Tag Archives: STEVEN HOLL

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.

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.