Tag Archives: X-ACTO


July 28, 2023

Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles, California – materials: acrylic, lacquer paint, LED lighting, incandescent lighting, fluorescent lighting, and mini-television, by Anthony Poon (w/ NBBJ, photo by John Lodge)

It makes me uneasy when architects replace physical models with computer renderings, replacing a centuries-old craft with software-driven images that pander more to marketing and promotion than exploration and abstract thinking.

Fröbel blocks (photo from frobelgifts.com)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother gave her young son the Fröbel blocks, to encourage the inquisitive boy to think three-dimensionally, to create structures like an architect. German educator, Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852), conceived of a set of wooden cubes, spheres, and cylinders for children to capture their curious need to organize, create, and build. Fröbel proclaimed, “The active and creative, living and life-producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.”

Chaya Downtown restaurant, Los Angeles, California – materials: foamcore, various woods, museum board, chip board, acrylic, and craft paper, by Poon Design (photo by Anthony Poon)

For generations, architects, young and old, engaged in a process of building miniature physical representations of design ideas. Whether Lego or Lincoln Logs as a kid or laser cutting and a 3D printer as a professional, the making of a physical model in scale was inherent in the process of all architects.

Enzoani bridal store, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – materials: foamcore, laser prints, basswood, spray paint, and museum board, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
University Center, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California — materials: foamcore, chip board, museum board , craft people, metallic paper, aluminum cars and people, and wire trees, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by HHPA)

I separate “physical model” from today’s “digital model,” the latter meaning a computer file, a virtual three-dimensional object. Digital modeling has reaped tremendous advancements in photorealistic renderings and “fly-throughs.” The sexy presentation drawings provide a client with an image as if standing there looking at the real building.

At times, computer renderers can’t seem to control their self-indulgence as the renderings are over-the-top with multiple light sources, mirror-like reflections on glistening surfaces, over saturation of colors and patterns, perfect skies and sunsets, and supermodels populating the buildings—all resulting in a surrealism that overtakes any substance of the rendering. These exciting images try to show the real thing, but often fail. Renderings should capture the personality and emotion of the space, the story of the design, not a photorealistic replication of materials and surfaces.

Sports City Stadium, Doha, Qatar, by Meis

There is limited tactile connection in computer processing, other than the clicking of one’s mouse. And architecture, both its process and final product, is tactile and physical. I like feeling how a graphite lead gently wears into the toothy surface of a sheet of vellum. I like scoring a piece of chipboard with an X-Acto No. 11 blade, then carefully bending the chipboard with both hands.

Toppings Yogurt, Pacific Palisades, California – materials: museum board, foamcore, acrylic, stainless steel, cork, copper, stone, honeycomb plastic panel, by Poon Design (photo by Anthony Poon)
San Diego Civic Theatre, California – materials: foamcore, basswood, museum board, laser prints, and craft paper, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by HHPA)

As a physical object, a model is the closest thing to the physical building. But of course, it is a smaller version. But it is through such abstraction that one can comprehend the concepts driving the design. The client can hold a model and study it from infinite angles, or place her eyes, head even, into a large model to experience the space.

Herget Middle School, West Aurora, Illinois – materials: foamcore, laser prints, basswood, spray paint, and museum board, by Anthony Poon (w/ A4E, photo by Anthony Poon)

Whether a detailed representational model with little people, cars, and trees, with colors and textures suggesting the actual materials of construction, or a concept model made fast and crude, torn apart and glued back together experimenting ideas that flash into the imagination of the designer—models are an investigative design tool.

Model making at Gehry Partners, Los Angeles, California (photo by R+D Studio)

Frank Gehry’s process centers around making models with his famed model shop, as does Morphosis with its obsessive use of a large format 3D printer, evidenced by the new book, M3: Modeled Works. This 1,008-page tome focuses exclusively on photos of physical models that span founder Thom Mayne’s career, displayed in reverse chronology, from high tech to low tech model making tools.

Educational Center and Library Addition, Holocaust Human Rights Center, University of Maine, Augusta – materials: museum board, acrylic, modeling paste, gesso, and acrylic paints, by Poon Design (photo by Anthony Poon)

Whether architectural models are created with recycled corrugated cardboard and discarded scraps or exotic woods and archival museum-quality materials, the design themes told are can be powerful, poetic even. The thing to keep in mind is that model making is but one tool in the process, as is rendering software, as is A.I. or color pencils.

Korean Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California – materials: museum board, acrylic, modeling paste, gesso, and acrylic paints, by Poon Design (photo by Anthony Poon)


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.

© Poon Design Inc.