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.

left: Lady Gaga (photo from soundcloud); right: Madonna (photo from news.madonnatribe.com)

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.

top: Saracen Casino Resort, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by Marlon Blackwell; bottom: same project by HBG Design (photos by MBA)

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.

New York–New York Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada (photo by Frauke Feind, Pixabay)

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?

right: Harvard student project by Anthony Poon (photo by Anthony Poon); left: 8 Octavia, San Francisco, California (photo from saitowitz.com)

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).

top: Olympic Stadium 2000, Sydney, Australia, by Anthony Poon and Greg Lombardi with NBBJ (rendering by NBBJ); bottom: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California (photo from hksinc.com)

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.

right: Feather River Academy, Yuba City, California, by Anthony Poon with A4E (photo by Gregory Blore), left: Fontana School, Fontana, California (photo from architecture4e.com)

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.

right: Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design (photo by Gregg Segal); left: Love Culture, Santa Monica, California (photo from shopa.off-77.tk)

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).

right: Lifeguard Tower and Pier, Hermosa Beach, California, by Anthony Poon and Greg Lombardi (rendering by Al Forster); left: Oslo Opera House, Oslo, Norway (photo by Beata May, galleo.co)

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.


March 25, 2016

Suspended steel and wood fishing platforms offer a unique experience above the ocean, under the existing concrete pier, Hermosa Beach, California, by Lombardi/Poon Architects

My first public commission—I learned how difficult life as an architect would be. A decade-long saga of city politics, professional contradictions, and the theft of my intellectual property taught me to fight.

My design partner, the late Greg Lombardi was 30. I was 29. Calling ourselves Lombardi/Poon Architects, our shingle was barely even hung when we entered an international design competition organized by The American Institute of Architects (“AIA”). The city of Hermosa Beach sought an architect with a vision for the redesign of their waterfront and pier.

In contrast to the proposals for hotels, shopping malls and amusement parks, our design was simply a graceful open space that gathered together the city, beach, ocean, sun and horizon.

Greg Lombardi and me, first of hundreds of local and national articles, Daily Breeze, 1993
Greg Lombardi and me, first of hundreds of local and national articles, Daily Breeze, 1993

It was a miracle. Lombardi/Poon Architects won! We beat out everybody—competitors from around the world, architects twice and thrice our senior.

But this was just the start of a staggering journey, a trial by fire.

After the celebration presenting Greg and me to national media outlets, before we got to bask in my triumph, the city council of Hermosa Beach stripped us of our win. The council proclaimed that they themselves should choose the winner, not the AIA. That the city’s public dollars were being spent, it seemed logical that the council should have a say in the winner.

It was a devastating blow. How would we win a second time? The council members were politicians from various business backgrounds—not architects of the AIA. The original competition was reviewed by experts who were qualified to assess abstract design concepts and read technical drawings.

In the end, Lombardi/Poon swooped up my second miracle, against hundreds of competitors. We won, again! We shook hands all over again, stood for press conferences again.


Development of our design could not start. The citizens of Hermosa Beach rumbled—wanted their vote for the winning architect. Understandable, it’s their waterfront and pier. Our design was to go before a public vote by the town.

Public plaza sloping down to the beach and up to the horizon, with renovated lifeguard tower, palm trees in an elliptical arc, bike path, and ribbon-like metal canopy
Public plaza sloping down to the beach and up to the horizon, with renovated lifeguard tower, palm trees in an elliptical arc, bike path, and ribbon-like metal canopy

Stripped once again of the win, I now witnessed my future: the ups and downs of a rollercoaster journey to come. The destiny of the project moved down the line from a professional AIA jury, to a layperson group of elected officials, to now, people who were even further from understanding architectural drawings.

A third miracle. Lombardi/Poon won once again! The people of Hermosa selected us as the architect, one year since our initial victory.


With how state funds are to be spent, Hermosa had to validate their fiscal responsibility. Legislative requirements forced Hermosa to invite any and all architects to interview for the job—for our job that Greg and I already won several times—on which we were already working.

We now had to interview against senior companies, and the city council’s job was to look at credentials, not creativity. I could feel that the outcome would swing to a firm who, on paper, would be more qualified to develop our project.

I had to fight for my opportunity as I would have to again and again over the long architectural haul of a career. My plan? Engage a structural engineer who had such depth of experience that he would make my inexperience go unnoticed.

Public space, new palm trees, pier canopy, and optional glass skin for renovated lifeguard tower to reflect the water, sky and sun (watercolor by Al Forster)
Public space, new palm trees, pier canopy, and optional glass skin for renovated lifeguard tower to reflect the water, sky and sun (watercolor by Al Forster)

This idea failed horribly. During the public interviews, my saving grace of retaining an engineer of age and gravitas proved to be my worst mistake.

He took to the microphone, presented himself, stating in his best salesperson-like booming voice: “We are so excited to be considered by HUNTINGTON Beach.”

Greg and I cringed. Hermosa Beach, you idiot!

This was akin to a rock band thanking Milwaukee, when they were on stage in Cleveland. Like shouting “Go USC” at a UCLA game. Calling your spouse by the wrong name. You get the drift.

Our misguided engineer continued, live on television: “We would love to work with Huntington Beach. Huntington Beach would do so well to have our skills.” Huntington this and that.

No surprise, Lombardi/Poon Architects loss the project that we created and won several times over.

And it got worse.

New fishing platforms and ribbon-like metal pier canopy
New fishing platforms and ribbon-like metal pier canopy

A large corporate company from Irvine won the contract to develop Greg and my project. And in an unethical turn of events, this company sought to steal our design and credit its creation as their own. I received a letter that had a legal tone to it. The company’s founding partner declared that the Hermosa Beach project now belonged to him. Furthermore, he asserted that he might mention our names in the future, “if he so desired and at his convenience.”

This arrogant asshole was steamrolling over us, two fresh young architects two years into their first public commission. The senior architect’s malicious actions constituted theft—shoplifting of Lombardi/Poon’s intellectual property.

Master plan for waterfront and pier
Master plan for waterfront and pier

I took the first step of a ritual that so many adults do through out their life: I called a lawyer. It would be my first time, but not my last. Unfortunately, my attorney assessed that this Irvine architect could legally do everything he claimed.

I decided to visit face-to-face with this self-important jerk of an architect. Presenting the recognition from Hermosa Beach, the hundreds of articles crediting Greg and me, and our recent AIA design award for this project, I made clear his unethical actions. I don’t know if he felt guilty, or if he no longer cared, or maybe he was impressed with my tenacity. He apologized for his nasty letter.

Year three: here is where the end begins. The project loss its funding, due to the political delays. Only the first phase of our vision was developed and completed. By me.

Lifeguard tower renovated to bring in maximum natural light and ocean breezes, as well as allow views and access to the beach for safety
Lifeguard tower renovated to bring in maximum natural light and ocean breezes, as well as allow views and access to the beach for safety

EPILOGUE: I ran into the horrible founding partner ten years later. Of course, he did not recognize me. I re-introduced myself, and his posture displayed embarrassment. Looking worn and exhausted, he appeared as if architecture defeated him. For this little man, I had no feeling one way or another.

As I drove home that afternoon, west towards the ocean, I acknowledged my ambition and resolve. And I buckled my seat belt for more challenges to come in this career of lunacy called Architecture.

© Poon Design Inc.