Tag Archives: Le Corbusier

THE ORIGINALITY OF BEING ORIGINAL

September 21, 2018

A bold proposal: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, California (photo by Lucas Museum of Narrative Art)

In the 2004 film, Garden State, Natalie Portman asks Zach Braff, “You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal?” She then performs a few awkward dance moves accompanied by shrieking and squealing.

Portman states, “I make a noise, or I do something that no one has ever done before, and then I can feel unique, even if it is only for like, a second.”

She proclaims, “You just witnessed a completely original moment.”

Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004)

I ask this: Is there such a thing as originality, and is there value to being original?

left: Cambridge Center for Visual Arts, Massachusetts (photo from lescoulerus.ch); right: Kenneth Cooper House, Orleans, Massachusetts (photo from Gwathmey on Twitter)

For the first question, originality is hard to spot. Sometimes we see it and are convinced that we are experiencing something original. Later, we realize that it derivative of something else, or simply part of an evolution of ideas throughout time.

upper: Casa Prieto Lopez, Mexico (photo from pinsdaddy.com); lower: Villa Sotogrande, Spain (photo by Hector Gazguez)

Additionally, two creators could come up with the same original idea. Having done so independently, we still claim that each person’s idea is indeed original.

To the second question, what value is there in being original? Is there purpose to being novel for novelty’s sake, or being unusual simply for being different? For the most part, being forcefully unique in the creative process has little weight. But here and there, that one innovative idea might be the catalyst that ignites a truly original invention from another innovator, artist or genius. In the arc of evolving ideas, I personally assign value to those that seek to be novel if only to do something different.

As unique and bizarre as the examples below are, one might say that they serve no purpose other than to indulge an architect’s whimsical agenda. On the other hand, these examples do no harm (do they?) and again, they might prompt me to challenge my own creative complacency.

upper left: Sarpi Border Checkpoint, Georgia (photo from archiobjects.org); upper right: Louis Vuitton, London, England (photo from highsnobiety.com); lower left: Urban Interiorities, Tokyo, Japan (photo from archiobjects.org); lower right: Elbphilharmonic Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany (photo from homedit.com)

Additionally, originality has to do with context. Just because one person experiences something as original, does the creation in question automatically win the label of originality? A tree does make a sound in the forest even if no one is listening. Also, you did have a great vacation even if you forgot to Instagram your photos. Similarly, if an unaware person experiences originality, like a child discovering ice cream for the first time, then so be it.

Bust of Ludwig Van Beethoven (photo from evastegeman.com)

In regards to context and evolution, Beethoven’s third and final period of composing was so original that it left his colleagues far behind in terms of creativity. In such works as Beethoven’s Late Great Piano Sonatas, no one could understand what the mad composer had written, and the result was the breaking of the linear progression of music evolution. Not only did composers leave Beethoven’s third period of work unstudied until decades later, colleagues like Schubert and Schumann chose to pick up where Beethoven left off in his second period. Because they just didn’t understand what the heck was going on in this third period of original music.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Though last year’s The Shape of Water took home the award for Best Picture, I found the movie an unoriginal creation. Fully packed with weary story clichés and formulaic visual devices, critics everywhere complained of similarities of this Oscar-winning film to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1969’s Let Me Hear You Whisper, and 1984’s Splash, just to name a few. Regardless of being unoriginal accompanied by one legal case of plagiarism, The Shape of Water collected three additional Academy Awards with record-setting 13 nominations, alongside box office accolades.

As I work hard to offer innovative ideas to the world,  perhaps recognition will arrive at my doorstep if I simply discard the pursuit of originality, and instead copy, imitate or steal. (Not serious, of course.)

(I further studied the idea of uniqueness in design and style with my companion essay, It All Sounds the Same to Me.)

IS TV FOR REAL? PART 2

February 17, 2017

Potential clients have come to my office asking for three free designs from which to pick—“the way we saw it on HGTV.” My anger aside from how reality TV twists reality, the client’s request compromises the integrity of the architectural process. (This article is a follow up to my past one, Is TV for Real?)

