Tag Archives: IMPROVISATION

JAZZ-LIKE: THE CURIOUS THING ABOUT STYLE, PART 2 OF 2

March 3, 2016

Kit-O-Parts concept model for Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, by Poon Design

What can architecture learn from jazz? Specifically, what can architects designing buildings learn from musicians creating jazz?

I recently posted my design approach as two parts: Product and Process. In that post, I discussed the ‘Product’ being works of juxtaposition.  In today’s post, I explore my ‘Process’ being jazz-like.

Conference room pin-up wall for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design
Conference room pin-up wall for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design

Many things bog an architect down, such as calculations that ensure a structure won’t collapse. Budgets, city codes, and construction surprises also burden us. The nature of our day to day design work is slow and tedious. From start to finish, a completed building requires years or decades. Even generations. Whether Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica or a local wine store, the architectural process is sluggish and overwrought. At times, painfully so.

With graphic design, on the other hand, a logo can be designed and implemented efficiently. In less than a month, boom, the logo appears on a website. (Sorry, my graphic artists’ friends, I know it is much more complicated than this, but in comparison . . .)

Process for “Sexy Conversation,” 40” x 40”, mixed media, by Anthony Poon
Process for “Sexy Conversation,” 40” x 40”, mixed media, by Anthony Poon

In jazz, musicians sit at their instruments, glance at each other, perhaps a wink, then a smile. And boom: music. A jam session begins, and the audience immediately enjoys the sounds and rhythms.

Spontaneity and improvisation are words that describe jazz. In contrast, as a classically-trained pianist, I was taught a mindset akin to architecture, where at great lengths and with agony, each and every move is carefully conditioned and rigorously rational.

When performing Liszt, I wouldn’t just discard the sheet music and riff on an Etude. Or maybe I would, but then it becomes something other than Liszt—and that might not be good. With architecture, I wouldn’t just discard the structural calculations for a hillside foundation and doodle my own geotechnical assumptions. A well-built castle isn’t constructed on sand.

Study models for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design
Study models for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design

Is there room for speed in architecture? How about intuition? Social psychologist David Sudnow comments on jazz as moving “. . . from no one place in particular to no one place in particular . . .” I wish architecture had this kind of freedom.

Though I can’t actually be like a jazz pianist playing impromptu, I still try. Every day, I attempt to hand draw ideas freely without the constraints of either a T-square or the laptop. Rather than picking the appropriate shade of olive from the Pantone color book, I use my color markers and pencils. Swiftly and even blindly, I grab at colors, blending in a mad flurry seeking hues of discovery and spontaneity.

Anthony Poon’s drafting table
Anthony Poon’s drafting table

Jazz and juxtaposition—two words I might use to describe my work. Very likely, I will replace these two words with different words the next time an interviewer asks me, “What is your style?” In the end, I leave the labeling of the work to the historians, intellectuals, critics, and fans. When I am long gone, I hope my design legacy is given a provocative designation of style.

(For more, see a feature on my process at The Art Issue of LA Home magazine.)

Anthony Poon’s sketches, studies and notes
Anthony Poon’s sketches, studies and notes

THE CURIOUS THING ABOUT STYLE, PART 1 OF 2

December 31, 2015

For this food blogger’s residence in Pasadena, we juxtaposed the technology of parametric algorithms on to polyethylene, the material used to make household cutting boards.

Recently, I was asked by an interviewer, “What is your style?”

This question is often asked, and not just of architects, but creatives of all sorts: fashion, graphics, advertising, cuisine, etc. The media typically aims to capture one’s design philosophy in a sound bite digestible by mainstream readers.

Many interior decorators have a packaged response. I hear words like “eclectic,” “warm and welcoming,” “contemporary yet timeless.” I am not sure what kind of design results from this mash up of clichés.

Architects have a hard time speaking of their style. Hugh Hardy, one of my past employers, argued that once you answer the dreaded question, your critics will constantly be assessing your work to see if you have lived up to your declarations.

What is style after all?

With extensive education, a higher degree and a 250-page graduate school thesis, many architects simply can’t and won’t summarize their creative philosophy in 20 words or less. For some, “style” is a bad word, and it shouldn’t be an elevator pitch.

upper left: Federal National Council’s Parliament Building, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emiretes by Ehrlich Architects; upper right: McNamara Alumni Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, by Antoine Predock Architect Studio (photo by Bobak Ha’Eri); lower left: Dominus Estate, Yountville, California, by Herzog & de Meuron (photo by dominusestate.com); lower right: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Andy Ryan)
upper left: Federal National Council’s Parliament Building, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emiretes by Ehrlich Architects; upper right: McNamara Alumni Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, by Antoine Predock Architect Studio (photo by Bobak Ha’Eri); lower left: Dominus Estate, Yountville, California, by Herzog & de Meuron (photo by dominusestate.com); lower right: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Andy Ryan)

Some colleagues who talk about their architectural style do so with clever labels. Steven Ehrlich, based in Los Angeles, calls his work “Regional Modernism.” New Mexico architect Antoine Predock is a self-described “Cosmic Modernist.” Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland has been coined, “Elemental Reductivists.” From New York, Steven Holl’s work involves “typology, phenomenology and existentialism.”

For architects such as Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando or Richard Meier, their style has been accused of being formulaic. Many would argue that all their buildings look the same. Is this so bad? Don’t all the Beatles’ songs and Beethoven Sonatas sound similar? (This topic of formula will be discussed in an upcoming blog.)

Oscar Peterson Trio (photo by Paul Hoeffler)
Oscar Peterson Trio (photo by Paul Hoeffler)

So now it is my turn to answer the universal question of style. My response should not be trite, but rather complex—but not pretentious.

I answered in two parts: Process and Product. My Process is inspired by jazz—the spontaneity and the improvisational spirit. (More another day.)

My Product, meaning the final structure, say a house or school, is driven by juxtaposition. I enjoy combining things together, either comfortably or awkwardly, to see what might arise: the modern and the traditional, the hand crafted and the machine made, the broad strokes and the finicky details, just to name a few.

Meditation Retreat House, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design
Meditation Retreat House, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design

For a Buddhist meditation retreat in Virginia, Poon Design created a guardrail that juxtaposed a galvanized off-the-shelf steel frame with natural twine made from hemp. Yes, you can smoke it.

Student Center, University of California, Riverside, by Anthony Poon while w/ HHPA (rendering by Gilbert Gorski)
Student Center, University of California, Riverside, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, watercolor by Gilbert Gorski)

For the University of California, our student center combined traditional campus brick and limestone, with sleek glass curtain wall and over-scaled weathering zinc shingles.

At Mendocino Farms, we blended a funky old school vibe, such as chalk board walls, vaudeville signage, clothespins, and industrial piping, with high-end luxury, such as Carrara marble, walnut planks, stainless steel trim, and custom furniture.

Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design
Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design

Juxtaposition is not just my artistic approach, but the interests in my life as well. I like Brahms and I also like American Idol. I like Rembrandt and Pop Art. I like omakase sushi with a Coke, as well as McDonald’s with sake. I wear Gucci with the Gap. Love Nan Goldin and commercial photography. I read biographies, but also comic books. I like watching ping pong and the Superbowl. Reality shows that follow CNN.

I like the diversity and the messiness. I like unexpected results.

© Poon Design Inc.