Tag Archives: Frank Lloyd Wright

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?

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 upcoming 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, as well as 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), but I have never taken a serious stab at writing fiction.

My idea was this: an ‘architectural thriller.’ This 350-page novel 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?

Book cover (design by Anthony Poon)

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 includes my hand illustrations introducing each chapter. My novel is available at Amazon.

Jerri Levi, publisher of FORM: Pioneering Design Magazine endorses, “If you want to learn about the intrigues of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island and the obsessed architects seeking to imprint it with their own ambitious and deadly stamp, then look no further. A fast-paced and exciting read.

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)

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)

PODCAST: HOLLYWOOD’S OBSESSION WITH ARCHITECTS

June 21, 2019

Upper left: Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (1957); upper right: ) Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996); lower left: Ellen Page in Inception (2010); lower right: Richard Gere in Intersection (1994)

George Smart: Welcome to US Modernist Radio where we talk and laugh with people who enjoy, own, create, dream about, preserve, love, and hate Modernist architecture. Anthony Poon, our next guest, is an architect, concert pianist, artist, and author. His talk at Palm Springs’ Modernism Week was about architects in popular culture. There’s a lot more than you might think.

Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991); Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009); Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built (2018)

Anthony Poon: Most people don’t know, until I start pointing out, that architects have been in hundreds of movies. And everyone says, “Oh hey, I saw that movie. I remember that guy.” And then, they start realizing Michelle Pfeiffer was an architect. Tom Hanks was an architect. Wesley Snipes was an architect.

George: Wait a second! Wesley Snipes was an architect?

Anthony: Wesley Snipes was an architect in Jungle Fever. We have Steve Martin playing an architect twice. We have Matt Dillon playing an architect in three separate movies. Hollywood has a love affair with architects as characters, both in film and television. It is the perfect go-to hero and feature character, whether it’s a drama, a romantic comedy, a romance. It just seems to be the perfect character that fits all plots.

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)

George: Well, one movie which started as a drama and kind of viewed as a comedy later was The Fountainhead. It’s really a chuckler.

Anthony: It’s unfortunate. The film took the gravitas of an Ayn Rand book and turned it into a campy cult favorite. The film never quite understood the philosophy that Fountainhead was trying to get across.

George: No. And the lead character?

Anthony: Gary Cooper.

George: Gary Cooper didn’t seem like he was particularly well-suited to be an architect.

Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Anthony: The interesting thing is Cooper was an architect in an architect movie. It was a movie about architecture. For most of the movies you see, it’s not about the architect being in an architect movie. If you think about Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, a classic character in a romantic comedy, it’s a love story between Meg Ryan and him. There’s not much about architecture. It’s not about him building buildings or designing cathedrals, parks and shopping malls. In most movies, the architect as a character is actually superfluous to the arc of the story.

George: How many architecture movies are there that aren’t documentaries?

Paul Newman in Towering Inferno (1974); Helmut Bakaitis in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Anthony: Very few. Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno plays an architect in a movie about architecture, because a building is on fire, burning down. He has to play the role of an architect. In The Matrix, there is “The Architect.” He’s creating worlds, designing them. But, that’s really about it. All the other ones that I’ve presented today, those movies are not about architecture.

One of the things I examined was how if there is a lawyer in the story, it is a movie about law. If there is a cop, it’s movie about crime. If there’s a doctor, it’s a movie about medicine. A banker, it’s a movie about Wall Street. But, an architect in a movie is usually not about architecture.

An architect is a movie character that is romantic. It gives gravitas. It gives a creative person a profession. It’s idealistic. It’s sort of the go-to, good-natured person that represents something that everyone can associate with.

George: Easy to write a script around that.

For this sweet romantic comedy, imagine Meg Ryan falling in love with a cop, Will Smith from Bad Boys (1995)
Or try imagining Meg Ryan falling in love with an investment banker, Michael Douglas from Wall Street (1987)

Anthony: Exactly. When you write a script, you need to choose a profession. If you made that person a Homeland Security officer, it would add a different kind of arc to the story. If it was a romantic comedy and you’re making the person a therapist or an investment banker, I think it would change the course of the movie. An architect stays safe and neutral.

George: But there hasn’t been an action adventure series with an architect yet, I don’t think.

Anthony: The odd one is Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974)

George: Was he an architect in Death Wish?

