Tag Archives: Mies van der Rohe

SYMMETRY AND THE LIKE

August 31, 2018

left: Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (photo from The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania/John Nicolais); right: Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Getty Images

These images are what we commonly think of as symmetry. What you see on one side is mirrored on the other side. Classical architecture relied on symmetry for powerfully balanced compositions. But for a setting as peacefully symmetrical as the Taj Mahal, I find the architecture more interesting when accompanied by the asymmetry of life.

The symmetry of Taj Mahal is made more interesting with visitors and the asymmetry of life of Agra, India (photo by Getty Images)

The 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, by Mies Van Der Rohe  is hailed as one of the most significant contributions to the Modern architecture movement, with the pavilion’s Minimal walls and lines, blurring inside and outside. This structure is rarely mentioned in the conversations about symmetry. But that is only because we think that symmetry is when the right side is the same as the left side.

From what I learned in graduate school, I argue that symmetry can be such that the top half is the same as the bottom half. Top-and-bottom, not right-and-left.

left: Unexpected symmetry at the Barcelona Pavilion, Spain (photo from behance.net); middle: Axonometric drawing of the Barcelona Pavilion, Spain (drawing from handesi.wordpress.com); right: Unexpected symmetry at the Barcelona Pavilion, Spain (photo by Lindsay Koffler)

In challenging traditional symmetry, implied symmetry offers complexity. Here, the balance of symmetry is only suggested, not at all exact. As the eye moves from the vertical axis of symmetry to the right and to the left, the design is forgiving, no longer relentlessly mirrored halves. An architectural feature on one side is not replicated on the other.

left: Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, United States (photo by Maria Buszek); right: St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, West Frankfort, Illinois (photo from stjohnchurch-wf.org)

Beyond architecture, film director Peter Greenaway enjoyed applying symmetry as a cinematic device. As a young student of classical paintings, Greenaway employed symmetry not just in the set design, but with how the actors moved into the scene and located themselves. Akin to architecture, the result creates classical balance. But in movies, the experience is progressing over time and not as a static building. Greenaway delivers an experience that is harmonious but also disturbingly artificial. Could such compositions of people and objects exist in real life?

Symmetry in Peter Greenaway films. Upper left, lower right and lower left: A Zed & Two Noughts (1985); upper right: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Symmetry in a person’s face is considered to be an underlying trait of beauty and attractiveness. A balanced composition of facial features supposedly delivers a fetching handsome appeal. But exact symmetry in one’s face is impossible. Consider one of Hollywood’s leading actors, often complimented as being good looking. Digitally creating a face using the left side and mirroring it, then as another composition, using the right side and mirroring it, you will see how even the handsome Brad Pitt is not symmetrical. As above, his face only implies symmetry.

Brad Pitt montage (photo from memoliion.com)
Property Brothers from HGTV

These popular TV twins from HGTV exploit their identical look. But the outcome is like a Greenway scene— a contrived and awkward symmetry. Quite creepy actually, if you binge watch the show.

Lastly, this piano is symmetrical in exterior appearance. But inside, it is not. As with life, even things that strive for symmetry, harmony and balance, such things are often asymmetrical and lop-sided—and enjoyably so.

Schimmel Konzert K132 piano (photo from schimmelpianos.com)

THE COMPLEXITY OF SIMPLICITY

January 20, 2017

Garden Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design and Andrew Adler (photo by Anthony Poon)

Many have heard the instructional 1960’s acronym from the U.S. Navy: K-I-S-S.

It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. These days, this pithy recommendation is delivered from anyone in the role of doling out advice, from architecture professors to life coaches, from advertisers to attorneys, from editors to campaign managers.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, 2006
Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, 2006

But life gets complicated, and keeping things simple is not so easy. So what do we do?

A traditional wedding gown possesses an abundance of trim, lace, shoulder pads, embroidery, tones and textures. Not just a statement of the period fashion, all this creative noise and fuss was required, because it is actually difficult to keep the dress simple. What I call the gown’s ‘wedding cake décor’ was sometimes intentionally applied to camouflage the limits of craft. A clever game of misdirection enshrouded careless seams, poor stitching, low quality fabric, and even laziness.

Consider the modern day minimal bridal gowns by Vera Wang and Jil Sander. Without all the fussiness to detract, the simple designs must make an explicit statement of quality. Each stitch of tread, cut and drape, profile movement, and shimmer of silk must astound. It is no easy task to keep the dresses minimal and fashionable, as well as express the exquisite notion of bespoke craft. It is easier to simply camouflage shortcomings with crap.

