Tag Archives: STARCHITECT

#34: MASSACRE AT HARVARD

April 15, 2016

“The Trays,” design studios at the Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (photo by Kris Snibbe, Harvard University News Office)

I looked up at the packed house, my heart racing.

Students, faculty and interested parties filled the uninspiring concrete theater. Fifty onlookers growing to a hundred. Almost sadistically, the review of our mid-term work at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is a guaranteed public spectacle. A few stars would be made that day; others might go down in flames.

Down front were my dozen classmates, most of whom hadn’t slept for days, arriving at this event having subsisted for weeks on a diet of cigarettes, coffee, and sugar. The evaluation of our work, an open forum called “crits,” is an event of theatrics, melodrama, and catharsis. There would be no covert submitting of our papers like an English major, at a specified time into some designated box, quietly, secretly.

No, we would each leave this day knowing where we stood, where our future might lie. Everyone else would know too. After each student’s elaborate presentation fueled by months of a creative high, with our drawings pinned to the wall and scale models on a solitary table, with our note cards embellished with the most convincing air of intellectual bullshit, the “jury” begins their critique comprised of praise, appreciation, judgment—and/or ridicule.

Euralille, Lille, France by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo from abe-industry.com)
Euralille, Lille, France by Rem Koolhaas, OMA (photo from abe-industry.com)

The audience was larger than usual, as the professor of my class was a rock star of architecture, coined lamely by the media a “Starchitect,” a man of incomparable intellect, intimidating presence, and literal massiveness of forehead, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. (Years later, Koolhaas was awarded the highest honor in the architecture industry, the Pritzker Prize, akin to a Nobel Prize. And yes, his name is Cool House.)

As if that wasn’t enough to ensure a sold-out show, Koolhaas invited his New York colleague, Steven Holl, another impressive force in the field of design. (Holl would go on to be the Gold Medal recipient from The American Institute of Architects.)

Horizontal Skyscraper, Vanke Center, Shenzhen China, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Iwan Baan)
Horizontal Skyscraper, Vanke Center, Shenzhen, China, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Iwan Baan)

The project assigned to my class was the design of a convention center in Lille, France, at a location that would soon be the continental arrival zone of The Chunnel—an engaging and challenging student project—and a real commission on which Koolhaas was working. When completed, his behemoth project totaling eight million square feet would become known as Euralille, one of the most ambitious architectural statements of the time.

Drawings of convention center project by Anthony Poon
Drawings of convention center project by Anthony Poon

It was my turn to present. I did my best to exude not only confidence but heartfelt belief that my design was the right direction for the project. As a student of the creative arts, I felt emboldened to take a righteous or even moral stance with my thesis.

With the size of buildings unlike anything ever conceived, my design would hover over train tracks through some wild fantasy of structural engineering about which I knew nothing. I supplemented my formal presentation of large black-and-white ink drawings with artifacts of my so-called artistic process. As much as professors liked seeing the final product, they also appreciated the evidence of introspective process, such as numerous sketches and crude cardboard models. From drawing to drawing I dashed. Waving my arms, shaking my head in self-affirmation, I spoke about grandeur and ambition.

I concluded. I took a breath. I awaited my public review.

Presentation model of convention center project by Anthony Poon
Presentation model of convention center project by Anthony Poon

Holl spoke first. “I appreciate the work here, and the background story of how you got from the beginning of the semester to this point.”

He continued, his voice lowered—and I could feel everyone in the fishbowl lean in closer.

“I am sorry, Anthony.” He picked up the small, earliest conceptual paper model. “Maybe you had it right here.’’

Oh shit, I thought.

“I am sorry, but you not only had it right here, you wasted the rest of the semester making your first concept worse, exploring bad ideas, wasting the contributions of your fellow students and your professor . . . and . . . you are wasting our time right now.”

The public “crit” at the Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (photo from serie.cn)
The public “crit” at the Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (photo from serie.cn)

The gasps from the spectators in the coliseum were not only audible, but physical I swear. I looked up. More people were arriving. The word in the hallway must have been that a classic crit massacre was going on. Whispers in the audience had begun even before Holl completed his diatribe. “Anthony’s a failure.” “I thought he was better.” “Let’s see if he will cry.”

