By consistently turning architectural paradigms on their heads, the L.A.-based firm of Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston steals the spotlight.
By Mason Currey
Portrait by Philip Cheung
July 10, 2017
The French-American art collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil liked to wear her mink coat inside out, so that she could feel the fur against her skin. For the Los Angeles architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, this biographical detail is a useful metaphor for their firm’s most consequential project to date—the Menil Drawing Institute, a $40 million, 30,000-square-foot addition to the revered Menil Collection campus in Houston—and for their overall approach to design. “I think for a lot of Europeans, American architecture has had this reputation that everything is very showy on the outside, but there’s not much on the inside,” says Lee, who apprenticed in Switzerland before setting up shop with Johnston in 1998. He and Johnston want to reverse this condition, or at least tinker with it. Especially in their newest projects, they have shown a preference for muted, modest, or generic exteriors beneath which there is a concealed richness—of ideas and spaces if not of actual materials. Johnston describes the effect they’re going after as “delayed gratification.”
That’s not a phrase you could apply to Johnston and Lee’s career. Soon after opening Johnston Marklee & Associates nearly 20 years ago, the husband-and-wife team were designing spaces for artists and writers in Marfa, Texas, and doing the first of a series of poetic and often playful single-family houses in Southern California that have been widely reported on. But this year the office, which has grown to include 20 people, is assuming a new level of national prominence. (Lee calls 2017 a “harvest year.”) In addition to the Menil Drawing Institute—the firm’s first freestanding museum project, which opens in October—the architects recently completed a renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and they are the artistic directors of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial, opening in September. Meanwhile, their longstanding involvement in designing L.A. art spaces has continued to gain steam. Last year saw the completion of a private art gallery for the producer and businessman Steve Tisch; this year finds them making an expansive new studio for the artist Alex Israel, and next year they expect to begin their renovation and expansion of UCLA’s graduate art studios in Culver City.
Sitting in the conference room of their firm’s West L.A. office—a clean-lined space, but with enough books and normal office clutter around to forestall any temple-of-minimalism impressions—Johnston, 51, and Lee, 50, are a good match for their architecture. They are calm, articulate, unpretentious, and just a little self-effacing. (A 2007 lecture they delivered at Syracuse University was titled “Too Dumb for New York, Too Ugly for L.A.,” after a Waylon Jennings album.) If the previous generation of L.A. architects was characterized by the macho expressionism of grand-gesture addicts like Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, then Johnston and Lee come across as the representatives of a mellower new guard—wary of histrionics or razzle-dazzle, and more interested in subtlety, nuance, even ambiguity.
This generational shift is an implicit subject of this fall’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, for which Johnston and Lee have selected the theme “Make New History,” a title they “stole” from an art book by Ed Ruscha. The book is a kind of joke—it is a thick tome containing 600 blank pages, with the title printed on the edges. But Johnston and Lee’s interest in architectural history is sincere. “Generally speaking, right now there is an abundance of information, an abundance of images—everything is accessible, but also ahistorical,” Lee says. “Because of that, everything is about the present, about now. Everything is evened out. And we think in moments like this, maybe the understanding of history and the role history plays in the present and the future is more important than ever.”
The Menil Drawing Institute exemplifies the firm making new history. According to Rebecca Rabinow, the director of the Menil, Johnston Marklee won the competition thanks to its “attentiveness to the history of the Menil Collection and the architects with whom the founders, Dominique and John, had worked.” Johnston and Lee describe the process as identifying the “DNA” of the existing Menil buildings—especially Philip Johnson’s house for the Menils, completed in 1951, and Renzo Piano’s 1987 gallery building for the Menil Collection—and translating that DNA to a new space. This meant finding a middle ground between the residential and the institutional scale, as well as taking the plant-filled atrium at the heart of Johnson’s design and using it as an organizing principal of the new museum, which is designed around a series of courtyards, with some trees that were growing on the site preserved. The building itself, with its slender steel-plate roof and concrete-and-cedar sides, sits lightly on the landscape, but it’s not just an exercise in elegant minimalism; inside, the architecture carefully filters and modulates natural light to levels appropriate for works on paper. It also contains a creative arrangement of space, with a “living room” serving as a circulation spine and a flexible gathering place. As the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, has written on the design, “once you take a closer look, it becomes clear that the architecture is not so much spare as it is efficiently layered with ideas and comfortable with contradiction.”
That comfort with contradiction and ambiguity may explain why Johnston and Lee seem to have such a natural rapport with the art world. As Alex Israel puts it, “They may be architects, but they think like artists.” Israel commissioned Johnston Marklee to turn a former furniture showroom on L.A.’s Pico Boulevard into a studio that could accommodate his painting, sculpture, and video work, along with gallery and administrative spaces. Rather than creating the one big warehouse-like space typical of many artists’ studios, Johnston Marklee embraced, in Lee’s words, “a landscape of different kinds of spaces with different scales and lighting qualities and proportions”; Johnston calls the result “a collection of sort of strange rooms that all function well for what they need to do.” According to Israel, they also work well in concert. “Sharon and Mark maximized the functionality and beauty of each section of the building, but they also understood the importance of the building’s transitional spaces,” he says. “They manipulated these in-between spaces most, allowing for some kind of narrative of my working process to unfold like a story, over time, as one moves throughout the studio.”
Here, once again, the fur-coat idea applies. Where the interior is richly varied, the exterior is a blank gray non-entity, a ghostlike presence amid the jumble of restaurants, auto-body shops, and medical-marijuana dispensaries fronting Pico Boulevard. “I feel it has the quality of a building that’s been embalmed,” Lee says. Last year’s Steve Tisch project has a similar muted quality. Replacing Tisch’s backyard tennis court with a two-story “art shed” clad in wide zinc planks, Johnston Marklee created the impression of an extremely refined structure.
Johnston and Lee like these kinds of comparisons; they are interested in everyday building types, and in trying to invest them with maximum architectural value. For them, this approach serves not just the client but also the larger built environment. Lee laments that, for “ninety-nine percent of architecture, the quality has been going down. And the architecture world has been engaging in this one percent, thinking that if you design a great concert hall, eventually the experiments that are done there could trickle down to everything. And it’s not happening.” He and Johnston argue for quite the opposite strategy. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that Johnston Marklee is going to abandon the rarefied world of artists, museums, and wealthy collectors—but that it wants to use its projects in that world to investigate and enliven building strategies that have much wider applications. It’s a bottom-up approach, a bid for improving the vernacular via itself, rather than via architectural spaceships. As Lee says, “For architecture to be important again, we have to start at the very generic level.”