One of five prototype residences, Saudi Arabia (rendering by Encore)
Architects like to put their stamp on as much as possible, from the design of a chair to the whole house, from a theater to a museum. How about entire neighborhoods? When designing a community of homes, there are risks and rewards. Sure, the ego is stroked to see design ideas implemented across an urban fabric. But there are also pitfalls. Beware.
At Poon Design Inc., we have been fortunate to have designed eight communities from scratch, from California to Montana to Saudi Arabia—totaling over 200 built homes and another 100 on the way.
When designing one residence, there is an overly precious approach, a fetishization of exploring the domesticity of a single client. But when designing a community of over 100 dwellings, the architect now confronts not just the house as a single object, but the relationship between the objects—not just each note of the music, but the connection between the notes.
Here, the composition is no longer a single structure, but a body of dozens upon dozens of residences, as well as the open spaces between and around them. Take for example: roads and sidewalks, gardens and entry gates, motor courts and driveways—yes, even a stormwater water management. Designing a neighborhood is creating a place where diverse families intersect, where lifestyles overlap, where utopian ideas are possible. The scale of our work still includes the design of kitchen cabinets and bathroom tile patterns, but it now explores how a fire truck enters the community, puts out a fire, and turns around. We are shaping the land, like a giant given ablank canvas the size of a city.
Some of our projects mentioned above fall into the category of tract housing or mass production housing, meaning that the 40-home community is not a design of 40 unique homes, but rather, a composition of four homes strategically curated to ward off architectural monotony. From a financial standpoint, the four-house-approach allows the developer efficiencies in construction costs and schedule.
For aesthetic variety, unimaginative architects only apply superficial ideas. Yes, you can alter paint color, exterior materials, and landscape. But we do not support the typical tract home methods of adding artificial roof forms, like a fake gable on one and a token trellised porch on another, when both happen to be for the exact same floor plan. No, any modifications must have a reason that is supported by the design concept of that particular house.
Though rewarding and artistically challenging, the big risk with designing entire neighborhoods is frightening yet simple. If you make one mistake, 100 homes have this mistake, so now you have made 100 mistakes. For example, if the roof is not designed appropriately and leaks, now 100 homes probably leak. So have your lawyer and liability insurance ready for a class action lawsuit. In contrast, when designing a single custom house, a problem is usually addressed with a question from the client, then a meeting with the contractor. But with designing entire communities, the architect doesn’t likely know the homeowners who bought these mass produced, spec homes.
In everything ones does, there are risks, and there are rewards. We pick our battles, and we gauge the return on investment. What happens if we fail? What happens if we succeed?
THE ARCH PODCAST, FORM MAGAZINE, 2 OF 3: SACRED WORKS AND COLOR
December 6, 2019
My sketches for the chapel of the Air Force Village, a retirement community, San Antonio, Texas
Please enjoy more excerpts from the podcast The Arch with Form magazine, and the acclaimed author and artist, Carol Bishop. Previous excerpt is here.
Carol Bishop: Many of your projects touch communities. You do churches for various different kinds of religious groups. You do educational structures. You do libraries. Can you elaborate on these?
Anthony Poon: The community aspect is very important to us. As much as we enjoy doing projects like designing homes or the one-off projects, we feel that our skills and talents should serve a much broader community. One of the things we enjoy doing most are our schools, serving teachers, administrators, and children. We enjoy doing projects that bring communities together. We enjoy building out communities, which is one of the aspects of our residential work, not just doing one house at a time, but doing a hundred homes at one time and envisioning what an entire neighborhood could be.
Carol: Are there any particular challenges, whether with the codes or concepts or clients when you are designing these types of buildings? For example, when you were asked to do the Air Force Chapel, how did you marry the military and the spiritual layers?
Anthony: That’s a complicated question, so I’ll answer in two parts. The first: You bring up what is one of the most challenging parts of architecture and maybe the most tedious. We’re talking about things like city codes, the permit process, and the science and engineering of making sure a building doesn’t fall down. We’re talking about client wishes, building program, square footage, and of course on top of all of this is the budget and the schedule. There are all sorts of these kind of technical aspects that we have to problem solve. Once we get those taken care of, we then, on top of all of that, have to add the artistry. We have to then add our creativity.
It’s kind of like learning a piece of music. Say you’re learning a Mozart sonata and there are literally 10,000 notes to learn to play correctly—to get each note perfect as it was written by the composer. But once you do that, it’s not considered music yet. That’s just painting by numbers. That’s just getting each note correct. After you’ve done that, and that can take years, you then have to add your interpretation. You have to add your story, your style, your idea of what that Mozart sonata really is about.
To jump to your second part of the question, we did a proposal for a chapel at a retirement village for the Air Force in San Antonio, Texas. You talked about marrying the practical and the spiritual, and that’s exactly how we viewed it. We studied sanctuary spaces and gathering spaces, assembly halls, and considered what would be the most effective kind of floor plan. We came up with a triangular floor plan that allows all of the attention to focus to the front of the chapel. But it was more than just a geometric exercise. We added to our composition metaphors of the Air Force, of heroicism, of strength, a majestic character. And we took that triangular form and gave it a presence on the outside where the building reaches for the sky. In that sense, it became a metaphor for the Air Force and how strength and heroic actions can lead to good things.
