Tag Archives: STEVEN HOLL

#189: MY TOP TEN FAVE ARCHITECTS

December 1, 2023

The Nancy and Rick Kinder Building at the Musuem of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, by Steven Holl. The architect’s inspiration came from the changing shapes of clouds and the trapezoidal shape of the property. (photo by Richard Barnes)

“Hey Anthony, who is your favorite architect?,” I am often asked.

I might reply, “Can there only be one fave? What is your favorite book or your favorite song?”

upper left: Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain, by Antoni Gaudi (photo from stirworld.com); upper right: Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Marne-la-Vallee, France, by Ricardo Bofill (photo by Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura); lower left: Assembly Building, Chandigarh, India, by Le Corbusier (photo by Narinder Nanu); lower right: National Assembly Building, Dhaka, Bangladesh, by Louis Kahn (photo from metalocus.es)

For nearly all, there is no one favorite piece of music. For me, there is no one favorite architect. There are several dozen. But here I try, gathering a mere list of ten, in no particular order. Just a note: My list comprises living architects, so excludes favorites like Antoni Gaudi, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and Ricardo Bofill.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, by Steven Holl. Adjacent to the renovated museum, five enigmatic glass structures deliver various qualities of natural light into the interconnected subterranean galleries. (photo by Andy Ryan)

Steven Holl
Holl possesses an individualistic vision of architecture, where his signature watercolors establishes the conceptual agenda for each project. This New York–based architect blends complex building programs—both new structures as well as additions—with seemingly random sculptural shapes, while applying his mastery of shaping natural lightTime magazine called him “America’s Best Architect” for “buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye.”

Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg, Switzerland, by Peter Zumthor. Impeccably crafted, the leaf-shaped, one-room structure explores a lemniscate, an algebraic, hyperbolic, inverse curve. (photo by Federico Covre)

Peter Zumthor
Often called the “architect’s architect,” there is no one else practicing today so often referred to as a “master” of his craft. Each project from the Swiss architect, the son of a cabinet maker—whether a home, chapel, or museum—is precisely uncompromising, often austere, and elemental, embracing the basics of architecture, e.g., shelter, light, materials. Zumthor suggests, “Architecture is not a vehicle or a symbol for things that do not belong to its essence.”

Educatorium, Utrecht, Netherlands, by Rem Koolhaas. Two planar surfaces fold and interlock to create lecture halls, classroom, cafeteria, and plaza. (photo from architecture-history.org)

Rem Koolhaas
Dutch architect, provocative theorist, prolific author, professor at Harvard, and one-time filmmaker—Koolhaas brings gravitas and intellectualism to his practice. His work is known for its clarity in conceptual thinking, where a simple idea or diagram drives the development of an entire project, whether a house, library, or entire town. Time magazine put him in their top 100 of “The World’s Most Influential People.”

Iberê Camargo Foundation, Porto Alegre, Brazil, by Alvaro Siza. Soaring ramps give an iconic personality to this cultural institution and museum dedicated to the works of Brazilian Expressionist painter, Iberê Camargo. (photo from archdaily.com)

Alvaro Siza
Some buildings from this Portugues architect are quiet and minimal, like his Leca Swimming Pools—so integrated into the waterfront that one doesn’t even know where the buildings end and the land begins. Other projects combine invention, and poetry. “Every design,” Siza states, “is a rigorous attempt to capture a concrete moment of a transitory image in all its nuances . . . the more precise they are, the more vulnerable.”

Chichu Art Museum, Naoshima, Japan, by Tadao Ando. To avoid compromising nature, this museum burrows underground. Abstract openings of square, rectangles, and triangles march across the scenery and open to the sky. (photo from avauntmagazine.com)

Tadao Ando
Self-taught Japanese architect started out as a truck driver and professional boxer. Contrasting the delirium of such a past, Ando’s portfolio is the epitome of minimalism, exploring a profound nothingness. Nearly all his projects are composed of primarily two materials. 1) poured-in-place concrete—concrete walls, concrete floors, concrete roofs, and 2) natural light (yes, I view light as a construction material). Though many of his buildings appear to be the similar, celebrities flock to own an Ando design: Beyonce and Jay-Z, Kanye West, Tom Ford, Kim Kardashian, amongst others.

Douglas House, Emmet County, Michigan, by Richard Meier. Restored twice since its 1973 completion, this 3,000-square-foot, waterfront residence is one of the most iconic Modernist homes of recent generations—and added to the National Register of Historic Places. (photo by Scott Frances)

Richard Meier
New York architect Meier (now retired with controversy) claims, “White conventionally has always been seen as a symbol of perfection, of purity and clarity.” He established his design language, for better or for worse, as the one of the most recognizable styles in history—a singular vision and personal brand of Modernism, stark white surfaces, and strict geometries. The formality and strictness in Meier’s work, though rigid and severe for some, provide an oasis of calm for others.

