Tag Archives: STICKS AND STONES / STEEL AND GLASS

THE ARCH PODCAST, FORM MAGAZINE, 3 OF 3: JAZZ, MISTAKES AND BEAUTY

April 10, 2020

120 years in the making: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City (photo from aroundtheglobe.com)

(Note on COVID-19: As I compile thoughts for a timely essay on the pandemic, not much of my writing was adding to the sentiments already out there, i.e., what can architects do, what is the future of cities, how to design public spaces, what will healthcare architecture be, etc.? Rather than be repetitive with many current writers, I am publishing this interview which was previously prepared but not yet released. Stay safe everyone.)

I invite you to listen to The Arch, a podcast of Form magazine. Previous excerpts are here and here.

Carol Bishop: Can you name any of the projects from the past or any projects that are around that you just said, “Wow, I think this is a great one and I think I’ll try something to meet that same criteria”?

Anthony Poon: There are a number of architects that inspire us, but for me, my architecture is not inspired by necessarily other buildings or architects’ work. I find my inspiration in my other interests, music for example or writing.

Playing Bach and Schumann at St. Paul’s, Rancho Palos Verdes, California (photo by Grant Bozigian)

A building design can be inspired by a poem. It can be inspired by beautiful footage from a movie. I’m fascinated by, for example, the music of Thelonious Monk, a jazz pianist whose work is extremely individual and unique. He plays chords and harmonies that are, in the classical sense, considered discordant and off-beat. Some would even say it is kind of grotesque. But at the same time, the music is considered beautiful. What is it that he does that seems to be incorrect but somehow still so beautiful? It’s that kind of thinking that inspires what we do in architecture.

I think of jazz specifically because, architecture has to involve a budget and schedule. It has to involve gravity, keeping the weather out, waterproofing, gutter details, and city codes. It’s a slow process. It can take years to get a project done. It can take a decade to get a large project done.

The tedious and rigorous process of architecture (photo by Anthony Poon)

In that sense, architecture is for those who are patient and possess perseverance. But to bring it back to jazz, my fascination is this. Jazz ,as you know, is something that is spontaneous. It’s fast. It’s improvised. It’s played impromptu. Three or four jazz musicians can gather in a studio and sit at their instruments, and just start playing. They can choose a key, they can choose a theme, just something they can think about collaboratively. They wink and they just hit a beat. And all of a sudden, there’s music. That kind of spontaneous artistic process inspires me. And it makes me think: What can we do in architecture, in that creative process, to make it a little more organic, a little more fluid and loose?

Carol: Have you ever had a situation where even you went in and said, “Oh my goodness, it should have been green”? Or, “Oh no, it should have been cement”?

Anthony: Yes, of course, that can happen. I think one of the curses of being an architect— and most of my architect colleagues would probably agree and maybe artists, writers and musicians as well—is that the work is never done. The work is always in progress. We always think that we can do better. When a building is designed and finally constructed, we may have rave reviews, many thanks, and letters of recommendation and handshakes, but we might be walking into that finished space thinking: Oh, I wish we had raised that ceiling six more inches; it would have done so much more for the volume of the space and the indoor/outdoor connection.

My book, Sticks and Stones, Steel and Glass: One Architect’s Journey, at Barnes & Noble, Los Angeles (photo by Lily Poon)

I know of colleagues who have published books and they’ve done well. They’ve won awards, they’ve won critical acclaim, and they’re thinking: Oh, that just wasn’t right. I really should have written a more elaborate ending. I should have added that extra character.

Maybe it’s a curse. Maybe it’s just the burden of the creative spirit—that even though a building is done, even though a book gets published, or a piece of music is performed—that the creative process is a continuing journey. In our minds, just because that building has finally cut the red ribbon for opening day, that design is not done.

Carol: You brought up the concept of beauty and, of course, there are so many definitions of what beauty is, so many ideas of what beauty can be. You can say to somebody, “Oh, this is beautiful”, and they’re just looking at eye candy, or you could say, “Well, the Greeks used mathematical intervals.” What is your idea of beauty?

Molto Allegro from the Concerto in G, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1764 (Photo by Philharmonia Baroque)

Anthony: There are several definitions of beauty. There are, as you mentioned, the kind of mathematical ideas of beauty that play out both in music and in architecture. There are scientific relationships between notes of music that have been determined to sound harmonious. There are scientific studies on the rhythm of music, meters, the key of music, and the colors that have been proven to be beautiful. There are some musicians who say beauty isn’t necessarily a goal in music. Mozart had always claimed that music should be beautiful, but there are other composers, say Beethoven, that say: Yes, it could be beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be aggressive. It can also be heroic or bombastic or ceremonial. It doesn’t always have to be of all the ideas one thinks of being pretty and lyrical.