My client meeting with a Buddhist Foundation, Virginia, for a new dining hall (photo by Bryan Bethem)
My client meeting with a Buddhist Foundation, Virginia, for a new dining hall (photo by Bryan Bethem)

When I design for a client, I don’t draw three random schemes in a vacuum. I listen to the client first—their goals and dreams. When I show preliminary concepts, the client provides feedback on what they like and what they don’t. Through this back-and-forth process, a design develops, and is then refined. Not ever in a vacuum, the creative process is an exciting and thoughtful journey.

Okay, time for me to confess. Here and there, I have learned a few things from TV about color coordinating, selecting furniture, and being creative on a budget. I confess!

Also, the reality TV DIY shows have brought design to the forefront, that a well-crafted, nicely-styled life is desirable and achievable. In 15-minute bite size servings, these shows have delivered architecture to the mainstream.

Architect Howard Roark’s client presentation from The Fountainhead, 1949
Architect Howard Roark’s client presentation from The Fountainhead, 1949

In some distant past, clients were under the impression that design was a mysterious, closed-loop process. Now, many are conscious of how accessible good design advice is, whether from an award-winning architect or, yes, a charismatic TV personality.

I enjoy meeting with clients who already understand the concepts of an open floor plan, for example. Good or bad, these clients come prepared with Pinterest pages on style. Thank you reality TV. The clients and I can hit the ground running, proceeding with a shared foundation. Knowledge is power, after all, even in choosing paint colors.

Love-It-Web

Once was a cocktail debate between architects: “Who is the most influential voice in our industry?”

The usual suspects were tossed out as conversational sacrificial lambs. Local big names like Steven Ehrlich and Eric Owen Moss. Pritzker Prize winners like Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. A safe go-to is naming the senior leaders like I.M. Pei and Renzo Piano.

National Centre for The Exhibition of Contemporary Art and Architecture, Rome, Italy, by Zaha Hadid (photo from fundazionemaxxi.it)
National Centre for The Exhibition of Contemporary Art and Architecture, Rome, Italy, by Zaha Hadid (photo from fundazionemaxxi.it)

Another angle is to suggest famous architects no longer living, but believed to be still influential today, i.e., Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier. Pretentiously, you can also try the obscure, though no less significant, such as Wang Shu, Sverre Fehn or Paulo Mendes de Rocha.

Ningbo Museum, China, by Wang Shu (photo by Iwan Baan)
Ningbo Museum, China, by Wang Shu (photo by Iwan Baan)

My contribution that night stopped the discussion. I proclaimed, “Martha Stewart!”

At the time, Martha Stewart utilized avenues of outreach in all forms, and was better known than any other designer in the country, maybe even in the world. If she stated with a quiet breath that “pink is to be used at table settings this season,” you could count on millions of dining tables across America set with something pink.

Stewart-2-Web

Let the debates and cynicism rage on. It’s all for the good. Martha, HGTV, Sunset, Houzz, Dwell, Wayfair, the plethora of magazines and blogs, etc.—all of it deserves gratitude from architects everywhere. To the widest audience, these mainstream entities deliver the concept of wanting good design. And for that, I say thank you.

Covers-Web

SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE ARCHITECTS

June 24, 2016

1940’s architects (public domain, photo from wikipedia.com)

Why do some people like having architects around as conversation pieces, while simultaneously accuse us of unbearable pretentiousness?

Arguably impressive and both cultured and irksome, architects have the ability to speak about almost anything, to pontificate, to provide diatribes on nearly any topic—from why Apple will fail or succeed, to the specs of a car vs. the specs of an espresso machine, to the latest documentary on documentaries.

