HERMOSA BEACH FIASCO: ARCHITECTURE OF POLITICS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.