Anthony: Some people would say this movie doesn’t fit my analysis of the nice, romantic, idealistic, creative professional. But it actually does! It is a movie that is extremely violent. A lot of action, many sequels.

George: He’s seeking revenge for something, right?

Anthony: He’s seeking vengeance for being framed for the murder of his wife, and to make his character take the full 180 to the dark side, he starts as the mild-mannered architect. That’s how it works. So, he does represent all the things that Hollywood thinks architects are, and that’s why when he transforms into the vigilante, it’s even more dramatic. It wouldn’t be as dramatic if he was already a police officer or detective.

George: Well, let’s go through some of these other ones here.

Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)

Anthony: Well, there’s Mr. Brady of course from The Brady Bunch, the iconic family architect. The TV series shows him working at the office with drawings, and also in a charming home office. A funny thing though. Hollywood represents architects as being wealthy. But most architects actually aren’t. I think it’s funny that Mr. Brady, as an architect, can somehow support a family of eight. He’s also paying spousal support because he’s divorced. His wife doesn’t work, and they have a housekeeper, a full time live-in named Alice.

One of my favorites is Indecent Proposal with Woody Harrelson. He plays a young, starting out architect.

George: This is the one with Demi Moore and Robert Redford? And, Harrelson was an architect in that? Wow.

Anthony: The movie shows him sitting on the floor, drawing on the wall, that kind of creative passion. But, because Woody Harrelson is a struggling entrepreneur like many young architects, it makes Demi Moore more susceptible to the fact that she can get a million dollars by sleeping with a stranger.

Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993); Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)

George: Yeah. And, Wesley Snipes, tell me about that movie.

Anthony: Jungle Fever. It’s great, because Hollywood in previous decades thought of architects as being your typical white corporate male. So, Wesley Snipes breaks that role, as well as other architects that come shortly after, that are female, are younger, or of different races. For Wesley Snipes, the film uses the architect’s office as a very sexy backdrop. It has the drafting tables, the desk lamps, the great artistic setting. His rows of drawings in the background are such a sexy image, that he actually has sex on a drafting table. So that’s a unique take.

I think that in a lot of these movies, particularly romances, they want the male or female lead to be a creative type, artistic. But the artistic person also has to have a job. I don’t think the movies would work if the lead was a starving poet on the street corner, or a musician playing saxophone in the subway station. Being an architect allows that lead role to be romantic, creative, and still have a job, a respectable profession.

George: Did you see the movie, The Lake House?

Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006)

Anthony: Of course, Keanu Reeves. And the brother and dad all play architects. They actually have architectural discussions—the three of them. Keanu Reeves lives in a glass house floating on a lake, and they often show him at his drafting table with his white t-shirt working late hours, drawing away, coming up with some creative vision for the world.

George: How has architecture changed in terms of use in film? Has it changed much at all? Is it heading in the direction where maybe we’ll see more computer screens in the scenes, or do you think movies will still hold on to the old notion?

Anthony: I think they will hold on, because the notion is a trope and a formula that works. I think Hollywood is aware that the industry has changed, but Hollywood is about creating fantasy and images, and that’s still a role that people view architects as. I don’t think it’s always accurate, but it’s consistent in movies. It has been for decades since the first black and white movies in the 30s, all the way up to today. If the field of architecture was gone in stories, I don’t know if Hollywood could find another type of character that is a mix of creativity and professionalism, a mix of nobility and seriousness.

George: I wonder if they’ll remake The Fountainhead again.

Anthony: I actually wish Hollywood would do a dramatic version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. If you think about that, it would be a movie about ego, power, ambition, sex, arrogance. There would be the great buildings as backdrops. And there would be the climactic scene. If you’re familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s extended family, they were all killed by an axe murderer that was one of Wright’s employees at the house. That would be a horrific, but dramatic Hollywood scene. And it’s all true!

Frank Lloyd Wright (photo from scottsdaleindependent.com)

George: I’m wondering if somebody’s working on that.

Anthony: I’ve been thinking I should write a screenplay. The question is who would play Frank Lloyd Wright? There’d be a lot of people that would be great for it, but I don’t know.

George: Benedict Cumberbatch comes to mind. He’s good in most anything. He could probably pull that off.

Anthony: He is good. He’s probably too tall, since Frank Lloyd Wright is known to be very short.

George: Oh, that’s right. He was short, wasn’t he?

