February 26, 2021

Notre-Dame de Paris, France: Universally considered as good architecture: (Photo by Leif Linding from Pixabay) San Francisco Marriott Marquis, California: “. . . always was and remains at the top of the ugly heap,” from gabriellafracchia.com (photo by Beyond My Ken)

It must be asked: What is good architecture? What is bad architecture?

A 3rd century B.C. Greek adage has become the seminal motto, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But who are these “beholders”? And is architecture subjective—to be determined on a case-by-case basis by whoever is beholden, whoever is the random casual visitor?

House VI (photo from eisenmanarchitects.com)

At a Princeton University panel, I once heard New York architect Peter Eisenman argue that there is, indeed, such a thing as good architecture and bad architecture. He cited one example, and I paraphrase, “If a stair is designed to go up, and the architect makes it to go down, then that is bad architecture.”

Mid-Century Modern home, Portland, Oregon: Timeless design or old fashion? (photo by Kate Reggev)

When a design is labeled timeless, that generally suggests something good—as in the architecture has stood the test of time. But timelessness is elusive. Someone might think of Mid-Century Modernism as timeless. Other would call it a fad. Another might argue for a classical Colonial style. And in turn, some would call it old fashion.

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, France (photo by Edi Nugraha from Pixabay)
Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (photo by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, Steven Goldblatt, Rollin LaFrance)

The American Institute of Architects bestows one project a year with their Twenty-Five Year Award. The AIA states, “The award is conferred on a building that has stood the test of time for 25-35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.” And the winners of this annual award—from I.M. Pei’s pyramid in Paris (awarded in 2017) to Robert Venturi’s Post-Modern house for his mom in Philadelphia (awarded in 1989)—never look the same, meaning there is no explicit link between good and timelessness.

Vitruvius presenting architecture to Augustus (by Sebastian Le Clerc)

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius gave us three rules defining good architecture:

  • Firmatis, meaning durability: should stand up and remain in good condition,
  • Utilitas, meaning utility: should function well, and
  • Venustatis, meaning beauty: should delight people and enliven the human spirit.
Boston City Hall, Massachusetts: Considered both good and bad, depending on who you ask. (photo by Anton Grassl)

But when I teach, how do I apply Virtruvius’ teachings when grading the work of my students? What is a B plus design vs. an A minus? If the students are designing a hypothetical city hall, I can recognize if the design complies with the required functions, i.e., enough offices, nice big lobby, required restrooms, and so on. But what about the intangibles? Does the work exude civic spirit? Does it stand proud acknowledging the history of the town, as well as look to its future?

Like with classical music, the performance is not good because the player has gotten all the notes right. The goodness comes from what is added after the notes, even in between the notes—such as the interpretation, the communication of something beyond the music.

Good architecture goes beyond its sticks and stones, steel and glass, beyond the number of classrooms in a school or seats in a theater. What is beyond is not up to the beholder or the architect, but things known as culture, progress, evolution, invention, wonder, humor, and amazement. Grasping all this or even some of this, if humanly possible for the architect, comprises good architecture.

Universally considered a good design: Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India (photo by Simon from Pixabay)


July 3, 2020

top: Boa Nova Teahouse, Porto, Portugal, by Alvaro Siza (photo by Joao Morgado), lower left: Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, by Piano & Rogers (photo by Denys Nevozhai, @dnevozhai); lower right: Aarhus, Denmark, by BIG (photo by BIG)

The design industry often states that the career of an architect doesn’t truly begin until age 50. Why are architects only commencing a successful career when colleagues in other industries are planning their retirements?

How is it possible that Mozart wrote his first symphony at eight? Or at a mere 18, Billie Eilish won five Grammy Awards. On the other hand, I.M. Pei was an elder at 66 when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize. He was even older, 71 years, when he designed the world-famous Louvre Pyramid.

left: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1782 painting, Joseph Lange, from smithsonianmag.com); right: Billie Eilish (photo by Sara Jaye Weiss/Rex Shutterstock, from theguardian.com)

Very few architects have completed great buildings at a young age. Such rare individuals, though fully grown adults, are like child prodigies in architecture. Alvaro Siza wasn’t even 30 when he designed the poetic Boa Nova Tea House in Porto, Portugal. Only in their early 30s, Renzo Piano and Richard Rodgers created the groundbreaking Centre Pompidou in Paris. And Bjark Ingels amassed a global portfolio of ambitious projects before even reaching 40—a portfolio of built works equal in depth to colleagues literally twice his age.

But these few examples are extremely exceptional. More typical is a Frank Gehry at nearly 70 finally having the opportunity to bring to the world his iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Some of Zaha Hadid’s most elaborate and bold projects are now being completed, several years after her unfortunate passing at 65. As a typical investment banker relaxes upon his riches at 40 or 50, world-famous I.M. Pei worked into his 90s.

If our architectural career doesn’t truly launch until 50 or even 60, the question screams out: Why? The answer is complex, but mostly two-fold.

upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry (photo by Juan Gomez, @nosoylasonia); lower left: Louvre Museum, Paris, France, by I.M. Pei (photo by Irina Ledyaeva, @irinaledyaeva); right: Generali Tower, Milan, Italy, by Zaha Hadid (photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel, @ripato)

The Practical

After completing one’s architecture education and obtaining the state license to practice (yes, the word is “practice”), an individual is legally an architect. But at 20-something, could such a new architect design a performing arts center or a museum, both projects that typically define a milestone in one’s career? Is it practical that a corporate board of directors or a university would hire this young architect to design a project over $100 million?

Such a sophomoric designer might have worked on similar projects in school, but in concept only. In real practice (again, “practice”) the project has a budget, client demands, city codes, engineering, construction trades, etc. It is unlikely that this architect would have the client savvy, technical expertise, office infrastructure, and team of architects, consultants, and legal counsel—as well as personal maturity.

