Tag Archives: Frank Gehry

SEATTLE HEROES AND ICONS

September 24, 2021

left to right: Seattle Century Library; Museum of Pop Culture; The Spheres, Amazon (photos by Anthony Poon)

Upon a visit to Seattle, I confronted three different buildings—all leaving a seductive imprint on the city and my memory.

– Seattle Central Library by Pritzker-laureate Rem Koolhaas,
– Musuem of Pop Culture by Pritzker-laureate Frank Gehry, and
– The Spheres at Amazon by corporate NBBJ.

The first two projects are by two of the most famous living architects on the planet. The third is by an anonymous company, one without the trappings of a sole Wright-ian genius which gives way to collaboration instead—for better or worse.

(Three disclaimers: Rem Koolhaas was my professor in grad school; I was employed by NBBJ in the 90s; and I did not have an opportunity to visit the interiors of The Spheres.)

THE SEATTLE CENTRAL LIBRARY

Seattle Central Library exterior (photo from hoffmancorp.com)
Library and its neighbor (photo by Anthony Poon)

The Seattle Central Library, designed by the Rem Koolhaas and shepherded by local Architect-of-Record, LMN, opened to the public in 2004—the winner of a lengthy design competition. The reviews of this 11-level, 363,000-square-foot building varied.

The international architectural scene claimed the design a heroic success. Others saw a design with a target on its back—and its front too. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer spewed adjectives: “decidedly unpleasant,” “relentlessly monotonous,” and “profoundly dreary.”

I side with the glorious praise hailed from the enlightened world. The library design comprises community spaces that engage the public on many levels, (literally) as well as a civic icon unlike anything seen before.

Conceptual model and section diagram (from archdaily.com)

As Professor Koolhaas taught us in school: Do not design simply in floor plan, meaning, not just one-dimensionally laying out an auditorium next to offices next to restrooms. Instead, design in section, meaning, three dimensionally as one places a library over a five-story high living room, then tucking parking under the auditorium.

Library interiors (photos by Anthony Poon)

The library’s innovative and challenging (yes!) urban form, the diamond-patterned skin of glass and steel, a four-level spiral of books, a complex layering of space and experience, and so on—all this together convinces me that I have walked into one of the most exciting works of contemporary architecture.

THE MUSEUM OF POP CULTURE

Museum of Pop Culture aerial (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Museum of Pop Culture, coined “MoPOP,” opened in 2000 under the former name, the Experience Music Project—coincidentally also included the participation of the same Architect-of-Record, LMN. Frank Gehry’s design, though predictable and yet another variation-on-a-theme (nearly a career-long theme) offers passerby’s a composition of great risk and resulting beauty.

Musuem exterior with monorail at right (photo from blog.360modern.com)

According to the client, “When Frank O. Gehry began designing the museum, he was inspired to create a structure that evoked the rock ‘n’ roll experience. He purchased several electric guitars, sliced them into pieces, and used them as building blocks for an early model design.”

Such tales subscribe to the mad artist genius syndrome. True or not, it makes Gehry sound like less of a thoughtful architect creating wonderful spaces for the public, and more like an awkward child who believes that the broken pieces of a guitar can represent a work of architecture.

Close of exterior stainless steel shingles (photo by Pygmalion Karatzas)

Five giant building masses sit at the base of the Space Needle, each mass clad in enigmatic surfaces, like fire-engine-red stainless steel or fuchsia-fluorocarbon-coated aluminum—comprising a total of 21,000 individually cut metal shingles. As an object, as architectural sculpture, the composition is stunning. Does not disappoint. Having the monorail pass through the building is yet another daring move that delivers a thrilling creation.

Interior view (photo by Pygmalion Karatzas)

But the 140,000 square feet of interior space underwhelms, fails to translate the exterior exhilaration to the indoors. Whereas the Seattle Central library sings with its visionary interior design, MoPOP falls out of tune. Aside from a few flourishes, like a dynamic staircase or a contorted lobby space, most of the museum’s inside is not much more than generic exhibit space. One might argue that a museum’s interiors should be flexible and so inherently boring, but I would then direct your attention to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, also by Gehry.

