Whether it’s music, painting or writing, architect Anthony Poon has a story to tell

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Brian Libby: Given that Death by design at Alcatraz is a mystery, did you know who the killer was before you started?

Anthony Poon: No, I didn’t have a bow. In the beginning, I was writing about a character. So I decided to kill this person. I was probably halfway through writing the novel and still didn’t know what the ending was.

You’ve probably heard the expression that writers often fall into two categories: the planner or “pants”. A planner would be someone like JK Rowling, having the entire series of seven Harry Potter books and characters outlined before she started writing. Pants fly by the seat of their pants and include the likes of Stephen King. In interviews, King simply says, “Look, if you need to plan your book, then you’re not a writer.” Some of his books are better than others, but he just writes and sees where it takes him. I feel the same.

The issue of rigid composition versus improvisation also relates to being a pianist. Could you talk about it?

Growing up, my background was classical music. It is this process of striving for perfection, flawless performance. To play a piano sonata, there are a hundred thousand notes and you have to strike them well. If I lost a note, my piano teacher would say, “This whole performance is ruined.” But what really interested me was something beyond technical skill. You have to be able to add a voice, a story, a sort of narration to what you’re playing. That’s what I finally learned about jazz. It blew my mind that these pianists just sit down at the keyboard and start making things up. I was at a show called The Jazz Bakery, where the pianist asked the audience to throw numbers between one and eight. Then he associated these with notes on the keyboard because there are eight notes in an octave. Thanks to that, he started to improvise and build a song, and his ensemble jumped into it. It was amazing.

Linea Residence, Palm Springs, CA (2018) Courtesy of Anthony Poon

Your thesis at Harvard was about how jazz improvisation informs the process of architecture. What have you learned?

The architecture is very methodical. It takes a long time to produce a building. There are a lot of practical considerations––code, budget, square footage. You cannot create a building like a jazz musician would create a song. But in the creative process, I always ask: Why can’t we just grab the colors and get an idea? Why can’t we just have this kind of jazz-like conversation of bouncing ideas and take something out of it and make it the basis of the design of an entire building, whether it’s a library or a museum or a house?

Let’s come back to this question of architecture and narrative. Could you tell us about the importance of storytelling in design?

It’s all about communication. Everything I do creatively – painting, music, writing, architecture – is a form of language. In architecture, we look to our clients, who they are and what they are, to create a story. If it’s a family, we want to know how they celebrate holidays, if the in-laws stay with them, if they have dogs. And that’s the story we tell when we design a home. To design a school, we ask ourselves: what is the pedagogical methodology? How do teachers teach? How do students learn? Same thing when you make an office: what is the corporate culture, what is the mission statement? And obviously when we do a religious project, there’s a whole set of beliefs that have to be expressed in some way in the architecture. What is exciting about music and architecture, and what differentiates them from writing, is that they are abstract. It’s a kind of open communication.

image of a primary school with an elevation drawing below which is a sheet music
Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois. Courtesy of Anthony Poon

Besides being a mystery, Death by design at Alcatraz reads like a satire of architects and their clients. Did you enjoy bursting your egos a bit? After all, in your memoirs, Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glassyou write about how you didn’t want to design big arenas and corporate projects –– you wanted to design more intimate spaces for people.

Funny the timing of your question. I just got back from Modernism Week in Palm Springs, where I gave a presentation on ego and arrogance. The lecture said that society has granted us architects an enormous amount of influence and power. And the question is what did we do with it? What’s also interesting about your question, however, is that I didn’t think of Death by design at Alcatraz as a satire. Maybe the developer is an amalgamation of two or three real customers mixed together. But these architects are all people I know.

What we talk about in my business is that good design belongs to everyone. It could be a restaurant where everyone can eat. It could be a design for a bench. It can be a corporate office or a public school. There is no specific type of project that I am looking for. It’s more about leveraging the talent my team brings, and then reaching as many people as possible.

Where are you on the introvert-extrovert scale? Because architecture, especially when you get to a certain scale, is teamwork. Painting, for which you are also popular, is a more solitary activity.

I’m probably somewhere in the middle, but I lean a bit towards the outgoing side. Some of these art forms are solo explorations, but I don’t see art being complete until it reaches the public. The fun for me comes from people engaging with art, or better yet, if it’s going to hang in their living room or conference room. It is the completion of the artistic arc.

With any type of artist, introversion and extroversion are exploited. In architecture, for example, the introverted, introspective, and self-examining qualities typically initiate the design process, and the extroverted side leads a team, sells the idea to a client, and supports the creative ego.

rendering of a triangular church
Rendering of the Air Force Village Chapel. Courtesy of Mike Amaya

In Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass, you described how San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square in Chinatown inspired you to become a designer. The park dates back to 1833, but its 1963 redesign was derided at the time for raising the park up to accommodate parking below. What made it special for you and the community?

I would answer that question with a question: Isn’t it amazing that this is such an amazing parking structure and park? A structure like this would often be an eyesore. But they found a way to maintain an active spot at the top. It acts like a blank canvas, and you watch the community paint their lives on that canvas, whether it’s old people meeting to play chess or children playing on the play equipment. It was opposite from the church I went to when I was a child. It’s just that kind of wonderful, idyllic place you don’t imagine in such a dense area. I look at Portsmouth Square, not as an architect fetishizing its design, but as what it offers the community: having a Tai Chi class at 5 a.m., a wedding there at noon, and kids running in between. This is the power of architecture.


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