October 15, 2021

Royal Ontario Musuem, Toronto, Canada, by Studio Libeskind (photo from libeskind.com)

When adding to an existing building, the conventional agenda requests that the new structure match the old. A typical client request suggests that the point of connection between new and old be “seamless.” But there exists a different school of thought, a provocative one. Here, the new structure not only contrasts the old, but the addition is intentionally disruptive.

Antwerp Port House, Antwerp, Belgium, by Zaha Hadid Architects (photo by Claudia Lorusso on Unsplash)

Whether a new hotel wing, library expansion, or guest bathroom, adding onto an existing building results in a form of symbiosis. As described in science, a symbiotic relationship is two dissimilar organisms in close physical association. Architecture may not always be thought of as a living thing. But the way a space breathes with light and air, or when a building comes alive with visitors and experiences, or how a structure houses memories and enlightens the human spirit, architecture is indeed a unique form of organism.

Shoreham Street, Sheffield, England, by Project Orange (photo by Project Orange)
St. Francis Covenant Church, Santpedor, Spain, by David Closes (photo by Jordi)

When new meets old, the design can be traditional, even predictable, as in the “seamless” approach, where a visitor can’t tell that a building addition has been delivered. But the design can also be divisive, where the addition exploits the host through a parasitic relationship. With the old building as host, a new structure is an intervention, at times predatorial. This approach creates tension, a vibration between new and old, and results in a fantastical world of the unknown. We don’t just see the two parts, the new and the old. Now, we view a third thing: the relationship between new and old. One plus one doesn’t have to equal two.

Idea Exchange Old Post Office, Cambridge, Ontario, by RDHA (photo from ideaexchange.org)

In these examples, there exist no seamless transition, no resolution, no settled serenity. The designs are intentionally disturbing and anxious, perhaps a violent act of the architect. Like the grandstanding of creative ego, the hand of such an architect is akin to a street artist tagging a building. Some call it vandalism, and some call it art.

Museum of Military History, Dresden, Germany, by Studio Libeskind (photo by Novarc Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Diamond Exchange, Amsterdam, Netherlands, by CompanyZJA with Heyligers (photo from architecureprize.com)

Perhaps it is true that “opposite attracts,” as stated by psychologist Robert Francis Winch in the 50s. Or in this case, having architectural opposites can be deemed attractive. The projects seen here are not necessary outliers. The trend of confronting one’s context in an unexpected way has been around, ever since architects looked at their neighborhoods and believed there should be something new to do, something else. Like the urge to play hard rock music in a tranquil and pristine chapel.

To Be In Limbo, Jesuit Church, Vienna, Austria, by Steinbrener/Dempf and Huber (photo from steinbrener-dempf.com)
Fuller Loft Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, California, by Brooks + Scarpa (photo from brooksscarpa.com)

It’s the desire for contrast. From Google: contrast, noun, /ˈkänˌtrast/: the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association.

Nearly everyone wants to be noticed in one form or another—even introverts. For some, to conform with the faceless masses and banal circumstances is to give up on the ambition to be an individual. We want to be distinctive. And noticed.

Rooftop addition, Vienna, Austria, by Coop Himmelb(l)au (photo by Wolf D. Prix)


May 10, 2019

Yard Sale, 16” x 20”, July 2018

Most of my life, I have been painting. At age five in my parent’s San Francisco house, I painted an extensive landscape mural from the entry hall up the stairs—without permission or notice. My mother and father were excited, but not pleased—a parenting dilemma of pride and scolding. At age ten, I was invited by my elementary school to paint a larger-than-life Captain America on the courtyard wall. So many years ago, I preceded today’s fanaticism with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For the past year, I have been exploring painting as an activity of searching, finding and intervening.

Flea Market Red, 27 ¼” x 31 ¼”, October 2018

My recent creative endeavors start with non-scientific searches at neighborhood garage sales, flea markets and second-hand stores. I seek traditional paintings, the classical still life of flowers in a vase. Also, I hope to find such paintings in their original period wood frame—the gilded, ornate, tacky frame. I have been fortunate finding many of these discarded paintings, and only for a few bucks.

Another Yard Sale, 19” x 23 ½”, July 2018
Detail of Fairfax Market Green, 26 ¼” x 30 ¼”, November 7, 2018

My first step of intervention is to tear out pages from my book, Sticks and Stones, Steel and Glass , and decoupage the pages onto various corners of the old flower painting. I do not stop at the limits of the canvas. In my art, I have always been fascinated in including the frame as part of the canvas. The pages and scraps from my book find themselves creeping up and over the aged wood frames.