An architect usually launches his career with the renovation of his uncle’s master bathroom, or maybe a mom-and-pop café. Then hopefully, one project leads to another. Eventually after decades, the house design leads to a condo building, then maybe a restaurant or hotel, eventually a classroom building and college library, then a theater or corporate headquarters, finally having a shot at something like a museum or skyscraper. And this can take years, decades, or even an entire career.

left: TWA Flight Center, Queens, New York, by Eero Saarinen (photo by Max Touhey); right: Grundtvig’s Church, Copenhagen, Denmark, by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint (photo by John Towner, @heytowner)

The Philosophical

The other side of the answer is about artistry. Some creative minds bloom early and some bloom late. Architects don’t usually bloom early because the opportunity to bloom doesn’t present itself until decades of experiences have passed. Sure, we can all design big things as we did in school—in the abstract. But can we really wrap our head around designing a real airport or cathedral?

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, by Ludwig van Beethoven (from pinterest.com, Judy Jensen)

With his first symphony, Mozart was considered a genius at 8, but it took until 30 for Beethoven to compose his first symphony. Beethoven was a late bloomer, but he was still ahead of architects by two decades, as we struggle to find our first bonafide opportunity to flex our creative muscles.

Opportunity aside, architects need their talents to season, age and ripen. We need to develop the skills to know a good solution from a bad one, to know that a marvelous roof design won’t collapse—to know great from good. Like the finest of wine, sometimes the cork stays in the bottle until the time is right.

Heritage Fine Wines, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)


May 13, 2016

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, France, by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo by Benh Lieu Song)

Though the job interview at I.M. Pei’s company started normal enough, it was over before it began.

Arriving in Manhattan, I only had a couple hundred bucks, my cousin’s sofa to crash on for two weeks, and my architecture portfolio. I needed a job. Badly.

Having just graduated college, my resume pathetically displayed only three months of professional experience, which consisted mostly of practicing how to write nice letters. I don’t mean correspondences and memos. I mean literally writing letters. I practiced my A’s, B’s and C’s.

My architectural portfolio from UC Berkeley
My architectural portfolio from UC Berkeley

To get an architecture job, it comes down to your portfolio, a black binder that holds your design work. I had received good advice ahead of time. A portfolio was not, as many young architects wrongly believe, a comprehensive chronological tome of all of one’s school work—from the first year of learning how to draw an apple, to the middle years of designing a house, to the final studio of something complex such as a civic center.

Imagine the bored interviewer listening to you drone on, “And in this third semester class, we designed a blah, blah, blah . . . for my fourth semester . . . now, let’s turn to page 108 of my portfolio . . .” No, a portfolio should be a vigilantly curated story of one’s creativity.

For my New York interviews, my portfolio was sound: A few school projects, a sample of drafting from an internship, and some personal pieces of photography and figure drawing. I was, I felt, a well-rounded candidate for an entry position.

East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo by National Gallery of Art)
East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo by National Gallery of Art)

I mailed dozens of resumes to architecture firms in NYC, from the highest profile corporations to the small studios. (No email back then.) One day after several rejections, I returned to a voicemail on my cousin’s answering machine. (No cell phones back then.) It was from the offices of I.M. Pei.

I..M. PEI!

Mr. Pei’s HR person left me a voicemail, asking if I was available for an interview. This was it: A dream come true for any young architect, a possible job at one of the most prestigious companies on the globe!

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo by Timothy Hursley)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo by Timothy Hursley)

Wearing my only suit and tie, I went through the usual motions with Pei’s interviewer. He asked a few questions about how I liked Berkeley, about my piano playing, etc. He then got to the meat of the interview: My portfolio. While flipping through my colorful pages, he explained the office building that I would design, if I got the job.

I’d already be assigned an office building to design!

John Hancock Tower, Boston, Massachusetts, by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo from architectmagazine.com)
John Hancock Tower, Boston, Massachusetts, by I.M. Pei & Partners (photo from architectmagazine.com)

But he was perplexed. He looked at my trivial portfolio. He studied my skimpy resume. Then looked at me. Then at the resume. Then me. Then resume.

Finally, he inquired in a puzzled state, “I don’t get it. How old are you?”

Before I answered, he repeated a little more aggressively, “How old are you?!”

Squeaking out, “I am 22 years old.”

Dumbfounded and perturbed, he demanded, “Where are the 17 years of experience?”

I was equally dumbfounded. “What 17 years are you talking about?”—trying not to be disrespectful of the eminent offices of I.M. Pei.

He asserted that this was an interview for a senior architect to design an 85-story office tower.

I explained, retreating for no real reason, “Sorry, but I have less than one year of experience.”

Choate Rosemary Hall Science Center, Wallingford, Connecticut, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo from pcf-p.com)
Choate Rosemary Hall Science Center, Wallingford, Connecticut, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (photo from pcf-p.com)

Long story short: A harried HR person made a mistake transcribing numbers between my resume and the office form my interviewer was looking at now. The embarrassed—though more frustrated than embarrassed—interviewer showed me, turning the office form around for me to witness. There indeed did my 22 year-old eyes see in one-inch tall letters: “17 years of experience. Good candidate!”

The interviewer expressed annoyance, angered by the sloppiness from his world-class company that prides itself on designs of perfect proportions, exquisitely executed finishes, and highly detailed precision.

My first job in New York City at M. Paul Friedberg and Partners, late 80’s
My first job in New York City at M. Paul Friedberg and Partners, late 80’s

Like a little boy whose ice cream scoop had fallen off his cone into the dirt, I picked up my portfolio and left the best job opportunity I never had.

© Poon Design Inc.