this shaky voice saying, “Steve, this is Dolly.” I’d designed a home for her after her five kids had grown and moved out and her husband had died, and she no longer needed her huge old house. She said, “Steve, I’m moving into Rockwood Manor, but I wanted you to know that the days I spent in your house were some of the happiest of my life.”

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Clark: Sitting down with a roll of sketch paper and a pen, and conceptualizing.

S-R: What do you like least?

Clark: I don’t like promoting myself. Marketing has always been my biggest problem.

S-R: What distinguishes your approach to architecture?

Clark: The guys who taught me, and who I worked for when I got out of school, spent their time and talent finding the one best solution and then shoving it down the client’s throat. I, on the other hand, will develop half a dozen different concepts, show those to clients and tell them any one of the concepts could be developed into a good piece of architecture, and let the clients make the decision about which one we use.

S-R: How would you characterize this region’s residential architecture?

Clark: We suffer from too much nostalgia about the value of work done in the past. The development of modern, contemporary architecture is a natural evolution, but people fight that. They want to find answers in architecture done in the 1800s. Our culture has changed so much that even good designs of the 1950s are no longer appropriate.

S-R: Did the recession affect your business?

Clark: It killed a lot of neat projects. I’m really busy now, but maybe that’s because the sun’s shining. Spring always brings out new clients.

S-R: How do you relax?

Clark: Architecture is totally absorbing. I gave up virtually every hobby I had. It even sucked in my family. Fortunately, they have encouraged me and gone along with me all the way.

S-R: Frank Lloyd Wright worked into his 90s. Do you think about retiring?

Clark: I’ve been doing this since 1960, and I’m just getting good. Why would I leave it now?

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at

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