I then create textures and hues with light acrylic washes. Following this is a signature gesture of mine, to give the subject of the painting an aura. Around the flowers and vase, I paint a halo or glow, as if to give new life. On top of this composition, I splatter gesso and drippings of tinted resin.

Detail of Flower Girl, 20 ½” x 24 ½”, September 2018

The result is an eccentric but visually dynamic work of juxtaposition. Colors, shapes and patterns from two different time periods collide—the original artist’s past and my present. Various mediums and techniques blur. Representation and abstraction coincide.

Garage Sale, 21” x 25”, February 2018

The visual noise invites the visitor to move back and forth, in and out, as she attempts to focus and grasp the mixed-media work. The visitor will appreciate the original flowers for a few minutes, before a splash of color draws his attention beyond the canvas. Then the viewer’s eye will be pulled into reading the words from my book. But some portions are illegible as a glob of gesso obscures the words. And so on. And so forth.

Detail of Habitat Flowers, 14 ½” x 17”, July 2018

This approach has created a few dozen works, with many variations on my premise. As I create, I am not sure if I am thinking about my approach to painting, or my approach to each day of my busy existence. But I like the unexpected collisions that result in new ideas. I like serendipity  and the unscheduled joys that typically would be undiscovered. I like that sometimes, risks must be taken, and it is okay to crash and burn. And I like knowing that timing and chance is everything, and perhaps I happened to finally get it right for this one moment of the day, or for this one painting.

A recent chapter of exploring abstraction, Gold Rush, 18” x 24”, November 2018


March 3, 2016

Kit-O-Parts concept model for Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, by Poon Design

What can architecture learn from jazz? Specifically, what can architects designing buildings learn from musicians creating jazz?

I recently posted my design approach as two parts: Product and Process. In that post, I discussed the ‘Product’ being works of juxtaposition.  In today’s post, I explore my ‘Process’ being jazz-like.

Conference room pin-up wall for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design
Conference room pin-up wall for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design

Many things bog an architect down, such as calculations that ensure a structure won’t collapse. Budgets, city codes, and construction surprises also burden us. The nature of our day to day design work is slow and tedious. From start to finish, a completed building requires years or decades. Even generations. Whether Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica or a local wine store, the architectural process is sluggish and overwrought. At times, painfully so.

With graphic design, on the other hand, a logo can be designed and implemented efficiently. In less than a month, boom, the logo appears on a website. (Sorry, my graphic artists’ friends, I know it is much more complicated than this, but in comparison . . .)

Process for “Sexy Conversation,” 40” x 40”, mixed media, by Anthony Poon
Process for “Sexy Conversation,” 40” x 40”, mixed media, by Anthony Poon

In jazz, musicians sit at their instruments, glance at each other, perhaps a wink, then a smile. And boom: music. A jam session begins, and the audience immediately enjoys the sounds and rhythms.

Spontaneity and improvisation are words that describe jazz. In contrast, as a classically-trained pianist, I was taught a mindset akin to architecture, where at great lengths and with agony, each and every move is carefully conditioned and rigorously rational.

When performing Liszt, I wouldn’t just discard the sheet music and riff on an Etude. Or maybe I would, but then it becomes something other than Liszt—and that might not be good. With architecture, I wouldn’t just discard the structural calculations for a hillside foundation and doodle my own geotechnical assumptions. A well-built castle isn’t constructed on sand.

Study models for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design
Study models for a chapel for an Air Force retirement community, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design

Is there room for speed in architecture? How about intuition? Social psychologist David Sudnow comments on jazz as moving “. . . from no one place in particular to no one place in particular . . .” I wish architecture had this kind of freedom.

Though I can’t actually be like a jazz pianist playing impromptu, I still try. Every day, I attempt to hand draw ideas freely without the constraints of either a T-square or the laptop. Rather than picking the appropriate shade of olive from the Pantone color book, I use my color markers and pencils. Swiftly and even blindly, I grab at colors, blending in a mad flurry seeking hues of discovery and spontaneity.

Anthony Poon’s drafting table
Anthony Poon’s drafting table

Jazz and juxtaposition—two words I might use to describe my work. Very likely, I will replace these two words with different words the next time an interviewer asks me, “What is your style?” In the end, I leave the labeling of the work to the historians, intellectuals, critics, and fans. When I am long gone, I hope my design legacy is given a provocative designation of style.

(For more, see a feature on my process at The Art Issue of LA Home magazine.)

Anthony Poon’s sketches, studies and notes
Anthony Poon’s sketches, studies and notes
© Poon Design Inc.