Tag Archives: Sleepless in Seattle


June 21, 2019

Upper left: Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (1957); upper right: ) Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996); lower left: Ellen Page in Inception (2010); lower right: Richard Gere in Intersection (1994)

George Smart: Welcome to US Modernist Radio where we talk and laugh with people who enjoy, own, create, dream about, preserve, love, and hate Modernist architecture. Anthony Poon, our next guest, is an architect, concert pianist, artist, and author. His talk at Palm Springs’ Modernism Week was about architects in popular culture. There’s a lot more than you might think.

Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991); Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009); Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built (2018)

Anthony Poon: Most people don’t know, until I start pointing out, that architects have been in hundreds of movies. And everyone says, “Oh hey, I saw that movie. I remember that guy.” And then, they start realizing Michelle Pfeiffer was an architect. Tom Hanks was an architect. Wesley Snipes was an architect.

George: Wait a second! Wesley Snipes was an architect?

Anthony: Wesley Snipes was an architect in Jungle Fever. We have Steve Martin playing an architect twice. We have Matt Dillon playing an architect in three separate movies. Hollywood has a love affair with architects as characters, both in film and television. It is the perfect go-to hero and feature character, whether it’s a drama, a romantic comedy, a romance. It just seems to be the perfect character that fits all plots.

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)

George: Well, one movie which started as a drama and kind of viewed as a comedy later was The Fountainhead. It’s really a chuckler.

Anthony: It’s unfortunate. The film took the gravitas of an Ayn Rand book and turned it into a campy cult favorite. The film never quite understood the philosophy that Fountainhead was trying to get across.

George: No. And the lead character?

Anthony: Gary Cooper.

George: Gary Cooper didn’t seem like he was particularly well-suited to be an architect.

Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Anthony: The interesting thing is Cooper was an architect in an architect movie. It was a movie about architecture. For most of the movies you see, it’s not about the architect being in an architect movie. If you think about Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, a classic character in a romantic comedy, it’s a love story between Meg Ryan and him. There’s not much about architecture. It’s not about him building buildings or designing cathedrals, parks and shopping malls. In most movies, the architect as a character is actually superfluous to the arc of the story.

George: How many architecture movies are there that aren’t documentaries?

Paul Newman in Towering Inferno (1974); Helmut Bakaitis in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Anthony: Very few. Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno plays an architect in a movie about architecture, because a building is on fire, burning down. He has to play the role of an architect. In The Matrix, there is “The Architect.” He’s creating worlds, designing them. But, that’s really about it. All the other ones that I’ve presented today, those movies are not about architecture.

One of the things I examined was how if there is a lawyer in the story, it is a movie about law. If there is a cop, it’s movie about crime. If there’s a doctor, it’s a movie about medicine. A banker, it’s a movie about Wall Street. But, an architect in a movie is usually not about architecture.

An architect is a movie character that is romantic. It gives gravitas. It gives a creative person a profession. It’s idealistic. It’s sort of the go-to, good-natured person that represents something that everyone can associate with.

George: Easy to write a script around that.

For this sweet romantic comedy, imagine Meg Ryan falling in love with a cop, Will Smith from Bad Boys (1995)
Or try imagining Meg Ryan falling in love with an investment banker, Michael Douglas from Wall Street (1987)

Anthony: Exactly. When you write a script, you need to choose a profession. If you made that person a Homeland Security officer, it would add a different kind of arc to the story. If it was a romantic comedy and you’re making the person a therapist or an investment banker, I think it would change the course of the movie. An architect stays safe and neutral.

George: But there hasn’t been an action adventure series with an architect yet, I don’t think.

Anthony: The odd one is Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974)

George: Was he an architect in Death Wish?

Anthony: Some people would say this movie doesn’t fit my analysis of the nice, romantic, idealistic, creative professional. But it actually does! It is a movie that is extremely violent. A lot of action, many sequels.

George: He’s seeking revenge for something, right?

Anthony: He’s seeking vengeance for being framed for the murder of his wife, and to make his character take the full 180 to the dark side, he starts as the mild-mannered architect. That’s how it works. So, he does represent all the things that Hollywood thinks architects are, and that’s why when he transforms into the vigilante, it’s even more dramatic. It wouldn’t be as dramatic if he was already a police officer or detective.

George: Well, let’s go through some of these other ones here.

Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)

Anthony: Well, there’s Mr. Brady of course from The Brady Bunch, the iconic family architect. The TV series shows him working at the office with drawings, and also in a charming home office. A funny thing though. Hollywood represents architects as being wealthy. But most architects actually aren’t. I think it’s funny that Mr. Brady, as an architect, can somehow support a family of eight. He’s also paying spousal support because he’s divorced. His wife doesn’t work, and they have a housekeeper, a full time live-in named Alice.

