Tag Archives: PARASITE


August 5, 2022

(photo by Anthony Poon)

My first thought is simply this: weird. But is weird a bad thing? After years of delay, the $484-million Academy Musuem of Motion Pictures finally opened late last year. Designed by Pritzker-prized Renzo Piano with local Gensler as executive architect, the results are indeed weird.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

When Renzo Piano first arrived at the doorstep of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, in 2003, the city was thrilled. Art patrons were giddy and light-headed. The Italian architect had already designed notable museums around the world, e.g., Whitney in New York, Menil in Houston, Kimbell in Fort Worth, and of course, his career-launching, iconic Pompidou in Paris. (He was only in his early 30s!)

After having created a master plan for LACMA, two Piano-designed buildings were completed. The $56 mil, 60,000-square-foot BCAM opened in 2008, and two years later, the $54 mil, 45,000-square foot Resnick was completed. Unfortunately, the architecture world was mildly impressed. The critics were not kind: serviceable, predictable, Team B, elegant but not inspired, etc.—such notions come to my mind.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

Yet Starchitect Piano was asked to return for this fourth round. (Why?) With the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, he was determined to defy his critics and not let this city down again. Perhaps his ego needed to make an artistic statement, a final cry for attention. Indeed, the bar had been raised by Zumthor’s “Blob” and the Peterson’s swoops and stripes.

left: concept diagram (from kriegerproducts.com); right: concept sketch by Renzo Piano (from aasarchitecture.com)
Saban stair lobby (photo by Anthony Poon)

Piano’s concept is that of juxtaposition: a new 45,000-square-foot theater in the form of a 150-foot diameter sphere vs. the renovation of the 250,000-square-foot May Company Building. It is a story of new meets old—a futuristic concrete, steel, and glass globe confronting the historic 1931 Streamline Moderne, former department store. The meeting of the two sentinels finds it success in contrast and the ability to make each other look good. The parasitic relationship of visitor to host is both uneasily beautiful and compositionally stunning. But after this, the plot loses its voice.

Theater projection booth clumsily protruding out of the building (photo by Anthony Poon)

The renovation of the existing building, now called the Saban Building, explores “less is more.” Offering the museum curators a canvas of bare concrete floors and columns with a splash of red, inspired by the Red Carpet, the reduction and simplicity results in sincerity. Yet with the new spherical building, the design might have been better served by investing in the strength of the effortless sphere, understanding its elemental power, and exploiting this sense of reduction. As Louis Kahn showed us, there is power in abstraction, purity, and geometry.

Instead, creative decisions are no more than clumsy attachments and visual distractions. A projection booth that protrudes on the outside piercing the beautiful curvature of concrete? What about the odd slices and chamfers that appear to be from the hand of a clumsy chef attempting to decorate his cake, the uncomfortable plaza crushed by the hulking mass above, pointy sticks and javelins, stairs like scaffolding, giant earthquake-resistant base isolators of toy-like black rubber and red trim, and so on?

Under the belly of a whale, the awkward Walt Disney Company Plaza (photo by Anthony Poon)
Dolby Family Terrace (photo by Anthony Poon)

I found the most effective story twist on the roof terrace, an incredible engineering climax of glass and steel. Viewing 180 degrees north towards the Hollywood Hills and sheltered by a massive yet graceful transparent dome, the sublime experience is accompanied by a sense of wonder, a feeling of enlightenment.

I have always enjoyed movies for their ability to transport me to other worlds, whether Wakanda, Elm Street, Oz, or WWII. For a museum dedicated to the art of film, maybe the architect sought to deliver us a fantasy, a design of weirdness. Angelenos have been quick to label the building the “Death Star.” Of course, Piano dislikes this title that references the evil Galactic Empire. He prefers Tom Hanks’ “magic lantern.” Hoping for Hollywood magic, Renzo Piano states, “Call it a dirigible, a zeppelin,” “flying vessel,” or “a soap bubble in the middle of a concrete city.”

1,000-seat David Geffen Theater. Note: I did not have an opportunity to visit the interior of this theater. (from discoverlosangeles.com)


October 15, 2021

Royal Ontario Musuem, Toronto, Canada, by Studio Libeskind (photo from libeskind.com)

When adding to an existing building, the conventional agenda requests that the new structure match the old. A typical client request suggests that the point of connection between new and old be “seamless.” But there exists a different school of thought, a provocative one. Here, the new structure not only contrasts the old, but the addition is intentionally disruptive.

Antwerp Port House, Antwerp, Belgium, by Zaha Hadid Architects (photo by Claudia Lorusso on Unsplash)

Whether a new hotel wing, library expansion, or guest bathroom, adding onto an existing building results in a form of symbiosis. As described in science, a symbiotic relationship is two dissimilar organisms in close physical association. Architecture may not always be thought of as a living thing. But the way a space breathes with light and air, or when a building comes alive with visitors and experiences, or how a structure houses memories and enlightens the human spirit, architecture is indeed a unique form of organism.

Shoreham Street, Sheffield, England, by Project Orange (photo by Project Orange)
St. Francis Covenant Church, Santpedor, Spain, by David Closes (photo by Jordi)

When new meets old, the design can be traditional, even predictable, as in the “seamless” approach, where a visitor can’t tell that a building addition has been delivered. But the design can also be divisive, where the addition exploits the host through a parasitic relationship. With the old building as host, a new structure is an intervention, at times predatorial. This approach creates tension, a vibration between new and old, and results in a fantastical world of the unknown. We don’t just see the two parts, the new and the old. Now, we view a third thing: the relationship between new and old. One plus one doesn’t have to equal two.

Idea Exchange Old Post Office, Cambridge, Ontario, by RDHA (photo from ideaexchange.org)

In these examples, there exist no seamless transition, no resolution, no settled serenity. The designs are intentionally disturbing and anxious, perhaps a violent act of the architect. Like the grandstanding of creative ego, the hand of such an architect is akin to a street artist tagging a building. Some call it vandalism, and some call it art.

Museum of Military History, Dresden, Germany, by Studio Libeskind (photo by Novarc Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Diamond Exchange, Amsterdam, Netherlands, by CompanyZJA with Heyligers (photo from architecureprize.com)

Perhaps it is true that “opposite attracts,” as stated by psychologist Robert Francis Winch in the 50s. Or in this case, having architectural opposites can be deemed attractive. The projects seen here are not necessary outliers. The trend of confronting one’s context in an unexpected way has been around, ever since architects looked at their neighborhoods and believed there should be something new to do, something else. Like the urge to play hard rock music in a tranquil and pristine chapel.

To Be In Limbo, Jesuit Church, Vienna, Austria, by Steinbrener/Dempf and Huber (photo from steinbrener-dempf.com)
Fuller Loft Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, California, by Brooks + Scarpa (photo from brooksscarpa.com)

It’s the desire for contrast. From Google: contrast, noun, /ˈkänˌtrast/: the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association.

Nearly everyone wants to be noticed in one form or another—even introverts. For some, to conform with the faceless masses and banal circumstances is to give up on the ambition to be an individual. We want to be distinctive. And noticed.

Rooftop addition, Vienna, Austria, by Coop Himmelb(l)au (photo by Wolf D. Prix)
© Poon Design Inc.