Linea Residence G, Palm Springs, California (w/ Andrew Adler, photo by Hunter Kerhart)
100,000 attendees descended on Palm Springs last month for Modernism Week 2023, the 10-day design festival celebrating Mid-Century Modernism (“MCM”). As a feature lecturer, I presented The Myth of Mid-Century Modernism—positing that we honor the design style of the 1950s and 1960s, but should not embalm it. For the thousands of MCM fans and fanatics, my position was blasphemous of sorts.
There are a dozen ideas from MCM that serve well as design themes—to be adapted not regurgitated. Acknowledge past legacies, but look forward not backward.
The MCM concept of the open floor plan countered the traditional compartmentalization of homes. At Poon Design, we applied the open floor plan to the design of a middle school. Rather than the conventional 12-foot wide by 10-foot tall, congested hallway lined with lockers, we created a 60-foot wide by 30-foot tall corridor—more a central atrium. Within sits the community functions open and accessible—library, math amphitheater, woodshop, and social areas.
In California, we are blessed with moderate climate—not too hot, not too cold—that allows us to bring the outside in, blurring the division between interior and exterior. With today’s advanced engineering, the span of openings are wider. Technology even allows for sliding doors to disappear into walls.
Expansive walls of glass are prevalent in MCM homes. Here, we apply the ideas of lightness and transparency to a Buddhist temple. In the day, the walls of glass mirror the surrounding landscape, and at night, the glass disappears.
Often called the “butterfly” and “accordion” roof, we used such shapes not as an MCM gesture on a house, but as a unifying theme throughout a high school campus. Our roof lines recall the local mountains and serves as a metaphor for the institution’s mission statement, “Learning in Action.”
A restaurant can capture the imagination through wit and charm by applying 400 wood clothespins on chicken wire making a chandelier, faux grass expressing a new concept of the American picnic, and a mural-like chalkboard continuous from wall to ceiling.
We enjoy the application of color and patterns, but not just as decoration—rather, to add personality to a space, to capture the spirit and character of the owner—whether a purple chocolate factory, red powder room, of multi-colored gymnasium.
Light can be more than simply a source of illumination. Consider light to be similar to stone, wood, or metal. Meaning, light can also be a building material. Light can be an element to be shaped, harnessed, and applied like a painter applies oils to a canvas.
Having dominated architectural outcomes for centuries, the classical principles of architecture were open to MCM reinterpretation. At this wine store, the cabinetry possesses a traditional look with its cornice, trim and paneling. Yet, we applied such a traditional look to an elliptically-shaped showroom. Upon entering, the bottles of Bordeaux embrace the visitor.
As the Case Study Housing program attempted, Poon Design also sought to provide attainable, budget-driven, mass produced homes. Building and selling 230 contemporary homes in four new Palm Springs communities has earned us the highest national honor from the American Institute of Architects, the 2018 Best in Housing, alongside dozens of other regional and national awards.
New tools and technology allowed us to exploit MCM’s drive for a high sense of craft. Giant lampshades at the famed Din Tai Fung restaurant reinterpret historic Chinese screens. Through computer scripted patterns alongside milling techniques of oak plywood, we created lampshades and skylights that are works of sculpture, expressing a devotion to detail and innovation.
MCM architects sought to provide design services combining three prominent strains: architecture, interiors and landscape. For our Chaya Downtown restaurant, we went further to deliver a cohesively designed environment. We created the branding, website, and graphics. We also designed furniture and lighting, as well as curated the art. We continued our pursuits to include the employee uniforms and even the selection of music. Music too is an element of architecture. What is heard during the morning hours of coffee is different than the business lunches—different than festive happy hour, different than an elegant dinner, and different than late night cocktails.
We continue the optimism of MCM at larger scales and more ambitious programs than housing. For this lifestyle center serving the Asian community, the first floor comprises an Asian fish market, the second is a Korean spa, the third a Japanese karaoke bar, and the fourth a Chinese rooftop garden restaurant.
The design concepts of Mid-Century Modernism endure, because they are timeless and universal. The challenge is to look to MCM concepts as a platform to launch into the future—as inspiration not as nostalgia, for interpretation not replication.
FLATTERY OR THEFT
March 3, 2023
right: Colline Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier; left: chapel in Zhengzhou, China (photo rom pinterest.ph, RMJM)
Often, two separate architectural projects by two separate architects appear similar. Sometimes too similar. Hmmm . . . it is simply a coincidence, did one design inspire the other, or has an idea been “appropriated”? In other words, stolen.
