Tag Archives: Less is More

ACADEMY MUSEUM OF MOTION PICTURES: PLOT AND CLIMAX

August 5, 2022

(photo by Anthony Poon)

My first thought is simply this: weird. But is weird a bad thing? After years of delay, the $484-million Academy Musuem of Motion Pictures finally opened late last year. Designed by Pritzker-prized Renzo Piano with local Gensler as executive architect, the results are indeed weird.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

When Renzo Piano first arrived at the doorstep of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, in 2003, the city was thrilled. Art patrons were giddy and light-headed. The Italian architect had already designed notable museums around the world, e.g., Whitney in New York, Menil in Houston, Kimbell in Fort Worth, and of course, his career-launching, iconic Pompidou in Paris. (He was only in his early 30s!)

After having created a master plan for LACMA, two Piano-designed buildings were completed. The $56 mil, 60,000-square-foot BCAM opened in 2008, and two years later, the $54 mil, 45,000-square foot Resnick was completed. Unfortunately, the architecture world was mildly impressed. The critics were not kind: serviceable, predictable, Team B, elegant but not inspired, etc.—such notions come to my mind.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

Yet Starchitect Piano was asked to return for this fourth round. (Why?) With the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, he was determined to defy his critics and not let this city down again. Perhaps his ego needed to make an artistic statement, a final cry for attention. Indeed, the bar had been raised by Zumthor’s “Blob” and the Peterson’s swoops and stripes.

left: concept diagram (from kriegerproducts.com); right: concept sketch by Renzo Piano (from aasarchitecture.com)
Saban stair lobby (photo by Anthony Poon)

Piano’s concept is that of juxtaposition: a new 45,000-square-foot theater in the form of a 150-foot diameter sphere vs. the renovation of the 250,000-square-foot May Company Building. It is a story of new meets old—a futuristic concrete, steel, and glass globe confronting the historic 1931 Streamline Moderne, former department store. The meeting of the two sentinels finds it success in contrast and the ability to make each other look good. The parasitic relationship of visitor to host is both uneasily beautiful and compositionally stunning. But after this, the plot loses its voice.

Theater projection booth clumsily protruding out of the building (photo by Anthony Poon)

The renovation of the existing building, now called the Saban Building, explores “less is more.” Offering the museum curators a canvas of bare concrete floors and columns with a splash of red, inspired by the Red Carpet, the reduction and simplicity results in sincerity. Yet with the new spherical building, the design might have been better served by investing in the strength of the effortless sphere, understanding its elemental power, and exploiting this sense of reduction. As Louis Kahn showed us, there is power in abstraction, purity, and geometry.

Instead, creative decisions are no more than clumsy attachments and visual distractions. A projection booth that protrudes on the outside piercing the beautiful curvature of concrete? What about the odd slices and chamfers that appear to be from the hand of a clumsy chef attempting to decorate his cake, the uncomfortable plaza crushed by the hulking mass above, pointy sticks and javelins, stairs like scaffolding, giant earthquake-resistant base isolators of toy-like black rubber and red trim, and so on?

Under the belly of a whale, the awkward Walt Disney Company Plaza (photo by Anthony Poon)
Dolby Family Terrace (photo by Anthony Poon)

I found the most effective story twist on the roof terrace, an incredible engineering climax of glass and steel. Viewing 180 degrees north towards the Hollywood Hills and sheltered by a massive yet graceful transparent dome, the sublime experience is accompanied by a sense of wonder, a feeling of enlightenment.

I have always enjoyed movies for their ability to transport me to other worlds, whether Wakanda, Elm Street, Oz, or WWII. For a museum dedicated to the art of film, maybe the architect sought to deliver us a fantasy, a design of weirdness. Angelenos have been quick to label the building the “Death Star.” Of course, Piano dislikes this title that references the evil Galactic Empire. He prefers Tom Hanks’ “magic lantern.” Hoping for Hollywood magic, Renzo Piano states, “Call it a dirigible, a zeppelin,” “flying vessel,” or “a soap bubble in the middle of a concrete city.”

1,000-seat David Geffen Theater. Note: I did not have an opportunity to visit the interior of this theater. (from discoverlosangeles.com)

BUILDINGS: INTROVERTS VS. EXTROVERTS

January 25, 2019

An introverted mute facade offers quiet contentment. Linea Residence G, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design. 2018 National Award Winner from The American Institute of Architects.

In 2012, author Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain suggested that the world devalues and misreads introverted people. So too for architecture that might be considered introverted.

Even with its rich exterior color, this introverted museum focuses inward. Chinese Academy of Art, Hangzou, China, by Alvaro Siza (photography by Fernando Guerra)

Cain states, “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology . . . Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

This elemental house expresses only the bare minimum. Casa Delle Bottere, Veneto, Italy, by John Pawson (photo by Marco Zanta)
Intimate and introspective. Capela Do Monte, Luz, Portugal, by Alvaro Siza (photography by Joao Morgado)

In architecture, an introverted design idea might be confused with making a meek statement. In agreement with Cain, I argue that introversion is a strength. With design driven by introversion and not the “enormously appealing” extroversion, the introverted design result can be powerfully introspective, confidently content and simply genuine. Introversion is not a weakness.

