Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee by Frank Gesualdi

BOMB 140 Summer 2017
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Hill House, Pacific Palisades, CA, 2004. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier. Image courtesy of Johnston Marklee.

The Los Angeles–based architecture firm Johnston Marklee is having a big year. With the renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago opening this June and the new Menil Drawing Institute in Houston opening in October—to say nothing of their serving as the artistic directors of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opens in September—the office is showcasing its ability to maintain its characteristic rigor, intensity, and attention to detail on a scale that normally doesn’t lend itself to that kind of precision. Preferring delayed gratification over high-octane first impressions, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee make buildings that reveal themselves in layers. This is not to say that their houses, museums, and mixed-use projects don’t deliver on initial impact—they do. But patiently reading their work unveils an ongoing conversation with architecture itself—its history, typologies, and philosophical cycles. Their thoughtful, highly self-aware practice produces buildings that operate at both the experiential and the intellectual levels. It was fascinating to chat with them at this moment in their careers and hear about how they approach their work.

—Frank Gesualdi

Frank Gesualdi You have a rush of large projects at the moment. How did all that happen?

Mark Lee Well, it’s certainly an interesting time for us. We’ve always been interested in modern and contemporary art. When we started our office about twenty years ago, our first projects were in Marfa, Texas, some time after Donald Judd passed away, and we did work for Lannan Foundation, in collaboration with the Chinati Foundation. In those years, we met a lot of artists and curators who later became collaborators or clients. We started off by working with and designing spaces for artists. After that we started designing houses for collectors, and then galleries, and now museums. So our work has evolved steadily and slowly, but everything has started to come together in these last couple years

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Vault House, Oxnard, CA, 2013. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier. Images courtesy of Johnston Marklee.

Sharon Johnston We’re also maybe a little different from a lot of practices like ours in that Mark and I didn’t start out working for many years in a big office. We had worked in other offices, and we had experience. But Mark had been working in Europe, while I’d been working here in Los Angeles, and we really just wanted to learn how to build, and, in that way, define an identity for our practice. So it was a slow evolution, and that’s partly because of where we came from. We were connected to the arts and had no large practice to leverage in terms of experience or exposure to projects.

FG Was it sort of a faith-based thing, where you planted some seeds and hoped they would grow?

SJ There were a few strategic moves we made along the way. Mark and I were both doing quite a lot of teaching. But around 2007, we decided that if we really wanted to develop a building practice, we had to pull back on our teaching loads. Concurrent with that, we had the opportunity to pursue some projects in Europe for art foundations that allowed us to design projects that we probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do in the US given the rules and regulations here about experience and credentials. We were able to pursue projects like a small winery and a large mixed-use master plan for the DEPART Foundation. So going to Europe and getting some experience gave us the chance to come back and compete for projects like the Menil Drawing Institute.

ML I remember reading an interview with Frank Gehry a long time ago in which he was asked about his transition from doing bohemian projects with low budgets primarily for artists to doing multimillion dollar constructions. He said, “Well, you know, my clients didn’t change. They all became very successful.” It’s really about finding fellow travelers, not cultivating a certain career and hoping someone will commission you as a trophy. You somehow cultivate the relationships early on, whether they’re collaborators, clients, instigators, or enablers. The people we started working with in the beginning were all young curators and artists. Over the years, we’ve established a healthy exchange and grown together. These projects are some of the fruits of those relationships.

FG Cultivating a longer-term vision of how you’d like to work seems crucial. Looking at your earlier projects, the arc from smaller, single-family houses to the larger projects you’re doing today, I see a real investigation of form, detail, and space-making—an almost modernist sensibility. In your Hill House in Los Angeles, for example, the exterior volume is expressed as a bold form. It cuts a striking silhouette on its site. There’s a level of abstraction and an editing out of unwanted detail that can only be achieved with a high degree of control over the construction logic. Did that early work allow you to test ideas you’re now starting to realize in larger institutional projects that demand more complex assemblages of programs, functions, and public flows? How does your earlier work inform the museum work you’re doing now?

ML One thing that has been important for us is context—and not necessarily just physical context, but professional and construction context, too. We were very aware of where we were practicing when we started in Los Angeles. It was not long after we had moved back from Switzerland, which has maybe five times the construction budget of California, and more higher-skilled workers and detailers. So we knew at the outset that we couldn’t achieve that kind of perfection with the construction and the budgets we had available to us, and our early projects were a response to that condition. We dealt with very difficult sites such as hillsides or beachfronts by trying to somehow reduce them to one distilled problem, and deal with that.

