Tag Archives: music

LIVE LEARN EAT INTERVIEW PART 2 OF 2: RESTAURANTS BY POON DESIGN INC.

April 30, 2021

A wall of honed sandstone at Din Tai Fung, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa (photo by Gregg Segal)

(The complete Zoom interview is here, and part 1 on school design is here. The book, Live Learn Eat, is available at Amazon and your local retailers. Excerpts below.)

Michael Webb: Let’s finally get to restaurants. You’ve designed more than 50 varied examples, working on both generous and frugal budgets. Like schools, restaurants have to accommodate all their uses in the kitchen and dining area, and in between. How do you choreograph those movements?

Anthony Poon: That’s a good word, Michael, choreography.

Architect Anthony Poon and author Michael Webb on Zoom; lower image: pages of Live Learn Eat, displaying Linea Residence G, Palm Springs, California (photo by Mark Ballogg)

All of us who go to restaurants spend time in the dining room, at the bar, or the outdoor patio. Behind the walls is a tremendous amount of activity. Roughly 50% of a floor plan goes to the back of house. It’s like a theater where one sees the play—sees what’s presented to them at the front of the stage—but they are not explicitly aware of all the activity going on behind stage, all the people running around. In the case of restaurants, there’s dozens of people in the kitchen with 30 cooktops, waiters dashing around, dishwashers, circulation moving everywhere—all while trying to present the most elegant dining experience for the user.

We choreograph all this—like a football coach with his green board, drawing X’s and O’s in chalkboard lines—to understand how a waiter needs to move from spot A to spot B, and not conflict with diners coming in for their nice anniversary dinner. There’s quite a lot of planning before we even get to choosing, for example, light fixtures and materials.

Concept diagram for Din Tai Fung, Americana at Brand, Glendale, California

Michael: A lot of this is both physical, but also intangible. Restaurants define themselves by their cuisine, their service, and the atmosphere, the feel of the place, the acoustics, the way that everybody dresses. There are places that are super casual, others that are more formal. How do you bring all those things together in a seamless whole?

Kit-o-parts model for Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California (photo by Poon Design)

Anthony: We offer to our restaurants what we call comprehensive design. It starts with looking at the type of cuisine and the service model. It might be the handcrafted sandwiches of our client, Mendocino Farms. It could be the world famous dumplings of the Chinese restaurant, Din Tai Fung. We look to how their ideas can be represented in the architecture, but space-making goes far beyond architecture. For a lot of our restaurant clients, we have designed the architecture and the interior design, of course, but also bring in landscape ideas and lighting design. Also, we custom design furniture, and handle graphic design, the branding, website, and for some clients, even evaluate their uniform design.

Graphic design for the Chaya restaurants, by Sue and Danny Yee with Poon Design

And then comes the music. Architecture is more than the experience you feel as you walk into a restaurant. As a musician, I believe that music is part of that architecture. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a restaurant and the general manager has plopped in his iPod, and it’s just playing his playlist, a selection of music irrelevant to the style and flavor of the dining room.

At Poon Design, we feel that music should support the ideas of the chef. It’s the same way that some might say, “Let’s look at the way sunlight moves through the day, through the windows, through the restaurant.” We ask the same thing. What kind of music should be playing at lunchtime when the professionals arrive? At happy hour when everyone’s celebrating the end of an exhausting workday? What’s the appropriate music for fine dining? As a crowd winds down for late night drinks or dessert, what’s the kind of music for that? We think of music the same way we think of lighting design, the same way we pick the fabric for a banquette, or the wood stain for the tabletops. It’s all a comprehensive, integrated experience.

Artisanal plaster arches made by hand in Marrakesh, Morocco, and installed at Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California (photos by Poon Design and Marrakesh Designs Ltd.)

Just one last aspect, Michael, you’ve mentioned the acoustics. That plays into the quality of experience as well. I’m sure many of you have been to restaurants where you sit three feet from your friends, and you can barely hear their voices, because there’s such a loud ringing in the restaurant. Finally, you leave the restaurant after 90 minutes realizing your throat is sore from having yelled so much, and your ears are ringing from all the reverberation.

Sushi Noguchi, Yorba Linda, California (photo by Poon Design)

Part of the quality of the restaurant architecture is not just what it looks like but what it feels like—to all the senses. For music, that’s the ears. But we have to also bring our technical experience with acoustic engineering to control the sound, give a wonderful environment that is not just visual, but that is physical, that is aural.