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Germany, Herzog and de Meuron. A new glassy, 2,100-seat concert hall sits upon an 1875-constructed warehouse, rebuilt in 1963. The sweeping roof provides a plaza with views of the docks and city. (photo by Iwan Baan)

Herzog & de Meuron
Based in Basel, Switzerland, the partnership of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron approaches architecture as a deep dive into design philosophy, experimental methods, and technology. They believe their work “can meet the needs of our rapidly and radically changing world.” Each project is a reinvention of their creative process, with a fetishization of form making, textures, patterns, and materials—both traditional and radical.

Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet, Le Brassus, Switzerland, by Bjarke Ingels. This spiraling museum displaying watchmaking history contrasts the company’s traditional 1875 workshop building. (photo by Bjarke Ingels Group)

Bjarke Ingels
Many of Ingels’ projects—bold, exaggerated, and cartoonish—appear to have leapt off the pages of a comic book. In fact, he published a 2009 graphic novel entitled, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution. His firm of 700 architects, simply known as BIG, is one of the fastest rising companies in the global marketplace. The Wall Street Journal called this Copenhagen-based architect, “Innovator of the Year” for architecture and “one of the design world’s rising stars.”

Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland, by Thomas Phifer. Mute boxy structures clad in Carderock stone form an introspective campus the combines art, architecture, and landscape. (photo from thomasphifer.com)

Thomas Phifer
One of the lesser known names on my list, and not yet a Pritzker Laureate like more than half of my list, Phifer established his Manhattan studio after working for Richard Meier. Whether Phifer’s work comprises the self-proclaimed “light buildings that landed lightly on the land” or Thomas De Monchaux’s description of “a river stone, embedded in the flow of its place,” I would suggest that Mies’ “less is more” is the rule. If ever in the D.C. area, do not miss a visit to the Glenstone Museum.

Marques de Riscal Hotel, Elciego, Spain, by Frank Gehry. Part of the winery complex, the 43-suite, steel and titanium hotel expresses a typical Gehry sculptural presence, adding some new colors inspired by wine. (photo from shrifreevs.live)

Frank Gehry
The stunning collisions of steel, glass, and stone from this Canadian-born American has made him the most famous living architect on the planet. Though often accused of aesthetic sameness—a kind of architectural one-liner—the mastery of his design vocabulary never ceases to impress. With the 1997 completion of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry’s single building attracted so many visitors to the area that the entire economy of the Basque region improved dramatically.

Along the lines of favorites, here are my favorite buildings in Los Angeles, favorite buildings of all time, and most breathtaking buildings of last year.

#170: STROKES OF GENIUS?

May 26, 2023

Dancing House, also called “Ginger and Fred (after the dancers Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire), Prague, Czechia, by Frank Gehry (sketch from ted.com, photo from prague.eu)

There is a fascination with how an architect, in a single first sketch, can capture the entire concept of a proposed project. Is such a sketch evidence of inspired genius blasted onto paper within seconds vs. a mere doodle of no concern vs. smoke-n-mirrors and good salesmanship?

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, by Tadao Ando (sketch from archdaily.com)
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (photo from archdaily.com)

A romantic belief exists that the brilliance of the creator and the entire DNA of a new building can be displayed in a few strokes of artistry. Such a poetic sketch, a simple scribble even, on the back of a cocktail napkin supposedly represents the entire design philosophy of a design to come—a guidebook for the design team and a request for client affirmation.

Collage of sketches by Anthony Poon

This obsession and even prominence of sketching a concept on a napkin has reached such fanatical heights that ArchDaily features, “Napkin Sketches by Famous Architects,” Architectural Record has their annual, “Cocktail Napkin Sketch Contest,” Architizer invites architects to the “One Drawing Challenge,” and the American Institute of Architects conducts the “AIA Napkin Sketch Auction.”

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, by Steven Holl (sketch from cladglobal.com, photo from stevenholl.com)

But is it realistic to think that the author’s elemental drawing, as profound and seductive as it might be, can fuel the entire design journey from pen and paper to brick and mortar? Frank Lloyd Wright was rumored to have preconceived in his head the entire design of one of his famed houses. Within a brief moment of time, he could draft the whole thing in front of his attentive audience of apprentices. Architects like Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, and Steven Holl draw, doodle and sketch (watercolor In Holl’s case) using the scribbling process to find an idea.

In the end, an inspiring concept is indeed captured, and such a sketch becomes the apparent roadmap for the architectural team to develop, and in some cases, to struggle with and reproduce in three-dimensions. In this latter case, is the sketch less a source of inspiration and more a pair of handcuffs? What pains the employees must confront as they try to second guess the boss’ design intentions, as they try to decipher what may be nothing more than a whimsical drawing, as they try to extract answers from an enigmatic gesture.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Kansas, by Steven Holl (sketch from cladglobal.com)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (photo by Roland Halbe)

Returning to salesmanship, one architect (not to be named) knew of his prowess with drawing brilliant sketches—sepia fountain pen on yellow translucent paper. He was also aware of how his clients would value such sketches of their projects as art, as fine originals from the artist/architect. But here are the smoke-n-mirrors.