 

 

THE SPHERES, AMAZON

The Spheres, Amazon (photo by Sean Airhart)

You don’t need the singular vision of great artistic minds like Koolhaas and Gehry to deliver good architecture. Unlike the first two projects, NBBJ played the role of Design Architect and local Architect-of-Record, meaning both the creative lead as well as the development and production team.

Aptly named The Spheres, Amazon’s new workplace and quasi-visitor center is made of three giant glass and steel spheres, colliding like a kid’s exhaled soapy water bubbles. Recently completed in 2018, Amazon claims, “The Spheres are a place where employees can think and work differently surrounded by plants.”

Interiors (photo by Fran on Unsplash)

Is it just another glamorized office? Just more “creative office space” glorified by real estate agents? But the phrase “surrounded by plants” fascinates me.

The spherical structures, conservatories actually, house 40,000 plants from over 30 countries. Within a meticulously engineered structure of 2,600 pentagonal hexecontahedron panes of glass alongside 620 tons of steel, I see one of the finest examples of biophilia. For reference, a past article, “Biophilic Design refers to our instinctive association to nature and the resulting architecture that enhances our well-being.”

Floor plans and diagrams (from archdaily.com)

Aside from the obvious design reference to Buckminster Fuller’s utopian geodesic domes of the 60s, the Amazon Spheres offer a new narrative for office space, retail, café, and meeting places. NBBJ has shed the dogmatic aim of developers to maximize floor area. Similar to Koolhaas, NBBJ celebrates the magnificence of volume, as in cubic footage (or in this case, spherical footage) and the capture of air, light, and a more productive work culture.

Exterior at night (photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash)

The total result is impressive, likely to be a local fan favorite and on every city tour guide. The design is good, even great, but is it inspired? Will it change the world? Probably not.

But the Seattle Central Library has already influenced the way architecture students think, the way teachers teach, the way professional architects design. Most of Rem Koolhaas’ projects deliver new ideas beyond form-making, embracing social engagement and re-inventing the meaning of living, shopping, or learning.

Frank Gehry, on the other hand, seems to be playing the same note over and over again. But is that wrong, especially if this one note is sheer genius played with virtuosity?

NEW MASTERS OF THE TRADE

December 4, 2020

Ashen Cabin, Ithaca, New York, by HANNAH (photos by Andy Chen, HANNAH)

Before the advent of technology, architects used tools that supported their Old School activities, like sketching and making physical models—all done by hand. Today, items such as a T-square, circle template, or X-acto blade have been replaced by tools of our digital age, for example, Revit and 3D printing. Yet, most of our leading designers—consider the practicing Pritzker Prize laureates—are only familiar with their old tools of the trade. Limited even.

Galleria Department Store, Gwanggyo, South Korea, by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo by Hong Jung Sun and OMA)

Though such famous individuals have a staff engaging current technology on a daily basis, I suspect these big name architects do not personally design with apps like 3ds Max and Maxwell. I doubt Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, and Peter Zumthor are writing parametric algorithms on their laptops, or creating virtual structures through Building Information Modeling. These architects probably still use pencil on paper.

Dr Chau Chak Wing facility for UTS Business School, Sydney, Australia, by Frank Gehry (photo by Chris Charles)

Meaning, if one person starts the process and others continue it, there is a disconnect between the original concept and its development. The principal architect maybe the creator at the start, but for the remainder of the process, he is but a critic, watching others create in his place, fleshing out ideas with the highest technology available.

Eventually, this disconnect will be gone, and the new processes will generate different results. The 30-something architect, who uses Grasshopper and Viz Render, will soon become the industry veteran. Then, the same mind and hands will work on the project from inception to completion. No disconnect. These future thought leaders will find no need to have others continue in lieu of an old-guy-boss lacking certain industry standard skills.

Villa in Devon, England, by Peter Zumthor (photo by Jack Hobhouse/Living Architecture)

What will the industry and the resulting architect look like when these younger architects, who are facile in all the current tools of today, become the world famous designers? When the disconnect is gone, structures will be designed differently, constructed differently, and look different in the end. There will be notions, materials, and methods not even thought of yet.