In 2011, Lady Gaga released Born This Way, and comparisons to Madonna’s 1989 Express Yourself were swift, exacting, and accusatory. The two songs sounded more than just similar, and Lady Gaga was considered a plagiarist, a common thief. Gaga tried flattery stating that her song was not a copy, but rather, that she was inspired by Madonna—that the work was a tribute to the Queen of Pop.
In architecture, there are many creative overlaps between separate projects which can lead to the legal phrase, “likelihood of confusion.” But often the overlaps are innocent. The zeitgeist of ideas invades the media, websites, and magazine covers. Subconsciously, we design buildings that accidentally conform to pervasive aesthetic themes. But sometimes, there is thievery.
In 2017, Marlon Blackwell Architects (“MBA”), designed the Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, Arkansas (top image in the above collage). In 2018, HBG Design supposedly “collaborated” with MBA to develop the project. When the client dismissed MBA for unclear reasons, they filed the now infamous 2019 lawsuit. According to Architectural Record’s January 2020 reporting, the suit “claims that HBG has continued to use MBA’s intellectual property without credit or payment, and asks for a judgment of no less than $4.45 million . . . and a declaration indicating MBA’s original authorship of the design.”
MBA won, and HBG’s design (bottom image in the above collage) must now be credited as “an original design by Marlon Blackwell Architects.” Though the financial settlement remains confidential, this victory for the original creator contributes to the ongoing discussion of intellectual property and authorship.
What about Las Vegas producing themed-casinos based on great cities, e.g., Paris, New York (here and here), Venice, and Egypt? What about when an architect in China brazenly reproduces one of the greatest works of the International Style? (See opening image at top.)
For my personal exploration below, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, I mined some of my past designs and found many similar projects by other architects, some explicitly similar. Are they copies or merely independent invention?
As a Harvard graduate student in 1990, I designed this seven-story, vertically-slatted building in downtown Boston (right). In 2015, Stanley Saitowitz (one of my undergraduate professors at UC Berkeley designed this eight-story, vertically-slatted building in downtown San Francisco (left).
While employed at NBBJ, my design partner, Greg Lombardi, and I designed this sports building for the 2000 Sydney Olympics (top). Our design never got built, but SoFi Stadium opened in 2020 to much fanfare (bottom). Both projects feature an iconic roof curving up from the ground and soaring towards the other side.
As Co-Founder and Design Principal of A4E, I led the team to create this school in Yuba City, California (left)—a design expressing structure, horizontal textures, and a folding roof. Years later after I left the company, A4E designed this Fontana school (right)—a design of similar sentiments.
My studio, Poon Design, designed this 2008 restaurant bar framed by an innovative, back-lit, decoratively-etched mirror composition (left). We won the 2009 International AIA Award, and our design was published extensively. Years later, this store installed a back-lit, decoratively-etched mirror composition (right).
In 1993, Lombardi and I designed this glassy building situated on a plaza that slopes upwards to the sea (left). We won the 1995 AIA Merit Award, and our design was published extensively. In 2008, Norwegian firm, Snohetta, designed this glassy building situated on a plaza that slopes upwards to the sea (right).
Yes, the above commentary possesses some glibness. I understand that we architects sometimes design what is exclusively in our heads and sometimes what is non-exclusively part of a larger dialogue. I accuse no one of plagiarism, but often the resemblances are too striking to ignore.
LIVE LEARN EAT INTERVIEW PART 1 OF 2: SCHOOLS BY POON DESIGN INC.
November 13, 2020
Pages of Live Learn Eat: Greenman Elementary School and Preschool, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon, A4E, and Cordogan, Clark & Associates (photo by Mark Ballogg)
(The complete Zoom interview is here, and edited excerpts are below. The book, Live Learn Eat, is available at Amazon and your local retailers.)
Christine Anderson: Thank you for joining us today for a lively talk about a fabulous new book on the work of architect and artist, Anthony Poon, entitled Live Learn Eat. Our author, the noted architecture and design writer, Michael Webb, knows a good deal about living, learning, and eating—as he has traveled all over the world and has written a new memoir called Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering. Let’s take a deep dive into the design world of Anthony Poon.
