Tag Archives: MAYA LIN

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.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF NEW IDEAS

July 20, 2018

1887 to 1889: Eiffel Tower under construction (photo from eiffeltowerguide.com)

When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, it was criticized as the ugliest work of architecture and a horrific nightmare for Paris. Even prior to the completion of Gustave Eiffel’s iconic project—politicians, intellectuals, architects, and citizens banded together condemning the design.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France (photo from yallabook.com)

Calling themselves the Artists against the Eiffel Tower, they proclaimed, “We . . . protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk . . . all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream . . . like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

These days, the beloved Eiffel Tower represents the pride of France, undisputed as one of the world’s most recognizable monuments, a marvel of engineering, and a landmark of architectural beauty.

Then a mere Yale undergraduate student, Maya Lin’s proposal was chosen from over 1,400 submissions. (photo from pdxmonthly.com)

One century later, the jury selected Maya Lin, only twenty-one years of age, as the winner of the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin’s design immediately sparked artistic debates and fueled controversy about her lack of talent, youth, ethnicity, and gender. Rather than the typical memorial of soldiers carved out of marble celebrating victory, Lin’s design was somber, morbid even. An ambitious concept of abstract art, the young designer envisioned a long wall of black granite cut into the ground—a wound in the earth expressing the thousands of lives lost in this war.

Despite many challenges and negativity, her design opened to the public with universal fanfare and tears of gratitude. Twenty-six years later, The American Institute of Architects placed Lin’s design on their list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.”

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. (photo by Terry Adams/National Park Service)

Architects often deal with clients and the general public who might not embrace our creative visions. At least not at first. I am aware that not every design idea of mine is great. But I grumble here, because most people fear the newness of new ideas. The narrow-minded, the NIMBY’s, those who fear progress, and those with no ambition or imagination—all such members of this righteous audience stand ready to say no. They embrace a naive motto: if it looks different, it must not be good.

Basilica of Saint Denis, France (photo by Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images)
The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China (photo by Songquan Deng / Shutterstock)

How do we explain to this kind of audience that we do know best? Regardless of an architect’s education and degrees, decades of apprenticeship and training, accolades and honors, media praise and client references, it doesn’t take much for a person to react to an architect’s presentation with, “No, nope, it’s not good.” Historically, this type of sentiment has been stated at the arrival of so many respected (later bestowed) works of architecture that has moved the needle of progress forward—from Gothic cathedrals to Chinese temples, from Frank Gehry’s masterpieces to heroic skyscrapers.

right: Flower Building, Prospect Place, London (rendering by Frank Gehry); left: 30 St. Mary Axe, London (photo by Creative Commons Attribution)

If you see a doctor and he says you have cancer, listen to the diagnosis and next steps. You are probably not smarter than your doctor. If you hire a lawyer, she probably has a better legal mind than you. Her experience has prepared her to be your best advocate. Pay attention.

Taegu Arena, Korea, by Anthony Poon (w/ NBBJ, photo by John Lodge)

If an architect proposes a new idea for a city park or a concert hall, an elementary school or a church—don’t have that knee jerk reaction, “I don’t get it. And I don’t like it.” Don’t be the establishment that proclaimed the Eiffel Tower as “monstrous, ghastly and hateful.” Keep an open mind to new ideas.

SOME KIND OF BEAUTIFUL

May 26, 2017

Storm King Wavefield, by Maya Lin, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (2009, photo from stormking.org)

What is beauty? How is it defined, described, discussed, deconstructed?

Looking at personal favorites, I ponder four themes of beauty: 1) man-made, 2) God-made, 3) the Grotesque, and 4) the ethereal.

1) BY MAN OR WOMAN

One category of beauty is that made by the hands of a person. And its beauty can be at any size and complexity—from a gourmet delicacy to twisted steel beams six stories high.

Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)
Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)

I love the artistry in making sushi. Not only is the result visually appealing, but sushi’s beauty is also temporal. The creations exist as beautiful for only a brief moment, as the juices soak for too long and discolor the creation, as the temperature changes how the food glistens.

South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)
South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)

One of my favorite places on the planet is the 500-acre art park known as Storm King in Upstate New York. With immense scale, the sculptural installations are profound. No longer inhibited by the walls of a gallery, the sky is literally the limit. Art’s beauty reaches up, out or down, and does so more ambitiously than ever before.

Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)
Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)

2) BY NATURE

Mother Nature has delivered some of the most beautiful things in the world.

left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)
left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)

I favor the natural stone formation known as Devils Postpile. Basalt formations create hexagonal columns that start deep in the Earth and reveal their natural engineering at the surface. The beauty and structural logic of the hexagon is prevalent throughout nature.

Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)
Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)

3) THE GROTESQUE

left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)
left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)

Beauty can be obviously beautiful or not so obvious. Perhaps beauty does not have to be pretty and attractive, but rather, sublime.

The Steve McCurry portrait is universally considered to be one of the definitive portraits in history, akin to the Mona Lisa. Yes, McCurry’s work is exquisite. But I argue that photographer/artist Cindy Sherman has also captured beauty, but in her signature bizarre and deformed visions.

left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)
left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)

Countering the classical beauty of portraits by Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin’s work presents hypnotic, even frightening images of her friends. Starting as a raw, stark and intimate look into the life of the gay subculture of the 70’s and 80’s in New York City, Goldin’s “look” is later commercialized, nearly made trite. Even called beautiful, “Heroic Chic” arrives to the world of fashion photography.

See more on the Grotesque and architecture.

left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)

4) THE ETHEREAL

How do we defined the aural beauty in music and its ethereal qualities? Both the music of Beethoven and Bud Powell have been described as beautiful and Grotesque, with its poetic lyricism alongside jarring rhythms and discordant harmonies.

Lastly, this portrait too is beautiful. Ethereally.

© Poon Design Inc.