Michael: I’d been told that restaurants actually welcome noise, because people drink more and eat faster, and therefore, the turnover and the profit is greater—that there is actually a kind of country movement against quiet acoustics of the kind that existed when there were carpets, upholstery, curtains, and all the old-fashioned things that we remember from long ago in restaurants. Now it’s all hard reverberant surfaces.

Anthony: All of our restaurants clients want their spaces to have a certain buzz—a kind of energy sounding through the room. No one wants to walk in and feel like it’s the university library where it’s too quiet. People go to restaurants for social contact, to be amongst a community of people, similarly to the difference between watching a movie at home on Netflix vs. going to a theater with a large group. There are people you might not even know, but that’s a certain valuable social experience.

Elliptical wine room with shaped slatted ceiling at Heritage Fine Wines, Beverly Hills, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Most restaurants will want music playing with a certain hum of sound, but it’s about controlling that, like playing the restaurant as if it’s an instrument. Like a musician, you tune it to the right feel. Some restaurants want a certain hyper energy during happy hour, where there’s loud music and a pulse. Other restaurants want that elegant, fine dining experience.

We start by looking to the restaurateur and asking them, what is your experience? Then we tune it to what they want as an identity, an acoustic identity. Just as a quick lesson, we explain to our clients what we call the ABC of acoustic design. A meaning absorb, B meaning block, and C meaning cover.

Chandelier of 1,500 recycled plastic toys and collectibles by a collaboration of Stuart Haygarth and Poon Design, Venetian-influenced mirror décor, and custom furniture, at Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California (photo by Gregg Segal)

We choose materials to absorb what we want to absorb. You mentioned carpet. That’s a great material, but of course, very hard to maintain. There are so many other materials that could be used to absorb sound.

Block is about blocking out the sound no one wants to hear. No one wants to hear noises from the kitchen and washing dishes. So we want to block that as well as other back of house sounds—the restrooms, or the cars outside.

Cover is thinking about what sounds you want to cover and what you want to let in. If you’re on an outside patio on a busy street, you may want to cover the sound of cars honking, but you might want to pick up some of the energy of the city. You can cover unwanted noise with music. You can cover that with a fountain.

Michael: One of your star clients in Southern California was Din Tai Fung, who you mentioned earlier. The global chain that moved from its original place in Taiwan. Why do people line up for hours to get in? And what do they expect when they get in?

Entry with a restoration of a mid-century structure at Din Tai Fung, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa (photo by Gregg Segal)

Anthony: People have waited several hours, even as much as five hours in the San Francisco location to get in. Visitors are expecting a lot, not just from the quality of the food, but also the experience, the service, and of course, the interior design and architecture. We’re proud to be the architect for the restaurant institution that the New York Times have named “one of the top 10 restaurants in the world.”

Design-wise, there were two main themes. The first: Din Tai Fung is famous for their dumplings, of which every day, they hand-make roughly between 50,000 to 100,000 dumplings per location. Folded carefully by hand, each fold represents a different artistic style and what the content is within the dumpling, releasing flavors and aromas as it goes into your mouth. We featured the dumpling-making as a theatrical element. As you enter, there is a large glass exhibition kitchen that presents all the dumpling makers as they’re making dumpling one by one, by hand. And the entire restaurant centers around this one activity, this one architectural feature. People come, even people not dining, just to sit there and watch this artistry in real time.

Dumpling exhibition kitchen at Din Tai Fung, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa (photo by Gregg Segal)

The second design aspect was this: Din Tai Fung is a traditional Chinese restaurant with cuisine and ideas from quite a legacy of family recipes. But this restaurant did not, in our minds, want to be a Chinese theme park, not a Chinese Disneyland. The clients were not interested in golden dragons, red silk cloths, phoenixes, and Chinese calligraphy. So we reinterpreted the legacy, both in aesthetics and in technique.

For example, we studied the traditional Asian, wood, privacy screens. Then we re-envisioned the traditional patterns, modernized them, and gave it a contemporary graphic feel. We took sheets of walnut plywood and water-jet cut our patterns, a new technique, or laser cut metal plates, then powder coated a finish. It’s a way of blending new construction techniques with traditional ideas, respecting Asian heritage and history, but also looking to the future.