  1. This architect does not actually create that first sketch in the beginning. Instead, he waits until after the building is completed years later.
  2. He then takes a photo of the finished project and traces over said photo imitating (cheating actually) the look and feel of an inspirational conceptual sketch.
  3. Then he predates the sketch back by many years to suggest (deceive actually) that this drawing was the first sketch of his genius process ar the beginning.
  4. The salesmanship continues with the sketch being framed accompnaied by a blatant lie by the architect, “I never give away any of my original sketches, but this time, I will—just for you.” Of course, these fake sketches are given away all the time.

Hence the hocus pocus.

Escena Residence I-3, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (w/ Andrew Adler, sketch by Anthony Poon)
Escena Residence I-3 (photo by Chris Miller)

#129: THE MOST INTRIGUING BUILDINGS OF 2020

January 15, 2021

Phoenix Central Park, Chippendale, Australia (Right photo by Martin Mischkulnig; left photo by Julia Charles)

As I stated at the close of 2019, I avoid “The Best of” list, because I don’t know how to define “the best.” For the end of 2019, I instead listed ten worthy projects that fit my list of The Most Seductive Buildings. For the end of 2020, the operative adjective is intriguing.

To intrigue is an act of arousing one’s curiosity or interest—to fascinate. Being intriguing can be illicit or titillating. In no particular order, I list below ten projects from last year that intrigue, enthrall, and captivate.

(photo by Hong Sung Jun)

1: For this shopping center in Korea’s Gwangyo, OMA explores the Grotesque. Like Beethoven countering Mozart’s premise that music is supposed to be pretty and lyrical, architect Rem Koolhaas has created something ugly and even frightening, yet extraordinary—beautiful in its own unabashed way.

(photo by Cristobal Palma)

2: A single poetic gesture from architect Ryue Nishizawa graces this promontory in Los Vilos, Chile. The shaped concrete roof of a weekend house is as graceful as the Pacific Ocean waves. The glass walls embrace the limitless surroundings and deliver a small structure as a gift to Mother Nature.

(photo by Chong‐Art Photography)

3: 14,600 triangular panels, each 3 feet by 7 feet, recall flowing silk, as well as nod towards Guangzhou’s tattoo culture. The design of the Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre honors the district’s history as a trading port, the Silk Road on the Sea, through the wavy skin of tessellated red aluminum panels, by Steven Chilton Architects.

(photo by Richard Barnes)

4: At the D.C. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with this project known simply as the Reach, Steven Holl Architects created building additions that blur the lines between architecture, art, sculpture, and landscape. As oddly shaped toy-like pieces, the new performance, rehearsal, and education components sprinkle themselves across a sculpted green lawn on the Potomac.

(photo by Dan Glasser)

5: Dedicated to the French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, the 40,000-square-foot museum presents over 20,000 items of couture clothing and accessories, including drawings and sketches. Elegant throughout, as are Laurent’s clothing designs, the building by Studio KO explores the patterning and texture of brick as if a woven fabric. Sophisticatedly and with understatement, architecture and fashion collide in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Gardenhouse, Beverly Hills, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

6: An unexpected addition to the housing market of Beverly Hills, MAD’s residential building speaks to us like a layered cake. With retail and commercial components on the bottom wrapped by a living wall in the middle, the structure is topped off with a rooftop village of eighteen houses, each expressing its own gable form. Conceptual strong, the resulting mixed-use project succeeds through the committed execution of a simple diagram.

(photo by Edmund Summer)

7: The Naila House in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, explores the iconic phrase, “less is more.” Architect BAAQ’ composed this house in a cross-shaped courtyard arrangement of four volumes, with airy facades facing the Pacific Ocean. Contrasting the weight of the concrete plinth, vernacular wood screens and walls allow the home to breathe and connect to the rocky landscape and nearby beach. Ignoring the typical comforts of home, the simplicity of the design challenges our architectural complacency.

(photo by Shengliang Su)

8: A captivating creation of wings and courtyards with more wings and courtyards within, the Shou County Culture and Art Center expresses the old square-ish town surrounded by city walls. Drastically different from the above courtyard project in Mexico, this project by Studio Zhu-Pei, handsomely composed and forcefully intimidating, contains within each courtyard the energy and diversity of the historic Ahui Province and Huai River.

(Top photo by Qingshan Wu; bottom photo by Archstudio)

9: By ARCHSTUDIO, my third courtyard project on this list is a renovation of a Beijing residence with seven pitched-roof buildings. Old meets new not seamlessly in aesthetic and structure, but seamlessly in experience, thoughtfulness, and Feng Shui. Modern materials and fabrication methods, such as curved glass and cantilevers, confront dilapidated wooden beams and arched doors.

(photo by Martin Mischkulnig)

10: (See first image and above.) The unconventional sensuality of conventional materials define the Phoenix Central Park, by Durbach Block Jaggers Architects and John Wardle Architects. A 13,000-square-foot visual and performing arts center supports the ongoing transformation of an ignored inner-city suburb in the Chippendale neighborhood of Sydney. Billionaire client and art collector, Judith Neilson, demanded “a total work of art” from the two collaborating design studios.

(For the list of my all-time 15 favorite buildings, visit here.)

#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.

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.)

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

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.

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.

Presentation model of convention center project by Anthony Poon

“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 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.

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.

#25: THE CURIOUS THING ABOUT STYLE, PART 1 OF 2

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.