Michael Webb: Yes, it’s true. I have spent half my life traveling abroad and writing about the best new architecture, but sometimes I make exciting discoveries in my own backyard. As a prime example, I give you Anthony Poon of Poon Design Inc., whom I describe as a pragmatic perfectionist, an architect who obsesses over the details, but has a firm grasp of function and value. I had the great pleasure of writing a monograph on Anthony, Live Learn Eat, which is being published this week. Live Learn Eat explores three typologies in which Poon has designed and excelled; houses, schools, and restaurants. If you think about it, living, learning, and eating are some of the most basic human activities, and typically they promote social interaction. Please join Anthony and I as we discuss his timely and timeless designs.
Let’s talk school design, which is a field in which you’ve excelled. You and a colleague (Gaylaird Christopher) master-planned an entire school district in Illinois, enhancing/rebuilding and/or designing from ground up 18 different schools. What did you learn from that?
Anthony Poon: Our approach to educational projects, PreK to 12 and higher education, focuses on the teachers and students. A lot of conventional school projects start with only the utilitarian program of how many classrooms, how many students in a classroom, square footages, how much storage do you get? Instead, we said, “Let’s look more closely at the educational curriculum and philosophy of each of these schools, and see how we can capture that in our architecture.”
We think of a school design as an open textbook. We believe that every aspect of the building can teach. And we look to the teachers and ask, “How do you teach, and what can we do to support the way the students learn?” So, for example, if this is an elementary school that supports the idea of flexible co-teaching, we would design the classrooms with walls as movable partitions, where two or three classrooms can come together and learn as a group.
We’ve even used floor patterns to teach. For example, to introduce students as they approach the math wing in a high school, the flooring shows mathematical notations. Or as you walk down the hall to the music room, our floor design displays the music score of the high school fight song, which allows students to walk, skip on the notes, and actually hum them, as they walk into the music room. So, it’s looking at every opportunity in the architecture to say, “What are we teaching, how can these students learn, not just from their teachers, but from the actual building itself?”
Michael: Which again, introduces some basic issues of what makes a school building function well, for both the students and the teachers who have different needs, and perhaps parents who come to visit. But there’s always that complexity of interaction between different people, different groups, different students. Talk, if you will, about that, what is at the core of designing the school?
Anthony: It’s an ongoing topic, as we’re talking with some of our educational clients about the future of schools? Of course, there’s the proportion of the classroom and the number of students that would allow for certain physical distancing during this pandemic. But, what we are really looking at is the core ways that a school functions. For example, fresh air has always been relevant in the quality of a classroom. But over the years with air conditioning and mechanical systems, we’ve conditioned these classrooms so tightly that the idea of fresh air—the idea that a student can open up a window and let air in—doesn’t seem to be an option. With where schools are now, the idea of air, as it’s being studied by our office clients and restaurant clients too, is a critical aspect.
Just the way students move through a campus, whether it’s higher education or a preschool campus, is critical to their life at school. The school is the existence that students have as the first entry into being a civil servant and a part of a community outside of their home.
As they move through a school, we want to really map this out, not just in terms of the function and making sure they can all get off the bus and not get overcrowded at the front door and get to the classroom, but study where they socialize, where they form their network of communities. Think of it almost like a mini city. We’re sort of urban planning how people meet, how they react, how they respond to each other, or when necessary, just move along as efficiently as possible.
Michael: I imagine that most school boards are working on a very tight budget and that cost is a very critical factor. Unlike houses, schools get a lot of hard knocks. Students can be very destructive, kind of aggressive. And how do you balance those two things? You can’t use cheap materials, or finishes because they’re just going to look horrible in no time at all. Yet you have to stay within the set budgets.
Anthony: You mentioned our schools in the Chicago area (for example, Greenman Elementary School and Herget Middle School). The publicly funded budgets were reduced, very economical. And you’re right, Michael, if you asked anyone who runs a school, they’ll say it’s one of the most abused buildings. I think the kids haven’t yet learned to care for their environment. So our buildings need to be durable, affordable, and easy to maintain over the next five years, 10 years, even 50 years.
It’s about how you use materials and where you apply them. With one of our projects (Feather River Academy), for example, we used concrete block for the walls—very durable, indestructible actually, and extremely affordable. But if you use that kind of gray concrete block as it comes off the shelf, the school is going to look like a prison. We used different colors, different finishes from smooth and ground face to split face. Then created striking patterns. To soften the concrete block, we added planks of redwood, but up high on the wall, which allowed the wood to stand against anyone who’s looking to vandalize the surface.