That meant we focused less on details such as apertures and windows. As a result the early work seemed quite abstract, which works well for the scale of a single-family house. Whereas with the projects we’re dealing with now, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which has the Josef Paul Kleihues building as context, and the Drawing Institute, which sits on the Menil’s extremely sensitive campus, we’re aware of the new scale, and of the fact that the kind of abstraction we adopted in the early single-family houses cannot happen in the same way. We also benefit, I think, from the hindsight of looking back at the late modernists, where abstraction could suddenly become very alienating at larger scales.

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Menil Drawing Institute, Houston, 2014. Image courtesy of Johnston Marklee.

SJ Although they’re still relatively small by institutional standards—the Drawing Institute is 30,000 square feet and the MCA’s phase-one renovation is about 15,000 square feet—one thing I do think we’ve been able to transpose from the smaller-scale works to the larger is the idea of being able to read the historical and literal contexts, and understand our client—and translate these into strong moves. I think we’ve trained ourselves to distill the complexity of people and circumstance into an approach to institutional work, and the intensity of the residential projects we did at the beginning of our careers really helped us figure out how to do that. It’s not because they’re all similar—there’s no signature look to our projects. It’s more an approach. We like a clear slate to approach a project, and slowly build up the knowledge we need as we work. It’s a different way of using experience—it’s not about what the building looks like, but how you approach the making of it.

FG How do abstraction and questions of scale relate to a project like the Vault House, near Los Angeles. How do they manifest in the Drawing Institute?

ML The Vault House is still at the friendly scale of a single-family house and could afford to be more abstract and reticent; by contrast, the Menil Drawing Institute is, naturally, more institutional in scale, especially within the context of the prewar houses on the Menil campus. As a result, it would be alienating if the entire building lacked definition. So while the white steel roof and the walls are abstract, the wood and glass enveloped within them have a human scale and dimension to them. Abstraction has never been an end in itself in our work. It’s always a prelude or a vehicle to something else. In the Vault House, because the materials lack definition, one can perceive the singularity of each vault and the interplay between multiple vaults. We’re typically attracted to work that has a certain sense of mystery, that doesn’t reveal everything all at once, and has a certain ineffable aura—work that reveals itself slowly only once you begin to probe more deeply into it. Maybe it’s because that’s the type of building we’re attracted to, and because we aspire to be like that, too. There’s a feeling of modernist abstraction to our work, but in a way that also makes it very human. We detest projects that are too cold—where you can only use, say, Barcelona chairs, or everything inside has to line up, where no piece of furniture is out of place, projects that are too strict and lack generosity. We try to look for projects that have the right balance of abstraction and humanist qualities.

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Menil Drawing Institute, Houston, 2014. Image courtesy of Johnston Marklee.

SJ In terms of how we have sought to present our work, we have often selected images that aren’t loaded with furniture or people inhabiting the spaces. Our focus has been on the space and the atmosphere of our buildings, rather than how they may be inhabited. There’s a very practical aspect to this. In our early projects, which didn’t have very big budgets, we focused a lot on things like aperture and structure, so we haven’t explored material as a medium as much as some others have. Mark is right that we have a strong focus on proportion, light, and atmospheric qualities that are not easy to capture photographically. Our clients live in their homes and buildings in very casual ways, and we like that.

ML One strategy that we’ve always employed is the disproportionate attribution of construction budget and design energy. In other words, let’s say we have a $1,000-per-square-foot project. We’ll try to make five to ten percent of the project cost $5,000 per square foot, and the rest of the project cost much less, maybe around $500 per square foot. That’s a lesson we learned from the generation that preceded us. What distinguishes us from them is that the areas where we spend that $5,000 dollars remain very invisible. It’s not something that screams out. Often, we use it where you’d expect structure to be, but without having any structure at all. Instead, we’ll make small, subtle moves that make some things deeper or lighter than they appear. Making these moves more invisible actually ingratiates the entire building with the people who inhabit and use it, and that gives it more coherence.

FG I love the idea of designing what’s not there. Sometimes, making things go away is one of the premier acts of design. The harder part is convincing a client that this counts as design. For example, getting windows to look the way that your windows look in the View House, in Rosario, Argentina—where you subtracted them from the monolithic form of the house and controlled their scale, proportion, and simplicity—is no simple feat. The difference between building in Argentina or Europe and building in the States is clearly significant. It’s hard to do those kinds of things here because they demand a level of craftsmanship and industry standards that are less readily available.

