Sunday, October 30, 2011

Charles Phu: The Creative Genius Behind the Okhta Center

Okhta Centre
This time I am going to deviate from my usual gamut of fine art, performance art, and photography and share a story based on an insightful interview with a highly creative and talented architect Charles Phu. I was introduced to Charles by my sister who met Charles in London, UK and I spoke with him via Skype for about an hour.

Charles’ projects vary from opera houses to museums to trade centers. Some of his famous designs include King Abdulla Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; China World Trade Center Tower III (330m) in Beijing, China; Saint Petersburg Modern Art Museum and Opera House; Beijing Financial Street; and, of course, the highest soon-to-be-built skyscraper in Europe, Okhta Centre (including the 403-meter high tower and concert hall) in St Petersburg, Russia, for which he was the Chief Design Architect.

Charles Phu
Okhta Centre was a big deal in Russia. St. Petersburg is considered the ‘cultural capital’ of Russia. The city preserves the historical feel and normally does not even allow changing old roof tiles if the change does not match the ‘historic requirement.’ A proposal to build an enormously high contemporary skyscraper in the center of St. Petersburg evoked a big controversy. There was a lawsuit, a wave of protesters, opposition from Russian celebrities, lots of media buzz, and finally, government intervention. Even comedians picked up on the Okhta Centre project controversy – I vividly remember watching an episode of Prozektor Paris Hilton, a prime-time comedy program on a major Russian TV channel that revolved around Okhta Centre project. Finally, in December 2010 Okhta Centre was suggested to move further from St. Petersburg‘s historical center, and this projects is still in the process of negotiation.
Okhta Centre Concert Hall
Yet, let’s step back from Charles’ current achievements and learn about how he made it to the world of design and architecture. Charles was born in Taiwan forty something years ago. He came from a very artistic and musical family: his father was a tenor and a Western pop music singer; his mom was an accomplished ballerina who performed for the President of Taiwan and other big politicians and officials; finally, all his three sisters learned to sing and play numerous musical instruments. Charles was expected to become a musician too and he even took a few piano lessons, but he never envisioned music becoming his future career. Nevertheless, Charles developed deep appreciation for music, especially opera. Driven by his passion for opera, he later designed beautiful opera houses all over the world. In addition, Charles created opera and ballet stage sets, lighting, and costumes for several prestigious opera houses.
St Petersburg Modern Art Museum
When Charles was approaching college age, he took a National General Exam (that reveals one’s talents and career inclinations similar to an American aptitude test) and was advised to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering. Charles enrolled in the top engineering school in Taiwan, the National Cheng Kung University and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Structure and Civil Engineering with honors in 1992.
China World Trade Centre
While in college in Taiwan, he began to fall in love with architecture. He was also captivated by 3D objects, and he finally set his mind on pursuing a graduate degree abroad. Charles has always dreamed to live and work in Europe, but it seemed more realistic to continue his education in North America. He applied to several high-ranking schools in the USA, and was admitted to quite a few of them, including Harvard. Yet, Charles realized Harvard’s tuition was too high for him at that time. Therefore, he decided to play it safe, and he enrolled in the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). He later fulfilled his dream to study at Harvard and while at Harvard, he completed a residency program with a well-known architect in Massachusetts, Charles Rose.  
Beijing Finance Street Offices and Theatre
I asked him how he was not afraid to take financial risks: college tuition in the USA can be quite expensive and there is no guarantee he would earn his money back in a timely manner. Charles said, indeed, it was one of his concerns but luckily he was offered financial assistance from UT Austin after he demonstrated his academic excellence and hard work.

