September 13, 2019

Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland (photo from thomasphifer.com)

To call Glenstone a mere museum is to misrepresent the power of how a visitor can experience art. The museum’s website posits, “Glenstone is a place that seamlessly integrates art, architecture, and landscape into a serene and contemplative environment.” And boy, it’s successful.

Glenstone blurs the lines between the three mediums. Know this: “Art” is not just a simple framed painting hanging on a gallery wall. At Glenstone, art is a relationship between several forces experienced as an enchanted journey through time and space.

The “Pavilions” forming the “Water Court” (photo by Anthony Poon)

For my soon to be published second book, I scribed, “Do I like playing a Beethoven piano sonata more than writing a position article on the design industry? Do I enjoy working on a large mixed-media art piece more than designing a Buddhist temple? I don’t see any such exercises as separate, or in any way, independent from each other. Artistic endeavors are not discrete. All my investigations, experiments, tests and failures fall under the shelter of a single umbrella, a simultaneous effort—that of a creative voyage with no starting point and excitingly, no end in sight . . . Music, painting, writing, architecture, and so on. For me, it is all one artistic gesture—interconnected, intertwined, inseparable.”

Compression Line, by Michael Heizer,1968/2016 (photo by Anthony Poon)

Over the years, Glenstone’s founders, Emily and Mitchell Rales, billionaire business leader and philanthropist, amassed an incredible private art collection of approximately 1,300 works from the 20th and 21st century: Twombly, Kelly, Heizer, Basquiat, Rothko, Koons, Serra, just to name a few—the Usual (but incredible) Suspects. In Potomac, Maryland, Glenstone opened in 2006 with safe and somewhat predictable Modern buildings by New York architect, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. The museum’s name is a mash-up of the nearby Glen Road and the indigenous Carderock stone.

Design drawing by Thomas Phifer and Partners

In late 2018, the museum entered the transcendental world stage with architect Thomas Phifer and Partners’ powerful composition of the “Pavilions” and “Water Court,” with landscape collaboratively designed by Peter Walker of Berkeley, California. Glenstone’s 230 acres transformed into a state of mind that balances art, sculpture, installations, design, nature, water, light and all good things. Glenstone challenges one of my favorite places on Earth, the 500-acre Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York.

The Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor, Braubunden, Switzerland Zumthor (photo from vals.ch)

Akin to the Minimalism of architect Peter Zumthor’s  Therme Vals Spa in Switzerland, Glenstone is dramatic and theatrical, despite its mute Pavilions. A dozen of them, each a single art experience, center around a sunken water garden. Who knew that saying nothing and being silent can say so much?  Here, an engaging and direct conversation occurs when a massive vertical wall of Cardderock stone meets the peaceful horizontal surface of reflecting water, while above is the infinity of a blue sky. Nothing more, nothing less, and yet, so much more.

Massive and poetic vertical surfaces of Carderrock stone-clad “Pavilions” (photo by Anthony Poon)

Even the museum staff are Minimalistic. Accompanying their drab grey cotton garb with pants cropped at the ankles, they each have a small name tag of slim horizontal chrome stainless steel. But the name tags remain blank!

The approach through broad landscape, the “Pavilions” in the distance like an enigmatic modern day Stonehenge (photo from glenstone.org)
Buried in nature, one comes upon the mystery Clay Houses (Boulder-Room-Holes), by Andy Goldsworthy 2007 (photo by Anthony Poon)

The overall result of Glenstone is a must-see, near-religious experience of Modern art, elemental architecture and the pastoral outdoors. Make a reservation; the museum only lets in a limited number of people per day.  And sorry, no photography allowed within the galleries.


September 21, 2018

A bold proposal: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, California (photo by Lucas Museum of Narrative Art)

In the 2004 film, Garden State, Natalie Portman asks Zach Braff, “You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal?” She then performs a few awkward dance moves accompanied by shrieking and squealing.

Portman states, “I make a noise, or I do something that no one has ever done before, and then I can feel unique, even if it is only for like, a second.”

She proclaims, “You just witnessed a completely original moment.”

Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004)

I ask this: Is there such a thing as originality, and is there value to being original?

left: Cambridge Center for Visual Arts, Massachusetts (photo from lescoulerus.ch); right: Kenneth Cooper House, Orleans, Massachusetts (photo from Gwathmey on Twitter)

For the first question, originality is hard to spot. Sometimes we see it and are convinced that we are experiencing something original. Later, we realize that it derivative of something else, or simply part of an evolution of ideas throughout time.

upper: Casa Prieto Lopez, Mexico (photo from pinsdaddy.com); lower: Villa Sotogrande, Spain (photo by Hector Gazguez)

Additionally, two creators could come up with the same original idea. Having done so independently, we still claim that each person’s idea is indeed original.

To the second question, what value is there in being original? Is there purpose to being novel for novelty’s sake, or being unusual simply for being different? For the most part, being forcefully unique in the creative process has little weight. But here and there, that one innovative idea might be the catalyst that ignites a truly original invention from another innovator, artist or genius. In the arc of evolving ideas, I personally assign value to those that seek to be novel if only to do something different.

As unique and bizarre as the examples below are, one might say that they serve no purpose other than to indulge an architect’s whimsical agenda. On the other hand, these examples do no harm (do they?) and again, they might prompt me to challenge my own creative complacency.

upper left: Sarpi Border Checkpoint, Georgia (photo from archiobjects.org); upper right: Louis Vuitton, London, England (photo from highsnobiety.com); lower left: Urban Interiorities, Tokyo, Japan (photo from archiobjects.org); lower right: Elbphilharmonic Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany (photo from homedit.com)

Additionally, originality has to do with context. Just because one person experiences something as original, does the creation in question automatically win the label of originality? A tree does make a sound in the forest even if no one is listening. Also, you did have a great vacation even if you forgot to Instagram your photos. Similarly, if an unaware person experiences originality, like a child discovering ice cream for the first time, then so be it.

Bust of Ludwig Van Beethoven (photo from evastegeman.com)

In regards to context and evolution, Beethoven’s third and final period of composing was so original that it left his colleagues far behind in terms of creativity. In such works as Beethoven’s Late Great Piano Sonatas, no one could understand what the mad composer had written, and the result was the breaking of the linear progression of music evolution. Not only did composers leave Beethoven’s third period of work unstudied until decades later, colleagues like Schubert and Schumann chose to pick up where Beethoven left off in his second period. Because they just didn’t understand what the heck was going on in this third period of original music.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Though last year’s The Shape of Water took home the award for Best Picture, I found the movie an unoriginal creation. Fully packed with weary story clichés and formulaic visual devices, critics everywhere complained of similarities of this Oscar-winning film to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1969’s Let Me Hear You Whisper, and 1984’s Splash, just to name a few. Regardless of being unoriginal accompanied by one legal case of plagiarism, The Shape of Water collected three additional Academy Awards with record-setting 13 nominations, alongside box office accolades.

As I work hard to offer innovative ideas to the world,  perhaps recognition will arrive at my doorstep if I simply discard the pursuit of originality, and instead copy, imitate or steal. (Not serious, of course.)

(I further studied the idea of uniqueness in design and style with my companion essay, It All Sounds the Same to Me.)

© Poon Design Inc.