The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci, and the Classical Orders (photo by Smarthistory)

Take architecture. There are also scientific ideas of what feels right using studies of proportions. The Greeks and Romans studied those and decided there are certain dimensions and proportioning systems that feel right. There are arguments of buildings or even aspects of the building, like a column, that if it represents man or the human figure, that it will relate more to a person and therefore feel more beautiful. Take a column. A classical column has three parts: the base, the shaft, and the capital. That is supposed to relate to the human figure, the feet, the body, and the head. In that way, there’s the belief that that will give you beauty in the end.

Setting aside the scientific approach, I do believe there are things that are inherently beautiful. I think people would agree that a sunset is beautiful. Or, I’ve never heard anyone go to the Grand Canyon and say: Yeah, this is not beautiful. This is ugly.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (photo by Anthony Poon)

I think there are true aspects of beauty. I think the challenge is, how do we make beauty? How do we craft beauty? In our work, we believe that beauty comes from seeing the craft of the hand. There are many ways to put a building together, that can be machine made, can be digitally fabricated. But where we can add components that display the hand, where you can see the craft of the maker—I think that inherently makes it more beautiful.

The heavy timbers aging gracefully at our Buddhist Temple, Natural Bridge, Virginia (photo by Anthony Poon)

Another aspect that’s important to our work is patina,  the idea of weathering and aging. We believe that that patina also adds beauty. For example, everyone has their favorite pair of jeans or maybe leather jacket, and those items have been worn over time. As they look more distressed, they look more beautiful. But this idea of patina doesn’t apply to a car. No one wants to drive around in a beat-up car.

With architecture I think there is an in between. We’ve designed a project, a Buddhist temple in Natural Bridge, Virginia, in which it was designed to age, in which the wood timbers are meant to weather over time and show the wear. The copper roof, as most people know, will be a metal that ages, that starts bright copper, orange color, goes to a dark penny patina, and eventually goes a beautiful green. This idea of patina expresses the weathering of a building, that a building ages gracefully, as we do, and thereby becomes more beautiful.

We don’t want someone to say: Oh, these timbers of this Buddhist temple are now unattractive. Let’s sand them again, let’s stain them again. Let’s paint them. We don’t want someone to say: How come that copper roof isn’t shiny orange anymore? We want to design it in such a way that people will look at our work each day, see it change over time, compare that to their own life as they evolve, and say: This is what we see as beauty.

Buddhist Temple (photo by Mark Ballogg)

FLOWER PAINTINGS: INTERVENTION AND SYNERGY

May 10, 2019

Yard Sale, 16” x 20”, July 2018

Most of my life, I have been painting. At age five in my parent’s San Francisco house, I painted an extensive landscape mural from the entry hall up the stairs—without permission or notice. My mother and father were excited, but not pleased—a parenting dilemma of pride and scolding. At age ten, I was invited by my elementary school to paint a larger-than-life Captain America on the courtyard wall. So many years ago, I preceded today’s fanaticism with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For the past year, I have been exploring painting as an activity of searching, finding and intervening.

Flea Market Red, 27 ¼” x 31 ¼”, October 2018

My recent creative endeavors start with non-scientific searches at neighborhood garage sales, flea markets and second-hand stores. I seek traditional paintings, the classical still life of flowers in a vase. Also, I hope to find such paintings in their original period wood frame—the gilded, ornate, tacky frame. I have been fortunate finding many of these discarded paintings, and only for a few bucks.

Another Yard Sale, 19” x 23 ½”, July 2018
Detail of Fairfax Market Green, 26 ¼” x 30 ¼”, November 7, 2018

My first step of intervention is to tear out pages from my book, Sticks and Stones, Steel and Glass , and decoupage the pages onto various corners of the old flower painting. I do not stop at the limits of the canvas. In my art, I have always been fascinated in including the frame as part of the canvas. The pages and scraps from my book find themselves creeping up and over the aged wood frames.

I then create textures and hues with light acrylic washes. Following this is a signature gesture of mine, to give the subject of the painting an aura. Around the flowers and vase, I paint a halo or glow, as if to give new life. On top of this composition, I splatter gesso and drippings of tinted resin.

Detail of Flower Girl, 20 ½” x 24 ½”, September 2018

The result is an eccentric but visually dynamic work of juxtaposition. Colors, shapes and patterns from two different time periods collide—the original artist’s past and my present. Various mediums and techniques blur. Representation and abstraction coincide.

Garage Sale, 21” x 25”, February 2018

The visual noise invites the visitor to move back and forth, in and out, as she attempts to focus and grasp the mixed-media work. The visitor will appreciate the original flowers for a few minutes, before a splash of color draws his attention beyond the canvas. Then the viewer’s eye will be pulled into reading the words from my book. But some portions are illegible as a glob of gesso obscures the words. And so on. And so forth.

