Tag Archives: HARVARD UNIVERSITY

PODCAST PART 1: THE ART WITHIN MUSIC AND ARCHITECTURE

December 14, 2018

Golf resort hotel villa, California, by Poon Design (rendering by Mike Amaya)

Recently, I had the pleasure of being interviewed on Josh Cooperman’s podcast, Convo By Design. We talked about architecture, art, music, life, and all the things that encompass our creative existence. This is an excerpt.

YouTube clip here. Audio podcast here.

Golf resort hotel villa, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

Josh Cooperman: I had the chance to sit with Anthony Poon: author, musician, speaker, artist, teacher, award-winning architect and interior designer. Poon received his bachelor of arts from Berkeley and his master of architecture from Harvard. We talked about architecture, but we also discussed music and art, compared and contrasted these disciplines, and explored ways to incorporate new ideas into traditional applications using nontraditional methods.

I talk to a lot of creative types, and the people that I speak to are really masters of what they do, be it architecture, design, chefs, set decorators, musicians. The point is that everyone I talk to has a creative specialty, but very few have all of them at the same time like you do. So explain this to me. Artist, musician, architect—obviously you’re an architect by trade, but do you enjoy all of these creative pursuits the same?

With Josh Cooperman at the Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, California (photo by Christine Anderson)

Anthony Poon: I enjoy all of them. I enjoy them all differently and in similar ways. My passion has always been music and that’s led me to many other things, generating my interests in art, painting, mixed media, and writing too, having recently published my first book.

Josh: Isn’t that a little selfish, taking all of the arts for yourself? Doing everything? Most people can only do one at a time.

Skull Painting, 44” x 52”, by Anthony Poon (2018)

Anthony: Well, it is selfish in that it makes me happy. But all of these art forms do require an audience. And I am grateful to have the opportunity to share.

Josh: I have a theory that you have an artistic side and then you have an educational side. By joining the two, you can figure out how to do what you’re trying to do in a systematic way. That you’re limiting the cost of improvisation.

Anthony: I think the thing is this: In architecture and in most arts, there are two components. Architecture has the problem solving component, where you have to figure out the square footage, you have to figure out for the client what the program is, how many bedrooms or how many seats in a restaurant. You have the problem solving of construction costs, of city codes and getting building permits.

Anthony Poon in Architects in Concert, Santa Monica, California (2012)

On the other hand, completely different, you have the level of artistry, of creativity. Take classical music. Part of the work is learning all the notes on the page. A classical musician can spend years learning one piece, trying to master the flurry of 10,000 notes that fly by in three minutes. That’s not music though. That’s just getting the notes right. After you get to that point, you then have to make it sound beautiful. You then have to add your interpretation, the lyrical aspect that makes it a work of art.

I go back and forth between the problem solving and the pragmatic vs. the poetic and aspirational sides. A building has to be part science in that it can’t fall down. It has to withstand rain. It has to put a roof over your head. But it has to be a little more enlightening than just a structure. It has to be beautiful. It has to make you have a reason to get up every day and go to work, and go to this office building. Or on the weekend, go to the park or go to the museum.

Jungsuck Library, Inha University, Inchon, Korea, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA)
Jungsuck Library, Inha University, Inchon, Korea, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by HHPA)

Josh: As you look at your work now, what would you like it to be in 10 or 20 years from now? What is the short term legacy value of what you’re doing right now?

Anthony: The legacy is that, I hope, that my explorations become an inspiration for someone else. I see any artistic endeavor as a constantly moving target, as an evolution, and we’re all only contributing one small step to this evolution. I may work my whole career and only master three buildings that I actually think are worthwhile. Similarly to a musician who says, “Yeah, I’ve composed 500 pieces, but I actually only think these few are great.”

I hope those few pieces that I’ve created are enough for someone to see one day, and it inspires them to move their art process to another level, in another direction, and that’s progress—moving forward. That’s what I call civilization. And that’s what I hope to do.

