Tag Archives: EGO

SOCIAL IRRESPONSIBILITY: SCALE AND OPTICS

June 3, 2022

“Supertalls” (photo from sinelab.com)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California. An additional excerpt on ego and arrogance is here.)

The architect’s responsibility to society goes far beyond the state legislature of “protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” Certainly, a design must ensure that a movie theater has the right number of emergency exits, for example. But social responsibility extends far beyond compliance with building codes. Just to name a few topics of accountability: carbon footprint reduction, community engagement, equity and equality, industry diversity, ethical labor practices, philanthropy, resilience, and affordability of housing.

At my presentation, The Creative Process and the Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Oive Stays)

Please heed Stan Lee as he proclaimed, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility!”

When I ponder social responsibility, I also confront social irresponsibility. As I prepared my notes for a presentation for Modernism Week 2022, out of a number of unfortunate examples of imprudence, two come to mind: scale and optics.

left: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France (photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash); right: Empire State Building, New York, New York (photo by Sam Trotman on Unsplash)

First, how tall do we need to build? When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1887, we reached the limits of our engineering and creative ambitions. At 1,083 feet tall, Eiffel was a marvel and over time, has become one of the most beloved structures in the world. Who knew we would need or want to build taller?

In 1930, the Empire State Building shattered records, completed with a height of 1,454 feet. Over the years since, clients, developers, corporations, engineers, and architects continued an obsession to pierce the sky with vertical and priapic structures. Perhaps, ego and arrogance were the fuel.

From Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

Currently, the award of conceit goes to the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Exceeding $1 billion in construction cost, when completed, this literal skyscraper of hotel rooms, residences, and offices will be 3,281 feet tall—three times the height of the Eiffel Tower and more than twice the height of the Empire State building.

A previous time in New York City, red line added (photo by George Marks | Getty Images)

The social responsibility of height is not just a numerical indicator. Height is also a concept of scale, meaning responsibility requires architects to understand a building’s height in relationship to its surroundings—whether to be complementary or intentional divisive. The early photo of New York City above displays a red line suggesting a consistent height the buildings, resulting in a cohesive scale and compatibility of neighbors.

“Supertalls,” red line added (photo from sinelab.com)

The above image depicts NYC today with a similar red line. Half a dozen projects, about 120 to 150 floors tall, counter the scale of the area. Called “Supertalls,” these skyscrapers south of Central Park—mostly residential units serving the super-affluent—pose the questions: Just because we can build this tall, should we? What is the responsibility towards the scale of the existing urban fabric?

101 California Street, San Francisco, California (left photo from 101california.com; right photo from socketsite.com)

The irresponsibility with optics is evident with the 48-floor office building at 101 California, San Francisco. For the design at the street level—though it is likely that the architect and structural engineer have completed a safe structure, the optics of the sliced bottom with slender columns leaves one to wonder. Is this the responsible and appropriate look for a city known for earthquakes? Does the design idea not remind one of a tree ready to fall?

left: buckinbillyray.com; middle: familyhandyman.com; right: outgress.com

There are many areas of social responsibility, from low-hanging fruit to visionary ambitions. Architects should not shirk the leverage they hold. With societal precedence having granted architects tremendous influence, let’s not let our creative thinking be impaired by ego and poor decision making.

EGO AND ARROGANCE

April 1, 2022

(photos left to right: Pyramid at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France, by Michael Fousert; Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, by Anthony Delanoix; Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York, by Dennis; Burg Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by Nick Fewings; all from Unsplash)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California.)

Architects design homes, schools, skyscrapers, entire cities. Who has given architects this role and influence in society, and what have we done with it? From the Pyramid at the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower , from the Guggenheim to the Burg Khalifa in Dubai—architect’s egos are stamped all over cities, all over the world. Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, even has drawings to literally redesign Earth.

Me presenting, The Creative Process and The Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Elizabeth Staes)

Master builder, master designer, master creator—architects have been granted the responsibility to impact communities and cultural progress, through the flexing of creative muscles. The offering of world icons and or definitive works stems from both talent and skill, as well as confidence and ego. Consider Philip Johnson’s pithy quote.

But ego can lead to influence, influence to power, and power to arrogance. And arrogance can either drive a project into successful territory or regrettable disaster. For the latter, two projects come to mind.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, a hotly debated project known as Munger Hall has every architect, student, parent, and community member up in arms. For this proposed $1 billion, 1.7 million square foot, 11-story dormitory for 4,500 students, there has been a very little support. For the amateur architect and developer, Charlie Munger (billionaire and partner to Warren Buffet) and Southern California architect-of-record, VTBS (yes, B-S), the wrath bestowed on this project approved is universal. To sum it up, there has not been so much loathing in recent history. There are many reasons for the abhorrence, but the main objection is that 95% of the dorm rooms will have NO WINDOWS. No natural light. No fresh air. No view to the outside.

