Tag Archives: MODERNISM WEEK

EGO AND ARROGANCE

April 1, 2022

(photos left to right: Pyramid at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France, by Michael Fousert; Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, by Anthony Delanoix; Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York, by Dennis; Burg Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by Nick Fewings; all from Unsplash)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California.)

Architects design homes, schools, skyscrapers, entire cities. Who has given architects this role and influence in society, and what have we done with it? From the Pyramid at the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower , from the Guggenheim to the Burg Khalifa in Dubai—architect’s egos are stamped all over cities, all over the world. Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, even has drawings to literally redesign Earth.

Me presenting, The Creative Process and The Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Elizabeth Staes)

Master builder, master designer, master creator—architects have been granted the responsibility to impact communities and cultural progress, through the flexing of creative muscles. The offering of world icons and or definitive works stems from both talent and skill, as well as confidence and ego. Consider Philip Johnson’s pithy quote.

But ego can lead to influence, influence to power, and power to arrogance. And arrogance can either drive a project into successful territory or regrettable disaster. For the latter, two projects come to mind.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, a hotly debated project known as Munger Hall has every architect, student, parent, and community member up in arms. For this proposed $1 billion, 1.7 million square foot, 11-story dormitory for 4,500 students, there has been a very little support. For the amateur architect and developer, Charlie Munger (billionaire and partner to Warren Buffet) and Southern California architect-of-record, VTBS (yes, B-S), the wrath bestowed on this project approved is universal. To sum it up, there has not been so much loathing in recent history. There are many reasons for the abhorrence, but the main objection is that 95% of the dorm rooms will have NO WINDOWS. No natural light. No fresh air. No view to the outside.

Munger Hall (drawings and rendering from VTBS), Charles Munger (photo by Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters)

The arrogance of Munger comes from believing that: 1) Fronting the construction cost gives him the unconditional ticket to design whatever he wants, and 2) he and VTBS are convinced that windowless dormitory rooms are not just acceptable, but a creative success, even a bragging right. And everything from science to history, and real life to design guidelines, have proven this idea to be horrific.

Consider the residential estate in Bel Air, California, simply called “The One.” The conceit within that title alone reeks of egotism. Here, this spec house, with an asking price of $500 million, includes 105,000-square-foot, 20 bedrooms with a 5000-square-foot master bedroom suite, 42 bathrooms, a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, 50-car garage, and four swimming pools—to name a few details.

“The One,” Bel Air, Los Angeles, California (photo by Michael Leonard, The Society Group)

Bel Air is a community of wealth, where some of the largest mansions have been built over the years. As seen above, the two circled homes are such mansions of prestige and wealth. And between them is the out-of-scale, gargantuan vanity of developer Nile Niami and architect Paul McClean. The cautionary tale? No one wants such a home. The property recently sold for only $141 million, which is a mere one-third of the asking price.

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (photo by Guy Dugas, Pixabay); Medici family (image from historyhit.com)

Historically, architects were given such power by an omnipotent clients such as the Medici’s, but in today’s culture of individualism and self-promotion, such projects as Munger Hall and The One are fueled by confidence and salesmanship, perhaps even narcissism.

Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices (photo from drtuesdaygjohnson.tumblr.com

Author Meryle Secrest wrote of Frank Lloyd Wright, “If he had intended to live out his life in the columns of newspapers, he could not have acted any more effectively. . . again and again, courting the press . . . Wright’s appetite for whatever might further his career was gargantuan.”

Accusations of megalomania have been projected onto Bjarke Ingels and his company, BIG, with 550 employees in offices in Copenhagen, New York, London, and Barcelona. Ingels himself counters the Miesian platitude, “Less is more,” and instead proclaims, “Yes is more.”

Bjarke Ingels (photo by Thomas Loff); Ingels sketching (photo from youtube.com); W57, New York, New York (photo from claudejobin.com)

Check yourself. When does confidence become righteousness, talent become ego, and prowess become arrogance? How does self-assurance and pride become condescension and smugness? Who shall “inherit the earth”?

