October 25, 2019

Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center & Orradre Library, Santa Clara University, California (photo by HHPA/Tim Griffith)

My previous article, Architecture for Learning, discussed the importance of good design for young learners ranging from preschool to high school. This essay exhibits our work with higher education, from university students to lifelong learners.

Investing in education can be one of life’s most rewarding investments, with both tangible and intangible returns. Whether it is a better job or a higher sense of the world, education is the foundation that civilizations are built upon. And the venue for learning is architecture.

Inha University Library, Inchon, Korea (model photo by HHPA/Foaad Farah)

Designing for the attainment of knowledge is to create experiences that stir, encourage and sustain learning. Yes, a building can teach. Akin to a textbook or software, the built environment can be a tool that demonstrates and instructs. And a learning environment is much more than the classroom. (All the buildings in this article are designed by me, in collaboration with my colleagues at HHPA or NBBJ.)

American University in Cairo Library, Egypt (photo by HHPA/Barry Iverson)


A library is a traditional “old school” environment for learning. Sometimes full of books and sometimes not, the architecture of libraries houses information in whatever form that takes, hence new building names like “information services” or “learning commons”—no longer “library.”

Joseph A.W. Clayes Performing Arts Center, California State University Fullerton (photo by HHPA/Tim Griffith)


Unfortunately, some schools marginalize the arts. A performing arts center not only offers arts to an engaged and eager audience, but teaches how the arts sustain creative progress.

Science and Technology Building, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona (photo by HHPA/Bill Timmerman)


This science and technology classroom building promotes STEM, but the structure also acts as a gateway into the campus of the community college.

Northwest Campus Housing, University of California Los Angeles (photo by HHPA/Michael Moran)


A dormitory is more than a place to crash after a long day of classes. Student housing is the platform for the sharing of knowledge and of the day’s successes and failures.

University Center, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California (photo by HHPA/Foaad Farah)


As a canvas for student life, the student union or university center comprises food services, retail and tech offerings, student organizations, social spaces, administration, and all the functions that fall under the umbrella of student activities. A student center is a microcosm and joyful collision of one’s existence.

Soka University Gym, Aliso Viejo (photo by HHPA)


Health and physical well-being are necessary aspects of education. The phrase “physical education” is not just about playing volleyball in a gym. How many philosophers and poets have expounded on strong mind and strong body?

Cintas Convocation Center, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio (photos by NBBJ/Xavier University)

What is a convocation center? The college’s sense of pride and community can be supported by a basketball arena, as well as by an assembly hall where the entire student body can convene and be called to order

“When the Cintas Center is finally finished, we will continue to look back on Anthony Poon’s work with the highest regard. It was a pleasure for us to work with Anthony.” – James E. Hoff, S.J., President, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio


January 26, 2018

Linea Residence L, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design and Andrew Adler (photo by Locke Pleninger)

When you meet a chef, do you ask, “Do you cook chicken or fish?”

If you did ask such a stupid question, the chef would be thinking how absurd you sound. At the same time, this chef would be thinking of the thousands of things he cooks, in addition to “chicken or fish.”

When someone meets an architect, the first (and only) question is , “Do you design residential or commercial?” Please realize that the field of architecture—that the world— is made up of much more than houses and office buildings.

The Container Yard art center, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design

I would guess that “residential and commercial” architecture only comprises 5% of the types of projects we design. When one considers that architecture includes museums and galleries, bridges and highways, churches and temples, hospitals and pharmacies, schools and universities, community centers and parks, libraries and theaters, memorials and gardens, stadiums and arenas, parking structures and parking lots, etc. and etc., as well as the commonly acknowledged “residential or commercial”—architecture is everything that is designed and constructed around you. Architecture is both the blank canvas that provides for the imprint of your life, as well as the vessel that holds it.

In simply looking at my own architectural works, there are several dozen building types I have designed. What can architecture be?

An exhibition place to experience the wonders of the arts and science.

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

A sacred place to gather and worship.

The lobby of the River of Life Christian Church, San Jose, California, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)

An optimistic place of higher learning.

Harrington Learning Commons, Sorbrato Technology Center and Orradre Library, Santa Clara University, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by HHPA)

A sweet place to bite into candy.

Sugarfina, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

An energetic place for sports and competiion.

NFL stadium adjacent to Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon and Greg Lombardi (w/ NBBJ)

An active place for education and emotional development.