Din Tai Fung, Americana at Brand, Glendale, California (photo by Gregg Segal)

Michael: Din Tai Fung can afford to do it in a very sophisticated way, but a lot of restaurateurs are working on a shoestring, and don’t want to burden themselves with a huge overhead before they proved themselves. Even some of the most important restaurants in L.A. has started in a very modest way. And when your clients have a tight budget, how do you make the best use of that?

Internally LED-lit walls of 3-form acrylic panels at Memphis, Manhattan Beach, California (photo by Sean Rosenthal)

Anthony: Most of our restaurant clients aren’t the big famous Michelin-rated ones. A a number of our clients have been small businesses—even a first restaurant cobbling together through family and friends, their first budget to launch a restaurant. We have to respect that, to know there are limits, and pick our design battles. We decide where best to spend money, being thoughtful and efficient in using dollars.

Custom furniture: outdoor benches wrapped in artificial grass and dining tables with adjustable legs made from plumbing parts, at Mendocino Farms, Marina del Rey, California (photos by Poon Design)
Chalk art at Mendocino Farms, FIGat7th, Los Angeles, California (photos by Poon Design)

It also has to do with the conceptual approach. Mendocino Farms was one of our clients of which we’ve done one then several of their restaurants. We achieved a wonderful aesthetic through their interests in hand-crafted sandwiches within a kind of gastropub feel.

That gave us the opportunity to explore materials in a new way, to use industrial components, or maybe building materials right off the shelf. For example, plumbing parts were used to make the legs of a tabletop that looks cool and also adjustable in height. Or chalkboard paint on the walls with large chalk murals.

For the location near the Grove, each chandelier was made of chicken wire with 400 wooden clothes pins attached. It created a beautiful lighting effect, affordable too, and captures the aesthetic of that restaurant.

Chandelier at Mendocino Farms, 3rd and Fairfax, Los Angeles, California (photos by Poon Design)
Gold Rush, 18″ x 24″, November 2018

Michael: We’ve discussed the three themes of the monograph—homes, schools, and restaurants—but you have many other talents. You’re a classically trained pianist, an accomplished artist, published author, and your eight-person firm has tackled many other commissions from sacred spaces, to graphics, furniture and lighting design. How have you been able to achieve so much with such modest resources?

Anthony: I like to think of the metaphor of the jazz ensemble or maybe the small orchestra. We’re all highly trained and intelligent designers. We bring different unique talents, whether it’s interior design, lighting design, or construction expertise, maybe a graphics person. Everyone at Poon Design has multiple interests outside of the architecture field too, from photography to writing to studying history. We even had a literal rocket scientist on our staff for five years, who studied architecture at UCLA.

Cover and pages of Life Learn Eat, displaying WV Mixed-Use Project, Manhattan Beach, California (photo by Gregg Segal) Book published by ORO Editions.

We assemble together all these talents and work organically. Our studio is a collaboration of everyone putting ideas together, bouncing off each other—similar to some of the ideas that jazz music represents, such as improvisation and spontaneity. I think it’s that kind of freedom and thinking that allows a smaller team to set forth some pretty big ideas.

Michael: What are your ambitions for the next decade, once we’re through the pandemic?

Anthony: We’re hoping to continue our design ambitions on a larger scale. We already work on projects from schools to restaurants, sacred structures, churches, mixed-use, and cultural projects. And it’s all for a sense of community, neighborhood, equality, and equity. We will continue what we do, but for a broader civic audience, and touch as many people as we can, as many participants of the public that want to engage good architecture and design.

Doheny Plaza, West Hollywood, California, by Poon Design (photo by Hunter Kerhart)

THE ARCH PODCAST, FORM MAGAZINE, 3 OF 3: JAZZ, MISTAKES AND BEAUTY

April 10, 2020

120 years in the making: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City (photo from aroundtheglobe.com)

(Note on COVID-19: As I compile thoughts for a timely essay on the pandemic, not much of my writing was adding to the sentiments already out there, i.e., what can architects do, what is the future of cities, how to design public spaces, what will healthcare architecture be, etc.? Rather than be repetitive with many current writers, I am publishing this interview which was previously prepared but not yet released. Stay safe everyone.)

