Tag Archives: Hermosa Beach

ARCHITECTURE DESIGN COMPETITIONS: ARE THEY WORTH IT?

February 7, 2020

National Congress, Brasilia, Brazil (photo by Andrew Prokos)

The design competition is both an opportunity and a trap, both worthwhile and something from which to run away. Frequently, clients establish a competition where architects are invited to submit free ideas for the hopeful chance of being victorious, winning a commission of a lifetime, and immediately be thrown into the glorious spotlight of worldwide acclaim. But beware.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. (photo by Hu Totya)

Most design fans know the incredible story of Maya Lin . At the young age of 21, she beat out a competitive field of international architects to take home the winning commission of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin went from an unknown undergraduate student at Yale, to having designed one of the most beloved architectural monuments in history.

Even for veterans of our industry, the incredible impact of winning can resonate forever. Oscar Niemeyer organized the 1957 competition to design Brasilia in Brazil, and the victory to a team of designers changed lives forever, engraving in every architect’s mind an everlasting image of iconic architecture (photo at top). For me, I have entered a dozen design competitions. Some I won and some I lost. My first international victory was at 29, when I ungracefully stepped into the limelight by winning a worldwide design competition for the city of Hermosa Beach, California.

First Place Winner and awarded commission for the Hermosa Beach Water and Pier, California, by Poon Lombardi Architects (watercolor by Al Forster)

THE BAD

Most competitions are open to anyone and everyone. Note: The odds are nearly impossible. For Michael Arad’s win of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, the odds were 1 in 5,201. Additionally, many competitions are looking for free work. Expect to gamble a lot of money and probably lose. I once worked at an architecture firm that spent nearly $500,000 in hopes of winning a contract to design a sports stadium. We lost.

There are invited competitions where the client creates a short list of architects, and each competitor is provided a monetary stipend to compete. As we all learned, this “good faith” payment is short of faith, never covering even a fraction of the time and resources invested in participating in the design competition.

Finalist in the competition for the Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia, by Poon Design

A business colleague once asked me several questions to determine the value of entering an architectural competition.

– How many competitors?
– How much will you spend?
– What are the chances of winning?
– If you win, what are the chances of getting a fair contract with a good design fee?
– If you get a contract, what are the chances that the project will be built?
– If the project gets built, what are the chances that the project will be built the way you envisioned?

My colleague concluded that an architect’s interest in submitting work to a design competition was the stupidest thing he ever heard of.

Competition entry for the Key West Aids Memorial, Florida, by Poon Lombardi Architects (photo by Anthony Poon)

THE GOOD

As mentioned, a win could jump start a young career or provide a breakthrough in a steady but slow career. No question—winning provides prestige, even if the project never gets built. At our studio, we joked that second place was our target. Then we would have some bragging rights alongside modest prize money, without the headache of trying to get a project built. (Fact: most competition winning entries do not get executed.)

Honorable Mention in the competition for the New England Holocaust Memorial, Massachusetts, by Poon Design (photo by Anthony Poon)

We like design competitions because they are a time for the team to put their heads together and play. Like a jazz  ensemble, we brainstorm, improvise, test new ideas, research, experiment. We don’t worry about a client’s confusing and ever-changing desires, conflicting city codes, and budgets and schedules. Instead, we just dream up our most ambitious visions.

OMA competed for the Tres Grande Bibliotheque, a new national library in Paris, France. Though only earning an Honorable Mention, the compositional and sectional ideas impacted a generation of young architects.

Design competition don’t just inspire a team of participating architects. The risks and results of competitions from winners to losers display the courage and creativity of the best minds in our industry. Even some of the losing entries or unbuilt works have changed the course of architecture.

OMA competed again for a Parisian library. Though winning the Jussieu competition, the project was never built. Again, the design ideas were seminal, and just as powerful as if the library was completed.

HERMOSA BEACH FIASCO: ARCHITECTURE OF POLITICS

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.

But.

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.

However.

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.

DON’T CALL IT A MALL

April 1, 2015

Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas, Nevada, by The Jerde Partnership

In February, architectural giant Jon Jerde passed away and the profession lost one of its giants.

Over twenty years ago, I won my first international architectural competition: the redesign of the pier and waterfront for Hermosa Beach, California. Led by The American Institute of Architects, the committee that selected me was shepherded by legendary architect, educator and community leader, Charles Moore.

The media believed that being awarded this civic commission, my first large scale project, Mr. Moore was “handing his baton” to this young architect.

Me. I was not even 30.

A week later, Moore unexpectedly passed away. When reporters interviewed me, all I could say to at the press conference was, “His death is very sad.”

From that point, every time my name came up alongside Moore’s, the press reiterated like a broken record, “Poon says of Moore’s passing, ‘His death is very sad’.” This ridiculously generic phrase became an empty banner: my sad cliché that did no justice to the prolific career of Charles Moore.

So it is here with Jon Jerde, I will attempt more substance.

Though I was never fond of Mr. Jerde’s style of architecture—his bright colors, his awkward classical motifs, his funny shaped geometric forms, and his somewhat cartoonish results—I loved how he infused happiness and a dream-like sensibility into his projects. He created a new sense of community, of urbanism, of creating gathering spaces for cities.

From early in my education, I followed his work from the groundbreaking Horton Plaza shopping center in downtown San Diego, to Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, to the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. They were visionary statements about the world.

Jerde often said he didn’t want his projects to be thought of as shopping malls or shopping centers. Though his projects were primarily retail, his projects transcended the nomenclature of his developer clients. Jerde’s work went beyond the superficial word of “style.” Jerde and his firm, The Jerde Partnership, were pioneers and innovators.

Jerde articulated his vision with bold sincerity. “We yearn for the marriage between the magic and the banal,” he once said. “We put people in a popular and collective environment in which they can be most truly and happily alive.”
Jerde called his intentions and actions, “Placemaking.”

Namba Parks, Kansai, Japan, by The Jerde Partnership

A sense of place is hard to define, but one knows when a place has a there there. The simple key is that Jerde’s projects catered to people, not for example, cars or commerce. At his projects, a visitor can feel a sense of community, whether it is a grand space for thousands to gather or a simple bench to sit and relax. Jerde’s work transforms buildings and plazas into significant public destinations that promotes health, joy and well-being.

Jerde stamped his philosophy of “Placemaking” on more than 100 projects around the globe, from the United States to Rotterdam, from Istanbul to Beijing.

His death is more than sad. It is a loss not just for the field of architecture and urban planning, but for the progress of cities.

© Poon Design Inc.