February 2, 2024

A collage of diverse traditional styles - upper left: Mediterranean (photo by 193584, Pixabay); upper right: Cape Cod (photo by Omri D. Cohen, Unsplash); lower left: Georgian (photo by JamesDeMers, Pixabay); lower right: Victorian (photo by Merrill Lyew, Pixabay)

Most people want a home of a traditional style. Though many magazines show off glossy contemporary homes, the majority of homeowners choose a classically-themed house. Whether the design style is Spanish Colonial, Cape Cod, Farmhouse, Victorian, Tudor, Craftsman, or Georgian—all such architectural languages find their roots in classicism, looking backwards to long lost periods of history.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece (photo by Christo Anestev, Pixabay)

Even with real estate markets obsessing over Mid-Century Modern residences, it is a niche drowned out by those seeking a California Mediterranean estate. The general audience prefers familiar forms and details, such as sloped roofs, crown moldings, columns, arches, and compartmentalized spaces—even fake shutters. The majority of homeowners has an aversion towards modern architecture’s flat roofs, open floor plans, walls of glass, and minimal ornament.

Harrington Learning Commons, Sorbrato Technology Center and Orradre Library, Santa Clara University, by Anthony Poon w/ HHPA (photo by Tim Griffith/HHPA)

On the other hand, non-residential projects are less stuck in the past. A business headquarters may indulge in an intimidating steel and glass building to express its corporate powers. A restaurant may explore an architectural style akin to its cuisine, whether a hipster gastro-pub or an Asian fusion joint. An elementary school may want to be quirky and colorful for the children. And a hospital’s architecture may look to the future, serving as a beacon in the evolving field of science.

Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon with A4E and Cordogan, Clark & Associates (photo by George Lambros)

But a house? A house wants to be old fashion. Most owners view a dwelling as their sanctuary, a retreat from the busy world around them, and a safe and cozy abode for their loved ones. To achieve this sense of welfare and shelter, the architecture employs recognizable forms. Whether conscious or not, one reaches into the past for visual and psychological cues rooted in human scale and self-reflection, a philosophy known as Phenomenology.

Bliss Residence, Los Angeles, California, by Martin/Poon Architects (photo by Post Rain)


Drawing from Recueil et Parallèle by Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand

One example is the classical Greek column. Its three-part composition—base, shaft, and capital—mirrors the human figure—feet, body, and head. Traditional architecture seeks beauty and wellbeing through representing a likeness of the body, as in symmetry, balance, proportions, harmony, and scale. This conventional world idealizes the human existence and form—as opposed to contemporary architecture’s riskier concepts: asymmetry, cantilevers, angles, abstract shapes, and walls of glass.

Linea Residence V, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design and Andrew Adler (photo by David Blank)

But with residential design, are we being nostalgic, desperately yearning for a past long gone? One can reminisce about old architecture, but how well does, for example, a Cape Cod home, with its small windows and divided rooms, serve ever-evolving ideas of domesticity. These days, one’s lifestyle encounters pandemic-informed remote work and home offices, as well as design agendas like sustainability, technology, resilience, biophilia, and AI. The new world suggest fresh forms of socializing, entertaining, and connecting. Does a century-old style of architecture work today?

My opinion is that most people will eventually want a modern home, just like they want a modern car and modern clothes. No one drives a Ford Model T anymore, nor do they wear corsets and top hats.

light: 1929 Ford Model A Coupe (photo by Philip Schroeder, Unsplash); middle: corset (photo by b0red, Pixabay); right: top hat (photo by Mabel Amber, Pixabay)


December 31, 2015

For this food blogger’s residence in Pasadena, we juxtaposed the technology of parametric algorithms on to polyethylene, the material used to make household cutting boards.

Recently, I was asked by an interviewer, “What is your style?”

This question is often asked, and not just of architects, but creatives of all sorts: fashion, graphics, advertising, cuisine, etc. The media typically aims to capture one’s design philosophy in a sound bite digestible by mainstream readers.

Many interior decorators have a packaged response. I hear words like “eclectic,” “warm and welcoming,” “contemporary yet timeless.” I am not sure what kind of design results from this mash up of clichés.

Architects have a hard time speaking of their style. Hugh Hardy, one of my past employers, argued that once you answer the dreaded question, your critics will constantly be assessing your work to see if you have lived up to your declarations.

What is style after all?

With extensive education, a higher degree and a 250-page graduate school thesis, many architects simply can’t and won’t summarize their creative philosophy in 20 words or less. For some, “style” is a bad word, and it shouldn’t be an elevator pitch.

upper left: Federal National Council’s Parliament Building, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emiretes by Ehrlich Architects; upper right: McNamara Alumni Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, by Antoine Predock Architect Studio (photo by Bobak Ha’Eri); lower left: Dominus Estate, Yountville, California, by Herzog & de Meuron (photo by Anthony Poon); lower right: The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C., by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Lewis J Goetz on Unsplash)

Some colleagues who talk about their architectural style do so with clever labels. Steven Ehrlich, based in Los Angeles, calls his work “Regional Modernism.” New Mexico architect Antoine Predock is a self-described “Cosmic Modernist.” Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland has been coined, “Elemental Reductivists.” From New York, Steven Holl’s work involves “typology, phenomenology and existentialism.”

For architects such as Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando or Richard Meier, their style has been accused of being formulaic. Many would argue that all their buildings look the same. Is this so bad? Don’t all the Beatles’ songs and Beethoven Sonatas sound similar? (This topic of formula will be discussed in an upcoming blog.)

So now it is my turn to answer the universal question of style. My response should not be trite, but rather complex—but not pretentious.

Louis Armstrong (by WikiImages from Pixabay)

I answered in two parts: Process and Product. My Process is inspired by jazz—the spontaneity and the improvisational spirit. (More another day.)

My Product, meaning the final structure, say a house or school, is driven by juxtaposition. I enjoy combining things together, either comfortably or awkwardly, to see what might arise: the modern and the traditional, the hand crafted and the machine made, the broad strokes and the finicky details, just to name a few.

Meditation Retreat House, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design
Meditation Retreat House, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design

For a Buddhist meditation retreat in Virginia, Poon Design created a guardrail that juxtaposed a galvanized off-the-shelf steel frame with natural twine made from hemp. Yes, you can smoke it.

Student Center, University of California, Riverside, by Anthony Poon while w/ HHPA (rendering by Gilbert Gorski)
Student Center, University of California, Riverside, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, watercolor by Gilbert Gorski)

For the University of California, our student center combined traditional campus brick and limestone, with sleek glass curtain wall and over-scaled weathering zinc shingles.

At Mendocino Farms, we blended a funky old school vibe, such as chalk board walls, vaudeville signage, clothespins, and industrial piping, with high-end luxury, such as Carrara marble, walnut planks, stainless steel trim, and custom furniture.

Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design
Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design

Juxtaposition is not just my artistic approach, but the interests in my life as well. I like Brahms and I also like American Idol. I like Rembrandt and Pop Art. I like omakase sushi with a Coke, as well as McDonald’s with sake. I wear Gucci with the Gap. Love Nan Goldin and commercial photography. I read biographies, but also comic books. I like watching ping pong and the Superbowl. Reality shows that follow CNN.

I like the diversity and the messiness. I like unexpected results.

© Poon Design Inc.