Tag Archives: Rem Koolhaas

PETER ZUMTHOR AND ELEMENTAL IDEAS

November 3, 2017

Zumthor’s original 2013 presentation model for LACMA. Though it looks like a conceptual diagram, this is actually the complete design for the project. (photo from inexhibit.com)

There are the usual suspects: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei, and so on. Call them celebrity architects or call them “Starchitects,” but one greater walks amongst these mere mortal rock stars. I speak of the one who is called an “architect’s architect.” He is Pritzker-winning, Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor.

Many non-architects may not even know the name of the enigmatic Zumthor, for his Haldenstein-based practice is small and artisanal, perhaps even cultish. But in a short time to come, Los Angeles will know Mr. Zumthor’s work.

LACMA’S campus building architects
upper left: William Pereira (photo by George Carrigues); upper right: Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Architects (photo by Alison Martino); middle left: Albert C. Martin Sr. (photo from thepowerplayermag.com); middle right: Bruce Goff (photo from thepowerplayermag.com); lower left: Rem Koolhaas (photo by Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times); lower right: Renzo Piano (photo by Museum Associates / LACMA)

He has proposed a courageous addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“LACMA”). This museum campus has had a string of prominent designs of their time, from the 1965 concrete structures of William Pereira to the curious 1986 Post Post Modern addition of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Architects (my previous employer), from the 1994 purchase of the iconic Streamline Modern May Company department store by Albert C. Martin Sr. to the quirky yet poetic 1988 Pavilion for Japanese Art by Bruce Goff, and from the controversial 2004 unbuilt $300 million glass roof from Rem Koolhaas (my previous teacher, herehere and here) to the elegant but underwhelming 2008 and 2010 buildings of Renzo Piano.

Exterior view of Zumthor’s 2017 proposal for LACMA (photo from archdaily.com)
Interior view of Zumthor’s 2017 proposal for LACMA (photo from archdaily.com)

Contrasting all this noisy activity, Zumthor’s proposal is so elemental and simplistic that you have to wonder if this is pure genius, or is it a blob of ink that accidentally got turned into the $600 million dollar project?

However, this is how Zumthor excels. He generates ideas like we all did in architecture school or even as a child. Innocently.

Simple ideas come to us all, and if we stay true to our opening statement, then our architecture can result in greatness. But in the real world of client changes, limited budgets, unrealistic schedules, and construction shortcomings, our ideas of greatness are at best compromised. At worst, our ideas drown in a tidal wave of mediocre practicality and code compliance.

The Thermal Vals, Braubunden, Switzerland, by Zumthor (photo from arcspace.com)

Somehow, project after project, Zumthor keeps his conceptual visions alert and alive from the first day of the design process to the final day of construction. Take for example some of his concepts, such as this one for a hotel in Chile. The presentation appears to be no more than twigs, rocks and debris—literally. Yet , Zumthor addresses the mundane necessities of things like bathroom plumbing and air conditioning, or budget and constructability, and time after time, his final building parallels the essence of his first idea.

Presentation models for Zumthor’s Nomads of Atacama Hotel, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (photo Peter Zumthor, Buildings and Projects, Volume 5)

If we common architects delivered such a presentation as the hotel above, in what seems like no more than a teenager’s effort, we would be laughed out of our client’s conference room. The genius of Peter Zumthor is almost Warholian. Not only are the ideas of Zumthor artistic in nature, but he is able to artfully convince a Board of Directors that his ideas are artistic and worth pursuing at all costs. As often critiqued, Andy Warhol’s genius was most profound not in the work, but rather, in how he convinced everyone that he was a genius.

Peers would not take this kind of cynicism with Zumthor. As the media discouraging called Zumthor’s LACMA scheme the “ink blob,” reminiscent of the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits, we had faith in our hero. This architect of poetry and practicality will work in the fire escapes and exit signs,  the desert sun beating through the enormous panes of glass, and the structural engineering to bridge over six lanes of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.

Proposed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (photo from dezeen.com)

With recent museums in Los Angeles, such as The Broad , the Petersen , the above mentioned Renzo Piano buildings at LACMA, and the in-construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures also by Piano, each of these projects will look like what happens when talented architects try too hard, yelling like a child for attention. And then, Zumthor walks in the room with grace and calmness.

Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg, Braubunden, Switzerland, by Zumthor (photo by Felipe Camus)

MY FIFTEEN FAVE BUILDINGS

February 3, 2017

Dominus Winery, Yountville, Napa Valley, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

“Hey Anthony, what is your favorite building in the world?” I am often asked.

I might reply obnoxiously but with reason, “What is your favorite painting, favorite book or favorite ice cream?”

Just as there is no one favorite piece of music, there is no one favorite work of architecture. There are hundreds. But here I try. In this list of some of my favorites (in no particular order), I selected different building types and sizes—from a house to a parliament building, from a public plaza to a winery. I have also included a few of The Usual Suspects.

(photo from brownbook.tv)
(photo from brownbook.tv)

1: Can a design be both exquisitely silent and majestically heroic? Such is Louis Kahn’s 1982 National Parliament House in Dhaka.

(photo from urbansplatter.com)
(photo from urbansplatter.com)

2: In 1929, Mies van der Rohe contributed to the pioneering concept known as the Free Plan. Through a few carefully placed walls and columns, the Barcelona Pavilion gently and epically implies space and journey.

(photo from mimoa.eu)
(photo from mimoa.eu)

3: Before Ricard Bofill became fascinated with Postmodernism, he delved deep into his mind for fantastical dreamscapes. This 1975 apartment building known as Walden 7, in Sant Just Desvern, Spain, demonstrates what it means to be imaginative.

(photo from arquiscopio.com)
(photo from arquiscopio.com)

4. Situated over a station rail yard, Pinon and Vilaplana created a public square, transforming a blank space into one of Barcelona’s most powerful works of urban sculpture and place making, the Plaza de los Paises Catalanes.

(photo by Andrea de Poda)
(photo by Andrea de Poda)

5: Even in 1670, there were revolutionaries within a revolution. Baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini twisted the classical world of pure geometry, and designed a chapel in the shape of an ellipse. Upon arriving inside Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome, you are confronted by a twisted perspective.

(photo by Marketing Groningen)
(photo by Marketing Groningen)

6: The 2001 Wall House in The Netherlands was constructed three decades after the completed design, and a year after the death of architect John Hejduk. He juxtaposed Corbusian ideas with Cubism and Surrealism, offering one of the most formidable visions of a home.

(photo from archdaily.com)
(photo from archdaily.com)

7: During the design process for Maison Bordeaux in France, the client had a car accident that left him wheelchair bound. OMA quickly changed the 1998 design, transmuting the home office into a room size elevator, open on all four sides—where the three-story shaft is his library, art collection and office supplies.

(photo from nest-hostles.com)
(photo from nest-hostles.com)

8: In 1999, Rafael Moneo made two massive structures into leaning ethereal cubes of otherworldliness. For Spain’s Kursaal Congress Centre and Auditorium, Moneo explored prismatic volumes, glowing translucency, and double walls of rippled glass.

(photo by Sander Lukers)
(photo by Sander Lukers)

9: Some works, such as the Chapel Santa Maria degli Angeli, are pure poetry. Like the hand of God, architect Mario Botta placed this 1996 building gently in the Swiss mountains of Monte Tamaro.

(photo from azahner.com)
(photo from azahner.com)

10. It is not only astounding that Herzog & de Meuron wrapped an entire museum with dimpled, perforated, aging copper panels in 2005, but that these architects were able to convince the city of San Francisco that such a curious design idea would be the perfect addition to the beloved Golden Gate Park.

(photo by Bernard Gagnon)
(photo by Bernard Gagnon)

11: There is no limit to the extraordinary creativity of Catalan architect, Antonio Gaudi. Alongside studying the engineering of this ambitious cathedral by building an upside catenary model of stings and chains, Gaudi combined the Grotesque, Gothic and Art Nouveau, amongst many other influences. Since the start of construction of the Sagrada Familia church in 1882, the unfinished project is still underway in Barcelona.

(photo by IlGiozzi)
(photo by IlGiozzi)

12. Sometimes I think it is just fetishized retail design, but not at Rem Koolhaas’s 2001 Prada store in Manhattan. The street level floor wraps up then sweeps down to the lower level, bringing natural light to an otherwise dark space and creating the grand theater that is fashion.