Detail of Habitat Flowers, 14 ½” x 17”, July 2018

This approach has created a few dozen works, with many variations on my premise. As I create, I am not sure if I am thinking about my approach to painting, or my approach to each day of my busy existence. But I like the unexpected collisions that result in new ideas. I like serendipity  and the unscheduled joys that typically would be undiscovered. I like that sometimes, risks must be taken, and it is okay to crash and burn. And I like knowing that timing and chance is everything, and perhaps I happened to finally get it right for this one moment of the day, or for this one painting.

A recent chapter of exploring abstraction, Gold Rush, 18” x 24”, November 2018

STICKS & STONES | STEEL & GLASS : ONE ARCHITECT’S JOURNEY

September 16, 2016

First draft of manuscript (photo by Anthony Poon)

Hearing intriguing tales of being an architect, friends conjure up ideas like, “You should have a reality TV series,” “You should go on a talk show,” “You should blog about it,” or “You should write a book.” The first two suggestions are absurd. The third: Done.

Trapped in the Riyadh customs line at the King Khalid International Airport: an eight-hour wait, arms guards, no sitting, no talking, no food, no water, no sleeping, no restroom, no joking (photo by Anthony Poon)
Trapped in the Riyadh customs line at the King Khalid International Airport: an eight-hour wait, armed guards, no sitting, no talking, no food, no water, no sleeping, no restroom, no joking (photo by Anthony Poon)

So I chose the fourth one.

After a construction visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was stranded in the Frankfurt airport for an afternoon. It was here that I started writing down some of my tales. By the end of the flight home, I possessed an overwrought flurry of 25,000 words and twenty chapters. A month later, 50,000 words.

Another month later, I had completed an 80,000-word, 450-page manuscript. I also connected with an editor in Chicago and another in New York, Carl Lennertz, also my book’s marketing director. Not long after came my agent, Bond Literary Agency, and my publisher, Unbridled Books.

Initially inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, I thought: Hey, I could do that—write a tell-all sordid saga about the underbelly of architecture. The audience was there. Architecture was already everywhere . The world was brimming with endless television shows on design, a gazillion style magazines, websites and blogs, design brands and celebrity fans, passion plays like going green and prefab homes, design as lifestyle, “design-thinking” in everything from business school to scientific research, and Hollywood’s infatuation with architects .

My sketches and musings
My sketches and musings

But I realized that though a few outbursts and secrets would be entertaining, my book should not be a career-killer. So enough of that. No outrageous Bourdain “pirate” attitude for me. The noble and artistic side of architecture deserved something else.

Cover-Web

Entitled Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass: One Architect’s Journey, my book is part critique, part behind-the-scenes, and part auto-biographical—examining the role of architecture and its creative process in daily life.

The publisher cites, “In this personal and revealing book, we are taken on a creative journey inside a purposive yet open mind always hoping to ‘design it all,’ to weave together light and material, culture and commerce, music and design, a good meal and the joy of gathering to share it.

“In these pages, we engage the artistic processes of a thoughtful and intense architect whose works—public and private—strive to enhance his clients’ stories and identities. In every building designed by Anthony Poon, art is shelter and architecture is a social good.”

Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon, awarded the National Grand Prize from Learning By Design, AIA and National School Boards Association, also received awards from KnowledgeWorks Foundation, DesignShare, IASB, IASA, IASBO, School Planning and Management, and American School & University Magazine (w/ A4E and Cordogan, Clark & Associates, photo by Mark Ballogg)
Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon, awarded the National Grand Prize from Learning By Design, AIA and National School Boards Association, also received awards from KnowledgeWorks Foundation, DesignShare, IASB, IASA, IASBO, School Planning and Management, and American School & University Magazine (w/ A4E and Cordogan, Clark & Associates, photo by Mark Ballogg)

My book is not a memoir (too pretentious), although it is somewhat the trace of chapters of my life. This book is not a catalog of my work, not a marketing puff piece, not a Taschen-style glossy coffee table book. I do examine some projects that have most engaged me across my career—schools, a homeless shelter, and even a chocolate factory, and the artistic processes that delivered them.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat Factory, Chicago, Illinois, by Poon Design, Recipient of the 2013 Award of Excellence for the Industrial Redevelopment of the Year, from the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (w/ Ware Malcomb, photo by Anthony Poon)
Vosges Haut-Chocolat Factory, Chicago, Illinois, by Poon Design, Recipient of the 2013 Award of Excellence for the Industrial Redevelopment of the Year, from the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (w/ Ware Malcomb, photo by Anthony Poon)
Pondering my second book (photo by Mikel Healey)
Pondering my second book (photo by Mikel Healey)

As for the title? “Sticks and stones may break my bones . . .” opens the famous childhood rhyme. And despite what the public, media and colleagues say of my work and me, “Names will never hurt me.”

Additionally, just as sticks and stones are primitive building blocks, steel and glass are today’s elements of expression. In designing architecture, I have endeavored to find balance in the rough and the smooth, the solid and the ephemeral. So too with Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass.

Reserve your copy now at Amazon.

© Poon Design Inc.