Linea Residence G, Palm Springs, California (w/ Andrew Adler, photo by Hunter Kerhart)
100,000 attendees descended on Palm Springs last month for Modernism Week 2023, the 10-day design festival celebrating Mid-Century Modernism (“MCM”). As a feature lecturer, I presented The Myth of Mid-Century Modernism—positing that we honor the design style of the 1950s and 1960s, but should not embalm it. For the thousands of MCM fans and fanatics, my position was blasphemous of sorts.
There are a dozen ideas from MCM that serve well as design themes—to be adapted not regurgitated. Acknowledge past legacies, but look forward not backward.
The MCM concept of the open floor plan countered the traditional compartmentalization of homes. At Poon Design, we applied the open floor plan to the design of a middle school. Rather than the conventional 12-foot wide by 10-foot tall, congested hallway lined with lockers, we created a 60-foot wide by 30-foot tall corridor—more a central atrium. Within sits the community functions open and accessible—library, math amphitheater, woodshop, and social areas.
In California, we are blessed with moderate climate—not too hot, not too cold—that allows us to bring the outside in, blurring the division between interior and exterior. With today’s advanced engineering, the span of openings are wider. Technology even allows for sliding doors to disappear into walls.
Expansive walls of glass are prevalent in MCM homes. Here, we apply the ideas of lightness and transparency to a Buddhist temple. In the day, the walls of glass mirror the surrounding landscape, and at night, the glass disappears.
Often called the “butterfly” and “accordion” roof, we used such shapes not as an MCM gesture on a house, but as a unifying theme throughout a high school campus. Our roof lines recall the local mountains and serves as a metaphor for the institution’s mission statement, “Learning in Action.”
A restaurant can capture the imagination through wit and charm by applying 400 wood clothespins on chicken wire making a chandelier, faux grass expressing a new concept of the American picnic, and a mural-like chalkboard continuous from wall to ceiling.
We enjoy the application of color and patterns, but not just as decoration—rather, to add personality to a space, to capture the spirit and character of the owner—whether a purple chocolate factory, red powder room, of multi-colored gymnasium.
Light can be more than simply a source of illumination. Consider light to be similar to stone, wood, or metal. Meaning, light can also be a building material. Light can be an element to be shaped, harnessed, and applied like a painter applies oils to a canvas.
Having dominated architectural outcomes for centuries, the classical principles of architecture were open to MCM reinterpretation. At this wine store, the cabinetry possesses a traditional look with its cornice, trim and paneling. Yet, we applied such a traditional look to an elliptically-shaped showroom. Upon entering, the bottles of Bordeaux embrace the visitor.
As the Case Study Housing program attempted, Poon Design also sought to provide attainable, budget-driven, mass produced homes. Building and selling 230 contemporary homes in four new Palm Springs communities has earned us the highest national honor from the American Institute of Architects, the 2018 Best in Housing, alongside dozens of other regional and national awards.
New tools and technology allowed us to exploit MCM’s drive for a high sense of craft. Giant lampshades at the famed Din Tai Fung restaurant reinterpret historic Chinese screens. Through computer scripted patterns alongside milling techniques of oak plywood, we created lampshades and skylights that are works of sculpture, expressing a devotion to detail and innovation.
MCM architects sought to provide design services combining three prominent strains: architecture, interiors and landscape. For our Chaya Downtown restaurant, we went further to deliver a cohesively designed environment. We created the branding, website, and graphics. We also designed furniture and lighting, as well as curated the art. We continued our pursuits to include the employee uniforms and even the selection of music. Music too is an element of architecture. What is heard during the morning hours of coffee is different than the business lunches—different than festive happy hour, different than an elegant dinner, and different than late night cocktails.
We continue the optimism of MCM at larger scales and more ambitious programs than housing. For this lifestyle center serving the Asian community, the first floor comprises an Asian fish market, the second is a Korean spa, the third a Japanese karaoke bar, and the fourth a Chinese rooftop garden restaurant.
The design concepts of Mid-Century Modernism endure, because they are timeless and universal. The challenge is to look to MCM concepts as a platform to launch into the future—as inspiration not as nostalgia, for interpretation not replication.