One of my favorites is Indecent Proposal with Woody Harrelson. He plays a young, starting out architect.

George: This is the one with Demi Moore and Robert Redford? And, Harrelson was an architect in that? Wow.

Anthony: The movie shows him sitting on the floor, drawing on the wall, that kind of creative passion. But, because Woody Harrelson is a struggling entrepreneur like many young architects, it makes Demi Moore more susceptible to the fact that she can get a million dollars by sleeping with a stranger.

Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993); Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)

George: Yeah. And, Wesley Snipes, tell me about that movie.

Anthony: Jungle Fever. It’s great, because Hollywood in previous decades thought of architects as being your typical white corporate male. So, Wesley Snipes breaks that role, as well as other architects that come shortly after, that are female, are younger, or of different races. For Wesley Snipes, the film uses the architect’s office as a very sexy backdrop. It has the drafting tables, the desk lamps, the great artistic setting. His rows of drawings in the background are such a sexy image, that he actually has sex on a drafting table. So that’s a unique take.

I think that in a lot of these movies, particularly romances, they want the male or female lead to be a creative type, artistic. But the artistic person also has to have a job. I don’t think the movies would work if the lead was a starving poet on the street corner, or a musician playing saxophone in the subway station. Being an architect allows that lead role to be romantic, creative, and still have a job, a respectable profession.

George: Did you see the movie, The Lake House?

Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006)

Anthony: Of course, Keanu Reeves. And the brother and dad all play architects. They actually have architectural discussions—the three of them. Keanu Reeves lives in a glass house floating on a lake, and they often show him at his drafting table with his white t-shirt working late hours, drawing away, coming up with some creative vision for the world.

George: How has architecture changed in terms of use in film? Has it changed much at all? Is it heading in the direction where maybe we’ll see more computer screens in the scenes, or do you think movies will still hold on to the old notion?

Anthony: I think they will hold on, because the notion is a trope and a formula that works. I think Hollywood is aware that the industry has changed, but Hollywood is about creating fantasy and images, and that’s still a role that people view architects as. I don’t think it’s always accurate, but it’s consistent in movies. It has been for decades since the first black and white movies in the 30s, all the way up to today. If the field of architecture was gone in stories, I don’t know if Hollywood could find another type of character that is a mix of creativity and professionalism, a mix of nobility and seriousness.

George: I wonder if they’ll remake The Fountainhead again.

Anthony: I actually wish Hollywood would do a dramatic version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. If you think about that, it would be a movie about ego, power, ambition, sex, arrogance. There would be the great buildings as backdrops. And there would be the climactic scene. If you’re familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s extended family, they were all killed by an axe murderer that was one of Wright’s employees at the house. That would be a horrific, but dramatic Hollywood scene. And it’s all true!

Frank Lloyd Wright (photo from scottsdaleindependent.com)

George: I’m wondering if somebody’s working on that.

Anthony: I’ve been thinking I should write a screenplay. The question is who would play Frank Lloyd Wright? There’d be a lot of people that would be great for it, but I don’t know.

George: Benedict Cumberbatch comes to mind. He’s good in most anything. He could probably pull that off.

Anthony: He is good. He’s probably too tall, since Frank Lloyd Wright is known to be very short.

George: Oh, that’s right. He was short, wasn’t he?

Anthony: It’s funny. I think a lot of the success of his homes is because he’s short. People would say, “These homes are so comfortable. What a great scale. It’s so intimate feeling.” And, I’m thinking maybe it’s because he’s just so short that these rooms have this proportion.

George: Well, Anthony, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about you in the coming years.


(The full podcast is at US Modernist Radio. Interview starts at 25 minutes and 9 seconds. For more on Hollywood and architects, visit my past essay, Celluloid Heroes.)


May 27, 2016

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949), Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974), Paul Newman in Towering Inferno (1974)

Why are there so many architects in the movies and on TV?

In most cases, the fact that an actor is an architect on the small or big screen is superfluous to the actual plot. Though a popular trope, the role of the architect is no more than a characteristic, a trait assigned to the male lead, and in fewer cases the female lead, only to provide substance and gravitas.

This matter—the truth and accuracy of how architects are portrayed by Hollywood—is frequent coffee room or cocktail hour chatter among practicing architects. We are at turns offended or flattered, but always perplexed.

