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JORDAN ESTES INTERVIEWS ANTHONY POON: THE WHAT / HOW / WHY’S OF ARCHITECTURE

August 13, 2021

Poon Design Inc., Los Angeles, California (photo by Poon Design)

Exploring personal interests and college ambitions, Jordan Estes, Santa Monica high school student, interviewed me on a broad range of topics swirling around being an architect. Hope you enjoy this well-rounded primer—from collaboration to fluidity to technology.

Jordan Estes: I’m Jordan Estes, and I’m here helping you understand the basics of design jobs. Today I’m talking to Anthony Poon, an architect from Los Angeles. Architecture is not just based on you and your own skill, right? It’s very team based?

Under construction: Harrington Learning Commons, Sorbrato Technology Center and Orradre Library, Santa Clara University, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by HHPA)

Anthony: It’s a collaboration, and not just within my team at the office. It’s often a collaboration with the client too. When a client says they are interested in designing a house, library, or church, we have to understand what their vision is. They become part of the creative team.

Architecture is a collaboration of dozens of different trades and personalities. There are architects focusing on interiors or furniture design. Some focus on lighting. There’s the exterior of a building, or how one moves through space. Every project can be broken down into hundreds of little pieces.

For a modern picnic experience, custom benches with artificial grass, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

Jordan: Even outside of your team, there’s other professions that work with you?

Anthony: The architect is like the conductor of an orchestra. An orchestra has all these different musicians—violinists, cellists, trombone players—and it’s the conductor’s job to make sure it all stays organized and sounds great. We’re organizing not just all of the designers, but helping to organize the construction trades from painters to electricians, plumbers to framers. Also, we’re coordinating the work of a structural engineer or technology consultant, security expert or elevator specialist. Many spinning tops

Conductor and his orchestra (photo by Yoon Jae-Son from Pixabay)

Jordan: And with the contractor, would you say that you work with them to actually get the project built?

Anthony: The general contractor is the conductor of his construction orchestra: plumbers, electricians, carpenters. Our job as the architect is to check in on construction regularly, make sure it’s meeting the design goals. And of course, every project has questions that come up during construction, and we’re around to work through them.

Construction for WV Mixed-Use Project, Manhattan Beach, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

Jordan: How did you realize that you wanted to get into architecture? What traits did you have that allowed you to realize that architecture was right for you?

Anthony: I think most of my colleagues chose architecture because they started off very young with creative interests. It might be drawing, building things, playing with Lincoln Logs, or even taking a washing machine apart and trying to put it back together. I built a lot of model kits, cars, tanks, and rocket ships. I really liked making things. For me, it’s the interests in imagining some new world, some place where people can meet, where kids can go to a school, or a family live in a house. Realizing that you can actually do something creative like this in real life as a grownup is exciting.

Lego (photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash)

Jordan: When you went into architecture, is there anything that you didn’t expect—that you ended up just being surprised about?

Anthony: The thing that surprised me most was how challenging it is. The creative aspect is the enjoyable and rewarding side of architecture. But there’s so many other aspects to architecture. Every design you come up with has to meet a budget and a schedule. Getting through the city permitting process can be lengthy and torturous. And of course, there’s always those clients making changes and coming up with ideas different than what they said a month ago. The design process has a few more hiccups than anticipated.

Jordan: How do you choose clients, and what kind of structures do you design?

Not for me, popular faux-Cape-Cod style house (photo from idesignarch)

Anthony: The clients that we like to work with are the one that are interested in design, that are interested in the creative approach and being part of the artistic process. If someone comes to us and already knows what they want—saying, “We just want to have something like Cape Cod style”— that’s less interesting to us. That’s more of a cookie cutter approach. We’re looking for clients that are interested in the design process.

We don’t identify with any particular kind of building type. Some architects do. Some architects only design hospitals or parking structures, or maybe only performing arts centers. We specialize in design and that can mean helping any client to solve any kind of project. We focus a lot on hospitality, like restaurants and bars, sometimes retail. We also get our hands into educational design, and we do religious projects like Buddhist temples. And we also do cultural projects, visitor centers, multi-family buildings. It’s a wide range, and we’re excited by how far we are able to extend our talents.

Pico Mixed-Use Project, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design

Jordan: It seems like architecture is focused on fluidity. Fluidity in architecture is about change, making sure what you’re keeping and/or changing to adapt to the best possible situation.

Anthony: “Fluidity” is a really good word. I also like to think of the metaphor of jazz music and being able to improvise—stay loose and keep the process organic. If there’s a design question, there are dozens of ways of approaching it—lots of answers to the same question. We’ve got to stay “fluid” as you say, to come up with the best creative solution.

Jordan: How do you think architecture is changing as new technology gets developed?

Anthony: When I started in architecture, there were no computers. We were drawing by hand and putting pencil to paper. Then came computers. Computer-aided-design (“CAD”) became the software that replaced drawing by hand. It was a whole new world.

And now we’re entering 3D modeling. Rather than just drafting things, we’re actually building our projects in the computer in three dimensions digitally. On top of that, there’s AR/VR. We’re able to use these 3D models and take our clients for a walk into our projects. There are limits though. With all technology, it is four steps forward, three steps back.

From The Matrix, 1999 (photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

Jordan: I know a lot of jobs are being replaced with new technology. Are you concerned something like that could happen to architecture?

Anthony: It’s definitely a possibility, but I’m not too concerned. I think it will be some time before we’re replaced by some kind of machine. What we do is based on human relationships and a creative process. It’s not just cataloging; it’s not just drafting. But I do believe that software will eventually be able to design buildings for people. Ten years ago, people didn’t think computers could replace authors, but there is software out there that can write entire novels. The question is whether these novels are good.

Jordan: I think one of the best things about architecture is that because you focus on so many experiences, you could find a new profession somewhat easily.

Anthony: A bunch of classmates didn’t go into architecture. Architecture teaches you to problem solve, teaches you to think creatively about The Big Picture. A lot of architects moved into software engineering, graphic design or book publishing—even photography, furniture design, fashion design. I heard of one that started knitting sweaters—another one designing wedding cakes. Design is a broad field. It could be designing a car. It could be creating with paint colors for Home Depot.

Jordan: Thank you for letting me interview you. And to everyone who’s listening, I hope you learned something.

© Poon Design Inc.