Tag Archives: NEW YORK

#67: “WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE”

July 14, 2017

Crowds gathering for the public reviews and professor critiques of student project, Wurster Hall, University of California, Berkeley (photo from ced.berkeley.edu)

Late 80’s, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley. This public review of my studio project concludes my undergraduate studies. The class assignment: design a hypothetical church on the banks of Lake Merritt, Oakland. Analogies of good vs. evil, discussions about faith, designs representing religion, etc. saddled every student’s work.

More than an academic exercise for a mere letter grade, The American Institute of Architects co-sponsored our class, structuring it as a design competition. The winners’ drawings and models would become a public architectural exhibition.

Carefully balanced on two feet, I stood at the front of the class. 40 people in the audience and counting: classmates, faculty, professionals, and members of the AIA. Dauntlessly, I presented my heroic and sardonic church: a boxy concrete temple imprisoned in a giant steel frame, seven stories tall. My artistic composition equated religion to a sanctuary within a constricting cage.

Model of church project by Anthony Poon
Model of church project by Anthony Poon

I knew my idea was good. For my drawings, I created a technique that preceded computer generated images. I employed diamond tipped technical pens filled with black Indian ink, drawing on large translucent plastic sheets. On the backside, I applied adhesive color films, each layer surgically cut by hand with an X-Acto No. 11 razor blade, known for its similarity in shape to an actual surgeon’s knife.

Drawings of church project by Anthony Poon
Drawings of church project by Anthony Poon

Concluding my bold presentation and audacious metaphors, I beamed a self-assured smile.

My professor, Lars Lerup, was already revved up. He lambasted my design, hurling bombastic criticism at my “sad attempt to understand the meaning of architecture and the sublime.” The professor’s assault was both self-servingly theatrical and pretentiously dogmatic. For twenty minutes, not stopping for a single breath, Lerup was clearly on the offensive against a foolish student. As Lerup’s back-up dancers, the faculty seated with my professor propped him up with their complete silence.

Tired from the past sleepless nights, I didn’t mind too much. Perhaps I knew my work was good. Or maybe I just didn’t care because I was soon to graduate.

Design studios, Wurster hall, photo by ced.berkeley.edu
Design studios, Wurster Hall, (photo from ced.berkeley.edu)

My professor glared at me for any kind of reaction, any kind of acknowledgement that I was learning at his world class institution. Not responding, I stood there smiling politely. Carefully balanced on two feet.

He would not, could not stand for this, as his shrieking reached an all-time high in melodrama, and an all-time low in appropriateness from an educator towards his student.

In session, a public review of a student project, Wurster Hall, photo by guide.berkeley.edu
In session, a public review of a student project, Wurster Hall (photo from guide.berkeley.edu)

The professor shouted, “Anthony, why are you smiling?! I want you to WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE! Or I will do it for you!!”

Continuing this tirade for a few more minutes, Lerup eventually lost steam against an opponent that was not interested in being his opponent. And then, it was over. I jigged and hopped out of Wurster Hall.

The looming Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, prime example of the Brutalist movement from 1950 to 1970, completed in 1964, designed by Joseph Esherick, photo by Falcorian
The looming Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, prime example of the Brutalist movement from 1950 to 1970, completed in 1964, designed by Joseph Esherick (photo by Falcorian)

EPILOGUE: The American Institute of Architects selected me as one of the competition winners. I also graduated with High Honors, Magna Cum Laude. As I said, I knew my work was good.

OUTRO: I ran into Lars Lerup in New York a year later, and that my friends was an even more outrageous story. More another day.

#42: WHO THE HECK WAS THIS GUY?

August 5, 2016

The Metropolis of Tomorrow. This drawing is not by This Guy but is similar. This drawing is by the noteworthy architect, Hugh Ferris (1889-1962)

So I had this entry-level stint at a corporate Manhattan firm, in one of those shiny Midtown skyscrapers. Cramped in cubicles more suited for a telemarketing company than an architectural studio, we all mindlessly drafted and read code manuals and technical standards.

But in the far corner of our over-crowded floor with a spacious loft-like area was This Guy.

He stood alone. In contrast to our low acoustic tile ceiling and blue-ish fluorescent lighting—large windows with city views and an artsy open structure high ceiling surrounded This Guy. Whether from the natural light or a personal aura, This Guy actually glowed.

Midtown Manhattan (photo from tishmanspeyer.com)
Midtown Manhattan (photo from tishmanspeyer.com)

Of course. This Guy dressed from head to toe in all black, from turtleneck (gimme a break) to loafers (it was the Eighties). He had no desk, no office chair, not even a drafting table. Poised at a giant easel, This Guy just stood heroically, drawing with black, grey and white pastels on large sheets of parchment paper.

This Guy looked like this (photo by Joel Low for FHM)
This Guy looked like this (photo by Joel Low for FHM)

Arms waving emphatically, he drew silhouettes of office towers, one after another. He dreamt up fantastical ambitious highrises. This Guy worked with great intensity and from what it seemed, for an audience—as he dramatically worked a shadow with his palm, then added a crisp white profile with the pastel powder on his thumb. This Guy would then step back several paces from his easel to appreciate his creations.