I invite you to listen to The Arch, a podcast of Form magazine. Previous excerpts are here and here.

Carol Bishop: Can you name any of the projects from the past or any projects that are around that you just said, “Wow, I think this is a great one and I think I’ll try something to meet that same criteria”?

Anthony Poon: There are a number of architects that inspire us, but for me, my architecture is not inspired by necessarily other buildings or architects’ work. I find my inspiration in my other interests, music for example or writing.

Playing Bach and Schumann at St. Paul’s, Rancho Palos Verdes, California (photo by Grant Bozigian)

A building design can be inspired by a poem. It can be inspired by beautiful footage from a movie. I’m fascinated by, for example, the music of Thelonious Monk, a jazz pianist whose work is extremely individual and unique. He plays chords and harmonies that are, in the classical sense, considered discordant and off-beat. Some would even say it is kind of grotesque. But at the same time, the music is considered beautiful. What is it that he does that seems to be incorrect but somehow still so beautiful? It’s that kind of thinking that inspires what we do in architecture.

I think of jazz specifically because, architecture has to involve a budget and schedule. It has to involve gravity, keeping the weather out, waterproofing, gutter details, and city codes. It’s a slow process. It can take years to get a project done. It can take a decade to get a large project done.

The tedious and rigorous process of architecture (photo by Anthony Poon)

In that sense, architecture is for those who are patient and possess perseverance. But to bring it back to jazz, my fascination is this. Jazz ,as you know, is something that is spontaneous. It’s fast. It’s improvised. It’s played impromptu. Three or four jazz musicians can gather in a studio and sit at their instruments, and just start playing. They can choose a key, they can choose a theme, just something they can think about collaboratively. They wink and they just hit a beat. And all of a sudden, there’s music. That kind of spontaneous artistic process inspires me. And it makes me think: What can we do in architecture, in that creative process, to make it a little more organic, a little more fluid and loose?

Carol: Have you ever had a situation where even you went in and said, “Oh my goodness, it should have been green”? Or, “Oh no, it should have been cement”?

Anthony: Yes, of course, that can happen. I think one of the curses of being an architect— and most of my architect colleagues would probably agree and maybe artists, writers and musicians as well—is that the work is never done. The work is always in progress. We always think that we can do better. When a building is designed and finally constructed, we may have rave reviews, many thanks, and letters of recommendation and handshakes, but we might be walking into that finished space thinking: Oh, I wish we had raised that ceiling six more inches; it would have done so much more for the volume of the space and the indoor/outdoor connection.

My book, Sticks and Stones, Steel and Glass: One Architect’s Journey, at Barnes & Noble, Los Angeles (photo by Lily Poon)

I know of colleagues who have published books and they’ve done well. They’ve won awards, they’ve won critical acclaim, and they’re thinking: Oh, that just wasn’t right. I really should have written a more elaborate ending. I should have added that extra character.

Maybe it’s a curse. Maybe it’s just the burden of the creative spirit—that even though a building is done, even though a book gets published, or a piece of music is performed—that the creative process is a continuing journey. In our minds, just because that building has finally cut the red ribbon for opening day, that design is not done.

Carol: You brought up the concept of beauty and, of course, there are so many definitions of what beauty is, so many ideas of what beauty can be. You can say to somebody, “Oh, this is beautiful”, and they’re just looking at eye candy, or you could say, “Well, the Greeks used mathematical intervals.” What is your idea of beauty?

Molto Allegro from the Concerto in G, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1764 (Photo by Philharmonia Baroque)

Anthony: There are several definitions of beauty. There are, as you mentioned, the kind of mathematical ideas of beauty that play out both in music and in architecture. There are scientific relationships between notes of music that have been determined to sound harmonious. There are scientific studies on the rhythm of music, meters, the key of music, and the colors that have been proven to be beautiful. There are some musicians who say beauty isn’t necessarily a goal in music. Mozart had always claimed that music should be beautiful, but there are other composers, say Beethoven, that say: Yes, it could be beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be aggressive. It can also be heroic or bombastic or ceremonial. It doesn’t always have to be of all the ideas one thinks of being pretty and lyrical.

