Tag Archives: CHINATOWN


July 15, 2022

“The interdisciplinary architect discusses his first novel, the relationship between architecture and music, and designing for everyone. Anthony Poon has a story to tell. Actually, he has many stories to tell—some in written form, others in the language of architecture, music, or painting.” So writes journalist Brian Libby for a recent article in Metropolis. Below are edited and abridged excerpts.

Death by Design at Alcatraz, by Anthony Poon, published by Goff Books, 2022

Brian Libby: Poon Design Inc. has completed over 300 projects, as chronicled in the 2020 book Live Learn Eat: Architecture by Anthony Poon. Earlier this year he was named to the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows, following national awards for educational, residential and restaurant designs. He’s also a certified Feng Shui practitioner, and recently released his debut mystery novel Death by Design at Alcatraz. Yet books are just one of Poon’s passions. He’s also a mixed-media artist and with a master’s degree in architecture. Poon trained even longer—from the age of six—to be a concert pianist. In 1987, after earning a magna cum laude in architecture and music from the University of California Berkeley, he had to decide between applying to The Julliard School and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, ultimately choosing the latter.”

Live Learn Eat: Architecture by Anthony Poon, edited by Michael Webb, published by ORO Editions, 2020

The question of rigid composition versus improvising relates to being a pianist. Could you talk about that?

Anthony Poon: Growing up, my training was classical music. It’s this process of aiming for perfection, a flawless performance. Playing a piano sonata—there are a hundred thousand notes, and you’ve got to hit them all correctly. If I got one note off, my piano teacher would say, “That whole performance is ruined.” But I got interested in something beyond technical proficiency. You’ve got to be able to add a voice, a story. I eventually learned about jazz. It blew my mind that these pianists would just sit at the keyboard and make things up.

Anthony Poon at Ranchos Palos Verdes, California (photo by Olive Stays)

Brian: Your thesis at Harvard was about how jazz improvisation informs the architecture process. What did you learn?

Anthony: Architecture is very methodical. It takes a long time to produce a building. There are a lot of practical considerations: code, budget, square footage. You can’t just whip out a building the way a jazz musician would whip out music. But in the creative process, I always wonder: Why can’t we just grab colors and make an idea? Why can’t we have this sort of jazz-like conversation bouncing ideas and simply grab at this and that, and make it the basis of an entire building design, whether it’s a library, museum, or house?

Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon, A4E, and Cordogan, Clark & Associates (photo by Mark Ballogg)

Brian: Let’s go back to this question of architecture and narrative. Could you talk about the importance of storytelling in design?

Anthony: It’s all about communication. Everything that I do––painting, music, writing, architecture––is all a language. In architecture, we look to our clients—who they are and what they are—to craft a story. If it’s a family, we want to know how they celebrate the holidays, if the in-laws stay with them, whether they have dogs. For designing a school, we ask: How do the teachers teach, how do the students learn? With an office: what’s the corporate culture, what’s the mission statement? When we do a religious project, there is an entire set of beliefs that need to be expressed in architecture. What’s exciting about music and architecture, and what makes them different from writing, is that they are abstract. It’s kind of open-ended communication.

Sticks and Stones | Steel and Glass: One Architect’s Journey, published by Unbridled Books, 2017

Brian: In your memoir, Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass: One Architect’s Journey, you write about designing intimate spaces for people.

Anthony: What we talk about at my firm is that good design belongs to everyone. It could be a restaurant or the design of a bench—corporate headquarters or a public school. It’s about harnessing the talents that my team brings, and then reaching as many people as possible.

Brian: Where do you stand on the introvert-extrovert scale? Because architecture, especially when you get to a certain scale, is teamwork. Painting, which you’re also acclaimed for, is a more solitary activity.