Here are the basic elements of the architect-in-entertainment mix-and-match dramatis personae toolkit:

– affluent, but not necessarily rich
– thoughtful and introspective
– attractive
– cultured
– sensitive
– artistic-with-a-job
– highly intelligent
– coolly professional

Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991), Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)
Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991), Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)

The writer and director of Sleepless in Seattle needed Tom Hanks to be the reserved, artistic businessman at the center of the story, so they made him an architect, not a poet, cop, or hedge fund manager. They also didn’t want Hanks actually being an architect most of the time. Those paying to watch a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan want to see Hanks as the sensitive, romantic architectural designer with an ideal nature, not Tom Hanks as a real architect trying to restart his laptop because the Revit software has crashed again, and then spending the rest of his day slaving for a client who can’t decide whether the exterior paint should be tan, sand, or beige, or whether the bathroom tile should be ivory, buff, egg shell, or ecru. Also, Hanks can’t spend his time hitting the pavement hoping to find another commission so he can pay his office rent.

Poets, cops, and denizens of Wall Street are equally charged character fodder, but for different purposes. The architect character is altruistic, worldly, cool, but not too cool, well dressed, and established. Architects are also considered not wild, emotional, or too, too sexy. (I would sometimes like to be, or at least thought of as being, one or two of those things.)

In a drama, the architect is the cool center, and often needs the supplement of other traits from the screenwriters’ playbook, such as diplomatic jury member or struggling educator, to beef up the character’s potentially monochromatic dimension. In comedy, the architect’s impartiality allows other cast members to shine uncontested with wit and satire. Architects are safe non-distractions.

Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994), Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996), Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996), Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)
Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994), Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996), Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996), Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)

Here’s a partial list of movies featuring architects:

Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934)
Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)
Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (1957)
Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet (1960)
Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now (1973)
Charleton Heston in Earthquake (1974)
Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)
Steve Martin in HouseSitter (1992)
Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)
Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994)
Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996)
Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996)
Matt Dillon in You, Me and Dupree (1998)
Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999)
Billy Crudup in World Traveler (2001)
Liam Neeson in Love Actually (2003)
Ashton Kutcher in Butterfly Effect (2004)
Michael Keaton in White Noise (2005)
Adam Sandler in Click (2006)
Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006)
Virginia Madsen in Firewall (2006)
Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)
Luke Wilson in My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Tom Everett Scott in Because I Said So (2007)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Steve Martin (again) in It’s Complicated (2009)
Ellen Page in Inception (2010)
Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011)

Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999), Adam Sandler in Click (2006), Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006), Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999), Adam Sandler in Click (2006), Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006), Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)

Except for the Gary Cooper role, which came with the heavy expectation associated with Ayn Rand’s bestselling and controversial novel, The Fountainhead, I suspect most do not recall that the actors above portrayed architects. That’s how well the role was written and the stereotype applied. And as to the stereotype syncing with the real world, the roles are mostly male, reflecting an issue in the real architectural world, though that is changing for the better.

Serious movie fans will note some omissions on my list. I did not list the following, for the reasons stated:

Paul Newman in Towering Inferno: He’s really playing an architect in a real design and construction crisis, not playing a stereotype.

“The Architect” in the The Matrix movies: He’s not a builder of buildings per se, but a builder of an entire future world, which I certainly envy, but not quite to that extent, my ego aside.

Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies: As he is a vigilante murderer, I invoke the “exception proves the rule” cliché. Architects can be cool, but not cool killers.

For my full feature essay, go to the Film and Music Issue of the recent LA Home.

Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009), Ellen Page in Inception (2010), Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011), Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009), Ellen Page in Inception (2010), Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011), Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)


November 20, 2015

Design studio at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California

When we architects are being artistic, we call it the “studio.” When being professional, we call it the “office.” When wanting to sound prominent, we call it the “firm.”

We also call it the “practice.” Because no matter how long you practice at being an architect, you probably never get it right.

No matter the label for the architect’s work space, an apparent coolness and sexiness pervades. Even a heroic bravado.

The work of an architect unites art, science and business. Our workplace brims with creativity, doing so professionally. Ambitious yes, but our offices do not permeate with the obviousness displayed by the power office of a corporate attorney. Our design studios are for making art. Creative yes, but not the cliché of a starving artist’s workspace.

Conference room at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California
Conference room at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California

Whether a mom-pop-shop of a few architects, or a company of 500, our offices are modern and our work is noble. Never self-important like a wealthy developer with an over-wrought reception area and excessive conference rooms, architects just want to do exciting work in an inspiring space.

Even though it has been decades since computers replaced hand drafting, the architect’s studio is still thought of as containing those nifty drafting tables, lamps and stools. Even though it has been years since 3D printing has replaced the manual labor of a wood shop, the architect’s studio is still thought of as containing rolls of drawings and large-scale physical models.