Valley Academy of the Arts & Science, Granada Hills, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ A4E and GKK, photo by GKK)

A master planned place for growth and development.

Menlo School and Menlo College, Atherton, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by HHPA)

An invigorating place to sweat and recharge.

Aura Cycle, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design (photo by Aura Cycle)

A public place where citizens can assemble.

Urban canopies and public plaza, Irvine, California, by Poon Design

A place of grief and remembrance.

Contraband & Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia, by Poon Design
Student Activities Center, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Anthony Poon)

A social place for student life.

We need all the above places  (and many more) to live, and we want these places to be heartfelt. We need places to go to work, and we want these places to be comfortable and efficient. We need schools, and we want these places to be encouraging and supportive. Our neighborhoods need places to gather, and we want these places to be democratic and energized. Our communities need churches to worship in, and we want these places to be inspirational and transcendent. Our businesses need places to thrive, and we want these places to be strategic and informed. Our politicians need places to debate, and we want these places to ignite strength and influence.

So next time you meet a chef, do ask him, “What kind of cuisine do you cook?” And next time you meet an architect, ask him, “What kind of projects do you design?”


October 13, 2017

Album cover of 1984’s West Side Story, featuring opera giants, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras, instead of Broadway stars Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant

In 1984, opera legend Kiri Te Kanawa sought success in an unexpected arena. Courageously stepping into the world of Broadway, she recorded her jazzy version of the 1957 Bernstein and Sondheim musical, West Side Story.

Album cover of 1982’s Mozart and Haydn Trumpet Concertos, performed by Winton Marsalis

One year prior, jazz great Wynton Marsalis waltzed onto the classical stage with trumpet concertos by Mozart and Haydn—setting aside Marsalis’s New Orleans Dixieland roots.

Whether these two artistic efforts were successful or not, the term “crossover” entered the mainstream lexicon. Te Kanawa and Marsalis crossed over to uncharted universes, creating new sounds and challenges.

Fascinating crossovers continued when Cole Haan combined their leather dress shoes with a Nike athletic sole. With the shout out to the two worlds that have collided, Cole Haan expressed both types of shoes in one intentionally un-unified design.

Zerogrand shoe by Cole-Haan, a classic dress shoe with a startling running sole (photo from eBay.com)

Crossovers challenge complacency. Critics panned BMW’s 2009 X6 for being a confused crossover. Was it an SUV, a luxury sedan or a wagon? The car performed poorly at all three, thereby not succeeding as a crossover.

2009 BMW X6 Xdrive50i (photo from motertrend.com)

In architecture, one version of a crossover is the building type known as mixed-use. As the name implies, this kind of architecture contains a mix of uses—a single project that mixes various functions. What does such a building look like? For a mixed-use design that, for example, houses apartments, corporate spaces, an Apple store, and an art gallery—what should be the building expression and personality? A big house? An office building? A shopping center? A museum?

University Center, University of California, Riverside, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, rendering by Doug Jamison)

For one of our mixed-use projects, we designed our building to display each of its components individually, much like the Cole Haan / Nike shoe. Calling our approach the Layered Cake, our University Center comprised four levels—each level expressing a different style of architecture.

On the ground floor, curved limestone volumes with playful windows contain the student retail stores. Consistent with campus standards, red brick wrap the second floor, the cafeteria. The third floor, all contained in sleek corporate-y glass, holds the administrative offices. The student activities and organizations perch themselves on the fourth floor. Clad in zinc shingles, each student club projects out to the campus, cantilevering to get attention.

Los Angeles Mixed-Use Building, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

We continue the exploration of our Layered Cake concept with a project soon to start construction. Our design ideas crosses over between retail, offices, apartments and parking.

WV Mixed-Use Building, Manhattan Beach, California, by Poon Design and Lazar Design+Build (photo by Gregg Segal)

Exploring a visually cohesive approach, our mixed-use building in Manhattan Beach weaves together various programs through lines and shapes, such as the folding roof and the folding glass storefront of the ground level commercial spaces. The folding forms capture the recreational culture of a beach town and the graphic quality of ocean waves. In a subtle and playful manner, the folding roof also displays the name of the project “WV,” coined after the name of the client developer.

VitraHaus, Weil am Rhein, Germany, by Herzog & deMeuron (photo from archdaily.com)

At the VitraHaus, the various mix of uses are contained in the most common form known in architecture, a gable roof house. Except here, the volumes are not only stretched to strange proportions, but stacked haphazardly one on top of another, offering an unlikely personality. These house-like forms are more than a collision of homes. The various buildings contain retail galleries, arrival spaces, conference center, and restaurant—literally crossing over each other.