(photo by Joao Morgado)
(photo by Joao Morgado)

13: At the early age of 26, Alvaro Siza created one of the most graceful compositions. More than a mere restaurant in Portugal, the Boa Nova Tea House of 1963 sits elegantly in its setting, as instinctively as the surrounding rock outcroppings.

(photo by Kevin Cole)
(photo by Kevin Cole)

14: Bernard Maybeck’s “temporary” monumental jewel of the 1915 World’s Fair still stands a century later, a romantic icon of San Francisco. With this Palace of Fine Arts, the “fictional ruin” expresses both an enduring melancholy of lost worlds and the ambition for new worlds to come.

(photo from architectural-review.com)
(photo from architectural-review.com)

15: Exploiting the elemental scenery in Napa Valley, California, Herzog & de Meuron formed the 1998 Dominus Winery with just some rocks placed in steel baskets. And that was the entire idea, the whole building.

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

LIFE AND DEATH OF ARCHITECTURE

June 10, 2016

2016 demolition of the Netherlands Dance Theater, The Hague, by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo by kojiri.jp)

One of my favorite projects was recently demolished. From the team at Poon Design, our Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Beverly Hills is no more.

A month later, another work of ours demolished: Saffron, an Indian restaurant. Years ago, 8 Fish, our design for a sushi joint also met the demise of a bulldozer.

Of two hundred completed projects by Poon Design, only these three have confronted this fate of a demolition crew. That these deaths are retail and restaurants, and knowing how often such businesses fail, I do not fret over the casualties within my portfolio. I am however amazed by my reactions: bereavement, relief and optimism.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat flagship retail, café and “Chocolate Theater,” Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design, demolished 2016
Vosges Haut-Chocolat flagship retail, café and “Chocolate Theater,” Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design, demolished 2016

At a collection of industrial buildings in the modish Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, our client The Container Yard invites street artists to paint—world celebrated alongside up-and-comers. With hundreds of building walls, inside and out, offering blank canvases 50 feet wide, each painter is granted autonomy to create. At this shared community, no desperate grab for territory or pronouncements of ego exist.

Giant murals at The Container Yard (photo by Anthony Poon)
Giant murals at The Container Yard (photo by Anthony Poon)

Inevitably, a mural by one artist is painted over by another artist, without hesitation or dispute. A magnificent work of brush and spray paint techniques, weeks or months in the making, may present itself for only a few days before a new artist wipes out the preceding work.

8 Fish sushi restaurant, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design, demolished 2011
8 Fish sushi restaurant, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design, demolished 2011

Other than temporary structures like an expo pavilion, a pop-up store, or a stage set, architects don’t typically design with casual ambitions and in a transitory setting like The Container Yard. When architects create, we expect our work to stand tall for decades. My ego hopes that not only will my work be accepted, but fingers crossed, also embraced for a generations.

When a project of mine must be torn down to be superseded by another architect’s vision, rejection and relief arise. In some acclaimed projects such as with Vosges, the demolition delivers disappointment that my work did not endure longer for more visitors to enjoy. But for 8 Fish, a less satisfying work of mine, I was ready to make way for another architect with better ideas.

One of my favorite architects and my professor, Rem Koolhaas, confronts his own emotions of defeat regarding the recent death of his first major project, the much praised Netherlands Dance Theater completed in 1987. Koolhaas confesses shock that one of his most significant designs was demolished with little fanfare or concern, “That element of surprise has in a way preempted a feeling of tragedy or loss.”

Netherlands Dance Theater, The Hague, by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo from pritzkerprize.com)
Netherlands Dance Theater, The Hague, by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo from pritzkerprize.com)

My position on the eradication of my hard work is that the soul of civilization is “progressive.” As the Emerson quote asserts, “. . . it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”

Though I wish that my creative work can remain permanently for people to experience forever, I accept that what I contribute to the built environment, whether a house, school or church, is but one small artifact in the immense arc known as Progress. And such are the Best Demo’d Plans of Mice and Men.

Painstaking hand carved plaster work by artisans in Marrekesh, Morocco, for Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design, demolished 2016
Painstaking hand carved plaster work by artisans in Marrekesh, Morocco, for Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design, demolished 2016

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.

“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 spirit 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.