From the art movement of the 60s and 70s known as Minimalism, the creative output was not ever empty or marginal, as the literal meaning of minimal might suggest. Through the Minimalists’ interests in being spare, expressing only the essentials, the final work was dramatic through its reductive and introverted self.

With dramatic black, a discreet but confident warehouse sits comfortably in its own skin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Moargs (photography by Alvano Garcia)

Architect Mies van der Rohe proclaimed one of history’s most profound sentiments, “Less is more.”  Through simplicity, such a philosophy can deliver the most commanding presence, surpassing the noise of extroverted architecture.

A simple and private residence walls itself from the world, not due to shyness, but for self-examination and contemplation, in Maia, Portugal, by Eduardo Souto de Moura, (photo by Lius Ferreira Alves)

Author Cain on introverts: “They listen more than they talk, think before they speak . . .” In contrast, Cain speaks of extroverts as “risk-taking, assertive, dominant, prefer talking to listening . . .” Brace yourself and see below.

The extroverted rooftop addition does not want to be ignored. Backadrin’s Headquarters, Asten, Austria, by Coop Himmelb(l)au (photo from pathologyandhistology.com)

This extroverted form of architecture is commonly known. Our heroic buildings defy gravity, beautifully express forms reaching to the sky, and grab the attention of magazine covers and blog features. These extroverted structures stand proud and righteous, egotistically even, and are often delivered through the self-assured hands of one of our Starchitects, our celebrity hero personalities.

A colorful extroverted palace screams for attention. Palais des Congres, Montreal, Canada, by Hal Ingberg with Tetreault, Dubuc, Saia et Associes (photo from congresmtl.com)

For marketing and PR, it is easier for an architecture business to pitch extroverted projects than introverted ones—just as a big symphonic performance tends to outsell a concert hall, as compared to an intimate solo cello recital. Extroverted design makes a bold statement, and architects often aim for this, so as to put their name on the map—to plant a flag on the ever competitive landscape of design awards and recognition.

In stark contrast to its neighbors, the extrovert high rise wants to be noticed from all directions. W57, New York, New York, by BIG (photo from e-architect.co.uk)

Lastly, what is the appropriate architecture for an introverted individual vs. an extroverted individual? Obvious themes: introverts prefer private offices over the trendy open office space. Meaning, introverts chose areas for focus and reflection vs. the cliché of groupthink and the overrated committee collaboration. In the home, introverts seek out solitude like a reading niche, not the open kitchen and the adjacent high ceiling great room. At the park, the bench under a tree, not the big lawn. One simple conclusion is that introversion is related to the scale of the architecture, not necessarily its size. Meaning,  when appropriate,  a big room can be designed to feel intimate.

Director of a non-profit, Christine Fang provides education on mindfulness and meditation, and she observes, “In fact, architecture that supports the inward endeavor is addressing real human needs, helping us all breathe a little easier in this sometimes obsessively outwardly facing world.”

Perhaps this one introverted visitor has found a discreet desk away from the busy central space. Bibliotheque Alexis de Tocqueville, Caen, France, by OMA (photo by Iwan Baan)

As Susan Cain suggests, the world is made up of 1/3 to 1/2 introverts, and introversion is not inferior to extroversion. Quite the opposite, as she lists ground-breaking introverts, from Steve Wozniak to Dr. Seuss, from Rosa Parks to Chopin—and the many more that have shaped this extroverted world.

. . . IS IN THE DETAILS

March 30, 2015

2015 Jaguar XF

Jaguar, the stylish automotive company, has a new campaign: The Devil is In The Details.

This catch phrase that we often throw around is actually a derivative from an original quote, “God is in the details.” Most people don’t know about the architectural roots of this popular saying. The New York Times credits it to master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), a German-born titan of Modernism who pioneered Minimalism and is ensconced in the profession’s pantheon along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

And as if Mies needed any more help securing a place in our lexicon, he is also famously known for another popular quote among architects and the public in general: “Less is More.”

While it may seem that Mies was contradicting himself, he was actually saying the same thing but in different ways. He was urging us to always think of the details, no matter how few, and to be precise and thorough with those details we have and use.

Buddhist Temple in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design
Buddhist Temple in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design

In architecture, work is all about attention to detail. Whether that means finding the perfect shade of white paint or the right kind of metal, design requires that we pay close attention to the small things, because they all add up. How do we balance the quality of light? Should we use polished, honed, rough sawn, or brushed stone? Do the mechanical ducts interfere with the steel beams supporting the roof? Is the emergency exit corridor out of a hotel lobby the right width?

True, in architecture school and in every project we tackle at Poon Design Inc., we must be concerned with the Big Picture, the Concept. For instance, when we designed a chapel for Air Force village in Texas, we explored larger themes, such as reaching for the sky, heroism and the meaning of grandeur. Or, when an architect designs an airport, the standard metaphor is flight, hence wing-like roofs, soaring forms, and structures appear to defy gravity.

Air Force Village Chapel in San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design, rendering by Mike Amaya
Air Force Village Chapel in San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)

Big Picture, yes.

But at the same time, if you are attempting to defy gravity or give the impression that you are, you better have the detailed engineering behind it. This risky feat of structural gymnastics must not fail because of a lack of detailed thinking or else, like the mythical Icarus who overlooked the details of his altitude, you will suffer a catastrophic collapse.

So I believe that both God and the Devil are in the details. Even the few details when less is more.

© Poon Design Inc.