The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci, and the Classical Orders (photo by Smarthistory)

Take architecture. There are also scientific ideas of what feels right using studies of proportions. The Greeks and Romans studied those and decided there are certain dimensions and proportioning systems that feel right. There are arguments of buildings or even aspects of the building, like a column, that if it represents man or the human figure, that it will relate more to a person and therefore feel more beautiful. Take a column. A classical column has three parts: the base, the shaft, and the capital. That is supposed to relate to the human figure, the feet, the body, and the head. In that way, there’s the belief that that will give you beauty in the end.

Setting aside the scientific approach, I do believe there are things that are inherently beautiful. I think people would agree that a sunset is beautiful. Or, I’ve never heard anyone go to the Grand Canyon and say: Yeah, this is not beautiful. This is ugly.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (photo by Anthony Poon)

I think there are true aspects of beauty. I think the challenge is, how do we make beauty? How do we craft beauty? In our work, we believe that beauty comes from seeing the craft of the hand. There are many ways to put a building together, that can be machine made, can be digitally fabricated. But where we can add components that display the hand, where you can see the craft of the maker—I think that inherently makes it more beautiful.

The heavy timbers aging gracefully at our Buddhist Temple, Natural Bridge, Virginia (photo by Anthony Poon)

Another aspect that’s important to our work is patina,  the idea of weathering and aging. We believe that that patina also adds beauty. For example, everyone has their favorite pair of jeans or maybe leather jacket, and those items have been worn over time. As they look more distressed, they look more beautiful. But this idea of patina doesn’t apply to a car. No one wants to drive around in a beat-up car.

With architecture I think there is an in between. We’ve designed a project, a Buddhist temple in Natural Bridge, Virginia, in which it was designed to age, in which the wood timbers are meant to weather over time and show the wear. The copper roof, as most people know, will be a metal that ages, that starts bright copper, orange color, goes to a dark penny patina, and eventually goes a beautiful green. This idea of patina expresses the weathering of a building, that a building ages gracefully, as we do, and thereby becomes more beautiful.

We don’t want someone to say: Oh, these timbers of this Buddhist temple are now unattractive. Let’s sand them again, let’s stain them again. Let’s paint them. We don’t want someone to say: How come that copper roof isn’t shiny orange anymore? We want to design it in such a way that people will look at our work each day, see it change over time, compare that to their own life as they evolve, and say: This is what we see as beauty.

Buddhist Temple (photo by Mark Ballogg)

A JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE SENSES

March 20, 2020

The five senses represented in cast plaster (photo from npr.org and Shutterstock)

Whether a house, school or church, the most successful works of architecture go beyond merely what it looks like. With a restaurant for example, the design must surpass the exercise of picking things, such as the stone for the bar counter, tile pattern on the floor, or fabric of the banquette. As a comprehensive cohesive experience, architectural design is more than the materials you see and touch. Architecture is a journey through all the five senses.

Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design (photo by Gregg Segal)

SIGHT
Selecting colors and textures, finishes and furniture consumes most of a designer’s effort. What a visitor sees comprises the initial architectural character and yes, even the style of the project. Avocado green paint signals a Mid-Century Modern approach, whereas red clay roof tiles echo a Spanish Colonial Revival project.

But keep in mind other aspects that an occupant sees, such as the lighting for a retail store. No, not just the stylish light fixtures, but what about Kelvins to lumens, fluorescent vs. LED vs. tungsten, or the magical way the spotlight delivers a halo effect to the retail objects?

What one sees goes even further, such as environmental graphics and signage, or maybe uniform design for the staff at a museum. Point is: We see a lot.

Feather River Academy, Yuba City, California, by Anthony Poon w/ A4E (photo by Gregory Blore)

TOUCH
After the eye sees, the hand will take in more information. The visitor will touch the brick, for example. The texture might be smooth or rough. Even the grout has a sandy surface that provides a physical sensation.

When sitting in a lounge chair, arms smooth over the walnut trim, the body relaxes against leather cushions, and fingertips notice zigzag stitching.

The body also feels temperature, such as the warmth of a carpeted living room contrasted to the cool tile of the kitchen. For a pop-up nightclub, Poon Design worked with the theme of Heaven-and-Hell. One club room was aggressively air conditioned at a brisk, cool and alert temperature—Heaven. The other room was intentionally made warm and humid, even hot and bothered—Hell.

