Good design for the masses was the mantra of the architects who pioneered modernism and they achieved their goal in Germany and the Netherlands, notably in the Weimar-era housing estates of Berlin. Six of those are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there’s a waiting list to buy the frugal, well-landscaped units. Émigrés such as Richard Neutra and Walter Gropius brought the message to the US, but it was never widely embraced. The post-war Case Study houses were one-offs; in California, only Eichler Homes succeeded in creating modernist communities. Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Tract, now widely admired, was only half-completed, and the dream died with him. Tract home builders have continued to churn out an endless sprawl of tacky boxes dressed up in faux historical styles; Cape Cod is a current favorite. Construction is almost as messy and wasteful as it was a century ago.

Anthony Poon had a better idea. As the founder of Poon Design, an eight-person office based in Culver City, he has created a diversity of award-winning buildings over the past three decades. He is noted for his high-end custom houses, but he longed to realize the dreams of the pioneers and make his minimal architecture more affordable. Poon teamed up with Texas developer Andrew Adler’s Alta Verde Group to design four model communities in Palm Springs. Over the 18 months that Adler was securing sites and investors, Poon researched ways of cutting construction costs to a quarter of what a one-off would cost, completing each house in six-eight months.

The architect’s strategy was to use inexpensive materials, to simplify the plans by eliminating unneeded spaces, and develop new concepts for walls and roof. In Escena, the base model, a spinal wall contains all the services, and divides an open-plan living area from the sleeping zone. The roof is a factory-made assembly, comprising a truss, joists, and a thick slab of insulation. Typically, ducts are located atop the roof and have to be wrapped; here they are embedded in the insulation. The factory offered a good price for the first 14, in anticipation of the 200 that would follow. The outer walls have expansive double glazing and are shaded from the desert sun by a projecting roof plane. The materials are basic—precast concrete, painted stucco, drywall, bathroom floors of porcelain tiles, and inexpensive wood floors in the bedrooms. The general contractor was well coached and retrained the subs to achieve a high standard of finish and detailing.

House sizes range from 2300 to 4200 square feet, and the larger models—called Linea– employ superior materials and open up to pools, while retaining many of the economies of Escena. To avert monotony, four different designs alternate in the first small development, and a similar variety is evident in the other three, which range up to 225 units. All have sold at a faster rate than other local tracts—evidence of how modernism has become widely accepted in Palm Springs, as well as the rational plans and competitive pricing. Other developer clients of Poon Design are currently exploring other locations, from Arizona to Mount Washington and Culver City–places where it may be a tougher challenge to win approval for innovation.

This project grew organically out of Poon’s background and practice. As a child, he delighted in taking things apart and fantasizing about imaginary worlds. He secured a degree in architecture and music at UCB, and wrote his master’s thesis on architecture and jazz at the Harvard GSD. “Architecture is often slow, tedious and overwrought, where jazz is about spontaneity and improvisation,” says Poon. “I’m a classically trained pianist, trying to perfect every note; jazz musicians make a virtue of wrong notes. In our office we try to capture that spirit in quick brainstorming sessions.”

Like Frank Gehry, who sketches and models by hand, Poon loves to draw and leaves the computers to younger colleagues. For him, sketches and software are different tools and he values both. “Younger architects often don’t know how to draw—or to see,” he laments. “Sometimes I get a computer drawing that is unintelligible because the author hasn’t learned about perspective or line weight.”  Poon is a perfectionist, and—though he values spontaneity in the creative process—he insists that the owners of his houses should not make changes or additions. “They sign a covenant and the city enforces it,” he explains. “We’ve tailored these houses carefully, and we don’t want them messed up.”

Anthony Poon is an award-winning architect with top industry credentials spanning three decades. His Los Angeles-based company Poon Design Inc., a multi-disciplinary architecture studio serving national and international clients, has completed over 300 residential, commercial, religious, educational, and cultural projects. Having received over 50 national honors, the work of Poon Design has been featured in hundreds of articles. Mr. Poon is also an interior designer, graphic designer, artist, and musician. Published in 2017, Mr. Poon’s book, Sticks and Stones / Steel and Glass: One Architect’s Journey, has received critical acclaim.

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.

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