Equipped with top-tier college degrees, Charles began his professional career. He worked for architectural firms in Boston and in San-Francisco for several years. He felt he acquired enough experience to start his own business, and he moved to Hong Kong, China to start his own company. Coincidentally Charles was offered a position at RMJM Asia in Hong Kong as Chief Designer and after completing a few prominent projects in China and India. Charles moved to London to continue growing his own business and also to continue working on projects with RMJM. “UK was my dream land…London is so culturally rich and very open-minded,” Charles told me.  
State Tax Bureau
After reviewing Charles’ story, I realized that all his big dreams and aspirations eventually manifested in his life. Thus, he wanted to experience the academic environment of Harvard and the unique context of the university and its people, and he eventually completed a post-graduate study and residency in Architecture and Archaeology there. He was captivated by opera and instead of becoming an opera singer, he became involved in opera and ballet stage set design. He wanted to live and work in London, and he is currently living his dream in his dream city.  Yet, Charles told me he didn’t have a dream of becoming an architecture designer. He just followed his heart and passion, followed his interests and that is how he discovered a profession that made him successful.
Zhuhai Museum
Charles had given a few advice to aspiring creative people.

1. Work really hard. By working hard Charles means spend more time than an average person on what you are doing; learn as much as you can about your profession. Charles said he missed a lot of opportunities to have fun while he worked and studied, but it was a conscious sacrifice.
2. Be open-minded. Be open to anything. Learn to be a good listener and learn from the experts. Absorb as a sponge the wisdom of others.
3. At the same time, be authentic. Charles said he stopped reading architecture magazines since his mid-twenties because he didn’t want to get too much influence. Charles gains his inspiration from observing people, learning about the history and even sometimes looking at ugly buildings. 
4. Finally, don’t pound on the door or push too hard when you don’t get the results you are looking for. Maybe, it is not the right time yet or you are not ready yet. The door will eventually open and you will meet the right people when you are guided by your passion. Just keep doing what you love doing, and the success will follow.

At the end, Charles added, “Culture and humanity is usually the key for a good design and anything we do today. I think it's a pity that it is what's missing in most of things around us nowadays. I always believe in that.”

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Greg Piazza: Finding the Right Niche for Your Art

Greg is an accountant by trade and a visual artist at heart. He doesn’t sit in the corner and wait “to be discovered.” Instead, he creates his own opportunities. He found a niche for his art in the arena of the contemporary design art. Greg also focuses on pricing his art whereas it is obtainable for young professionals and budding collectors alike: “I focus on high-end furniture retail stores as conduits for my art ... They can sell art as a whole package. They can assist a buyer with a room design and provide great options to meaningful art."

When I asked him about representation in the galleries, he said “I don’t really focus too much on being in the traditional galleries, I think the majority of my buyers do not frequent these establishments."

The first store that represented Greg’s art was Haven in Dallas. Greg told me, “One day I quit my job and that day I had one of my pieces in my car. I said to myself, ‘Look, I am going out there today and I am going to make good money off the art.’ And I just went over there, walked in the door, talked to them and I said, I noticed you guys don’t have any art work. Why not?’ And the guy said ‘We’ve never met an artist whose work we liked.’ I said, ‘I have a piece in my car. Would like to see it?’ and I showed it to him. He said, ‘I love this. Can you make 10 in the next week?’ And that was it, I made them ten pieces, and I think they sold 8 out of 10 pieces. I went through three different series with them.”

Greg’s story suggests that artists shouldn’t be afraid to knock on the doors and do some legwork. Greg told me, “I just approach stores and leave it up to them. They know their product and their customers better than anybody else. If they think it will work, I am happy to put my art in there. If they don’t think it will work, I don’t try to argue with them. Just say “Thank you and if you ever have somebody who is looking for something special, let me know.”

As for the further self-promotion, Greg said, “It seems like the word of mouth is your best friend out there. Once you get into a few good places, it’s really easy to expand your network and say, I show in these three high-end retailers and you have a lot of credibility.”

Greg’s art and photography are currently represented by the Jones Walker Home storeLofty Concepts, Nest Dallas, and Parnian in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also runs an online gallery called 7 NINE. Greg co-founded Gallery 7 NINE with his friend, Jonathan Giles. Both artists were born in 1979, and they decided to name the gallery after their year of birth. Greg’s original acrylic pieces currently range between $800 and $14,000; oil paintings are between $500 and 5,000; and prints go from $100 to $500. Greg also works with two art consulting firms who sell his art to hotels. Greg’s experience suggests that artists can have opportunities outside of the traditional gallery channels if they are willing to think outside the box.