November 5, 2021

Taipei Stadium, Taipei, Taiwan, by Anthony Poon (w/ NBBJ, photo by John Lodge)

“Host Jeff Haber shares conversations with interesting people from all walks of life, using a positive, uplifting and funny approach,” from the podcast series, No Bed of Roses, brought to you by Kenxus. Edited excerpts below are from the full podcast of episode #1030. Take a look at part 1 and part 2.

Jeff Haber: Along with design, you are an accomplished musician. What happened first for you growing up? Did you have a design bug? Did you have a music bug? Did you have any bugs at all? When did it start for you as a child?

Feeling Orange, 20” x 24”, 2019, by Anthony Poon

Anthony Poon: I would say I had a creative bug as a child. And it wasn’t specifically music or architecture. It was just the interest to make things, to build things, to take things apart. The different areas of my interests—architecture, writing, painting, music—they’re not separate endeavors. It’s all falls under one big umbrella of creativity and trying to communicate ideas through whatever medium I happen to be working on. Writing a musical number is not too much different than designing a Buddhist temple, or writing an essay. So when I was young, I played the piano, I painted, I drew, I played with Lego. It all kind of happened at the same time. It wasn’t a specific “bug.” It was just this interest in exploring and being creative—and the act of discovery.

Schroeder from the Peanuts, created by Charles M. Schulz (from vegalleries.com)

Jeff: You started as a classically-trained pianist. I saw that you were into jazz as well. Do you have something that you’re more drawn to musically?

Anthony: I’m drawn to jazz, probably because I can’t play it. A classically-trained musician and jazz music that is improvised and played spontaneously are two very different things. It’s like asking an opera singer to perform hip hop and rap.

left: Luciano Pavarotti (photo from wallpapercave.com); right: Jay-Z (photo from nytimes.com)

I have spent years of my life learning one classical piece, trying to master every one of those 100,000 notes that fly across the keyboard. One note off and my music teacher would say, “Well, that entire performance is ruined.”

Piano Sonata in B minor, by Franz Liszt, (from omifacsimiles.com)

I compare that to jazz musicians who just sit down at the piano or pick up their saxophone, and they just start playing. They’re just making things up. If there’s a mistake, let’s say a pianist hits an off note or the wrong harmony, he will bang that note a few more times to make sure you hear it. And then turn it into something!

That’s a kind of mentality doesn’t exist in my classical training, my pursuit for the absolute truth and perfection. Jazz is about spontaneity and playing impromptu, and it’s just fascinating to me. I’ve also been interested in how this jazz process can apply to the way we design our buildings. This goes back to overlaps and thinking of all this as being under one creative umbrella.

Jeff: For design, do you need to be that specific, as you do it in your approach to classical music?

Anthony: The traditional approach to architecture is kind of like studying classical music. It’s very rigorous, it’s methodical, and it takes years to design and build a building, sometimes decades. And in the sense that one piano note off and the whole performance is ruined relates to one calculation off for a steel truss in a movie theater and the entire roof collapses.

Under construction, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, by Anthony Poon when w/ HHPA (photo by HHPA)

I like to add the jazz process into the creative architectural process, because sometimes I find the design process to be overwrought. I rather see what we can generate by doing things quickly, keeping an even flow of conversation. If we’re designing, let’s just grab whatever tools are at hand; let’s keep it loose and free to see what ideas we come up with. Both approaches, classical music and jazz music, have a place in the architectural process.


April 29, 2016

Campus Library, American University in Cairo, New Cairo, Egypt, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Pfeiffer Partners)

Allow creative ideas to resonate in your head. Like wine aging in a bottle, the clamor of an idea seasoning in your cranium is called imagination.

Be original. Be remembered. If you do the same thing over and over again, you will always get the same results, of which, most have already been done, or might be boring and forgettable.

The medium of our art is not just pens and paper, paint and canvas, or software and megabytes. The medium of our art is life itself. Design your world.