ML Certainly, but besides being conscious of the different building cultures in Europe, Latin America, and the States, it’s also natural to be conscious of the history of the place where you practice and react against the predominant positions that came before you. In the generation before us, at least for the Los Angeles school, there was an abundance of quirky materialism, where everything was cladded, every detail was exposed, and every volume was cloaked with a complex surface or membrane—not that we think that it wasn’t a good direction. There are many interesting things that came out of that generation of architects and their progenies, and some of those buildings could use a cloak. (laughter) We just think there was too much of it, and we don’t need to add to that. Instead, we’re more interested in things like the weight, volume, and mass of a building.

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View House, Rosario, Argentina, 2009. Photo by Gustavo Frittegotto.

FG One thing that’s apparent in the way you represent your work is your awareness of the historical cycles of the discipline. This leads us, I think, into your vision for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which you have titled Make New History. Do you see architecture as being cyclical, and, if so, where do you see yourselves in the current cycle?

ML For us, the biennial is about understanding how progress is related to an engagement with history. Ideally, we wish architecture could be less cyclical, less revolutionary, and more continuous in its evolution. At heart, we are more reformist than extremist in our position, and we wish architecture could form a more cohesive collective project, not unlike modern architecture did in the interwar years. Historically, architectural discourse often moved in cyclical patterns because certain individuals or groups were a little too opportunistic, ambitious, and extreme in their attempts to advance their ideas. The result, usually, was that the next generation would rebel against them. The extreme forms this took then led to another extreme reaction from the subsequent generation. One could write a history of twentieth-century architecture based around episodes of opportunism and exaggeration. We’re hoping that our Biennial might serve as the first chapter of a new model of history for the twenty-first century.

FG What are the action and reaction today?

SJ We see a younger generation reacting to the overvaluation of digital design and production in the past decade or two. The optimism for digital tools is still there, but there’s a new skepticism toward their overriding role. There is a belief that the digital can do a lot, but it can’t do everything. And that’s where history comes in, because it provides an anchor and a disciplinary framework for the digital prowess we have today. It is not about being cyclical or swinging the pendulum from the future back to the past, but about how history and the development of our tools inform one another in order to make progress. When people hear the word history, many immediately think of postmodern architecture. But that’s only the most recent episode in which history has been brought back as an active participant in design. There were many episodes in the twentieth century—Art Nouveau, rationalism, Novecento, and Tendenza—in which history played an important role.

ML Perhaps the biggest problem of modernism was the general perception that it severed itself from what came before. No doubt, there was a group that tried to perpetuate this notion, but it’s not representative of all modernist architects. If we go further back in time and look at architecture in the Renaissance and movements like Neoclassicism, both were at the apex of culture and innovation and chose to look back into history. For us, that’s a more productive model of historical evolution than modernism’s revolutionary one. Modernism is certainly a very important moment in history—and we very much consider ourselves modernists—but the concept that one has to reject the past in order to make the “new” is problematic. I think Aldo Rossi has also said that. If we can identify and understand the strains within modernism, whether it be rationalism or Tendenza, the ones that incorporate things from the past—those are movements within modernism that are more relevant for us, especially today, when there’s an abundance of images and information and everything is available right away. We live in an ahistorical moment, and it’s moments like our’s when deep engagement with history feels more necessary than ever.

FG Right.

ML We don’t mean history as something that has a borrowed authority to dignify something unworthy or increase its cultural capital, which was the problem with postmodernism. Nor do we understand history as a set of rules that would tie your hands, which was the problem with the Beaux-Arts—but rather as an understanding of where we are and where we’re going that comes from an accrued intelligence built over many years.

FG Can we talk about the Menil Drawing Institute? The current exhibition at the Menil Collection is called The Beginning of Everything, and Roni Horn will have a show there in 2018 called When I Breathe, I Draw. That says something about the role of drawing in contemporary art, and, I think, you guys see drawing as an important part of your practice. Is drawing something that you have an affinity with as a discipline and as a way of thinking about architectural representation? Was that something that excited and interested you in this project?