Grace Farms, New Canaan, Connecticut, by SANAA (photo from archdaily.com)

A crossover project could also be expressed by expressing nothing in particular, implying no specific functions and thereby is multipurpose. The spaces are flexible and poetic, and unlike the BMW X6 which fails at doing nothing well by trying to do many things, this visitor center in Connecticut succeeds by not trying to do anything at all.


July 14, 2017

Crowds gathering for the public reviews and professor critiques of student project, Wurster Hall, University of California, Berkeley (photo from ced.berkeley.edu)

Late 80’s, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley. This public review of my studio project concludes my undergraduate studies. The class assignment: design a hypothetical church on the banks of Lake Merritt, Oakland. Analogies of good vs. evil, discussions about faith, designs representing religion, etc. saddled every student’s work.

More than an academic exercise for a mere letter grade, The American Institute of Architects co-sponsored our class, structuring it as a design competition. The winners’ drawings and models would become a public architectural exhibition.

Carefully balanced on two feet, I stood at the front of the class. 40 people in the audience and counting: classmates, faculty, professionals, and members of the AIA. Dauntlessly, I presented my heroic and sardonic church: a boxy concrete temple imprisoned in a giant steel frame, seven stories tall. My artistic composition equated religion to a sanctuary within a constricting cage.

Model of church project by Anthony Poon
Model of church project by Anthony Poon

I knew my idea was good. For my drawings, I created a technique that preceded computer generated images. I employed diamond tipped technical pens filled with black Indian ink, drawing on large translucent plastic sheets. On the backside, I applied adhesive color films, each layer surgically cut by hand with an X-Acto No. 11 razor blade, known for its similarity in shape to an actual surgeon’s knife.

Drawings of church project by Anthony Poon
Drawings of church project by Anthony Poon

Concluding my bold presentation and audacious metaphors, I beamed a self-assured smile.

My professor, Lars Lerup, was already revved up. He lambasted my design, hurling bombastic criticism at my “sad attempt to understand the meaning of architecture and the sublime.” The professor’s assault was both self-servingly theatrical and pretentiously dogmatic. For twenty minutes, not stopping for a single breath, Lerup was clearly on the offensive against a foolish student. As Lerup’s back-up dancers, the faculty seated with my professor propped him up with their complete silence.

Tired from the past sleepless nights, I didn’t mind too much. Perhaps I knew my work was good. Or maybe I just didn’t care because I was soon to graduate.

Design studios, Wurster hall, photo by ced.berkeley.edu
Design studios, Wurster Hall, (photo from ced.berkeley.edu)

My professor glared at me for any kind of reaction, any kind of acknowledgement that I was learning at his world class institution. Not responding, I stood there smiling politely. Carefully balanced on two feet.

He would not, could not stand for this, as his shrieking reached an all-time high in melodrama, and an all-time low in appropriateness from an educator towards his student.

In session, a public review of a student project, Wurster Hall, photo by guide.berkeley.edu
In session, a public review of a student project, Wurster Hall (photo from guide.berkeley.edu)

The professor shouted, “Anthony, why are you smiling?! I want you to WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE! Or I will do it for you!!”

Continuing this tirade for a few more minutes, Lerup eventually lost steam against an opponent that was not interested in being his opponent. And then, it was over. I jigged and hopped out of Wurster Hall.

The looming Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, prime example of the Brutalist movement from 1950 to 1970, completed in 1964, designed by Joseph Esherick, photo by Falcorian
The looming Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, prime example of the Brutalist movement from 1950 to 1970, completed in 1964, designed by Joseph Esherick (photo by Falcorian)

EPILOGUE: The American Institute of Architects selected me as one of the competition winners. I also graduated with High Honors, Magna Cum Laude. As I said, I knew my work was good.

OUTRO: I ran into Lars Lerup in New York a year later, and that my friends was an even more outrageous story. More another day.


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 dominusestate.com); lower right: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Andy Ryan)
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 dominusestate.com); lower right: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, by Steven Holl Architects (photo by Andy Ryan)

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.)

Oscar Peterson Trio (photo by Paul Hoeffler)
Oscar Peterson Trio (photo by Paul Hoeffler)

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.

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.