Ashen Cabin, Ithaca, New York, by HANNAH (photos by Andy Chen, HANNAH)

This recently completed house in Ithaca, New York, is a stellar work of sustainable thinking, digital design, and fabrication technologies. Using 3D scanning and robotics, the architects transformed a material typically wasted—infested Ash wood—into an exciting building material. Readily available, affordable, and green. Other innovations include the 3D-printed, concrete, feet-like base of the cabin.

Cork House, Berkshire, England, by Matthew Barnett Howland, Dido Milne, and Oliver Wilton (photos by Matthew Barnett Howland, Dido Milne, and Oliver Wilton)

Another example of new minds and methods is the Cork House in Berkshire, England. The architectural pioneers offered a design of 1,268 cork blocks sustainably harvested from the bark of a cork oak tree. The blocks are intended to be efficiently dismantled and reused—or recycled. Both walls and roof comprise this single bio-renewable material. With a structure of engineered timber, the cork modules require no glue or mortar, while providing insulation to the house.

Merriam-Webster defines “brave new world” as “a future world, situation, or development.”

COMING OF AGE IN ARCHITECTURE

July 3, 2020

top: Boa Nova Teahouse, Porto, Portugal, by Alvaro Siza (photo by Joao Morgado), lower left: Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, by Piano & Rogers (photo by Denys Nevozhai, @dnevozhai); lower right: Aarhus, Denmark, by BIG (photo by BIG)

The design industry often states that the career of an architect doesn’t truly begin until age 50. Why are architects only commencing a successful career when colleagues in other industries are planning their retirements?

How is it possible that Mozart wrote his first symphony at eight? Or at a mere 18, Billie Eilish won five Grammy Awards. On the other hand, I.M. Pei was an elder at 66 when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize. He was even older, 71 years, when he designed the world-famous Louvre Pyramid.

left: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1782 painting, Joseph Lange, from smithsonianmag.com); right: Billie Eilish (photo by Sara Jaye Weiss/Rex Shutterstock, from theguardian.com)

Very few architects have completed great buildings at a young age. Such rare individuals, though fully grown adults, are like child prodigies in architecture. Alvaro Siza wasn’t even 30 when he designed the poetic Boa Nova Tea House in Porto, Portugal. Only in their early 30s, Renzo Piano and Richard Rodgers created the groundbreaking Centre Pompidou in Paris. And Bjark Ingels amassed a global portfolio of ambitious projects before even reaching 40—a portfolio of built works equal in depth to colleagues literally twice his age.

But these few examples are extremely exceptional. More typical is a Frank Gehry at nearly 70 finally having the opportunity to bring to the world his iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Some of Zaha Hadid’s most elaborate and bold projects are now being completed, several years after her unfortunate passing at 65. As a typical investment banker relaxes upon his riches at 40 or 50, world-famous I.M. Pei worked into his 90s.

If our architectural career doesn’t truly launch until 50 or even 60, the question screams out: Why? The answer is complex, but mostly two-fold.

upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry (photo by Juan Gomez, @nosoylasonia); lower left: Louvre Museum, Paris, France, by I.M. Pei (photo by Irina Ledyaeva, @irinaledyaeva); right: Generali Tower, Milan, Italy, by Zaha Hadid (photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel, @ripato)

The Practical

After completing one’s architecture education and obtaining the state license to practice (yes, the word is “practice”), an individual is legally an architect. But at 20-something, could such a new architect design a performing arts center or a museum, both projects that typically define a milestone in one’s career? Is it practical that a corporate board of directors or a university would hire this young architect to design a project over $100 million?

Such a sophomoric designer might have worked on similar projects in school, but in concept only. In real practice (again, “practice”) the project has a budget, client demands, city codes, engineering, construction trades, etc. It is unlikely that this architect would have the client savvy, technical expertise, office infrastructure, and team of architects, consultants, and legal counsel—as well as personal maturity.