ML Drawing certainly has an immediacy and directness that we’re very fascinated by. I think the establishment of the institute helps to cement the idea that drawing is a practice or a medium of its own, not just a “bridge medium” somehow below or in the service of sculpture or painting. And, yes, drawing also plays an important role in our own practice. We use the latest drafting and modeling programs, but we also draw by hand and build physical models. The latter have a sense of reality and material resistance that computer models can’t simulate. And the time it takes to move the pencil across the paper to connect two dots to represent a wall allows one to be cognizant that one is constructing a wall, something that divides or unites, something that has weight and materiality—and that is a very different experience from clicking two dots on a screen with the mouse to draw a wall.

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Menil Drawing Institute, Houston, 2014. Image courtesy of Johnston Marklee.

SJ The specificity of the medium in the Drawing Institute was really exciting for us. We’re always looking for a way to find that specificity as a starting point. So we were given that assignment: to design a building not only a medium but for a specific set of works of art. That really resonated for us as a design problem from the outset. One way our design responds to drawing is through its use of natural light. All the public spaces on the Menil campus primarily have natural light coming from above, whether it be well-lit spaces such as the Cy Twombly Gallery or dimly lit ones such as the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, or Dan Flavin’s installation at Richmond Hall. They all have natural light coming in from the ceiling. Drawing, being a more direct and immediate medium than others, feels more at home to us in a domestically scaled and lit space. So in our design, natural light enters the public spaces laterally, just like it would through a window in a house. There’s a familiarity and directness about laterally transmitted natural light that’s different from typical institutional spaces.

FG I imagine that the competition brief for the institute also suggested a host of technical challenges that come with displaying drawings and works on paper. There’s a certain material quality in drawing, since paper is a relatively fragile medium. Did that also extend to your approach to scale? I saw on the fact sheet that the institute will be only sixteen feet tall, a very precise number. How did you arrive at that?

SJ We spent a lot of time looking at both the immediate and historical context of not only the Menil collection, but also the Philip Johnson–designed Menil house, which was built in 1950. We have always talked about the Menil Drawing Institute as being somewhere between a residential- and an institutional-scale building. The datum line of our roof is at sixteen feet—which aligns with the height of the average apex of the roofs of the surrounding bungalows and lower than the datum line established by the roof of the neighboring Cy Twombly Gallery. So it came from both thinking conceptually about the problem of the museum being just a little bigger than a house, and the immediacy of what was around it.

ML When we first started the project, the Menil asked us to design specifically for the collection they have. They knew that the collection would expand and grow, but they didn’t want a building that could accommodate everything. We also met with its curators to discuss the role of drawing in art today. What is drawing today? That’s not an easy question to answer. Is Michael Heizer’s work in the desert considered a drawing? In 2012, the Menil had a Richard Serra show with works on paper that are more than forty or fiftyfeet long. Should the building be able to show works of this scale? They decisively rejected the idea of having a building that accommodates everything and instead opted for one that has a specific character tailored for the collection and an architectural personality. And if they want to exhibit a large Richard Serra drawing, they will show it in the Menil Collection building. That decision was very liberating. We knew at that moment that we were on the right path toward the architecture.

SJ Nowadays, every museum wants to be as big and flexible as possible. So I think the Menil’s willingness to place real limits on the building was radical for an institution. It’s actually kind of unheard of.

ML We also looked at their collection. They have a lot of surrealist and modernist work meant to be hung in salons or houses, somewhere more domestic than a museum. So we said, “Let’s create spaces where these pieces look the best.” That was the driving idea for us in terms of figuring out the scale, both in the interior, and, as Sharon mentioned, in the context of the prewar bungalows in the area and the Cy Twombly Gallery on the Menil campus. In a way, we hope that the building will blend into the historical strata of design already there. We love the idea that if someone visits the campus in twenty years, they won’t be quite sure whether it was built before the Cy Twombly Gallery or after.

FG You’re bringing up a really interesting issue: the question of institutional identity versus flexibility. Are these in some sort of tension, or are they even mutually exclusive? I’m thinking about your renovation of the MCA Chicago, which is opening in June, and which is a very different project from the Drawing Institute. How do you handle the tension between a museum’s identity and its need for flexibility?