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, Washington (photo by Paul Warchol)

SMELL
At the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, beeswax coats the interior walls. Not only providing a lustrous plaster surface for the eye to see and the hand to touch, the walls provided a sweet and relaxing scent to smell.

I recall another Seattle project—a bagel shop that purposefully exhausted the oven’s appetizing aroma into the street. The enticing smell of freshly baked goods attracted customers. Architecture confronted one’s nose.

Think also of landscape design and its diversity of scents, such as the sweetness of a lemon tree alongside the vanilla honey smell of Heliotrope. Don’t forget to smell the roses.

The 14th Shamarpa Reliquary Building, Natural Bridge, by Poon Design (photo by Mark Ballogg)

SOUND
Approaching our scared 14th Shamarpa Reliquary Building, we transition the visitor from the dirt path to an intimate gravel walk. The sound of feet shuffling on loose gravel slows the visitor to a meditative pace.

Just as one would kick the tires of a car (for whatever reason?), owners are known to knock on the walls of their corporate headquarters or performing arts center. There is a big difference between knocking on a stucco building that has applied the plaster over wood framing (which is commonplace in California) vs. applying plaster over solid stone walls (more likely in Europe). The latter sounds like it should—walls that will hold up your roof.

For some of our restaurants, we select the music that accompanies the design, complementing the spirit and energy of the space as it evolves through the day. Brisk music welcomes the early birds, even keel classical selections buzz for the professional lunchtime crowd, eclectic techno lounge greets the sophisticated diners, and jazz ballads wind down the afterhours crowd.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

TASTE
Most people are not going to be tasting a work of architecture. I don’t imagine someone visiting an office and licking the conference room walls. But in addition to the design of a kitchen, there are opportunities for an architect to create a tasty design to address this fifth sense.

For our design of the 44,000-square-foot chocolate factory for Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago, we didn’t just design an ambitious corporate headquarters, we incorporated tasting stations that present the company’s recipes/ingredients.

Din Tai Fung, The Americana at Brand, Glendale, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

Through provoking all five senses, the sensual experience of architecture promotes emotional content that enliven the human experience. How our senses engage the built environment suggests the architectural philosophy of Phenomenology, which studies what the body confronts, and what the body interprets.

THE PERFECTION OF IMPERFECTION IN ARCHITECTURE AND MUSIC

August 4, 2017

Patina’d signage of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

Wabi-sabi: This Japanese aesthetic concept has been around for centuries. Today, in our worrisome world, Wabi-sabi has returned with a vengeance and popularity. This philosophy describes a type of beauty that is imperfect, ever changing, and even, wonderfully flawed.

Intensely and vividly sculpted, Auguste Rodin’s sculptures displayed a desire to express an incomplete craft. Rather than the predictably perfect, classical marble sculpture, this 19th century French artist’s works are imperfect sculptures from the human hand. And he is eager to display his flawed humanity.

In Rodin’s finished pieces, one can see the imprints of his tools and fingers—and even his fingernails.

left: An example of sculpting clay in preparation for final bronze, though not Rodin (photo from philippefaraut.com); right: Honore de Balzac by Rodin (photo from nevalee.wordpress.com)

At Poon Design Inc., certain projects request that we celebrate what might be wrongly judged as flaws and inconsistencies in our architecture. We prefer hand-crafted architecture, not things machine-made or mass-produced. Like jazz, like weathering, like life with patina, our architecture expresses the perfection of imperfection. Or even the imperfection of perfection.

left: Design inspiration of a bird’s nest (photo from community.qvc.com); right: Meditation retreat house, guardrail made from industrial piping and hemp twine, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

If technology in design and fabrication produces items that are  too perfect, then technology can be a crutch. Although technology has made our production efforts efficient, technology has also made our activities too textbook-finished. Today, we can design any kind of wall pattern on a laptop, and then have water jet or laser cutting machinery create that exact pattern on several large slabs of marble or steel panels. With a push of a button, the quality is flawless, the exercise is easy, and the pattern is perfect. But perhaps too perfect.

left: Design inspiration of motion within silk cloth; right: Parking structure, fabric pattern represented in water-jet cut perforated metal panels, Irvine Spectrum Center, California, by Poon Design

If too perfect, is such a work impressive? Where is the human hand?

left: The graphic density of a classical music score; right: The graphic lightness of a jazz music score
Me performing Khachaturian’s Toccata in E Flat minor, at the 2012 Architects in Concert, “Unfrozen Music”

The graphic weight of a classical music score suggests a complete work, while the jazz score wants more notes. A jazz score is beautifully incomplete and imperfect. No matter how many musicians fill in the missing notes, the music may never be perfect. And folks, this is okay.