Whether worn blueprints and color pencils vs. sleek computer monitors and a tablet, such items generate a stimulating backdrop. The visual impact of this architect’s studio exists in a hundred films, from Sleepless in Seattle, One Fine Day, to My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

top: Liam Neeson in Love Actually, 2003; middle: Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra in Jungle Fever, 1991; bottom: Luke Wilson and Anna Faris in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, 2006
top: Liam Neeson in Love Actually, 2003; middle: Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra in Jungle Fever, 1991; bottom: Luke Wilson and Anna Faris in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, 2006

The real estate industry coins the architect’s environment: “creative office space.” The features: 1) open floor plan allowing collaboration, 2) exposed structure and brick walls representing integrity, 3) concrete floors and industrial windows expressing an off-the-beaten-path personality, and 4) high ceilings with skylights inviting in heavenly inspiration.

Design studio at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California
Design studio at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California

Once a necessity of architects seeking affordable buildings in industrial neighborhoods, the warehouse-styled office has become standard. Take Culver City in Los Angeles or SOMA in San Francisco for example. The gritty tenant spaces are history. Now, everyone seeks creative studios—from tech companies to law firms, from accountants to real estate agents.

Upon visiting Poon Design’s quarters last year, PayPal and eBay witnessed an environment that supported solo flourishes of creative vigor as well as deep-diving teamwork. Shortly after, PayPal retained Poon Design to re-invent their corporate office culture.

PayPal / eBay, Silicon Valley, California, by Poon Design
PayPal / eBay, Silicon Valley, California, by Poon Design

Poon Design recently relocated to a unique area of west Los Angeles. On our block, we have a sheet metal fabricator, daycare, wine and cheese store, tire shop, and tattoo parlor. Alongside the vibe of a quaint family neighborhood, our back patio requires steel roll down doors and a chain link fence topped with barb wire.

As Eater LA proclaimed, “Poon Design has their own style: a little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll.”

Desks and offices at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California
Desks and offices at Poon Design, Los Angeles, California


March 24, 2015

Conference room at Poon Design

Since the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood has released a major movie nearly once a year in which the lead actor portrays architects like me.

Architects have been played by Steve Martin, Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Matt Dillon, Matthew Perry, Liam Neeson, Ashton Kutcher, Michael Keaton, Adam Sandler, Keanu Reeves, Zach Braff, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Sean Penn—just to name a few. Perhaps my favorite is Tom Hanks in the 1993 film, Sleepless in Seattle—the endearing, intuitive, charming artist, destined for happiness. Or Keanu Reeves in the 2006 film, The Lake House—same description as above.

Keanu Reeves in The Lake House, 2006

The list as I know it, started way back with Boris Karloff in his 1934 film, The Black Cat. Though most famous for his portrayal of Frankenstein, Karloff began the roll call of architect lead characters that have included classic actors like Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman.

There are as many stories about architecture as actors to depict them. So many tales. So many stereotypes. And, unfortunately, so many myths.

That’s why I have decided to start this web log, this weblog, this blog. For all the famous faces that have played architects like me on the silver screen, for every romanticized myth and stereotype they have perpetuated, I wanted to share what it’s really like to do what I do.

Being an architect is not just something that you do. Being an architect is not just a job and not just a profession.

Being an architect is something that you are and you feel. It is a passion and an opportunity to do something that is great and noble. It is a chance to shape an environment, if not an identity, for a family, a school, a company, a city, a nation. It is also a responsibility and an ambition that contributes to the progress of civilization.

An architect starts with a client, a site and a conversation about desires. The architect then stirs up a tempest of creativity—ideas captured in sketches, paper models, computer renderings, as well as writings, music, debates with colleagues, deep diving research. Then, the ideas are intensely woven together, honed and developed by collaborative teams of other architects and engineers.

Being an architect involves making sketches and models come alive to shape realities. What I have designed will likely last longer than my own life—by 50, 100 years or, if I’m lucky, centuries. A Mesopotamian architect designed pyramids, and these ziggurats have been with us since 2000 BC.

Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur, Nasiriyah, Iraq

Being an architect is both inspiring and humbling. We create and contribute with both bravado and meekness, with both ego and honor.

When my first project was completed in 1991, a modest café in West Los Angeles, I was astonished to not just see my drawings come to life, but to witness actual people inhabiting what I had imagined. It was now a vessel for being. From that point on, I was stirred and bound to continue my journey.

Writing about this conviction is what I will do from here on.

© Poon Design Inc.