Bridal gown by Vera Wang, fall 2015
Bridal gown by Vera Wang, fall 2015

In architecture, the application of trim crosses over from the wedding gown. The use of architectural crown moldings, door casings, base board, wainscot, window trim, and so on, offer visual interest, detail and scale—and even a phenomenological connection to the human body.

But such design trim and wedding cake decor were also used to hide the flaws of construction. Where a smooth white plaster wall could not perfectly meet a polished stone floor, perhaps due to lack of skill or the limitations of the tools back then, a floor base was installed as a transition—to basically hide gaps.

Moldings (photo from architectualmouldings.wordpress.com)
Moldings (photo from architectualmouldings.wordpress.com)

We all want to keep things simple, but to achieve this higher level of mindfulness, one has to work hard at making it look easy. At Poon Design, we call upon the analogy of a duck, where though it glides so gracefully across the lake, it is beneath the water’s surface that little feet paddle furiously.

Don’t underestimate the rigors required to achieve simplicity, whether a wedding gown, a work of architecture or the appearance of a duck leisurely floating in a figure eight.

Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe (photo from wallpaper.com)
Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe (photo from wallpaper.com)

Minimalist architect, Mies Van Der Rohe, gave us one of the most impactful phrases in design and in life: “Less is more.” Alongside this three-word philosophy, he paved the way for what is commonly called “clean lines.” Whether in a modern house, a Tesla or an Ikea dining table, we often comment on how “clean” the lines are.

For my own work, Mies’s iconic Farnsworth House and other such projects of sculptural clarity inspired Poon Design’s and developer Andrew Adler’s 14 boldly austere yet luxurious estates in Palm Springs. Our compositions posit lucidity and precision. Autonomy and self-referentiality comprise the unapologetic purging of the conventional beliefs for adornment.

Residence G at Linea, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design and Andrew Adler (photo by Anthony Poon)
Residence G at Linea, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design, Andrew Adler and Prest-Vuksic (photo by Anthony Poon)

Steve Job’s exploration into a philosophy of ascetic beauty is legendary, to the degree of severity. As researched today at Apple, the minimalist one button on the iPhone is being studied to be deleted, so as to achieve an even higher level of simplicity and artistry. Stupid.

iPhone 7 home button (photo from wccftech.com)
iPhone 7 home button (photo from wccftech.com)

. . . IS IN THE DETAILS

March 30, 2015

2015 Jaguar XF

Jaguar, the stylish automotive company, has a new campaign: The Devil is In The Details.

This catch phrase that we often throw around is actually a derivative from an original quote, “God is in the details.” Most people don’t know about the architectural roots of this popular saying. The New York Times credits it to master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), a German-born titan of Modernism who pioneered Minimalism and is ensconced in the profession’s pantheon along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

And as if Mies needed any more help securing a place in our lexicon, he is also famously known for another popular quote among architects and the public in general: “Less is More.”

While it may seem that Mies was contradicting himself, he was actually saying the same thing but in different ways. He was urging us to always think of the details, no matter how few, and to be precise and thorough with those details we have and use.

Buddhist Temple in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design
Buddhist Temple in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design

In architecture, work is all about attention to detail. Whether that means finding the perfect shade of white paint or the right kind of metal, design requires that we pay close attention to the small things, because they all add up. How do we balance the quality of light? Should we use polished, honed, rough sawn, or brushed stone? Do the mechanical ducts interfere with the steel beams supporting the roof? Is the emergency exit corridor out of a hotel lobby the right width?

True, in architecture school and in every project we tackle at Poon Design Inc., we must be concerned with the Big Picture, the Concept. For instance, when we designed a chapel for Air Force village in Texas, we explored larger themes, such as reaching for the sky, heroism and the meaning of grandeur. Or, when an architect designs an airport, the standard metaphor is flight, hence wing-like roofs, soaring forms, and structures appear to defy gravity.

Air Force Village Chapel in San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design, rendering by Mike Amaya
Air Force Village Chapel in San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)

Big Picture, yes.

But at the same time, if you are attempting to defy gravity or give the impression that you are, you better have the detailed engineering behind it. This risky feat of structural gymnastics must not fail because of a lack of detailed thinking or else, like the mythical Icarus who overlooked the details of his altitude, you will suffer a catastrophic collapse.

So I believe that both God and the Devil are in the details. Even the few details when less is more.

© Poon Design Inc.