I gathered 66 stuffed animals from my children, and sewed them onto an Ikea chair. Inspired by the Campana brothers. (photo by Anthony Poon)

EIGHT THINGS I DISLIKE ABOUT ARCHITECTURE

September 2, 2016

1893 Chicago's World Fair, Illinois

ONE

Clients who change their minds every other day. I get it; it’s their project and it’s their money. They are the customers, and I would not have a business without them. But I am hired to be the design authority. So why is all my expertise cast aside, only to have me arbitrarily move a wall six inches in one direction, then three inches in another direction, then back to the original position—and then, do this again 20 more times over months?

Figure drawing by Anthony Poon
Figure drawing by Anthony Poon

TWO

The business of architecture. To have work, I have to market the company— promote, promote, promote. I also bill clients, pay insurance and rent, manage finances, execute contracts, and take care of payroll and taxes. Being an entrepreneur and sole proprietor, such are mandatory activities, but they interfere with doing what I love: to draw, design and create.

THREE

Technology that has overtaken artistry and imagination. Computers are powerful and convenient. I can’t imagine my business without them, but they are just one of many tools. Some architects have forgotten how to use their hands, their eyes, and their souls. And some clients believe (incorrectly) that simply with the use of a computer, architects should be able to do more work and do it faster.

Revit file for mixed-use project, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design
Revit file for mixed-use project, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design

FOUR

The frightening responsibility of what I do. Poorly selected kitchen cabinets might compromise the aesthetics of a house, but an incompetent design of fire exits for 10-story student dormitories is a life and death matter.

Northwest Campus Student Housing, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Michael Moran)
Northwest Campus Student Housing, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Michael Moran)

FIVE

Interior decorators who call themselves interior designers, as if to suggest these decorators shape architectural space, structure and light. Whether decorator or designer, why is it that they (alas, many of my friends are interior decorators/designers) garner higher pay than architects? Is selecting the right hue for a pillow sham as significant as my design for a high school?

Pacifica Christian High School, Culver City, California, by Poon Design
Pacifica Christian High School, Culver City, California, by Poon Design

SIX

Red Tape: working with the bureaucracy of city agencies to obtain approvals, even for the simplest of things. I do appreciate the need for the Department of Building and Safety to protect us against the unscrupulous and derelict, but I am neither unscrupulous nor derelict. I have better things to do than spend hundreds of hours waiting in line to submit a soils report, only to be rejected because today is the staff party for their July birthdays, and the counter has abruptly closed.

SEVEN

Bleeding for the art. Architecture is a struggle, and if it was easy, we probably wouldn’t be interesting in doing it. But most architects work way too hard, struggle too much. Pritzker-awarded Rafael Moneo once told our class not to worry. Without missing a beat and in all seriousness, this head of Harvard’s architecture school declared, “You have more than the five calendar days left to complete the project; you have ten days. Five days and five nights. Do not sleep!”

Murcia Town Hall, Spain, by Rafael Moneo (photo from metalocus.es)
Murcia Town Hall, Spain, by Rafael Moneo (photo from metalocus.es)

Fountainhead-WebEIGHT

The ego of some architects with their overly curated philosophical platforms laced with intellectual superiority. Architects, charged with solving design challenges with innovation and efficiency, do have a vital role in society. But are we rock stars? Are we “Starchitects?” I often wonder whether Ayn Rand was serious about the greatness of architects, or was she simply elbow jabbing the profession, slyly mocking us.

MASSACRE AT HARVARD

April 15, 2016

“The Trays,” design studios at the Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (photo by Kris Snibbe, Harvard University News Office)

I looked up at the packed house, my heart racing.

Students, faculty and interested parties filled the uninspiring concrete theater. Fifty onlookers growing to a hundred. Almost sadistically, the review of our mid-term work at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is a guaranteed public spectacle. A few stars would be made that day; others might go down in flames.

Down front were my dozen classmates, most of whom hadn’t slept for days, arriving at this event having subsisted for weeks on a diet of cigarettes, coffee, and sugar. The evaluation of our work, an open forum called “crits,” is an event of theatrics, melodrama, and catharsis. There would be no covert submitting of our papers like an English major, at a specified time into some designated box, quietly, secretly.

No, we would each leave this day knowing where we stood, where our future might lie. Everyone else would know too. After each student’s elaborate presentation fueled by months of a creative high, with our drawings pinned to the wall and scale models on a solitary table, with our note cards embellished with the most convincing air of intellectual bullshit, the “jury” begins their critique comprised of praise, appreciation, judgment—and/or ridicule.