Rem Koolhaas looking fashionable on the cover of Vogue
Rem Koolhaas looking fashionable on the cover of Vogue

Though most architects can provide “constructive criticism” on many topics, ask an architect about the last three Super Bowl championships. Or ask for a review of a Tom Cruise blockbuster. Rather than being a casual conversationalist, the architect might deliver a righteous discourse on the downfall of Western Civilization.

At times, there is the better-than kind of reaction to a situation that would typically draw an authentic human response, such as laughter to a good joke, or complacency at a family gathering. Many architects are skilled at displaying boredom as they try to appear as though their creative minds are preoccupied with the next big idea that will deliver world peace.

Architects try to be cool, want to be cool—and yes, some are. But many are just trying too hard. They are no better or worse than anyone else. The problem is that only architects seem unaware of this fact.

We possess our own absurd lexicon. (See, I just used the word “lexicon.”) A sentence almost makes sense as the architect speaks it, particularly when the client witnesses the conviction in an architect’s voice along with the poetic glaze in the eyes.

The sometimes impenetrable text of the Harvard Design Magazine (photo from vazio.com)
The sometimes impenetrable text of the Harvard Design Magazine (photo from vazio.com)

In a review of a new building, the Harvard Design Magazine actually spewed, “Unlike architecture that seeks to articulate understandings about the nature of things through expressive or metaphoric mimings, this remarkable building yields us actionable space.” Or, “Digital design finds its certainty in a parametric computation of infinite, noncritical formal variability, with its simultaneous assurance of all possibility and no particularity.”

Huh?

Architect Barbie (photo from bldgdreams.tumblr.com)
Architect Barbie (photo from bldgdreams.tumblr.com)

Maybe this convoluted speaking is pseudo-intellectualism, but in truth, it is ridiculous when you hear an architect (me included) present in full egomaniacal glory. Do we really need to use words like tectonic, datum, aperture, and gestalt all in one sentence? Do architects need to use the common tags “-ality,” “-ology,” and “-ity” to make words sound fancy? Words that gush out of the architect’s mouth too easily: actuality, phenomenology, specificity, and homogeneity.

How about the name of an architect’s company? There are the invented names that might sound like words you know, Morphosis and Architectonica, for example. There are abbreviations that are sort of the founder’s name, SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), or MAD architects (Ma and Dang). And there is the use of the generic—such as OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), or FOA (Foreign Office Architects).

Also, my favorites are company names with unique spellings, punctuations, capitalizations, such as Office dA, SHoP, SPF:a, wHY, No.mad, or Coop Himmelb(l)au. How does the receptionist answer the phone? How does she spell the name when asked? “Capital this then that, no, lower case, now get rid of the space, yes, add an open parenthesis, no, it is actually spelled wrong, I mean, that is correct . . .”

Starchitects, generally in black, all with stylish flair: upper left: Jean Nouvel (photo by Tom Dyckhoff); upper right: Jeanne Gang (photo from architecturaldigest.com); lower left: Frank Gehry (photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images); lower right: Daniel Libeskind (photo by Matt Thomas)
Starchitects, generally in black, all with stylish flair: upper left: Jean Nouvel (photo by Tom Dyckhoff); upper right: Jeanne Gang (photo from architecturaldigest.com); lower left: Frank Gehry (photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images); lower right: Daniel Libeskind (photo by Matt Thomas)

Then there’s our appearance. Most architects are well-groomed, decently dressed (predictably black), and generally put together in some conscious way. When I say, ‘decently dressed,’ I don’t mean an overdressed fashionista. We do have a very conscious sense of our day-to-day uniform. The way we wrap an old scarf to appear blasé—this apparent indifference is rehearsed. When I say “well groomed,” architects may not broadcast their attention to personal hygiene, but you will not find too many architect’s looking like the absent minded professor/engineer with three-day unwashed hair and an overlooked belt loop.