Anthony: I’m probably somewhere in the middle but skewing a little towards the extrovert side. Some of these art forms are solo explorations, but I don’t see the art being complete until it reaches the audience. That’s the completion of the artistic arc. With any kind of artist, both introversion and extroversion are tapped. In architecture, for example, the introverted, introspective, self-examining qualities usually launch the design process, and the extroverted side leads a team, sells the idea to a client, and supports the creative ego.

top: Alleyway, 30” x 42”, 2019; bottom left: Melrose Brown, 23” x 27”, 2021; bottom right: Feeling Orange, 20” x 24”, 2019

Brian: In Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass, you described how San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square in Chinatown inspired you. The park dates to 1833, but its 1963 redesign was derided at the time for raising the park to fit a parking garage underneath. What made it special to you and the community?

Anthony: Isn’t it incredible that it is a parking structure and an extraordinary park? The plaza acts like a blank canvas, and the community paints their life onto this canvas. It’s just that kind of wonderful, idyllic place that you don’t imagine would be in such a dense area. I look at Portsmouth Square, not as an architect fetishizing its design, but as what it offers to the community: to have a Tai Chi class at 5:00 in the morning, a wedding at noon, and kids running around in all day. That’s the power of architecture.

Portsmouth Square, Chinatown, San Francisco, California (photo by Bert Brautigam)


August 10, 2018

Mills High School, Millbrae, California (photo from carducciassociates.com)

A 1960s cover of Time magazine featured my high school as a building that could be assembled and disassembled with a screwdriver. Though not literally so, the architects of Mills High School made a bold assertion relating an entire school campus as a simple kit-of-parts. Before the recent marketing ploys of prefab homes, this school that I attended comprised prefabricated parts that could be put together like a child’s toy.

Though the high school was comprised of nothing more than several dull institutional buildings, I wonder if the innovative thinking in the school’s design influenced how I experienced architecture.

Eichler home, Burlingame, California (photo from freshome.com)

During these teen years, my family resided in Burlingame, a quiet suburban community a few miles south of San Francisco. Though initially appearing to be not much more than some average tract homes, Burlingame had an architectural legacy unknown to general home buyers. Our little neighborhood contained one of the largest collections of Mid-Century Modern homes by illustrious developer-builder, Joseph Eichler. Over 100 homes.

Eichler homes, Burlingame, California (photos by Anthony Poon)

The streets where I rode my bike, where I learned to drive, and where I played ball, were lined with the iconic architecture of the period. The design vocabulary of clean lines is commonplace now, but back then, it was ground breaking. Eichler explored indoor-outdoor spaces, abundance of natural light, large walls of glass, thin roof lines, open floor plans, carports, and an overall composition of efficiency and elegance.

How did growing up in two such impactful architectural environments influence my future?

East West Bank, Chinatown, San Francisco, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Prior to living in Burlingame, the urban fabric of San Francisco was home, from the steep streets and Victorian homes of Russian Hill to the patina and history of Chinatown, from a job at a music studio in the Tenderloin of the then decaying Mission District to the deeply fogged-in hillside of South City, and from the hustle bustle glamor of Union Square to the comic book stores of North Beach. This was all an architectural sonata of intensity, risk and exploration.

Hills of San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge in background, view from Coit Tower, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

I suspect that if I attended a generic suburban high school and not a gutsy innovative architectural work, that if my teen experiences were contained in the Taco-Bell-style tract homes of California and not a community of production homes from one of history’s eminent Mid-Century Modern architects, and that if my childhood was in a city that lacked texture, adventures and delight, I would not be the architect I am today. I believe that somehow the creative and random tapestry of various conditions threaded into my head, and decades later, seeped out of my architectural hands.


August 19, 2016

SFMOMA, San Francisco, California (photo by Quinten Dol)

As a kid running around Chinatown, the alleys of San Francisco fascinated me. This childhood curiosity preceded my academic studies two decades later into urban density and the small streets that patiently waited to be discovered.

In 2009, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (“SFMOMA”) announced a massive $300 million, 235,000 square foot addition to the iconic 1995 museum by Swiss architect Mario Botta. In the dense South of Market area expecting this museum’s expansion, there is barely any land left. Only slivers of in-between spaces. How would this big project squeeze into the city?