Euralille, Lille, France by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo from abe-industry.com)
Euralille, Lille, France by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo from abe-industry.com)

The audience was larger than usual, as the professor of my class was a rock star of architecture, coined lamely by the media a “Starchitect,” a man of incomparable intellect, intimidating presence, and literal massiveness of forehead, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. (Years later, Koolhaas was awarded the highest honor in the architecture industry, the Pritzker Prize, akin to a Nobel Prize. And yes, his name is Cool House.)

As if that wasn’t enough to ensure a sold-out show, Koolhaas invited his New York colleague, Steven Holl, another impressive force in the field of design. (Holl would go on to be the Gold Medal recipient from The American Institute of Architects.)

Horizontal Skyscraper, Vanke Center, Shenzhen China, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Iwan Baan)
Horizontal Skyscraper, Vanke Center, Shenzhen, China, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Iwan Baan)

The project assigned to my class was the design of a convention center in Lille, France, at a location that would soon be the continental arrival zone of The Chunnel—an engaging and challenging student project—and a real commission on which Koolhaas was working. When completed, his behemoth project totaling eight million square feet would become known as Euralille, one of the most ambitious architectural statements of the time.

Drawings of convention center project by Anthony Poon
Drawings of convention center project by Anthony Poon

It was my turn to present. I did my best to exude not only confidence but heartfelt belief that my design was the right direction for the project. As a student of the creative arts, I felt emboldened to take a righteous or even moral stance with my thesis.

With the size of buildings unlike anything ever conceived, my design would hover over train tracks through some wild fantasy of structural engineering about which I knew nothing. I supplemented my formal presentation of large black-and-white ink drawings with artifacts of my so-called artistic process. As much as professors liked seeing the final product, they also appreciated the evidence of introspective process, such as numerous sketches and crude cardboard models. From drawing to drawing I dashed. Waving my arms, shaking my head in self-affirmation, I spoke about grandeur and ambition.

I concluded. I took a breath. I awaited my public review.

Presentation model of convention center project by Anthony Poon
Presentation model of convention center project by Anthony Poon

Holl spoke first. “I appreciate the work here, and the background story of how you got from the beginning of the semester to this point.”

He continued, his voice lowered—and I could feel everyone in the fishbowl lean in closer.

“I am sorry, Anthony.” He picked up the small, earliest conceptual paper model. “Maybe you had it right here.’’

Oh shit, I thought.

“I am sorry, but you not only had it right here, you wasted the rest of the semester making your first concept worse, exploring bad ideas, wasting the contributions of your fellow students and your professor . . . and . . . you are wasting our time right now.”

The public “crit” at the Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (photo from serie.cn)
The public “crit” at the Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (photo from serie.cn)

The gasps from the spectators in the coliseum were not only audible, but physical I swear. I looked up. More people were arriving. The word in the hallway must have been that a classic crit massacre was going on. Whispers in the audience had begun even before Holl completed his diatribe. “Anthony’s a failure.” “I thought he was better.” “Let’s see if he will cry.”

Without even the most banal compliment for my effort, without my even being granted the proper allocated time of twenty minutes, Koolhaas stepped in to end it. Out of mercy, I am sure.

“Let’s move on to the next student’s presentation.”

Koolhaas’ blow was so swift that it was neither here nor there; it was just an end to the whole miserable circus of public humiliation. Koolhaas was bored, as so many smart people are when in the presence of the mediocrity of mere mortals.

Gund Hall, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by John Andrews (photo by Harvard GSD)
Gund Hall, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by John Andrews (photo by Harvard GSD)

I picked up my models, gathered up my drawings and sketchbook, and crawled out of the auditorium. I walked out into the early, crisp cold of Cambridge, and ended up at my dimly lit, ground floor, one-bedroom apartment. I let all my work fall to the floor. I fell into my bed, face first.

This is my future. Whether a city hall or a shopping center, architects design in a public forum. Our work is out there for a generation or more, in the glaring eye of acclaim, criticism, and sometimes, mockery.

© Poon Design Inc.