WHETHER IT’S MUSIC, PAINTING, OR WRITING, ARCHITECT ANTHONY POON HAS A STORY TO TELL
July 15, 2022
“The interdisciplinary architect discusses his first novel, the relationship between architecture and music, and designing for everyone. Anthony Poon has a story to tell. Actually, he has many stories to tell—some in written form, others in the language of architecture, music, or painting.” So writes journalist Brian Libby for a recent article in Metropolis. Below are edited and abridged excerpts.
Brian Libby: Poon Design Inc. has completed over 300 projects, as chronicled in the 2020 book Live Learn Eat: Architecture by Anthony Poon. Earlier this year he was named to the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows, following national awards for educational, residential and restaurant designs. He’s also a certified Feng Shui practitioner, and recently released his debut mystery novel Death by Design at Alcatraz. Yet books are just one of Poon’s passions. He’s also a mixed-media artist and with a master’s degree in architecture. Poon trained even longer—from the age of six—to be a concert pianist. In 1987, after earning a magna cum laude in architecture and music from the University of California Berkeley, he had to decide between applying to The Julliard School and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, ultimately choosing the latter.”
The question of rigid composition versus improvising relates to being a pianist. Could you talk about that?
Anthony Poon: Growing up, my training was classical music. It’s this process of aiming for perfection, a flawless performance. Playing a piano sonata—there are a hundred thousand notes, and you’ve got to hit them all correctly. If I got one note off, my piano teacher would say, “That whole performance is ruined.” But I got interested in something beyond technical proficiency. You’ve got to be able to add a voice, a story. I eventually learned about jazz. It blew my mind that these pianists would just sit at the keyboard and make things up.
Brian: Your thesis at Harvard was about how jazz improvisation informs the architecture process. What did you learn?
Anthony: Architecture is very methodical. It takes a long time to produce a building. There are a lot of practical considerations: code, budget, square footage. You can’t just whip out a building the way a jazz musician would whip out music. But in the creative process, I always wonder: Why can’t we just grab colors and make an idea? Why can’t we have this sort of jazz-like conversation bouncing ideas and simply grab at this and that, and make it the basis of an entire building design, whether it’s a library, museum, or house?
Brian: Let’s go back to this question of architecture and narrative. Could you talk about the importance of storytelling in design?
Anthony: It’s all about communication. Everything that I do––painting, music, writing, architecture––is all a language. In architecture, we look to our clients—who they are and what they are—to craft a story. If it’s a family, we want to know how they celebrate the holidays, if the in-laws stay with them, whether they have dogs. For designing a school, we ask: How do the teachers teach, how do the students learn? With an office: what’s the corporate culture, what’s the mission statement? When we do a religious project, there is an entire set of beliefs that need to be expressed in architecture. What’s exciting about music and architecture, and what makes them different from writing, is that they are abstract. It’s kind of open-ended communication.
Anthony: What we talk about at my firm is that good design belongs to everyone. It could be a restaurant or the design of a bench—corporate headquarters or a public school. It’s about harnessing the talents that my team brings, and then reaching as many people as possible.
Brian: Where do you stand on the introvert-extrovert scale? Because architecture, especially when you get to a certain scale, is teamwork. Painting, which you’re also acclaimed for, is a more solitary activity.
Anthony: I’m probably somewhere in the middle but skewing a little towards the extrovert side. Some of these art forms are solo explorations, but I don’t see the art being complete until it reaches the audience. That’s the completion of the artistic arc. With any kind of artist, both introversion and extroversion are tapped. In architecture, for example, the introverted, introspective, self-examining qualities usually launch the design process, and the extroverted side leads a team, sells the idea to a client, and supports the creative ego.
Brian: In Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass, you described how San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square in Chinatown inspired you. The park dates to 1833, but its 1963 redesign was derided at the time for raising the park to fit a parking garage underneath. What made it special to you and the community?
Anthony: Isn’t it incredible that it is a parking structure and an extraordinary park? The plaza acts like a blank canvas, and the community paints their life onto this canvas. It’s just that kind of wonderful, idyllic place that you don’t imagine would be in such a dense area. I look at Portsmouth Square, not as an architect fetishizing its design, but as what it offers to the community: to have a Tai Chi class at 5:00 in the morning, a wedding at noon, and kids running around in all day. That’s the power of architecture.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We choose materials to absorbwhat 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.
Coveris 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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If too perfect, is such a work impressive? Where is the human hand?
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.
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.