He was young, maybe mid-30’s, but the entire office treated him as a shaman or demigod. Several dozen co-workers patiently watched This Guy finish his pastel designs. When he was done, we mindless workers scurried back to our desks. In contrast to the spectacular daily work of This Guy, our sad and unartistic existence comprised working through monotonous details of some boring design.

One day, I had to ask. I questioned my manager, “Who is This Guy?” Who is this deity the company reveres?

The manager responded with humility and reverence, “He is our Designer.” It was a kind of answer, seductive and mysterious. But also stupid.

Mongolian Shaman (photo from toursmongolia.com)
Mongolian Shaman (photo from toursmongolia.com)

I looked at This Guy’s pretentious work more closely and thought that most of my college classmates, and more importantly, that I could produce such stimulating ideas, and do so in pastels, or if needed, air brush, colored pencils, acrylics, or any medium required to appear amazing.

Perhaps I was naïve or competitive, but I saw nothing special in This Guy’s design work. I could not find myself willing to worship the divine visions that he bestowed upon us. As sometimes said of Warhol, his greatest act of artistic genius was convincing everyone that he was an artistic genius.

I didn’t stay long at that company. Only a few months.

Me, rooftop in the Arts District, Los Angeles (photo by Mikel Healey)
Me, rooftop in the Arts District, Los Angeles (photo by Mikel Healey)

If I were to work for a Big Deal architectural designer, then he better be a Real Deal. If not, then I should work for myself. And hopefully be a Big Deal myself, and not just That Guy.

#36: THE WORLD FAMOUS I.M. PEI AND THE BEST JOB I NEVER HAD

May 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I..M. PEI!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squeaking out, “I am 22 years old.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#27: A MIGHTY CITY FREEZES OVER, PART 2 OF 4

January 23, 2016

Central Park (photo by Denis Balin)

Not long after Manhattan’s ochre and sepia autumn, gentle blowing breezes become fiercely gusting winds. Winter’s gale wants so perversely to whip the flesh off our bones. It seems as if the city might blow away. Merciless, it was my first New York December. Circa 1986, a-city-freezing-over.

Snow appears shortly, a freeze paralyzing a monumental city. Sharp icy spirits bite my body. My skin, a brittle armor, feels weak and fragile—like the first thin layer of ice over a vast lake. As wind chills my stone dry face, snow starts to gather along my eyelids. The gust of a snowstorm. This frigid onslaught.

Midtown, New York, New York (photo by Crazy Frankenstein)
Midtown, New York, New York (photo by Crazy Frankenstein)

Days pass and snow continues to fall. Falling from nowhere in particular, trying so damn hard to cover the Earth, the snow stays afloat in circles of windy nonsense.

All is white. A severe week of this albinism weakens the city, strips the land not just of pigmentation, but of courage as well. Everyone hides inside. Different than a yellow and orange fall, a new color scheme is upon me. This palette is of white nothingness, aggressive in its modesty.

Around the city, I see colorless loosely-formed shapes, rounded soft configurations, like a world made child-safe. Everything is homogenous: an opaque white Jell-O poured into a city-scale mold.

At night, snow reflects the downward light from street lamps back upward. Peculiar because light is rarely thought of as illuminating up from the ground. Imagine walking on light. Imagine no shadows. Every piece of this mighty city has been ungrounded.

Grand Central, New York, New York (photo by White Spaces)
Grand Central, New York, New York (photo by White Spaces)

Any evidence that might suggest a breathing city, vanishes under a deep blanket of white silence. The town freezes to a death-like passivity. The great city lays low in forced hibernation. The quiet death I witness is poignant. The white repose is gentle as it is also frightening. A metropolis brought to its begging knees, is immobilized into delicate foreboding beauty. When a community sleeps a sleep as deep as this, the apparent finality is conclusive enough to rival mortality itself.

As the snow finally stops falling, as ice softens, the inhabitants come slowly out of their hiding places to once again stomp as they will, eager to take back their environment. The city turns an ugly scene of brown mud and slush. The colorless beauty I saw only moments ago is now trampled on by belligerent life. This vigor of street activity pecks away at winter’s lush blanket, leaving it a dirty muddy mess. I prefer the elegance of a resting death to this combative unattractive life.

#20: GRANITE STONES BEGIN TO SWEAT, PART 1 OF 4

October 23, 2015

Heatwave scene from Do the Right Thing, 1989

The humidity is dense and impenetrable. A moist blistering force undermines this city’s spirit.

On the street, people struggle to stay conscious in this staggering fire of late August. Like a city trapped in a huge plastic bag, even breathing becomes an effort. A warm stickiness seeps into all things. The granite stones begin to sweat. Yes, even the cobblestones begin to bleed the perspiration of summer. Late 80’s, my first New York City summer.

Heat and humidity give all things weight. All things are immobilized by the oppressive hand of some invisible senseless burden. A scene of slow-motion where the actors have been dipped in molasses, I watch and wonder why time ticks so slowly, if it is ticking at all. I throw my kitchen clock against the wall, scattering all its precious pieces across the floor of my apartment. This way, I ease the frustration of watching real time being challenged by this laggard timelessness of summer.