Michael: Smaller firms like yours are getting squeezed out of this educational market by large firms. The same in the healthcare industry that specialize and, in fact, are grinding out very similar solutions for very different problems. Talk about the need for fresh thinking and what you can bring to a typology that a big firm is probably not going to.
Anthony: The words “expertise” or “experience” are some things that a lot of clients seek. As we pursue projects, a client might ask to see our last five completed high schools in the last five years, which is a difficult statistic to meet as a boutique design studio, maybe easier to meet if you’re a 500-person architectural corporation. But clients have to also be careful that “experience” from some companies may fall into the trap of a cookie cutter solution, where those architects too quickly go to their library of past design solutions and replicate them for new clients.
That’s the opposite of the way we approach things. We want all our schools, actually all our projects, to be as customized to our clients as possible: to understand each of our clients, what the mission statement is, to tell their story, to talk about their successes and even maybe some battle scars and lessons learned. We will make a project that is unique to every institution and every educational client that we’re working with. We look for clients that understand the value of design. If they are looking for a big firm to crank out a school design, one they’ve seen often and repeated in the district, Poon Design is not the right fit. We’re the one that wants to learn who you are, who your students are, and how your teachers teach. And we want to create something unique to you.
A JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE SENSES
March 20, 2020
The five senses represented in cast plaster (photo from npr.org and Shutterstock)
Whether a house, school or church, the most successful works of architecture go beyond merely what it looks like. With a restaurant for example, the design must surpass the exercise of picking things, such as the stone for the bar counter, tile pattern on the floor, or fabric of the banquette. As a comprehensive cohesive experience, architectural design is more than the materials you see and touch. Architecture is a journey through all the five senses.
Selecting colors and textures, finishes and furniture consumes most of a designer’s effort. What a visitor sees comprises the initial architectural character and yes, even the style of the project. Avocado green paint signals a Mid-Century Modern approach, whereas red clay roof tiles echo a Spanish Colonial Revival project.
But keep in mind other aspects that an occupant sees, such as the lighting for a retail store. No, not just the stylish light fixtures, but what about Kelvins to lumens, fluorescent vs. LED vs. tungsten, or the magical way the spotlight delivers a halo effect to the retail objects?
What one sees goes even further, such as environmental graphics and signage, or maybe uniform design for the staff at a museum. Point is: We see a lot.
After the eye sees, the hand will take in more information. The visitor will touch the brick, for example. The texture might be smooth or rough. Even the grout has a sandy surface that provides a physical sensation.
When sitting in a lounge chair, arms smooth over the walnut trim, the body relaxes against leather cushions, and fingertips notice zigzag stitching.
The body also feels temperature, such as the warmth of a carpeted living room contrasted to the cool tile of the kitchen. For a pop-up nightclub, Poon Design worked with the theme of Heaven-and-Hell. One club room was aggressively air conditioned at a brisk, cool and alert temperature—Heaven. The other room was intentionally made warm and humid, even hot and bothered—Hell.
At the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, beeswax coats the interior walls. Not only providing a lustrous plaster surface for the eye to see and the hand to touch, the walls provided a sweet and relaxing scent to smell.
I recall another Seattle project—a bagel shop that purposefully exhausted the oven’s appetizing aroma into the street. The enticing smell of freshly baked goods attracted customers. Architecture confronted one’s nose.
Think also of landscape design and its diversity of scents, such as the sweetness of a lemon tree alongside the vanilla honey smell of Heliotrope. Don’t forget to smell the roses.
Approaching our scared 14th Shamarpa Reliquary Building, we transition the visitor from the dirt path to an intimate gravel walk. The sound of feet shuffling on loose gravel slows the visitor to a meditative pace.
Just as one would kick the tires of a car (for whatever reason?), owners are known to knock on the walls of their corporate headquarters or performing arts center. There is a big difference between knocking on a stucco building that has applied the plaster over wood framing (which is commonplace in California) vs. applying plaster over solid stone walls (more likely in Europe). The latter sounds like it should—walls that will hold up your roof.
For some of our restaurants, we select the music that accompanies the design, complementing the spirit and energy of the space as it evolves through the day. Brisk music welcomes the early birds, even keel classical selections buzz for the professional lunchtime crowd, eclectic techno lounge greets the sophisticated diners, and jazz ballads wind down the afterhours crowd.
Most people are not going to be tasting a work of architecture. I don’t imagine someone visiting an office and licking the conference room walls. But in addition to the design of a kitchen, there are opportunities for an architect to create a tasty design to address this fifth sense.
