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)


June 9, 2017

Los Angeles Mixed-Use Building, by Poon Design

After interviewing your architectural candidates, hire one based on character. Know that the connection between client and architect could be a relationship of many years. I am blessed with repeat clients that appear to like me, as well as find me qualified as their design expert. Such relationships last more than just a few years; they can last a lifetime.

You will want to hire an architect that you actually enjoy being in his/her company, that you will be excited to come to their office each week to see the latest ideas—and to converse not just about your project, but perhaps, a recent weekend of skiing.

Client meetings, upper left: Alta Verde Group (photo by Poon Design); upper right: Buddhist Retreat Center (photo by Bryan Bethem); lower left: PayPal / eBay (photo by Faran Najafi); Ginza Onodera (photo by Anthony Poon)
Client meetings, upper left: Alta Verde Group (photo by Poon Design); upper right: Buddhist Retreat Center (photo by Bryan Bethem); lower left: PayPal / eBay (photo by Faran Najafi); Ginza Onodera (photo by Anthony Poon)

I am not brushing aside credentials, experience or expertise. I assume that your top three candidates all went to a good school, been published extensively, hold many awards, have a license and insurance, and references check out. But have all three displayed enthusiasm for your project?

Los Angeles Mixed-Use Building, by Poon Design (rendering by Niloo Hosseini)
Los Angeles Mixed-Use Building, by Poon Design (rendering by Niloo Hosseini)

The portfolio: Pretty pictures can say a lot. You will probably not see the perfect solution for your project in the architect’s portfolio, since each assignment is different. But make sure that you see themes that peak your interests and stretch your imagination.

Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

How can you decide between three beautiful portfolios? How can you decide between the degree from Harvard, SCI-Arc or Berkeley? What is more relevant: a dozen AIA awards or a dozen magazine interviews? Does it matter whether the office is staffed with five architects or fifty? Five might be too mom-pop, but you will get full Principal attention. Fifty might have horsepower, but it could mean you are getting a team B or C, and paying for a lot of overhead.

Select the person that compliments your style of working and communication. A sense of humor too. In simple terms, find someone that you like. Then apply the criteria to the architect’s team: project manager, project architects, job captains, perhaps even the office assistant that greets your weekly call with enthusiasm.

Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

I have heard of many clients who hate their architect, but they feel they have hired a “genius,” and so, will put up with the unreturned calls, project delays and arrogance. In only a few situations would I find the requirement for tolerance and patience worth the reward? Perhaps, the client has truly hired the greatest genius in the world since Michelangelo. And here, even I might accept personal discontent, so as to touch the shroud of someone so famous.

But, really? I would argue that there are other architects that have equal talent and a national reputation,

Residential estate, Northern California, by David E. Martin
Residential estate, Northern California, by David E. Martin

For one of our gazillion dollar estates that we designed, our client hired a celebrated interior decorator. By contract, this diva prohibited the client from ever calling the decorator directly. And that only the decorator can call the client. Though the client gave this situation a try for a year, so as to hopefully have greatness for the project, this fancy decorator was fired from the job—for unprofessionalism, egotism and ridiculousness.

© Poon Design Inc.