Zaha Hadid looking stylish on the cover of DAC & Life
Zaha Hadid looking stylish on the cover of DAC & Life

For female architects, traditional conceptions of pretty femininity are ignored. I believe most female architects prefer to leave the cute outfits, glittery clanging jewelry, obvious make up, and high heels to fellow interior decorators. For male architects, impressions of metrosexuality are common: the neatness, a decent haircut, and clothes that just seem to work together, even if it is a simple crisp shirt and artfully distressed jeans.

Accessories are rare for any architect, but the carefully considered accent item might be present, such as the locally created wristband, a French fountain pen, or a custom designed wedding band. This approach to the personalized feature item might come from some famous predecessors. Le Corbusier (1887-1965) had his famous black shell, round rimmed glasses, of which Philip Johnson had Cartier make a replica in 1934—a trend which I.M. Pei continues today. Fortunately, Frank Lloyd Wright’s cape never caught on.

left to right : Le Corbusier (photo by Girard-Perregaud Vintage) ; Philip Johnson (photo by Getty Images) ; I.M. Pei (photo from architizer.com)
left to right : Le Corbusier (photo by Girard-Perregaud Vintage) ; Philip Johnson (photo by Getty Images) ; I.M. Pei (photo from architizer.com)

EPILOGUE: I confess that these characterizations are not all architects. But where is the fun if I can’t generalize, if we take ourselves too seriously?

Popular TV actor Josh Radnor playing ten seasons of the beloved architect Ted Mosby, from How I Met Your Mother
Popular TV actor Josh Radnor playing ten seasons of the beloved architect Ted Mosby, from How I Met Your Mother

TRIBUTE: MICHAEL GRAVES INSPIRES (1934-2015)

July 3, 2015

Team Disney Building, Burbank, California, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

Writing my business plan for Poon Design Inc. decades ago, a small paperback on entrepreneurship suggested that I think about an existing company that might be a model for my future company. The topics at hand were not about the business model, profits, size of staff, or geography—or even design style.

Rather, the topic was about design culture. What kind of design culture did I envision for Poon Design, and what architectural firm inspired me?

The answer was a New Jersey company: Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, DC, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)
St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, DC, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

My interest did not have anything to do with Michael Grave’s colorful Post Modern buildings with their whimsical motifs and cartoonish proportions. My interest was in what Grave’s entitled “Humanistic Design.”

Graves designed for people. He did not design for headlines and critics, for academic debates, or for personal legacy. Designing for people—sounds obvious, right? It is no easy task to make good on this philosophy, as well as build a culturally impactful, artistically significant, and prolific career around designing in this basic manner. For people.

Toaster for J. C. Penney, by Michael Graves (photo by J.C. Penney)
Toaster for J. C. Penney, by Michael Graves (photo by J.C. Penney)

Graves and his team applied this belief system to every aspect of design, from hotels to houses, from office buildings to toasters, from university research centers to the design of a wheelchair. Sure, many architects believe their repertory is this broad. During his time, Graves was a pioneer in designing without borders.

Late 1980’s, beginning my young adult life in Manhattan, I was a fan of the New York Five. For a national conference with a seminal follow up book, the Museum of Modern Art assembled five architectural voices. All five held a common interest in Modernism and the landmark architecture of Le Corbusier (1887-1965). The five architects became instantly celebrated: Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and of course, Michael Graves.

Though I was fascinated with the (mostly unbuilt) work of Hejduk (1929-2000), Graves was the individual that I studied, even as he abruptly departed the New York Five. He rejected the Five’s philosophical Modernist common ground. In a heralded crusade on the intellectual battlefields, Graves led a Post Modern movement that was diametrically opposed to the repertory of the New York Five (now Four). Alongside him stood other leaders, such as Robert Venturi and my past employer, Robert Stern,

A new chapter for him, Graves used bright colors instead of stark whites. He used classical elements such as pediments and columns, instead of abstract forms and zero ornamentation. He used humor and wit, instead of severe Bauhaus rationalism.

