Tag Archives: responsibility


June 3, 2022

“Supertalls” (photo from sinelab.com)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California. An additional excerpt on ego and arrogance is here.)

The architect’s responsibility to society goes far beyond the state legislature of “protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” Certainly, a design must ensure that a movie theater has the right number of emergency exits, for example. But social responsibility extends far beyond compliance with building codes. Just to name a few topics of accountability: carbon footprint reduction, community engagement, equity and equality, industry diversity, ethical labor practices, philanthropy, resilience, and affordability of housing.

At my presentation, The Creative Process and the Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Oive Stays)

Please heed Stan Lee as he proclaimed, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility!”

When I ponder social responsibility, I also confront social irresponsibility. As I prepared my notes for a presentation for Modernism Week 2022, out of a number of unfortunate examples of imprudence, two come to mind: scale and optics.

left: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France (photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash); right: Empire State Building, New York, New York (photo by Sam Trotman on Unsplash)

First, how tall do we need to build? When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1887, we reached the limits of our engineering and creative ambitions. At 1,083 feet tall, Eiffel was a marvel and over time, has become one of the most beloved structures in the world. Who knew we would need or want to build taller?

In 1930, the Empire State Building shattered records, completed with a height of 1,454 feet. Over the years since, clients, developers, corporations, engineers, and architects continued an obsession to pierce the sky with vertical and priapic structures. Perhaps, ego and arrogance were the fuel.

From Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

Currently, the award of conceit goes to the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Exceeding $1 billion in construction cost, when completed, this literal skyscraper of hotel rooms, residences, and offices will be 3,281 feet tall—three times the height of the Eiffel Tower and more than twice the height of the Empire State building.

A previous time in New York City, red line added (photo by George Marks | Getty Images)

The social responsibility of height is not just a numerical indicator. Height is also a concept of scale, meaning responsibility requires architects to understand a building’s height in relationship to its surroundings—whether to be complementary or intentional divisive. The early photo of New York City above displays a red line suggesting a consistent height the buildings, resulting in a cohesive scale and compatibility of neighbors.

“Supertalls,” red line added (photo from sinelab.com)

The above image depicts NYC today with a similar red line. Half a dozen projects, about 120 to 150 floors tall, counter the scale of the area. Called “Supertalls,” these skyscrapers south of Central Park—mostly residential units serving the super-affluent—pose the questions: Just because we can build this tall, should we? What is the responsibility towards the scale of the existing urban fabric?

101 California Street, San Francisco, California (left photo from 101california.com; right photo from socketsite.com)

The irresponsibility with optics is evident with the 48-floor office building at 101 California, San Francisco. For the design at the street level—though it is likely that the architect and structural engineer have completed a safe structure, the optics of the sliced bottom with slender columns leaves one to wonder. Is this the responsible and appropriate look for a city known for earthquakes? Does the design idea not remind one of a tree ready to fall?

left: buckinbillyray.com; middle: familyhandyman.com; right: outgress.com

There are many areas of social responsibility, from low-hanging fruit to visionary ambitions. Architects should not shirk the leverage they hold. With societal precedence having granted architects tremendous influence, let’s not let our creative thinking be impaired by ego and poor decision making.


May 30, 2015

Covers of Time: Wright, January 17, 1938, Saarinen, July 2, 1956, and Le Corbusier May 5, 1961

Are architects celebrities? Are they rock stars? Do “Starchitects” exist amongst mere mortals?

Years back at UCLA, I attended a lecture by Pritzker Prize, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (my Harvard professor). Endless crowds lined up all day in advance for the evening performance. Upon opening the doors, the large auditorium was full in seconds. The organizers opened up two additional auditoriums with the lecture to be broadcast on screens. All this, and masses of people still could not fit in the venues. Front row: Brad Pitt, Martha Stewart, Dianne Keaton, Michael York, Vidal Sassoon, and other design fans and fanatics.

Seattle Public Library, Washington (photo by James Ewing), by Rem Koolhaas of OMA (inset photo by Superslice)
Seattle Public Library, Washington (photo by James Ewing), by Rem Koolhaas of OMA (inset photo by Superslice)

Further years back at UC Berkeley, I attended a lecture by AIA Gold Medalist, New York architect Michael Graves. Similar thing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people showed up trying to squeeze into a college lecture hall. Hoping to graze his shroud. Hoping to bask in god-like enlightenment.

I am not proposing that an architect could fill a stadium like Taylor Swift, a concert hall like Lang Lang, an arena like Jordan, or a theater like Baryshnikov. Rather, I am impressed with and a little weary of the influence that some architects possess by simply standing at a podium with a PowerPoint of their latest projects, anecdotes and social theories.

Michael Jordan (photo by Getty Images), Taylor Swift (photo by Startraks), Lang Lang (photo by Detlef Schneider), Mikhail Baryshnikov (photo by Thomas Giroir)
Michael Jordan (photo by Getty Images), Taylor Swift (photo by Startraks), Lang Lang (photo by Detlef Schneider), Mikhail Baryshnikov (photo by Thomas Giroir)

With his world travels and outrageous behavior, perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright was the first Starchitect. But Ancient Greece had Mnesikles. The Renaissance had Michelangelo. The British Crown had Wren. Modernism had Le Corbusier. And he, alongside Wright, Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe graced the covers of Time magazine.

Sure, the spotlight is flattering. The ego is stroked, as an architect’s head inflates larger and larger.

But all this said, being an architect comes with responsibilities. Some responsibilities are obvious and some, not so obvious: provide buildings for shelter, provide a roof that won’t collapse on your head, provide beautiful structures that will stir and inspire, provide creative designs that will support the evolution of cities, and provide tremendous visions that will challenge a nation’s cultural complacency. Architects have a voice. By mere role playing, we are provided a soap box to stand on, wave our hands, wail profound statements—and hope to affect education, social policies, and the spirit of our time. Our zeitgeist.

In several venues, we have influence. As comic book writer Stan Lee declared in 1962, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility!”

This responsibility may be, at one end of the spectrum, designing homes for the homeless or hospitals in third world countries. At another end of the spectrum, the responsibility can be in designing with awareness for children, the handicap or the aging. Or working with non-profit organizations. Or being a steward for the environment. Or rebuilding a city after a natural disaster.

Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women & Children, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon with KAA
Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women & Children, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ KAA)

In 1968, civil rights leader Whitney Young directly insulted and challenged architects at a national convention in Portland, Oregon with this, “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights . . . You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.” Fire in the belly of architects, a battle was waged.

We can choose to be a celebrity in the limelight or we can choose to change the world quietly. Either way, we must choose responsibly.

© Poon Design Inc.