MID-CENTURY MODERNISM: STOP THE INSANITY!

March 2, 2018

The Refill, by Shag

I am exhausted watching Mid-Century Modern (“MCM”) seep into every crevice of design. As popular as this design movement is, I find MCM outdated and old fashion, like the styles of 19th century Victorian or 17th century Baroque.

Why are people obsessed with living in this particular MCM past? Are these fanatics doing away with their computers, going to drive-in movie theaters, wearing saddle shoes, and twisting to Doris Day? No, these MCM zealots are only interested in the superficial look of a vintage era, roughly the 50’s and 60’s.

An ’embalmed’ MCM interior in Palm Springs, California (photo from soosxer.com)

Returning recently from my lecture at Modernism Week, where 100,000 attendees descended on Palm Springs to celebrate the MCM movement, the crowds were more interested in embalming the style vs. understanding it. Some of the attendees arrived in full 50’s theme attire, similar to how Trekkies and Fanboys proudly share their geekdom, dressing as Kirk, Spock and Klingons at Comic-Con.

The current MCM mania is an unfortunate approach that is merely design paint-by-numbers. For example, the enthusiasts create homes for themselves that are nothing more than architectural historical replicas. Call it curating or antique-ing, but all I see are devotees trying so hard to obtain that mint condition, original issue, Saarinen table within a Neutra house, where the Zeisel pottery sits perfectly in the room of avocado green paint.

Nice MCM yes, but only as a piece of history, Palm Springs, California. (photo from birdcourage.com)

Stylish, yes—but has anyone ever sat in an Eames rocking chair? The majority of MCM pieces have been panned as not just uncomfortable, but not all that functional.

So predictable and so uncomfortable; every piece is a cliché, Palos Verdes, California. (photo by Nate Cole)

My view: MCM should stand for Mid-Century Mausoleum. The owners of these fetishized environments have not created a pleasant home, but rather, forced their families and visitors to live in an ironic display from a history museum. Nostalgia is fine, but not when it is only a kit-of-parts, or worse, a collection of stale clichés.

To my 1957 MCM Bird Streets house, I added Brazilian Cherry and Maple flooring, along with a hand-troweled, sculptural fireplace, by Poon Design. The predictable Eames chair is not in the usual black but in putty leather, and the chair’s wood is not the usual Walnut, but Cherry. In Hollywood Hills, California (photo by Elon Schoenholz)

There is nothing wrong with collecting, like when a child buys, sells and trades baseball cards. But ask any kid the stats of a particular player, and you will get a wealth of data. Ask a MCM collector about the design movement’s origins, and it is unlikely that you will receive a grasp of post-war housing crisis, the drive for affordability and production, middle class views of wilderness, high rag content paper, and offset lithography. No, you will probably just hear some MCM buff bragging about his Satellite 23 clock.

I have learned from MCM ideas, i.e., the open plan, indoor/outdoor connections, and walls of glass. But I choose to view MCM as inspiration, not an ancient source for replication. As a point of departure, I view MCM as a place to stand and look to the future.

Do something different with MCM, like bright white, laser-cut, Italian cabinets, blue Brazilian marble, and a pair of Parallam ridge beams, by Poon Design. Renovation of my 1964 house, Bel Air, California. (photo by Anthony Poon)
A distinctive addition adds new life to a 1957 MCM house, in New Canaan, Connecticut. (photo by Peter Aaron / Esto)

To my clients who are fans of MCM architecture, I suggest this: Your homes can have MCM ideas, but let’s add your own ideas. Let’s add your personality, and it doesn’t have to come from one catalog. You are not living in a period film, but rather, you are breathing a modern existence, full of current ideas about lifestyle, technology, media, sustainability, and invention.

Here is a good example of adding personality to a 1962 MCM house, Palos Verdes, California. (photo from redfin.com)
© Poon Design Inc.