Arcadia Residence, Palm Springs, by Poon Design (photo by Lance Gerber)
Arcadia Residence, Palm Springs, by Poon Design (staging by Interior Illusions, photo by Lance Gerber)

There should be no divisions between architecture, graphics, landscape, fashion, poetry, music, photography, theater, and all artistic endeavors. In the act of creation, design industries must overlap and blur, operating as a comprehensive force of artistry. Our contribution to progress and civilization.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, by Giorgio de Chirico, 1914
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, by Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Promote society’s advancements, and acknowledge the legacy of traditions. Beware: nostalgia can be a yearning for a false past that either does not apply today, or never truly existed. “Nostalgia” is made up of two Greek roots: nostos “returning home,” and algos “pain.”

Focus. Listen. Don’t forget what you have heard.

Design communicates more than aesthetics. Design communicates ideas: everything from our culture and community, to the solutions for each client. We call this content.

Our work explores everything, from high art to pop art, from Schubert to So You Think You Can Dance.

Jeanine Mason on So You Think You Can Dance
Jeanine Mason on So You Think You Can Dance

Form is function, and function is form. Style is not superficial. Though a purist, don’t assume that style is only artificial. That trap is known as pretentious unpretentiousness. Understand style as the expression of character.

Design is about thinking strategically. As in chess, plan all your moves. Start by seeing a few moves ahead, then grasp for more. This is called experience.

All works of art are in progress. A good idea advances, evolves, and changes.

Good design balances imagination and reality. Architecture must balance greatness and fantasy, with things like schedule and budget.

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

Process and product: both fascinate. The end of the journey is as exciting as the journey itself. We design both the outcome and the process that leads to the outcome.

Do not subscribe to the cliché, “Work hard, play hard.” Work can also be play. We do not divide our lives into boring work and fun play.

Enjoy your life. Laugh out loud. Arthur Rubenstein suggested that one should not practice piano too much: Limit your practice time, enjoy your life, and you will have much to express when playing piano.

Hands of Arthur Rubenstein (photo by Yousuf Karsh)
Hands of Arthur Rubenstein (photo by Yousuf Karsh)

Don’t take yourself seriously, but take your work seriously.

As in jazz, when a mistake is made, exploit it as a delightful thing. In classical music, when a wrong note is played, it gets buried under a flurry of other notes. In jazz, when an unintentional note is hit, the musician bangs on that note a few more times to make sure the audience hears it.

Embrace improvisation and creating impromptu. Be prepared to make up things off the top of your head, from the tips of your fingers.

A fresh mind has the most creative potential. Don’t subscribe to the romanticized and fatalistic belief that sleepless nights bring about incredible imagination. And don’t believe that an artist needs to struggle, bleed, and die to be considered a genius.

Danae, by Gustav Klimt, 1907
Danae, by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Take a lunch break every day. Give your brain a rest. Even if the day is hectic, take that break—not just to have it, but to decree that you are still in control of your day.

If your work is boring you, do something different. If you are boring yourself, be someone else.

(photo from warosu.org)
(photo from warosu.org)

Try not to dress in all black. Don’t be a fashion cliché.

Read everything: not just design magazines and blogs. Read poetry. Read the classics. Read autobiographies, non-fiction, comic books, music. Even read horoscopes and advice columns.

Get used to senselessness and not knowing everything. The world is asking for too many answers. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” so said Albert Camus.

Sisyphus (photo from theonwardupwardjourney.com)
Sisyphus (photo from theonwardupwardjourney.com)

Like a young student, believe that you will save the world through your idealistic spirit. Hold tight your hopes, dreams, and ambitions.

Terms used to describe Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: icon, masterpiece, seminal and absolute. The curse of The Ninth prevented superstitious composers from attempting to write a tenth symphony and surpass perfection. It goes so far as believing that the composer will die after writing his own Ninth. Gustav Mahler did. What would the world be if Beethoven had written a Tenth Symphony?

Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony


© Poon Design Inc.