Munger Hall (drawings and rendering from VTBS), Charles Munger (photo by Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters)

The arrogance of Munger comes from believing that: 1) Fronting the construction cost gives him the unconditional ticket to design whatever he wants, and 2) he and VTBS are convinced that windowless dormitory rooms are not just acceptable, but a creative success, even a bragging right. And everything from science to history, and real life to design guidelines, have proven this idea to be horrific.

Consider the residential estate in Bel Air, California, simply called “The One.” The conceit within that title alone reeks of egotism. Here, this spec house, with an asking price of $500 million, includes 105,000-square-foot, 20 bedrooms with a 5000-square-foot master bedroom suite, 42 bathrooms, a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, 50-car garage, and four swimming pools—to name a few details.

“The One,” Bel Air, Los Angeles, California (photo by Michael Leonard, The Society Group)

Bel Air is a community of wealth, where some of the largest mansions have been built over the years. As seen above, the two circled homes are such mansions of prestige and wealth. And between them is the out-of-scale, gargantuan vanity of developer Nile Niami and architect Paul McClean. The cautionary tale? No one wants such a home. The property recently sold for only $141 million, which is a mere one-third of the asking price.

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (photo by Guy Dugas, Pixabay); Medici family (image from historyhit.com)

Historically, architects were given such power by an omnipotent clients such as the Medici’s, but in today’s culture of individualism and self-promotion, such projects as Munger Hall and The One are fueled by confidence and salesmanship, perhaps even narcissism.

Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices (photo from drtuesdaygjohnson.tumblr.com

Author Meryle Secrest wrote of Frank Lloyd Wright, “If he had intended to live out his life in the columns of newspapers, he could not have acted any more effectively. . . again and again, courting the press . . . Wright’s appetite for whatever might further his career was gargantuan.”

Accusations of megalomania have been projected onto Bjarke Ingels and his company, BIG, with 550 employees in offices in Copenhagen, New York, London, and Barcelona. Ingels himself counters the Miesian platitude, “Less is more,” and instead proclaims, “Yes is more.”

Bjarke Ingels (photo by Thomas Loff); Ingels sketching (photo from youtube.com); W57, New York, New York (photo from claudejobin.com)

Check yourself. When does confidence become righteousness, talent become ego, and prowess become arrogance? How does self-assurance and pride become condescension and smugness? Who shall “inherit the earth”?

WHO WOULD YOU KILL TO SATISFY YOUR CREATIVE EGO?

May 21, 2021

Book cover design by Anthony Poon (photo by Anthony Poon)

Here’s the pitch for my debut novel. “San Francisco cloaked in fog and secrets: Architects are being murdered as they compete for a new museum of art at the notorious Alcatraz Island. This mystery of death and intrigue examines ego, arrogance, and redemption within the creative process. Who will win and at what cost?”

Lands End, San Francisco (drawing by Anthony Poon)

Due to the quarantine, there was a slow down at my office. So, I decided to author another book, entitled Death by Design at Alcatraz. For this blog and other outlets, I have written about design, architecture, art, music, and life. I have published two non-fiction books  (Live Learn Eat  and  Sticks and Stones | Steel and Glass), and decided to take a stab at fiction.

My idea was this: an ‘architectural thriller.’ This 330-page novel with illustrations is a mystery of obsession exploring the heights and depths within the world of architecture. An editor once told me that if I were to try my hand at fiction, it would be best to write what I know. Here are the things I know:

 

 

1.  San Francisco
2.  Architects and clients (good apples and bad apples)
3.  Design competitions
4.  Ambition and ego

The book summary: On a fog enshrouded morning, a world-famous architect plunges to his death off a cliff. Yet, Magnar Jones, billionaire developer, does not allow death to interfere with his twisted agenda. He still has five architects competing for his prized commission: the redesign of Alcatraz Island, the notorious federal prison, into the World Museum of Abstract Art. Magnar’s devious plan? To turn his design competition into a spectator sport, where architects soon find themselves prisoners. Who will succeed—and at what cost?

Illustrations by Anthony Poon. Book interior design by Pablo Mandel.

The architects in my story are as follows.

–  The Neurotic Entrepreneur: university professor and Post Modernist
–  The Husband-Wife Team: Ivy League-educated
–  The Corporate Jerk: armed with the formulaic resources of a global company
–  The British Dame: pseudo-intellectual arrogance and trust funded
–  The Mid-Century Modern Fanatic: Los Angeles’ flamboyant designer
–  The European Starchitect: dressed in black on black, pretentious master architect

There is also the billionaire Oklahoman Narcissistic Developer Client—vain, egotistical, and talks too much. And of course, his Enigmatic Girlfriend—young “Blondasian” influencer.