Without even the most banal compliment for my effort, without my even being granted the proper allocated time of twenty minutes, Koolhaas stepped in to end it. Out of mercy, I am sure.

“Let’s move on to the next student’s presentation.”

Koolhaas’ blow was so swift that it was neither here nor there; it was just an end to the whole miserable circus of public humiliation. Koolhaas was bored, as so many smart people are when in the presence of the mediocrity of mere mortals.

Gund Hall, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by John Andrews (photo by Harvard GSD)
Gund Hall, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by John Andrews (photo by Harvard GSD)

I picked up my models, gathered up my drawings and sketchbook, and crawled out of the auditorium. I walked out into the early, crisp cold of Cambridge, and ended up at my dimly lit, ground floor, one-bedroom apartment. I let all my work fall to the floor. I fell into my bed, face first.

This is my future. Whether a city hall or a shopping center, architects design in a public forum. Our work is out there for a generation or more, in the glaring eye of acclaim, criticism, and sometimes, mockery.

#14: EVERYTHING IS DESIGN

July 31, 2015

Poon Design business cards, by Danny Yee with Poon Design

Design is everywhere. Whether decorating a home, building a new city hall, master planning a park, or embarking on a high speed rail—design is at the epicenter.

Design is indeed everything, from cake decoration, the season’s latest fashions, make up and blow outs, websites and branding, planning a wedding, a hybrid engine, to the ergonomics of a toothbrush handle.

Design is the nexus of all this and more.

Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado, by Anthony Poon (while w/ HHPA)
Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado, by Anthony Poon (while w/ HHPA)

Staggering: estimated 75 million viewers per month of HGTV, 1 million subscribers of Architectural Digest, 1 million subscribers to Sunset, 300,000 readers of Dwell, $100 billion comprising the US construction industry, 100,000 members of The American Institute of Architects, and so on. And the numbers grow daily.

Print and online: Metropolis ,Communication Arts, Interior Design, House & Garden, Wallpaper, Elle Décor, Architecture, Architectural Record, A+U, Detail, Dezeen, The Architect’s Newspaper, arcspace, designboom, Architizer—just to name a few.

So many TV shows, books, websites, blogs, conventions, and media.

The design of a museum or a shoe store—the announcement often headlines the news. Architects as iconic figures in movies, DIY everywhere, prefab homes, style as content, going green—it is all part of a dramatic movement of design being universal. Everywhere.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat retail store, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design
Vosges Haut-Chocolat retail store, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design

In the past decades, stores have sprouted that made “design” approachable. Retail placed design on a mainstream platform and within the reach of consumers, with stores literally called Design Within Reach. The traditional Crate and Barrel offered a new hip and youthful company called CB2. Pottery Barn inserted their own design studios within their stores, led by in-house “designers.”

Each of these retailers sold design as a lifestyle, not just a commodity.

Even in the tabloids. Though it was a while ago, I can’t forget how Brad Pitt praised his own love for architecture. He also criticized how Jennifer Aniston, his then-wife, had no understanding of modern design. Jennifer countered with how Brad’s sense of design was cold, and that she preferred warm and cozy. (Was this about design or demeanor?)

With puzzling audacity, Brad then criticized architectural education, and somehow landed his dream job as an “architect” at the office of Starchitect Frank Gehry. Brad Pitt bellowed, “I’m really into architecture, structure and design. Give me anything and I’ll design it.”

Oscar-nominated actor Brad Pitt and Pritzker Prize architect Frank Gehry (photo source unknown)
Oscar-nominated actor Brad Pitt and Pritzker Prize architect Frank Gehry (photo source unknown)

I don’t know how and when design moved out of the privileged Renaissance world that commissioned Michelangelo and Palladio as architects. With great fury, design moved into everyday hands—from weekend warriors at Home Depot, to domestic goddesses wielding Martha Stewart paint swatches.

I welcome this movement that has delivered design to the general audience. With design topics at the forefront of conversations and with resources accessible to everyone, the world is a more thoughtful, delightful place.

© Poon Design Inc.