November 10, 2023

Cenotaph for Newton, by Etienne-Louis Boullée (1784)

A common misconception is that architecture strives to be beautiful. The famed 1st century Roman architect, Virtruvius, did proclaim that architecture must have venustas—the Latin term for “beauty.” But for every Mozart seeking  beauty,  there is a Beethoven pursuing other qualities—challenging ones even. Indeed, some works of architecture are odd, strange, and even supernatural—if such a word can be used to describe a building.

Merriam-Webster defines supernatural as “relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil,” and “departing from what is usual . . . to transcend the laws of nature.” Below, I describe a few projects that have peaked my interests, that perhaps relate to a demigod, bucking the rules of the expected.

right: Temple of Divination; left: Classicism and Romanticism, by Jean-Jacques Lequeu (circa 1800)

18th century French architect, Jean-Jacques Lequeu—alongside colleagues, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Etienne-Louis Boullée—offered peculiar visionary designs that, though never constructed, stoked curiosity. On the left, Lequeu offers a river of fire entering a Greek temple, while honey perfume counters the burning odor. On the right, the design of a hunting gate celebrates the spoils of victory, displaying the heads of the hunted and defeated.

Casa dos Leões, Porto Alegre, Brazil, by Henrique Oliveira (photo by Eduar, from yatzer.com)

In 2009, artist Henrique Oliveira birthed the Casa dos Leões, a parasitic organ-like visitor within a townhouse in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Oliveira comments, “My works may propose a spatial experience, an aesthetic feeling, a language development and many more nominations to refer to the relation it establishes with the viewer.” Just random words. For me, the message—whatever it may be—is one of uneasiness.

Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of Witch Trials, Vardø, Norway, by Peter Zumthor (photo by thisispaper.com)

Perhaps it isn’t just the official title: the Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of Witch Trials. Or not just the experiential results designed by artist Louise Bourgeois and architect Peter Zumthor. The eeriness of this 2011 Norwegian project arrives through its thesis: To commemorate the 1621 trial and execution of 91 individuals suspected of witchcraft.

Conical Intersect, Paris, France, by Gordon Matta-Clark (photo from researchgate.net)

Commenting on the demolition of a building and the destruction of a community, American artist Gordon Matta‐Clark presented an ambitious architectural intervention in 1975. Through excavation and carving, he juxtaposed the history of a location with the recent eviction of the inhabitants—a commentary on memory and powerlessness, origin and futures unclaimed.

Apartment, Vienna, Austria, by Adolf Loos (photo from vivanht.com)

Austrian architect and theorist, Adolf Loos, authored this 1903 room of intimacy, luxurious, and whiteness for his wife, Lina. He was 32, and she was 19. The angora sheepskin bed skirt that becomes the floor is sensual even erotic, but also bizarre even creepy.

Valley, Netherlands, Amsterdam, by MVRDV (photo by Ossip van Duivenbode)

It’s as if the conventional steel and glass high-rises dissolved away revealing 200 quirky cantilevered apartments, like a residential canyon carved into corporate masses. Located in Amsterdam, the 2022 design of three towers includes apartments, offices, restaurant, and cultural facilities—as well as contradiction and the unconventional.

Petra, Jordan (photo by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay)

Petra, the surreal and archaeological city in present-day southern Jordan, holds a rare accolade as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A town chiseled into the sandstone cliffs, Petra displays the advancements of the Nabataean Arabs, a civilization dating back 2000 years ago. The city was not constructed by traditional building methods of adding materials one on top of another. Rather, Petra was created from cutting and removing stone sections of a mountain—construction through subtraction.

Na Hale ‘Eo Waiawi, Honolulu, Hawaii, by Patrick Dougherty (photos from amusingplanet.com)

North Carolina-based sculptor, Patrick Dougherty, works with tree branches and twigs as a painter would acrylics and oils. Not just mind-boggling, multi-story bird nests, the projects are temporal like much in nature, intended to make a statement then dissolve and disappear.

