Tag Archives: UC BERKELEY

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. )

TO BE LOVED

July 22, 2016

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, Orlando, Florida, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design (photo by James Cornetet, Stringio)

In my last year as an undergrad, the brilliant (to some) Michael Graves gave an evening lecture. As one of the founders of Post Modernism, Graves sparked a movement of creative but tradition-bound architects.

The lecture hall on the UC Berkeley campus was packed; no, over packed. Architecture, art, and even philosophy and history majors plus faculty filled the large auditorium. Alongside filled seats, students littered the aisles and corridors—on the steps, on the floor, wall to wall. Even the entire stage, typically left empty for the dramatic effect of the lecturer at his podium, was covered with eager audience members. This forced Graves to reach the podium by crossing the stage as it were a minefield.

Which in a way it was.

Portland Building, Oregon, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design (photo from archinect.com)
Portland Building, Oregon, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design (photo from archinect.com)

Delivering a fascinating presentation, Graves entertained with wonderful wit. At one point, he showed a slide of a city downtown, and said disapprovingly, “You can have office towers like these that are black, white or maybe grey.”

Then Graves displayed a slide of his misunderstood but enjoyable 1982 Portland Building in Oregon. He declared with enthusiasm that the freshness of his building lay in the happy shades of yellow, maroon and turquoise. “Or you can also have color!”

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, by Marcel Breuer (photo by Fred R. Conrad)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, by Marcel Breuer (photo by Fred R. Conrad)

The esteemed architect concluded his two-and-a-half hour lecture by unveiling his ongoing design process for a big addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The original museum, a brutal mass of a building faced with dark grey granite, presented only one window facing Madison Avenue. For those who support the friendliness of Post Modernism, Marcel Breuer’s 1960’s Whitney was an uninviting and even mean building—the worst of Modernism. (I admit that this building is a personal fave.)

Addition to the Whitney Museum, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design, Whitney Museum on the left, Graves addition on the right and on top (photo by Michael Graves Architecture & Design)
Addition to the Whitney Museum, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design, Whitney Museum on the left, Graves addition on the right and on top (photo by Michael Graves Architecture & Design)

That night, Graves displayed his multitude of designs being developed for the Whitney, each one already rejected by the museum committee. There were so many designs that it seemed to be an excessive, mindless path of creativity.

Addition to the Whitney Museum, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design (photo by Michael Graves Architecture & Design)
Addition to the Whitney Museum, by Michael Graves Architecture & Design (photo by Michael Graves Architecture & Design)

Was it the architect? Was it the client? Each design iteration was more bizarre than the last. Regardless of whether my young mind could comprehend the architect’s meandering artistic journey, a Post Modern addition to an existing Modern building exhibited the battle between the two artistic movements.

At the end of the epic presentation, the audience was split right down the middle. Some students cheered in support for this courageous architect’s vision. Other students booed his philosophy of architecture.

Graves tried to hold his ground at the podium, but even this senior diplomat could not handle the mix of admiration and disdain. Of love and hatred.

Graves raised his arms to quiet the audience. With tears running down his face, he felt defeat and embarrassment. Silence fell. Despite his stature in the industry, the very mortal designer expressed that night what many an artist must feel again and again, whether in private or in public. Here, he did so in public.

Michael Graves, 1934 to 2015 (photo from themsv.org)
Michael Graves, 1934 to 2015 (photo from themsv.org)

Exhausted of all defense, Michael Graves simply said: “All anyone wants, is to love and be loved.”

THE WORLD FAMOUS I.M. PEI AND THE BEST JOB I NEVER HAD

May 13, 2016

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, France, by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo by Benh Lieu Song)

Though the job interview at I.M. Pei’s company started normal enough, it was over before it began.

Arriving in Manhattan, I only had a couple hundred bucks, my cousin’s sofa to crash on for two weeks, and my architecture portfolio. I needed a job. Badly.

Having just graduated college, my resume pathetically displayed only three months of professional experience, which consisted mostly of practicing how to write nice letters. I don’t mean correspondences and memos. I mean literally writing letters. I practiced my A’s, B’s and C’s.

My architectural portfolio from UC Berkeley
My architectural portfolio from UC Berkeley

To get an architecture job, it comes down to your portfolio, a black binder that holds your design work. I had received good advice ahead of time. A portfolio was not, as many young architects wrongly believe, a comprehensive chronological tome of all of one’s school work—from the first year of learning how to draw an apple, to the middle years of designing a house, to the final studio of something complex such as a civic center.

Imagine the bored interviewer listening to you drone on, “And in this third semester class, we designed a blah, blah, blah . . . for my fourth semester . . . now, let’s turn to page 108 of my portfolio . . .” No, a portfolio should be a vigilantly curated story of one’s creativity.

For my New York interviews, my portfolio was sound: A few school projects, a sample of drafting from an internship, and some personal pieces of photography and figure drawing. I was, I felt, a well-rounded candidate for an entry position.

East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo by National Gallery of Art)
East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo by National Gallery of Art)

I mailed dozens of resumes to architecture firms in NYC, from the highest profile corporations to the small studios. (No email back then.) One day after several rejections, I returned to a voicemail on my cousin’s answering machine. (No cell phones back then.) It was from the offices of I.M. Pei.

I..M. PEI!

Mr. Pei’s HR person left me a voicemail, asking if I was available for an interview. This was it: A dream come true for any young architect, a possible job at one of the most prestigious companies on the globe!

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo by Timothy Hursley)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo by Timothy Hursley)

Wearing my only suit and tie, I went through the usual motions with Pei’s interviewer. He asked a few questions about how I liked Berkeley, about my piano playing, etc. He then got to the meat of the interview: My portfolio. While flipping through my colorful pages, he explained the office building that I would design, if I got the job.

I’d already be assigned an office building to design!

John Hancock Tower, Boston, Massachusetts, by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo from architectmagazine.com)
John Hancock Tower, Boston, Massachusetts, by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo from architectmagazine.com)

But he was perplexed. He looked at my trivial portfolio. He studied my skimpy resume. Then looked at me. Then at the resume. Then me. Then resume.

Finally, he inquired in a puzzled state, “I don’t get it. How old are you?”

Before I answered, he repeated a little more aggressively, “How old are you?!”

Squeaking out, “I am 22 years old.”

Dumbfounded and perturbed, he demanded, “Where are the 17 years of experience?”

I was equally dumbfounded. “What 17 years are you talking about?”—trying not to be disrespectful of the eminent offices of I.M. Pei.

He asserted that this was an interview for a senior architect to design an 85-story office tower.

I explained, retreating for no real reason, “Sorry, but I have less than one year of experience.”

Choate Rosemary Hall Science Center, Wallingford, Connecticut, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo from pcf-p.com)
Choate Rosemary Hall Science Center, Wallingford, Connecticut, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo from pcf-p.com)

Long story short: A harried HR person made a mistake transcribing numbers between my resume and the office form my interviewer was looking at now. The embarrassed—though more frustrated than embarrassed—interviewer showed me, turning the office form around for me to witness. There indeed did my 22 year-old eyes see in one-inch tall letters: “17 years of experience. Good candidate!”

The interviewer expressed annoyance, angered by the sloppiness from his world-class company that prides itself on designs of perfect proportions, exquisitely executed finishes, and highly detailed precision.

My first job in New York City at M. Paul Friedberg and Partners, late 80’s
My first job in New York City at M. Paul Friedberg and Partners, late 80’s

Like a little boy whose ice cream scoop had fallen off his cone into the dirt, I picked up my portfolio and left the best job opportunity I never had.

© Poon Design Inc.