For our design of the 44,000-square-foot chocolate factory for Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago, we didn’t just design an ambitious corporate headquarters, we incorporated tasting stations that present the company’s recipes/ingredients.
Through provoking all five senses, the sensual experience of architecture promotes emotional content that enliven the human experience. How our senses engage the built environment suggests the architectural philosophy of Phenomenology, which studies what the body confronts, and what the body interprets.
TEN THOUGHTS, TEN MINUTES
April 13, 2018
Beams of desert sun breaking between the mountains, entering the master bedroom suite. Modern Villa, Monte Sereno, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photo by Lance Gerber)
Take ten minutes and get ten thoughts for your design project.
Besides architecture, these ten thoughts can apply to many other pursuits, from graphic design to gardening, from composing music to creating life itself. (All designs by Anthony Poon and/or Poon Design Inc.)
Luminosity, natural or artificial, places a static environment into motion.
Give your surroundings pace and tempo. Rhythm isn’t just for music.
Colors make surfaces recede or stand out. At turns, colors soothe and enliven.
A thoughtful, well-constructed project will last a lifetime, and even change in meaning over time.
Texture gives the body something to touch and the eye something to eat.
Unexpected moments deliver flair and amazement. Predictable architecture is boring.
Grand scale is heroic. Small scale is intimate. Choose the appropriate scale for the activity in mind.
Why can’t architecture have wit, irony and charm? It should.
Chase your dreams. Don’t be timid. And it might take some guts and perseverance to get results.
Good design should challenge you and please you. Architecture might test you, but know that delight and satisfaction are close.
November 25, 2016
Career training building in foreground; multipurpose building, gym and cafeteria in background (photo by Gregory Blore)
I have clients that make getting out of bed worth the effort, after I have fallen asleep at 2:30 a.m. working on their project. These are clients that show up early to my office, eager to see the freshest designs for their vacation house or new church. They find joy in my creative process.
For a good client, architecture takes on an extraordinary role. (This is a counterpoint essay to my recent one, Bad Apples.)
With my Pasadena studio named A4E, I served Superintendent Jeff Holland, designing an innovative campus in Yuba City, California. Named Feather River Academy, this “alternative education program” teaches students who have failed in traditional academic venues.
My business partner Gaylaird and I proposed a straightforward but innovative approach: let the students design their school.
Jeff supported this off beat approach, which landed me in a kick-off “client” meeting with disaffected youth, some accompanied by their parole officers, some single mothers at 15. If one were to assume that this group of lost teenagers would not be engaged in a stuffy architectural process, one would assume incorrectly.
At this first meeting, I showed up with a tabletop-size physical model of the site. I also arrived with what eventually became a signature of mine over the years, the Kit-of-Parts.
Kit-of-Parts. For each programmatic element of this new school, I brought colored blocks of foamcore: classrooms, gym, cafeteria, offices, art room, etc. Green and tan cardboard represented the outdoor areas: basketball court, social spaces and parking. I made all my pieces to scale. The clients/students literally had the building blocks of their future school.
I quickly learned from the students: no to big buildings, yes to a village of smaller buildings, nothing institutional or prison-like. They wanted classrooms directly adjacent to the basketball court, sought an open campus feel of one-story structures, and so on. The design results of these sessions became the basis of the entire campus plan.
Furthering the participatory process, our studio hosted one of these students as an architectural intern, so as to be part of developing his own school, while learning at a professional design company.
At the time to present to the Board of Education in a large televised public hearing, this same student, once labeled “at-risk,” was our primary presenter. The Board received his presentation and personal statements with applause. Feather River Academy opened its doors in 2005, and shortly after, was honored with a dozen national design awards.
Guilty of profiling, I have categorized my best clients. Those of us in the service industry relying on customers, we all know these people.
The Experienced and The Knowledgeable The Charitable and The Big Hearted The Personal and The Empathetic The Once-In-A-Lifetime and The Probably Never Again The Excited and The Appreciative The Remarkable and The Ground Breakers
There is no end to clients that are professional, altruistic, generous, sympathetic, cheerful, unwavering, heroic, and inventive. Some are veritable humanitarians, and some are even spiritual deities. Literally. See: To Accommodate and To Defer.
Though there are bad clients, the ones that send me home shrieking with frustration, the ones where money is lost, and the ones that literally frighten me—it is the good clients that get me up every morning.