View of SFMOMA from the northeast alley (photo from snohetta.com)
View of SFMOMA from the northeast alley (photo from snohetta.com)

Recently completed, Norwegian architect Snohetta with local architect EHDD, unveiled the new SFMOMA—a skinny, ten-story building addition, woven and tucked neatly into the urban fabric.

By allowing visitors to enter SFMOMA from various directions, Snohetta re-envisioned how the public graciously arrives, with the first and second floors engaging the street. This architectural porosity, as I call it, is notable as museum goers conveniently and casually approach the world of art. Such an accessible lobby experience provides a democratic outreach, as compared to the controlling arrival at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Here, one cannot walk easily to this museum. As it is in most of Los Angeles, one has to drive. Approaching the Getty, one first plunges deep into the earth, parking six or seven levels below the surface—a time-consuming downward spiraling journey. After fighting the slow and crowded elevators back up to fresh air, one finally arrives at the welcome mat to the museum.

The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California (photo by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California (photo by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

But you are not at the Getty yet. Rather, you are only on a platform waiting 40 minutes for a small tram that takes you to the museum that sits atop a hill, like a private Acropolis. Appearing unsure of its direction, the tram jostles absurdly and moves slowly as if a movie prop, and not the cutting edge transportation bragged about for this billion dollar museum.

(photo by Snohetta, courtesy of SFMOMA)
(photo by Snohetta, courtesy of SFMOMA)

Back to SFMOMA. What is the purpose of wrapping the building in 700 unique panels of white fiberglass-reinforced polymer? The building’s skin ripples and stretches provocatively, while silicon crystals in the surface create subtle changing light effects. Though sculpturally fascinating, do the fetishized facades really remind us, as the architect claims, of the waters of the San Francisco Bay? Unfortunately, the evocative building skin appears to have no impact on the interior experience.

Architectural study models from Snohetta (upper left: photo from wfmoma.org; upper right: photo by Katherina Du Tile; lower left: photo from twitter.com/fmearchdesign; lower right: photo by Henrik Kam)
Architectural study models from Snohetta (upper left: photo from wfmoma.org; upper right: photo by Katherina Du Tile; lower left: photo from twitter.com/fmearchdesign; lower right: photo by Henrik Kam)

One exhibit that displays several dozen tiny architectural models by Snohetta highlight the manically-obsessive design process. With each study model, this architect appears to randomly go from one exterior idea of form, color and texture to another—from glass to stone, from plastic to wood, to wavy surfaces, to stretched fabrics, and so on.

I know that the design process is not linear, but it shouldn’t be arbitrary either.

SFMOMA lobby (photo by Henrik Kam)
SFMOMA lobby (photo by Henrik Kam)
Intensely red restroom (photo by Lee Rosenbaum)
Intensely red restroom (photo by Lee Rosenbaum)

The distribution of natural light through a museum is both a science and an art form. Museum designers explore all kinds of architectural moves: skylights, patterned glass, operable louvers, diffused washes of sunlight, contrast-y dramatic accents, etc. At SFMOMA, not much new ground was broken in terms of light technology. But the galleries are made pleasant through what the architect calls “Vertical Gardens,” outdoor landscaped plazas inhabited by wonderful installations from sculptors such as Calder and Newman.

The interiors are mostly white with light woods. But the restrooms are intensely colored throughout, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. And different colors per floor. The vivid red used on the second floor left me viscerally disoriented.

As far as the relationship between the original Botta museum and the new Snohetta addition two decades later, let’s just say the juxtaposition of old and new has the feel of a forced marriage.

Original brick SFMOMA in foreground, white taller addition in background (photo by Snohetta, courtesy of SFMOMA)
Original brick SFMOMA in foreground, white taller addition in background (photo by Snohetta, courtesy of SFMOMA)
© Poon Design Inc.