When I practice my classical repertory, it is at times painful and laborious—as I try so hard to hit each of the 500,000 notes perfectly. I strive for perfection, truth and the absolute.

In jazz, I am given only a basic outline. A jazz player fixates little on classical perfection. Jazz is intuitive and improvisational. As I stated that life with patina is good, jazz music encourages patina, imperfections and powerful individuality.

Detail of Buenos Aires-inspired ironwork at Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

In classical music, when a wrong note is played, it is quickly buried under a flurry of other notes. When a mistake is made in a jazz performance, that ‘mistake’ is exploited as a wonderful and positive thing. The jazz musician will bang on that wrong note a few more times to make sure the audience hears it. The performer makes something new and special out of the wrong note. Wabi-sabi.

left: inspiration of African basket making (photo by Holt Renfrew); right: Exterior light fixtures made from actual handmade baskets shipped from the African commune called Ten Thousand Villages, installed at the outdoor dining of Chaya Downtown, fabricated and designed by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

JAZZ-LIKE: THE CURIOUS THING ABOUT STYLE, PART 2 OF 2

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

THE MUSIC OF DESIGN

June 20, 2015

Courtyard of Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon (w/ A4E, photo by George Lambros)

I believe that both music and architecture are languages. Through music and architecture, I can speak to an audience.

When I play the piano, whether it is a classic or my own composition, I tell a story. This narrative, my point of view, is also why I create architecture. In both music and architecture, I can tell a story to a single person, or to an audience of 10,000. I have created both musical and architectural experiences of sensation, character and emotion—over a passage of time—whether playing a short piece of Chopin’s for a friend, or creating a university library in which students begin the work of realizing their dreams.

Anthony Poon’s 1957 Lindeman piano
Anthony Poon’s 1957 Lindeman piano

Performing any work of music requires interpretation, and so it is for architecture. A civic center, a hospital, or a garden may be fully constructed as a physical environment, seemingly complete, but as a work of art, it can be visited, read and interpreted over and over again, in many different ways. Architecture is open ended, even incomplete.

A museum offers a different experience, as the empty vessel of a building is filled each time with the latest installation from a new artist. One room of a house might have begun as a family room, and later converted to a gym or office. Even if a person visits the same church every Sunday for decades, and the church itself has not physically changed, she or he may find new significance with each visit.

With music and all forms of architecture, a visitor is given the privilege to engage the work, and possibly declare it something quite different from the author’s intentions—here, the composer or the architect being the author. William Day, writer of jazz and art, stated: “Whatever is expressed in art leaves something unexpressed, and it is that which charms the imagination.”

Concept sketch for Greenman Elementary School, by Anthony Poon
Concept sketch for Greenman Elementary School, by Anthony Poon (w/ A4E)

Leon Battista Alberti, an architect of the Renaissance, offered this: “Characteristics that please the eye, also please the ear.”

There are further similarities between my two fields of interest, of passion.

Both have structure. For architecture, it is gravity and the engineering feats of columns and walls holding up a roof. For music, it is a measure of time per bar. Within this, there is duration of beats that must mathematically equal the measure, i.e. one measure must have four quarter beats, or two half beats.

Both music and architecture have enhancements to the structure, whether it is arches and windows, or melody and rhythm.

Both music and architecture have further embellishments, whether it is tile, wood and stone, or harmonies and chords.

Both music and architecture have pattern and repetition, such as a sequence of roof trusses and floor pattern, or a repeating lyrical motif.

Street façade of Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon (while w/ A4E, photo by Mark Ballogg
Street façade of Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon (w/ A4E, photo by Mark Ballogg)

As a young child, I banged on the piano until music came out of my hands. I also banged on wood blocks until architecture came out of my hands. I have enjoyed my journeys as both a musician and an architect. I enjoy that both have rules, such as the science of gravity in architecture and the science of sound waves in music. I like to embrace the rules, create within the rules, and then break them.

© Poon Design Inc.