Anthony: It’s funny. I think a lot of the success of his homes is because he’s short. People would say, “These homes are so comfortable. What a great scale. It’s so intimate feeling.” And, I’m thinking maybe it’s because he’s just so short that these rooms have this proportion.

George: Well, Anthony, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about you in the coming years.

 

(The full podcast is at US Modernist Radio. Interview starts at 25 minutes and 9 seconds. For more on Hollywood and architects, visit my past essay, Celluloid Heroes.)

BEETHOVEN’S TENTH: IN SEARCH OF PERFECTION

January 4, 2019

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy, by Michelangelo, 1512

If Ludwig van Beethoven (here, here and here) composed a tenth symphony, would he have changed the world? Nearly all classical aficionados agree that Beethoven’s Ninth, his last symphony, is a perfect work of music. My intent of a ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ is to ask this: What is beyond perfection?

What qualifies a creative work to be perfect? What defines a definitive work—a creation that ends the discussion, is agreed upon as the best, and even surpasses its own genre?

Beethoven 390, by Andy Warhol, 1987

The Ninth Symphony is not just music, just as Joyce’s Ulysses is not just a book, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel not just a painting, or Rodin’s The Thinker not just a sculpture.

Architecturally, there are projects throughout history that have become a definitive work of its building type. Here are just a few from each category.

upper left: Empire State Building, New York, New York (photo from chambershotel.com); upper right: Trans World Airlines Flight Center, New York, New York (photo from mimoa.eu); lower left: Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France (photo from blog.massengale.com); lower right: Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Olena Tur)

Skyscraper: Empire State Building, New York, New York, by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931

Airport: Trans World Airlines Flight Center, New York, New York, by Eero Saarinen, 1962

Chapel: Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier, 1955

Mausoleum: Taj Mahal, Agra, India, by Ustad Ahmad Lahauri and others, 1632

Temple: Pantheon, Rome, Italy, by Apollodorus of Damascus and others, 126 AD

House: Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

Concert hall: Sydney Opera House, Australia, Jorn Utzon, 1973

right: Pantheon, Rome, Italy (photo by Kim Mason); upper right: Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (photo from brandonarchitect.com); lower right: Sydney Opera House, Australia (photo from sydneyoperahouse.com)

These projects have evolved far beyond being a mere building. I am speaking of the monument. Similarly, Aretha Franklin’s Respect surpasses its label of pop song, to become a beloved anthem.

The judge of whether a work of art is a masterpiece or merely something wonderful (which is nothing to complain about) is time. The test of time proves that an idea, whether a building, a musical or a novel, will be more than something attractive or intriguing. Most great works, though accepted as incredible on day one, are rarely thought of as a perfect and ideal creative composition, until years, decades and even generations have honored it, as is the Bradbury Building. When completed, the Eiffel Tower was considered a disastrous work of architecture, protested by all to be demolished. Over time, it has become a world monument of beauty and grace.

Though beloved, this office buildings is not a work of art, Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco, California (photo by San Francisco Chronicle)

But works of excellence are not inherently perfect. We are all judges and we all have our opinions. San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid is considered by most observers to be the iconic San Francisco skyscraper, adored and honored by all. Yet, there isn’t a university architectural professor or notable architectural writer who will give this project any attention. They will claim such a skyscraper to be a trite design, pandering to the lowest common denominator.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, 1904, at the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia (photo from joyofmuseums.com)

In the world of perfect creations—imagination, dreams and visions collide to generate a sensation unlike any other heroic artistic effort. When is that gift of talent given to a mere artist that might align himself with the heavens and the angels? Beethoven, this furious artist only wrote nine symphonies. Nine, only nine.

“IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME TO ME”

March 3, 2017

The Beatles (photo by Rolling Stone)

I often hear, “Yeah, that song is okay I guess. I think all the songs of [insert band name] sound the same to me.” In architecture, similar criticism is imposed on our most famous creators.

Ludwig van Beethoven (from ralphmag.org)
Ludwig van Beethoven (from ralphmag.org)

Is sameness a bad thing? Most of The Beatles songs sound similar, with those peppy lyrics and obvious chord progressions, as do much of Beethoven’s music, with his mishmash of beauty and rage.

All of Mamet’s work reads the same with that staccato rhythm, as does Poe’s chilling tone. Warhol, Picasso and Rembrandt—each pursued his lifelong personal expression, resulting in what one might wrongly dismiss as being all the same.