Construction scene (drawing by Anthony Poon)

Excerpt, “The setting of Alcatraz is both solemn and beguiling. Surrounding the group sits remnants of old buildings, storied concrete carcasses. Cracks on the island’s tough surface show the arcs of beginnings and ends, both life and death. One fissure hiding under broken glass welcomes a tiny struggling patch of grass, a flourishing survivor in a vast surface of ruined asphalt and compacted dirt. Standing guard, the remnants of the taller buildings peer down upon the visitors and demand that the island is respected. Twisted corroded iron bars protrude from beaten stone walls, as if a child’s cow lick that won’t lay flat regardless of the amount of saliva. The counter balance to this, these disparate elements, is the surrounding icy-cold waters that extend until unseen within a silky veil of fog, which on a luminous enough day, provides a cryptic silhouette of the city docks.”

Published by Goff Books, Death by Design at Alcatraz is available at Amazon. Shana Nys Dambrot, Arts Editor, LA Weekly endorses, The Fountainhead meets Squid Game in this mystery of obsession and murder set in the fancy but cut-throat world of contemporary architecture.

Illustrations by Anthony Poon. Book interior design by Pablo Mandel.

Maybe my next project will be a screenplay about Frank Lloyd Wright. True story: An unfortunate 1914, while Wright was working, his servant set fire to Wright’s Wisconsin residence. The servant bolted all the windows and doors shut. Except for one. As the inhabitants exited through the only escape from the blaze, the servant waited at this open window with an axe. Seven people were brutally murdered, including Wright’s mistress.

(image from The Ogden Standard)

B PLUS VS. A MINUS

June 23, 2017

A secret society judges (photo from encyclopediasatanica.wordpress.com)

Inside the catacombs, we professors graded our architecture students. The Ancient Order, Secret Society, Illuminati, covert handshakes and all—I was there. Inside.

Community and convention center for San Francisco, my graduate school thesis project (photo by Anthony Poon)
Community and convention center for San Francisco, my graduate school thesis project (photo by Anthony Poon)

Grading the student’s work is no easy task. I can track attendance, for example, but how do I assign a letter grade to a design for a hypothetical city hall? Is the project attractive? Is it supposed to be attractive? Is it functional? How do I rate function? What is good architecture? Yes, I can see that there are enough restrooms, but is the overall design a great one?

Al Pacino as an evil lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate, 1997
Al Pacino as an evil lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate, 1997

If I were to give a student a B plus, can I justify my decision against the student’s family lawyer questioning why the project was not an A minus? An accusatory attorney might seek damages for how I ruined the student’s chances of a getting into a good graduate school.

Scary stories aside, this one grading session in mind was innovative and for the most part, effective. We graded as a group, not as a solo teacher handing out evaluations while in pajamas at his home office.

At this thoughtful school, five teachers arrived with the work of their dozen students. Roughly sixty grades were to be given out in a period of eight hours.

Here is the catch. Each teacher proposed the grade for his or her own student, and the other four teachers would have to agree. If grading something creative and subjective was difficult enough, we now had to agree as a group of authority figures. When ego and territory come into play, battles ensued

Gearing up for a turf battle in Warriors, 1979
Gearing up for a turf battle in Warriors, 1979

“You call that an A?” questions teacher one to teacher two. Teacher one declaring, “Look at my student’s work. This is a true A.”

Teacher three, “That certainly is no A. That is barely a B plus, damn it!”

“Are you insinuating that I only have B and C students?” defensively and insecurely teacher four screams.

Teacher five, “My students are better than yours!” Meaning: I am a better teacher.

Do you deserve this? (photo by Anthony Poon)
Do you deserve this? (photo by Anthony Poon)

This continues for a whole day. In the end, if we can all agree, the assumption is that the grade is fair. Or is it?

At times, the most aggressive teachers had the most A students, simply because the other teachers were worn out from the onslaught and debate. Perhaps, the meek teachers ended up with C students only because they were out-negotiated and intimidated?

High school for Boston, my second year graduate school project (photo by Anthony Poon)
High school for Boston, my second year graduate school project (photo by Anthony Poon)

Each educator wanted to walk out with a proud collection of A and B students. But the sad reality is that there are also C and D students, as well as complete failures, an F. This was a different kind of deliberation. A tragic one, actually. For our group to all agree that a student should fail a class, is disheartening.

Student Activities Center, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Anthony Poon)
Student Activities Center, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Anthony Poon)

At the end of the day, not a bad idea at all: to evaluate a student’s creative work as a group. Coming from various backgrounds—some of us solo entrepreneurs, mom-and-pop architects, corporate directors, or theorists—we teachers of architecture participated in a forum of examination and understanding. In the typical world of arbitrarily evaluating talent, I applaud our roundtable and believe that we have served with passion, conviction, and fair-mindedness.

© Poon Design Inc.