SJ One of the things that’s special about the Menil is that it doesn’t have a museum store or an auditorium. As a result, they adapt spaces for different functions. So, perhaps a space won’t be perfectly tuned for a lecture, but to sit in the foyer of the Menil Collection and hear Charles Ray deliver a lecture—there’s something very thrilling about that. It’s adaptive and imperfect, but it gets the job done. We want to solve precise technical problems with the right tools, but we like that there are certain things you just can’t control. At the MCA Chicago, we’ve designed what we’re calling a “street,” a kind of public space on the ground floor that connects a theater, a new café and bar, and a new staircase that leads to an upstairs common area. It took a lot of conversations with consultants and the MCA to ensure that the street will be acoustically well-tuned and function as an active, multi-use space. The idea is that you could have a meeting there, or invite an artist to do an installation; at the same time, it’s neither a gallery nor a meeting room. This lack of specific definition was something really interesting to us.

ML The tension between identity and flexibility is really at the core of the master plan we designed for the MCA. At first, we tried to understand and be sympathetic to the intentions of Josef Paul Kleihues, who completed the building only a little more than twenty years ago. He was trying to make a building similar to Friedrich August Stüler’s Old National Gallery in Berlin, which sits on a plinth and conveys a certain classical dignity. Looking at Kleihues’s building from the outside, there’s a certain desire for symmetry that conveys preponderance. But inside, the flow of the building is actually extremely asymmetrical. In the genesis of our master plan, we tried to play off that fissure between the building’s intention or identity and its latent usage and flows. This first iteration, which will be completed this June, is a way for us to address that.

FG To what degree would you like the renovation to be legible to visitors? Is it important for us to know where the old stops and the new begins, or do you prefer to blur that distinction to some degree?

SJ Like with our Menil project, we’re hoping to blur the boundary between the old and the new. To work on an existing building we have to first cultivate a love and respect for it. Certainly, it’s much easier on the Menil campus and slightly more challenging for the Kleihues MCA building. We also see this in a lot of buildings today, especially museums built in the ’80s or ’90s that are lately being added on to. The recently completed San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla are two examples that have reached a certain limit in their lifespan, and I think it’s critical that architects working on expanding them look at their history and intrinsic qualities. This is something we tried to be very positive about.

FG Your work is very invested in architecture as a form of dialogue and reciprocity between, say, a host building and a renovation, a building and a campus, a building and the city surrounding it. You’re also interested in the reciprocity between the present and the past. Going back to the biennial, how did you select the participants, and how are you beginning to shape the frame around their work under the heading of Make New History?

ML At the outset, we were thinking about a general theme and began to look at practices and projects that addressed it. We also began to look to the work we selected to help us articulate what we’re thinking about architectural history itself. It soon became clear that it’s not about historicism or imposing a metanarrative that explains everything. For example, we very much admired Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 Venice Biennale, Fundamentals. But even though we feel connected to many of the works there, the premise of fitting everything within the hundred-year framework Koolhaas used, 1914–2014, is another form of historicism for us. By contrast, Paolo Portoghesi’s The Present of the Past, the first Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980, is more interesting to us. Even though we might find fewer commonalities with the work presented back then, we are compelled by its understanding of history as a horizon into which you can have multiple entry points. So we have selected people who are interested in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the nineteenth century; there are also, of course, many people interested in early twentieth-century modernist history. We want to see how they might all come together to form dialogues we couldn’t anticipate.

FG Thinking about history and time—what about the future? What’s coming up around the corner?

SJ We’re doing a new campus for the UCLA Graduate Art Studios in Culver City and we’ve been talking with Theaster Gates about developing a performance arts building on the South Side of Chicago. One thing we see is that diving deep into cultural projects gives us the opportunity to think on a more urban scale. We’re still working on buildings, but I think that programmatically and physically they are beginning to have impact at the urban scale, which is exciting for us.

ML I think it’s also about going back to the beginning. We’re in a harvest time right now. Tomorrow will be about sowing seeds again. It’s important for us not to be afraid of doing that. We still design houses. Like you said, they’re a chance to experiment, whereas working on larger projects and dealing with committees doesn’t give us the same immediacy and freshness.

FG That’s a wonderful nonlinear approach. It’s not as if the house projects go away just because you’re doing bigger things. It gives your work some dimension, a parallel investigation, and provides continuity between very different projects.

Frank Gesualdi is an associate principal at STUDIOS Architecture. He cofounded EFGH in 2007, and was a senior designer at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. He is currently an adjunct assistant professor at the Pratt Institute.

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Originally published in

BOMB 140, Summer 2017

Featuring interviews with John Giorno, Lidia Yuknavitch, Iman Issa, Eric Baudelaire, Ieva Misevičiūtė, Daniel Borzutzky, and more.

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