An architect usually launches his career with the renovation of his uncle’s master bathroom, or maybe a mom-and-pop café. Then hopefully, one project leads to another. Eventually after decades, the house design leads to a condo building, then maybe a restaurant or hotel, eventually a classroom building and college library, then a theater or corporate headquarters, finally having a shot at something like a museum or skyscraper. And this can take years, decades, or even an entire career.

left: TWA Flight Center, Queens, New York, by Eero Saarinen (photo by Max Touhey); right: Grundtvig’s Church, Copenhagen, Denmark, by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint (photo by John Towner, @heytowner)

The Philosophical

The other side of the answer is about artistry. Some creative minds bloom early and some bloom late. Architects don’t usually bloom early because the opportunity to bloom doesn’t present itself until decades of experiences have passed. Sure, we can all design big things as we did in school—in the abstract. But can we really wrap our head around designing a real airport or cathedral?

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, by Ludwig van Beethoven (from pinterest.com, Judy Jensen)

With his first symphony, Mozart was considered a genius at 8, but it took until 30 for Beethoven to compose his first symphony. Beethoven was a late bloomer, but he was still ahead of architects by two decades, as we struggle to find our first bonafide opportunity to flex our creative muscles.

Opportunity aside, architects need their talents to season, age and ripen. We need to develop the skills to know a good solution from a bad one, to know that a marvelous roof design won’t collapse—to know great from good. Like the finest of wine, sometimes the cork stays in the bottle until the time is right.

Heritage Fine Wines, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

LIMITED BY THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE

July 12, 2019

Old days of architectural drafting (photo from Archinect)

For most architects, the design starts inside the brain. We are then challenged to extract that creative spark out of our head and on to paper, or these days, on to a computer screen. Urgently, we grasps at the tools of our trade to convert the abstract ideas into some visual form of communication, i.e., the sketch on the back of an envelope, the first computer drawing, or the crude paper model.

Often, our ideas are grander, more ambitious, than any tool can capture. Tools have limits, whereas our artistic spirits do not.

T-square and triangle (drawing from etc.usf.edu)

The old days of architecture embraced simple non-mechanical tools, such as the T-square and the triangle. This allowed us to merely draw parallel lines and only four angles—30, 45, 60 and 90 degrees. If our brain generated an architectural idea with a curved shape or at an 18.5 degree angle, our tools were challenged to capture the idea.

A new tool came along: the adjustable triangle. No longer a static piece of wood or plastic—this tool was mechanical, moving upon its little hinge. The adjustable triangle freed the architect to now make any angle of choice. During school, we used to joke by pointing out when students purchased his/her first adjustable triangle, because  their drawings all of a sudden had a new complexity of diagonal lines.

The adjustable triangle (photo by Anthony Poon)
Lost tools of the trade (photo by Anthony Poon)

Alongside other instruments such as the compass, French curves, elliptical templates, etc., new ideas could be expressed. Architecture started to have move diagonals, more curves, more complexity. Again, we poked fun, “With these new house designs and the angles, Frank Lloyd Wright must have purchased fancier drawings tools for his staff!”

Floor plan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona

A quantum leap in communicating design ideas arrived with digital technology. These days, almost anything architects can dream up can be captured using today’s devices. With algorithms, computers are not just communicating ideas that are in our heads, but are generating ideas without our heads.

Using a parametric algorithm with the software, Grasshopper, to design a trellis structure in South Pasadena, California, by Poon Design. The material is polyethylene panels, the same plastic as kitchen cutting boards—used to express the home owner’s passion for cooking (photo by Sharon Yang)

Here is the question: just because we can think it, just because we can draw it, just because we can build it—should we? Just because software can describe a heroic complex form (like CATIA for Frank Gehry), just because a computer can document a complex pattern for water jet cutting a sheet of steel, just because 3ds Max and Maxwell Render can produce a near photographically realistic image, should we have technology replace the use of our brains and our hands?

Taiyan Museum of Art, China (photo from imagenesmy.com)
Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan (photo from igsmag.com)

One example: If you tour an architecture school or many architecture design studios, you will see the excessive use of the 3d printer. With limited time on the computer and a few clicks of the mouse, dozens of physical models of a particular design theme are produced in plastic. I argue that most of these variations-on-a-theme are insignificant. Just because an architect can generate 20 similar ideas, doesn’t mean that all these ideas have merit. Wouldn’t it be better to develop one idea carefully, strategically and thoughtfully?