Hotel Michael, Sentosa, Singapore, by Michael Graves (Photo by MGA&D)
Hotel Michael, Sentosa, Singapore, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

In the late eighties, I was fortunate to be invited to Graves’ 25th anniversary celebration at Princeton University, where he was the Professor of Architecture Emeritus for 39 years. As a young architect in my twenties, I joined the most influential voices of our industry to honor a man of artistic virtuosity and commitment.

Michael Graves passed away in March of this year. All of us who work in his shadow, are standing in an impressively long shadow.

“WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”

May 30, 2015

Covers of Time: Wright, January 17, 1938, Saarinen, July 2, 1956, and Le Corbusier May 5, 1961

Are architects celebrities? Are they rock stars? Do “Starchitects” exist amongst mere mortals?

Years back at UCLA, I attended a lecture by Pritzker Prize, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (my Harvard professor). Endless crowds lined up all day in advance for the evening performance. Upon opening the doors, the large auditorium was full in seconds. The organizers opened up two additional auditoriums with the lecture to be broadcast on screens. All this, and masses of people still could not fit in the venues. Front row: Brad Pitt, Martha Stewart, Dianne Keaton, Michael York, Vidal Sassoon, and other design fans and fanatics.

Seattle Public Library, Washington (photo by James Ewing), by Rem Koolhaas of OMA (inset photo by Superslice)
Seattle Public Library, Washington (photo by James Ewing), by Rem Koolhaas of OMA (inset photo by Superslice)

Further years back at UC Berkeley, I attended a lecture by AIA Gold Medalist, New York architect Michael Graves. Similar thing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people showed up trying to squeeze into a college lecture hall. Hoping to graze his shroud. Hoping to bask in god-like enlightenment.

I am not proposing that an architect could fill a stadium like Taylor Swift, a concert hall like Lang Lang, an arena like Jordan, or a theater like Baryshnikov. Rather, I am impressed with and a little weary of the influence that some architects possess by simply standing at a podium with a PowerPoint of their latest projects, anecdotes and social theories.

Michael Jordan (photo by Getty Images), Taylor Swift (photo by Startraks), Lang Lang (photo by Detlef Schneider), Mikhail Baryshnikov (photo by Thomas Giroir)
Michael Jordan (photo by Getty Images), Taylor Swift (photo by Startraks), Lang Lang (photo by Detlef Schneider), Mikhail Baryshnikov (photo by Thomas Giroir)

With his world travels and outrageous behavior, perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright was the first Starchitect. But Ancient Greece had Mnesikles. The Renaissance had Michelangelo. The British Crown had Wren. Modernism had Le Corbusier. And he, alongside Wright, Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe graced the covers of Time magazine.

Sure, the spotlight is flattering. The ego is stroked, as an architect’s head inflates larger and larger.

But all this said, being an architect comes with responsibilities. Some responsibilities are obvious and some, not so obvious: provide buildings for shelter, provide a roof that won’t collapse on your head, provide beautiful structures that will stir and inspire, provide creative designs that will support the evolution of cities, and provide tremendous visions that will challenge a nation’s cultural complacency. Architects have a voice. By mere role playing, we are provided a soap box to stand on, wave our hands, wail profound statements—and hope to affect education, social policies, and the spirt of our time. Our zeitgeist.

In several venues, we have influence. As comic book writer Stan Lee declared in 1962, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility!”

This responsibility may be, at one end of the spectrum, designing homes for the homeless or hospitals in third world countries. At another end of the spectrum, the responsibility can be in designing with awareness for children, the handicap or the aging. Or working with non-profit organizations. Or being a steward for the environment. Or rebuilding a city after a natural disaster.

Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women & Children, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon with KAA
Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women & Children, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ KAA)

In 1968, civil rights leader Whitney Young directly insulted and challenged architects at a national convention in Portland, Oregon with this, “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights . . . You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.” Fire in the belly of architects, a battle was waged.

We can choose to be a celebrity in the limelight or we can choose to change the world quietly. Either way, we must choose responsibly.

© Poon Design Inc.