Tag Archives: GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM

#141: 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?

#120: 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)

#21: THE ROAD TO FRANK GEHRY: WHAT HAPPENED AT LACMA?

November 5, 2015

Gehry’s vulcanized fiber wall, LACMA, Los Angeles, California (photo by Lily Poon)

When The Simpsons make fun of your work, you have arrived, right?

Many think of architecture as a final product, such as a building, a park or a piece of furniture. Many forget about the creative journey that arrives at the final product.

Process and product—in life as in design, getting there is as gratifying as being there.

I ask this of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: why is the process that architect Frank Gehry is famously known for absent from your current exhibit?

left: Model of Gehry’s design for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, LACMA, Los Angeles, California (photo by Ella Poon); right: Louis Vuitton Foundation by Gehry, Paris, France (photo by Fondation Louis Vuitton)
left: Model of Gehry’s design for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, LACMA, Los Angeles, California (photo by Ella Poon); right: Louis Vuitton Foundation by Gehry, Paris, France (photo by Fondation Louis Vuitton)

Simply entitled “Frank Gehry,” LACMA delivers their latest blockbuster show. Now in his late 80’s, Gehry’s career has been showered with every accolade, i.e. AIA Gold Medal, Pritzker Prize, and the National Medal of Arts awarded by the U.S. President. So why did the museum capture five decades of Gehry’s work by displaying only two aspects: early sketches (the beginning) followed by a large physical model (the conclusion)?

Sure, there are other aspects in the show, like photographs and video clips. But where is the most fascinating aspect, Gehry’s artistic explorations? Well known for his ingenious studies—the process of drawing and drawing, building models of all sizes, variations and permutations, material and construction research, and innovative technological applications—these (samples below) are missing at LACMA.

left: Study models for the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by Hisao Suzuki); right: Sketches by Gehry for the Guggenheim Museum
left: Study models for the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by Hisao Suzuki); right: Sketches by Gehry for the Guggenheim Museum

Here’s what I think. Over the years, Gehry’s imaginative process has been unfortunately labeled by the mainstream as “crumpled paper.” When this architect designs, his studies do look like crumpled pieces of paper. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them.

Doomed, Gehry’s thoughtful research has been labeled not just formulaic, but cliché. Even my 10-year old daughter’s class studied his work, calling it crumpled wads of paper. As such, all the children giggle.

Clip from The Simpsons 2005 episode “The Seven-Beer Snitch”
Clip from The Simpsons 2005 episode “The Seven-Beer Snitch”

To reach the height of pop-culture zeitgeist, for better or for worse, a 2012 episode of The Simpsons parodied Gehry’s designs. Fictionally, Marge’s crumpled letters inspired one of Gehry’s most prominent buildings, the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Though Gehry cooperated with the TV show, he later stated how he is “haunted” by the Simpsons’ gag. Disappointed, Gehry confesses, “Clients come to me and say, crumple a piece of paper. We’ll give you $100, and then we’ll build it.”

I believe LACMA, or even Gehry himself, chose to counter the ill-fated wrinkled paper theme. But by doing so, perhaps too much has been edited out. The previous exhibit at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica curated a much more revealing and exciting show, presenting Gehry’s inner workings and the in-betweens.

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Gehry, Los Angeles, California (photo by Patrick Krabeepetcharat)
Walt Disney Concert Hall by Gehry, Los Angeles, California (photo by Patrick Krabeepetcharat)

Years back in Maui, I drove the legendary “Road to Hana.” When I arrived in Hana, I was dissatisfied by this small nondescript community. I then realized the point was not Hana itself, but rather, the road to Hana. I looked back at my delightful day—at how the 65-mile drive toured me through rain forests, waterfalls, beaches, bridges and the sunset.

In architecture and in life: think process and product. Enjoy the trek and smell the roses.

(Exhibit closes March 20, 2016, Frank Gehry, LACMA)

© Poon Design Inc.