My personal preference is to design ideas that are more hand crafted, then machine produced—relying more on heart than tools.

Garden lights using handwoven baskets from Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit fair trade organization sourcing from Africa. The light source is in the ground shining up into the basket, providing a soft downward glow, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

THE ADVERTISING OF ARCHITECTURE: THE ARCHITECTURE OF ADVERTISING

May 4, 2018

(image from knowyourmeme.com)

Lawyers advertise. So too do dentists. They run commercials; they have ads online and in print.

Architects don’t typically advertise. Are we more principled and virtuous, then to succumb to the pandering of advertising?

Better Call Saul advertisement from the television series, Breaking Bad (image from amazon.com)

PART ONE

Some celebrated architects avoid the illicit exploits of marketing altogether. Frank Gehry’s company barely has a website. In a world where online presence is the most prevalent form of branding and outreach, Gehry offers a mere single page website, not the predictable encyclopedic collection of project images, the self-indulgent bragging rights of awards, and the prestigious list of clients.

Peter Zumthor on the other hand, is even more severe and reductionist. No website. Online, Zumthor is only mentioned in Wikipedia—and probably not of his doing or by his choice.

Poon Design business cards, unique design per staff member, (photo by Anthony Poon)

Architects commence their advertising through an old school tool, the business card. But why is that? Prior to a face to face meeting, architects spend months communicating with a client via email and text. The clients already have our information in their computers. Yet, when we finally meet in person, we exchange this absurdly ancient form of introduction, the small piece of cardstock that contains all the contact information that our client has already has.

My library of architecture books (photo by Anthony Poon)
left: Lecture at Yale University (photo from architecture.yale.edu); right: Louis Kahn, 1972 (photo by Robert C. Lautman)

Architects also advertise by having books written on their work, or less common, writing a book themselves and have it published—as I did. Alongside books, architects also focus on inclusion in the latest and trendiest of magazines and blogs. Though a sales-y endeavor, an architect can man a booth at a trade show, such as an industry convention. Having done this, my role was akin to desperately selling hot dogs at a baseball game. We can also teach, hopefully at a high profile university, generating community contacts and national exposure. Though social media is rampant and popular, I have yet to reap any substantive rewards. Meaning, besides likes, winks and shares, I have yet to reap actual clients and contracts from social media.

(photo by ShutterStock)
Networking and being out there (photo from healthliteracycentre.eu)

I believe the best form of advertising is simple: be out there. “Hitting the pavement” is an outdated slogan, but the theme is relevant to advertising: make relationships, establish rapport, meet and greet, shake some hands, and as declared with conviction in the 1992 film, Glengarry Glen Ross, “A.B.C.! Always Be Closing!”

PART TWO

upper left: really, ping pong in the office? (photo from salesforce.com); upper right: Amsterdam advertising agency themed as an indoor picnic (photo from fashionarchitecturetaste.com); lower left: really, a slide in the office? Ogilvy & Mather Jakarta (photo from officesnapshots.com); lower right: another staircase as an amphitheater and social area, Wieden+Kennedy (photo from retaildesignblog.com)

Much of the architecture created for advertising agencies makes me nauseous. I am tired of seeing those cliché images, i.e., during some random client meeting, an impromptu ping pong game breaks out, or someone skateboards through the office to hip hop music. The architectural forms comprise silly colors and patterns, funny shapes and angles, and the overused idea where a staircase is an amphitheater and social space. These are theme park ideas.

From our clients, it is fact that no one uses the air hockey table in the board room, and no one takes the fireman’s pole from a cubicle down to the yoga room.

Countering this, if I were to identify a cool design for an ad agency, I would direct attention to Mad Men.

Mad Men stage set (photo from Interior Design)

THE NOISE OF ARCHITECTURE

September 22, 2017

(photo from jimjenningsarchitecture.com)

I am not referring to the acoustic engineering of a concert hall or the aural quality of a restaurant. Rather, all works of architecture have a certain artistic volume level, from blank mute to in-your-face loud. The visual and experiential clamor of a building can reverberate with a subtle hum, or brash feedback and distortion.