Central Park in August, New York, New York (photo by jetsetter.com)
Central Park in August, New York, New York (photo from jetsetter.com)

All windows open, I let some merciful breeze blow through, hoping to find relief. No use. Things inside my studio, like the city outside, start to sweat. My white walls, my chairs, my piano, my toaster, as well as my imagination and my ambitions—these things sweat too.

In this afternoon scorch of summer, warm thunderstorms attack out of nowhere, as if the sky accidentally spilled a God-sized bucket of water on this town.

With heavy downpours, the rains hammer hard. Sky goes blue to white, from gray to black. 2 PM and pitch black skies. A crack of lightning, a crash of thunder, and a city that was dry only moments ago, is now immersed in Mother Nature’s tears—each tear the size of a swimming pool.

Thunderstorm, Midtown Manhattan, New York (Photo by Adrees Latif)
Thunderstorm, Midtown Manhattan, New York (photo by Adrees Latif)

Manhattan appears to sink. The inhabitants of the summer streets scurry for shelter, hiding as if this rain will burn their souls. Some courageous city dwellers stand their ground exclaiming that it is “just water.” No need for the Ark yet. These brave ones grip their drenched stances while watching a city wash away—one thin layer of stone at a time. Rain thrashes a city sore, as lightning blinds my eyes, as thunder echoes deep in the empty chasms of my mind.

No epic scene of Moses will part the waters for salvation. Are the waters a small token of apocalyptic purging? The world here is being justifiably cleansed.

Then. Silence.

Summer haze, New York, New York (photo by Kaylin Pound)
Summer haze, New York, New York (photo by Kaylin Pound)

All the Olympic rains end. In a flicker of an eyelash, the floods stop. The lighting flashes no more. And the thunder seems to have never existed, its echo reverberating no longer in my head.

It takes mere seconds for the August heat wave to dry the surfaces of New York. And all is still as before.

Whereas moments ago, people fled the thunderstorms that threatened to sweep all existence to sea, these same people now choose not the move at all. They fear the slightest physical movement will bring discomfort in this hellish humidity. As they ran desperately from the rains, they now hide like cowards from their own sweat.

#12: TRIBUTE: MICHAEL GRAVES INSPIRES (1934-2015)

July 3, 2015

Team Disney Building, Burbank, California, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

Writing my business plan for Poon Design Inc. decades ago, a small paperback on entrepreneurship suggested that I think about an existing company that might be a model for my future company. The topics at hand were not about the business model, profits, size of staff, or geography—or even design style.

Rather, the topic was about design culture. What kind of design culture did I envision for Poon Design, and what architectural firm inspired me?

The answer was a New Jersey company: Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, DC, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)
St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, DC, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

My interest did not have anything to do with Michael Grave’s colorful Post Modern buildings with their whimsical motifs and cartoonish proportions. My interest was in what Grave’s entitled “Humanistic Design.”

Graves designed for people. He did not design for headlines and critics, for academic debates, or for personal legacy. Designing for people—sounds obvious, right? It is no easy task to make good on this philosophy, as well as build a culturally impactful, artistically significant, and prolific career around designing in this basic manner. For people.

Toaster for J. C. Penney, by Michael Graves (photo by J.C. Penney)
Toaster for J. C. Penney, by Michael Graves (photo by J.C. Penney)

Graves and his team applied this belief system to every aspect of design, from hotels to houses, from office buildings to toasters, from university research centers to the design of a wheelchair. Sure, many architects believe their repertory is this broad. During his time, Graves was a pioneer in designing without borders.

Late 1980’s, beginning my young adult life in Manhattan, I was a fan of the New York Five. For a national conference with a seminal follow up book, the Museum of Modern Art assembled five architectural voices. All five held a common interest in Modernism and the landmark architecture of Le Corbusier (1887-1965). The five architects became instantly celebrated: Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and of course, Michael Graves.

Though I was fascinated with the (mostly unbuilt) work of Hejduk (1929-2000), Graves was the individual that I studied, even as he abruptly departed the New York Five. He rejected the Five’s philosophical Modernist common ground. In a heralded crusade on the intellectual battlefields, Graves led a Post Modern movement that was diametrically opposed to the repertory of the New York Five (now Four). Alongside him stood other leaders, such as Robert Venturi and my past employer, Robert Stern,

A new chapter for him, Graves used bright colors instead of stark whites. He used classical elements such as pediments and columns, instead of abstract forms and zero ornamentation. He used humor and wit, instead of severe Bauhaus rationalism.

Hotel Michael, Sentosa, Singapore, by Michael Graves (Photo by MGA&D)
Hotel Michael, Sentosa, Singapore, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

In the late eighties, I was fortunate to be invited to Graves’ 25th anniversary celebration at Princeton University, where he was the Professor of Architecture Emeritus for 39 years. As a young architect in my twenties, I joined the most influential voices of our industry to honor a man of artistic virtuosity and commitment.

Michael Graves passed away in March of this year. All of us who work in his shadow, are standing in an impressively long shadow.

© Poon Design Inc.