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 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
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.