Carol: Well, I have to ask you about this project because of the name, the Contraband & Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial. Could you tell us something about that?
Anthony: That’s a proposal for a project in Virginia. And it’s haunting and extraordinary. There was a development in Alexandria where developers started to excavate the land to build commercial buildings. They came upon graves, coffins and bodies of the freed slaves. Obviously, construction stopped. The city asked for proposals of what to do, how to develop this. If it should be developed, what would be the right thing to do?
We designed a memorial park where half of area left all the burials as they were found. They were all given grave markers of stone. We created a path of wood that floated over the graves so that you can look upon and honor those who have been lost. We envision that the brass handrail of this wooden path would have names etched on the metal. The path lands in the other portion of the city block, where we designed a park as a gift back to the community.
Carol: More and more, we see that there are two camps. One is no color, just white, white, white. The other camp is: Let’s just pour on the most hideous colors so that my building shines. What is your take on color for your projects?
Anthony: Color is a whole philosophy. You’ll have architects like Richard Meier who primarily uses white. He’ll explain that through the color white, we see all the colors of the rainbow. You’ll have all of the Post-Modernists from the ’70s and ’80s using a lot of colors as a reaction to modernism and abstract art. Post-Modernists used pastels and bright colors. Michael Graves used burgundy and peach and orange and ochre.
Our view is that color is a specific analysis and study for every project. There are projects where we believe the project should have a neutral palette. There are projects that we believe color should be used. For example, we’ve done a community in Palm Springs called Linea . It’s 14 homes. All the homes are white, intentionally so. They’re white inside. They’re white outside. The cabinets are white. The flooring is white. The countertops are white. Some might argue that this is very clinical or very sterile. We see it as being tranquil and peaceful. We see it as reflecting the maximum amount of sunlight coming in through the windows.
We also see it, importantly so, as a blank canvas for the owner of this house to add their own personality, to bring in their own colors of their life, whether it’s in the furniture, the art on the wall, a throw, the window treatment, or the colors they wear as clothing, as they move through this very calming environment.
On the other hand, we’ve done projects for schools where we think for an elementary school, there should be some vibrant colors to energize the space. In one elementary school that we did in Chicago, in the hallway for the windows we used red, green and yellow glass set in as accent pieces within the regular clear glass window system. In this way, kids can look back out at the world and see it through the lens of red, see it through the lens of yellow, to see what the world looks like. Colors becomes an educational device, something to alter your perception, to have their mind wonder.
AWARDS, HONORS AND BRAGGING RIGHTS
June 29, 2018
We are both blessed and lucky, as accolades shower the work of Poon Design Inc. With several dozen national awards, alongside local and regional ones, I am honored–especially with our recent win of one of the most prestigious awards in the industry: the National AIA Award.
Each and every project requires grueling work and commitment. For some projects, ten years have been exhausted to transform a design sketch into an award-winning reality.
From neighboring jurisdictions to countrywide juries, the prizes bestowed on my design team validate our creative pursuits. Sharing the honors with our clients validates their trust in us.
But here is the thing: every architect I know calls himself or herself an “award-winning architect.”
And every company calls themselves an “award-winning firm” with “award-winning projects.” We all have awards. Some are prestigious, like the national award of excellence from The American Institute of Architects. Some are unimpressive, like a local chapter of an unheard entity. (We have some of those.) And some are ridiculous, like an in-house award from a third-rate corporate firm for an employee identified as “our company’s best improved designer.” With the last dubious honor from a company whose name is withheld, the flattered architect prances around the room as an “award-winning architect.”
Speaking of prestigious, only a few in our industry have taken home the monster award of them all, the annual Pritzker Prize. Commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture, this lifetime achievement award has been bestowed on only three dozen laureates around the globe—one per year. And only half a dozen are from the United States.
Nobel Prize or a provincial award, my colleagues and I all try to be modest. We try to not let our artistic egos get out of control, and try to not believe our own hype. We feign humility like a Hollywood actor saying in a soft-spoken voice, “I am just honored to be nominated.” As each actor is up for that coveted Oscar statue, we hear that commonplace statement of decorum and a self-defense mechanism, if one ends up losing. I too have said the same cliché, before hearing my name called as a winner, and particularly after I have lost. “I am just honored to be here,” stated in a mock tone of diplomacy, as if losing is okay. It’s not.
Architects love their walls that display plaques, honors, and trophies. In my previous Beverly Hills office, I chose to not be so obvious. All our awards hung in the kitchen. If a client happened to glance a certain direction when seeking coffee, the crowded wall of our glory displayed our documented and supposed greatness.
Poon Design’s current studio in Culver City takes the predictable position of pandering. Upon walking in our front door, there they are. Hanging on the large brick wall, the shining awards greet you. A grand and insufferable, but necessary PR statement of bragging rights.
Architecture is a challenging competitive field. As a daily struggle, it is not for the faint at heart. Whether a peer award or an honor from a distinguished jury of civic leaders, I say thank you to all those for making the field of architecture a lot more exciting.
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.
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.
In architecture, the application of trim crosses over from the wedding gown. The use of architectural crown moldings, door casings, base boards, wainscot, window trims, 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 base board was installed as a transition—to basically hide gaps.
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.
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.
Steve Jobs’ 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.