Tag Archives: Modernism

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: POST MODERNISM AND ROBERT A.M. STERN ARCHITECTS

October 12, 2018

Arata Isozaki’s iconic rendering that inspired an entire movement of architectural representation. Created for MOCA, Los Angeles, California

At the simple age of 24, I was employed by the world-famous Post Modern architect Robert A.M. Stern in New York City. Post Modernism, the architectural movement of the 1960s to the 1980s, may not be the most beloved style of design today and even many despise it. But Post Modernism does at times stutter a comeback in different forms.

Roy E. Disney Animation Building, Burbank, California, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (photo by Xurble)

In my undergraduate years of the 1980’s at UC Berkeley, we enthusiastically studied and exhaustively examined Post Modernism. It was the significant philosophy of art and architecture. This style, in the most elemental explanation, posits the notion that good architecture should provide human scale, harmony and beauty. Sounds obvious? Not always so.

Provincial Capitol Building, Toulouse, France, by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. (photo by Matt Wargo)

Post Modernism, often called “Po-Mo,” reacted strongly against the many buildings of Modernism that preceded Post Modernism. Cold white boxes lacking life and a sense of place–these minimal Modern buildings of steel and glass appeared inhumane to some architects and most day to day users.

Post Modern architects connected their designs to visitors by offering the sense of feeling grounded—offering a building that was simply warm and inviting. The iconography of classical architecture, such as a Greek column or a Renaissance arch, created this grounding. Such traditional features captured what people thought buildings should look like.

Denver Public Library, Michael Graves, (photo from michaelgraves.com)

Establishing the Po Mo movement as a 180-degree reversal from the evils of ice-y abstract Modernism, Post Modernists also added wit and charm. They did so through the use of vibrant colors, by making columns extra tall or extra fat, or by abstracting traditional forms into simple geometry, such as a triangle in lieu of a classical pediment. Though appearing to be merely a campy game of the visual arts, the movement added intellectual irony, rigorous research of historical precedence and proportions, and academic strategies of references.

A battle of history and precedence vs. looking forward to fresh ideas, currently occurring at the AT&T Corporate Headquarters, New York, New York, by Philip Johnson (photo by Kevin Lafontaine-durand); Inspired by a Chippendale highboy chest (photo from 1stdibs.com)
Perhaps taking the concepts of color, geometry and irony too far, the famous Memphis design room by Dennis Zanone (photo by Dennis Zanone)

In my early twenties, I was a smug, obnoxious young designer, which is a trait of plenty of new and naive architects. We believed even at our young age, that we had talents bestowed upon us that would certainly deliver world peace, or something idealistic and absurd like that.

Within Stern’s office of 100 of the best and brightest, I worked with defiance and sometimes too much confidence. Senior architects rolled their eyes in discomfort every time I made a statement of delusion and self-aggrandizing. I don’t know if it is our industry’s competitive style that causes this kind of behavior, or me just being an ill-advised juvenile architect. Maybe it was the Post Modern education that made me brash. After all, the Post Modernists boldly tossed aside the accomplishments of a previous generation, and replaced the old philosophies with new ideas that were forged through poking fun and having fun.

Collage illustrating some of the most well-known Post Modernist designs (photo from dezeen.com)
Robert A.M. Stern (photo by Witold Rybczynski)

On my last day at the office in 1988, Robert Stern gave me words of advice as I was leaving to Cambridge to start my graduate studies. Bob, as he liked to be called, wished me luck with a grin, “Harvard won’t teach you anything about architecture, but they will teach a Californian like you how to dress appropriately.”

(Other essays on Post Modernism: Humor, Tribute to Michael Graves and Lecture on Love. )

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.

. . . 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.