Here I list fifteen projects that represent the dynamic range of architecture’s capacity to blare, starting with silence and increasing to an uproar.

1. If you are wondering where the architecture is, that is exactly the point. The Tidal Pools de Leca da Palmeira intentionally blur the lines between nature and manmade. In so doing, Alvaro Siza (here and here) created a quiet structure for Porto, Portugal.

(photo from mimoa.eu)
(photo from uncubemagazine.com)

2. Present though voiceless, Jim Jennings’ Art Pool + Pavilion in Calistoga, California, provides the visitor nothing to relate to. The project is powerfully hush and abstract. (Black and white image above.)

3. Looking like not much more than a barn, rock star architect, Peter Zumthor, delivers a house/office, offering only a single window for scale. Here in Hadlerstein, Switzerland, Zumthor barely speaks and shows off his capacity for restraint.

4. The Benesse House in the Kagawa District of Japan does not need to yell to get your attention. Practicing a meditative Zen-like harmony, Tadao Ando’s (here and here) building is at noiseless peace.

(photo by Tadao Ando)

5. What appears to be a typical sacred building starts at first through its name, the “Cardboard Cathedral.” Then it hits you: Shigeru Ban literally used cardboard tubes for this New Zealand project.

(photo by Stephen Goodenough)

6. Like a child’s toy, a cylinder on top of a box comprises the Stockholm Public Library in Sweden. But for Gunnar Asplund, this is no simple toy. The sheer scale and volume makes the building’s presence loud and clear.

(photo from architectsjournal.co.uk)

7. Wang Shu’s China Academy of Art seems to be contextual with the vernacular of Hangzhou, China. But it is the architect’s details and use of materials in innovative ways that provide this project a slight degree of commotion.

(photo from npr.org)

8. For his Experimental House in Muuratsalo, Finland, Alvar Aalto generated an outcry with his brick patterns.

(photo from Architizer.com)

9. Rafael Moneo (here and here) used a cylinder, as did Asplund above. But for Moneo’s Atocha Train Station in Madrid, the crisp brick pillars form a cylinder in an untraditional way. And they resound with a majestic boom.

(photo from europaenfotos.com)

10. For a housing project cutely entitled “Xanadu,” Taller de Arquitectura (here and here) created something that demands more attention that your generic hillside apartment. In La Manzanera Alicante, Spain, Xanadu may have some items that appear to be normal, like clay tile, gable roofs, painted stucco and residential scale windows—but upon a second look, the overall composition is a hullabaloo.

(photo by Ricardo Bofill)

11. The green, glazed terra cotta, exterior tiles on this addition possesses a visual bark, especially in counterpoint to the traditional original building. In Sarasota, Florida, Macado Silvetti clearly wanted the Center for Asian Art to create a racket when having the new holler to the old.

(photo from machado-silvetti.com)

12. I typical attribute the work of Antonio Gaudi to jazz. His fantastical improvised vision of the world, seen here at Casa Batlo in Barcelona, breaks the rules of composition and color, resulting in an intuitive, lyrical work.

(photo from apetcher.wordpress.com)

13. The historic collaboration between Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron (here and here) offered up the 2008 Olympics’ Chinese National Stadium, also known as the famous “Bird’s Nest”. This artistic structure in Beijing blasted onto the world stage with its surreal knitting of massive steel members, alongside the building’s enormous presence.

(photo from hoesthetics.net)

14. This image of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas has not been distorted. Frank Gehry (here, here, herehere and here) designed an interior that has quite an uproar—one that questions if such noise is good for the purpose of this facility, the healthiness of one’s brain.

(photo from newsroom.clevelandclinic.org)

15. Similar to the Center for Asian Art, above, this Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto represents a dialogue between old and new. But here, Studio Libeskind’s (LINK best friends) new addition screams and cries for attention. The juxtaposition fascinates, but does architecture need to bellow like this?

© Poon Design Inc.