Setenil de las Bodegas, Southern Spain (photo by artsartistsartwork)

Known as the Cave Village of Spain, this southern town comprises whitewashed homes constructed into the surrounding cliffs. The earthly masses hovering over the residences become an omnipotent daily presence to confront, a physical burden to accept. Most would build a city atop a mountain, or within like Petra, but not underneath.

Back to music—adjectives of Mozart’s music might be delightful, lyrical, and exquisite. Whereas for Beethoven: intimidating, discordant, and aggressive. And so it might be with some architecture.


November 15, 2019

#38, by Ronit Baranga (2019, photo from klassikmagazine.com)

These things inspire me. I made one selection from each medium of art, and intentionally, I did not choose anything architectural.

Untitled (Fallen Angel), by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981)

1. Painting: Jean-Michel Basquiat

I love how his seemingly-random street-inspired paintings offer such beauty within chaos. I love how a rough stroke of paint or a small word scribbled on the surface evokes so much, yet looks like a mess.

Jeannette I through V, by Henri Matisse (1910-1916)

2. Sculpture: Henri Matisse

He not only explored forms of representation and abstraction, but he did so within a single study of five busts. From classical beauty to the Grotesque (here and here) Matisse effortlessly progresses sculpture a hundred years forward through a self-dialogue.

Elektra, by Frank Miller (1989)

3. Drawing: Frank Miller

Sure, I could name one of the Usual Suspects who line work is amazing, i.e. DaVinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt. But what about an artist in the world of comic books and graphic novels? Frank Miller changed the entire industry of illustration with literally a few minimal lines of his pencil.

11th Street, 1951, by Robert Frank (1951)

4. Photography: Robert Frank

Frank’s work is not about capturing the beauty of a sunset or say, Half Dome at Yosemite. When he photographs daily life, Frank finds beauty within the smallest gestures, the most conventional actions and commonplace details.

Twisted, by Patrick Dougherty, West Palm Beach, Florida (photo from sun-sentinel.com)

5. Installation Art: Patrick Dougherty

Both sculpture and architecture, both nature and arts & crafts, Dougherty uses the elemental medium of branches and twigs . He offers not just a room of wood and light, but a place, an enigmatic experience, a space of mythology.

Teapots by Ronit Baranga (date unknown)

6. Ceramics: Ronit Baranga

A contemporary and new artist, Baranga mixes up delicate traditional cups and saucers with mouths and fingers, arriving at a creepy, bizarre composition—also, extraordinary and alluring.

Dr. Frankenstein, by Barry Moser (1983?)

7. Woodcutting: Barry Moser

This medium itself is so crude and simplistic, yet woodcutters have been making the most sophisticated of art pieces. By merely carving big scratches in rough blocks of wood, Moser captures facial expressions and deep emotions.

8. Literature: Edgar Allen Poe

Preceding Ronit Baranga, this author capitalized on disturbing and unsettling themes. One reading of a single work of Poe’s could leave you haunted for decades—your mind cycling through a freak show realm of horror.

Book cover for Edgar Allen Poe’s works, by David Plunkert (2014)

9. Poetry: E.E. Cummings

First, why does he write poetry in all lower-case letters? Second, it doesn’t matter when phrases like “not even the rain,has such small hands” can say so much, whether in a Woody Allen movie, or for an event of life and true love. (And that is not a typo in the quote. Cummings’ use of lower-case letters as well as irregular word spacing is all part of the art form of communication.)

in spite of everything, by E.E. Cummings (1904-1962, photo from medium.com)

10. Film: Charlie Kaufman

Speaking of movies, Kaufman is one of the most original creators working today. The rich complexity of his visions makes the best of escapist movies, but also, transplant viewers to another world. When a Kaufman movie is over, we are left there oddly sitting in this other world, and we don’t want to return to ours.