Cows, by Andy Warhol, 1966
Cows, by Andy Warhol, 1966

If the work is genius, as generally agreed upon for the names above, is it so bad that it is all the same? Should we complain about Apple products being all the same? Oh, that predictable minimal simplicity, the beautiful Zen-like posture.

Products by Apple (photo by Librestock)
Products by Apple (photo by Librestock)

I do think many of Franks’ architecture looks like variations-on-a-theme, but I like all the projects. Here, I speak of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry (here and here).

I see no problem. But I do find it hilarious when critics look at similar appearing projects and assign reasons for how each one is different. Different metaphors for the same building—for example, Gehry was exploring how a fallen city rises from the ashes. Or, Gehry was expressing the blossoming of a flower. Or, Gehry was fascinated with sun rays beaming outward. And so on.

Projects by Gehry Partners upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by John Finn); upper right: DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany (photo from cnn.com); lower left: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (photo from inspiringhomeideas.net); lower right: Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle, Washington (photo from pinterest.com)
Projects by Gehry Partners
upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by John Finn); upper right: DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany (photo from cnn.com); lower left: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (photo from inspiringhomeideas.net); lower right: Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle, Washington (photo from pinterest.com)

When interviewing an architect, you will often hear him profess, “I do not have a singular style.” The word “style” (here and here) is considered a dirty word, as if architecture is a superficial thing and not the evolving amalgamation of intensive client research, the balance of program, building codes and science, and the careful consideration of budget and schedule.

Many architect’s say that they don’t have a singular style because they don’t want to be typecast, like Jim Carrey doing slapstick. Architects also fear the word “style,” particularly when used in trite reference to something like Picasso’s “Blue Period.” In this phase between 1901 and 1904, Picasso mainly painted monochromatically in either shades of blue or blue-green. And it was all spectacular.

Projects by Richard Meier and Partners Architects upper left: Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (photo by Mark Jongman-Sereno); upper right: Smith House, Darien, Connecticut (photo from richardmeier.com); lower left: Luxembourg Residence, Luxembourg (photo from richardmeier.com); lower right: Giovannitti House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (photo from richardmeier.com)
Projects by Richard Meier and Partners Architects
upper left: Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (photo by Mark Jongman-Sereno); upper right: Smith House, Darien, Connecticut (photo from richardmeier.com); lower left: Luxembourg Residence, Luxembourg (photo from richardmeier.com); lower right: Giovannitti House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (photo from richardmeier.com)

But here’s the thing. All architects, world famous or quietly practicing in her neighborhood, have a certain look to their work, specific aspects of exploration that are individual to each and every architect. In fact, most good architects have that singular style, and I argue that there is nothing wrong with it.

Obvious celebrated examples are Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Morphosis, and Tadao Ando. For each of these designers, one can suggest that all their work is uninteresting because it all looks the same—that they only subscribe to a certain style. Is this so wrong? No.

Projects by Morphosis upper left: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, California (photo by Liao Yusheng); upper right: San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California (photo from sf.curbed.com); lower left: Student Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by Mark Tepe); lower right: Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, Klagenfurt, Austria (photo by Christian Richters)
Projects by Morphosis
upper left: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, California (photo by Liao Yusheng); upper right: San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California (photo from sf.curbed.com); lower left: Student Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by Mark Tepe); lower right: Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, Klagenfurt, Austria (photo by Christian Richters)

Even for the lesser known local architects working under the radar, he too has a style where their designs look the same, possibly because this architect loves designing homes with wood siding and metal roofs, or offices that are modern with stainless steel trim. It’s not a compromising position for an architect to have areas of interest, be responsive to local materials and construction methods, and to possess a personal vision of the world. In fact, you want an architect to have a strong viewpoint on the environment around him. If not, what are you hiring, just a drafting service?

Projects by Tadao Ando upper left: Church of Light, Osaka, Japan (photo from tadaoando.wikia.com); upper right: Setouchi Aonagi, Shikoku, Japan (photo from minimalissima.com); lower left: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Tucker Bair); lower right: Pringers House, Mirissa, Sri Lanka (photo by Edmund Sumner)
Projects by Tadao Ando
upper left: Church of Light, Osaka, Japan (photo from tadaoando.wikia.com); upper right: Setouchi Aonagi, Shikoku, Japan (photo from minimalissima.com); lower left: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Tucker Bair); lower right: Pringers House, Mirissa, Sri Lanka (photo by Edmund Sumner)

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