Anomalisa, by Charlie Kaufman (2015)

Alongside these ten artists that inspire me, there are so many more. There are probably at least ten in each category, and so many other categories, from fashion design to graphics, from landscape to opera set design. Most importantly, artistic explorations are rarely in cut and dry separate groups of medium. Each aspect of one artistic exploration, whether oil painting or textile design, inspires the next, such as architecture or music.


February 15, 2019

Park Royal, Singapore (photo from geekchicblogger.blogspot.com)

Biophilic Design refers to our instinctive association to nature and the resulting architecture that enhances our well-being. It has been suggested that Biophilic Design offers a healthy and productive existence, as well as happiness and joy.

Thorncrown Chapel, Eureka Springs, Arkansas (photo from inhabitat.com)

Goals for this prevalent design movement include the generous use of landscape inside and out, abundance of natural and artificial light, organic materials and textures, good indoor air quality and ventilation, and thermal and acoustic comfort—just to name a few. And our biophilia, meaning our love of nature, extends beyond architecture.

The Spheres at Amazon, Seattle, Washington (left photo from aarbmagazine.com; right photo from ar15.com)

Monster companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, use Biophilic Design to offer a healthier, happier and more productive work environment. This we know; so let’s expand our discussion of design and the creative arts, beyond the built environment.

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, by Ansel Adams, 1944

From photography to vintage botanical prints, from classical painters to amateurs—capturing nature in two dimensions have driven artists for centuries.

Botanical art, left: giclee prints (photo from etsy.com): right: Sweet Orange (art from thegraphicsfairy.com)
(photo by Polina Belyaeva)

Similarly, sculptors are drawn to the forces and mysteries of our natural environment. Here, installation artist/sculptor, Patrick Dougherty, combines his love of natural materials with his background as a carpenter.

left: Na Hale ‘Eo Waiawi,’ by Patrick Dougherty 2003 (photo by Paul Kodama); right: artist at work (photo by Smithsonian Magazine)

Looking to the surrounding landscape for ideas, the world of fashion and glamour draws upon themes, patterns and colors in our natural world.

Shoes by Pierre Hardy, Summer 2015, from “Force of Nature” at the Museum at FIT (photo by Eileen Costa)
Dresses of nature: left by Yiqing Yin, Fall/Winter, 2012; right by Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2012

A popular icon of body art, flora/fauna is prevalent in the tattoo culture.

Nature in tattoos (left photo from Pinterest; right photo by Little Tattoos)

Similar to tattoos, the two-dimensional imagery of nature and its associated visual power provide graphic designers an infinite palette.

Nature in graphic design (left photo from amazon.com, right art by Peter Fox)

In baking a cake, rarely are these flowers real. They are usually just cream, butter and sugar. The origin of this longstanding decorating theme is unknown. Why does a wedding or birthday cake need to have flowers all over it? Why not birds and butterflies?

Nature in baking (photo from weddbook.com)

With his Sixth Symphony, known as the Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven choose to compose in a countryside setting, allowing the comforts of nature, its vibes and currents, to move him to write classical music. Other composers, such as Vivaldi, captured the abstract character of each season through melody, harmony and rhythm.

Music inspired by nature, left: The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi, 1723; middle: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, by Claude Debussy, 1894; right: Pastoral Symphony, by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1808

Whether a painting or a wedding cake, whether a building or a tattoo, Biophilia and biophilic design occupies our every day. In his 1984 book, Biophilia, Harvard professor, E.O. Wilson, introduced the concept, that we all have “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” Then he gave it a name, associated it with architecture and design, and we now have the moniker to label our innate love for nature: Biophilia.

Final note. Not everyone chooses biophilic design. In my article, White on White on White , we see that some do not seek a comfy house made of rustic wood and covered in vines. Rather, some individuals desire the modernity of a steel and glass, white house—ordered, abstract, simple, removed from the common traits found in our evolving nature and its living organisms.

© Poon Design Inc.