Purple Magazine
— Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Johnston marklee

the american spirit of los angeles architecture

photography by TODD COLE
interview by FRANCOIS PERRIN


FRANCOIS PERRIN — When I moved to LA from Paris in 2000, you were part of this new generation of LA architects who were coming after the LA or Santa Monica School (Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Eric Owen Moss, etc.) offering an alternative to the formal and flashy approach of the ’80s and ’90s. Aside from a few practices, form and sculpturalism (as people call it) remain strong in LA. What’s your connection with Los Angeles?

SHARON JOHNSTON — We really love LA. We made a very definitive move in the mid-2000s to invest time and energy in Europe. So when we came back to America to do bigger projects, I think our work had a kind of particular fusion of a sensibility of LA and Southern California with a sort of European formal tradition and tectonic ideas.

MARK LEE — I also feel that Los Angeles maybe has not evolved all that much, but the world has changed. We somehow in LA stay the same, but the world has come to us. And I also feel that change happens here at a much slower pace. It’s part of the Los Angeles ethos that everyone can do their own thing. There is this sense of freedom. Frank Gehry, for sure, is still a big influence here. We see a lot of things in Frank Gehry’s work that we have sympathy with — especially his early works, where you know they’re not necessarily a sculpture, but have a sculptural quality. Our work is also based in the culture of Los Angeles in a way that we feel is very authentic.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — To me, early Frank Gehry is very contextual. He became too sculptural when he started building in Europe, like for the Vitra Museum, where his building, totally out of context, becomes an object.

MARK LEE — I agree with you because I think most of the time in Europe or other contexts, people put Gehry together with Morphosis and all these other groups. And for us, Gehry is completely different.


FRANCOIS PERRIN — What are your first memories of architecture? 

SHARON JOHNSTON — For me, it was later than Mark. I studied history as an undergraduate in college, and I hadn’t considered architecture, but I started traveling heavily in Europe, and I became fascinated with understanding history and cities.

MARK LEE — I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was eight years old. I grew up in Hong Kong. It’s a very different place now than when I was eight, but buildings still had a certain power in shaping the city. It has a very strong landscape with the mountains, but the buildings are very present. And I was really fascinated by seeing how tall buildings could be built on an extremely steep slope — it was this triumph over nature, of working with nature that way. When I first started studying architecture, it was in the early-to-mid-’80s, around the time when Frank Gehry was finishing the Aerospace Museum here in Los Angeles. Fumihiko Maki did the Spiral building, and it was the same time that Norman Foster was building the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, and that was the first really world-class masterpiece that was built in Hong Kong.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — There is always a specific dynamic when two architects work together. Sometimes one is more involved with the technical aspect of it, and the other is more social and active in networking. 

MARK LEE — When we start a project, we always have the two of us, we have people who have worked with us for more than 10 years, but we also have interns, people who just started. In the beginning, when we first look at a project, everyone is equal, everyone can have a good idea.


FRANCOIS PERRIN — You’ve been practicing for almost 20 years. How do you see the evolution in your office — but also of the state of architecture? We talked about that shift in the early ’90s, but since then, do you think there is a new shift that goes beyond architecture in the creative world? 

MARK LEE — Twenty-five years ago, there was an economic downturn; people think of, let’s say, Japanese minimalism as a way to economize. So architecture was less exuberant, but maybe it’s a false distinction that people think of minimalism as frugality. We don’t believe that it’s really about one or two icons that will change architecture. We always believed that it’s the base of architecture that needs to be strong. Even the banal needs to have an architectural quality, and it’s a very different value system than the exceptional architecture, the cathedral or the museum.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — How has your practice changed?

MARK LEE — Being in the service of the city, how to deal with the city, has been more important for us in the last five years. When we worked on the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, it was really us recognizing that Renzo Piano’s first American building was the center, the masterpiece, the cathedral, and we built the context around it. We hope that this building, when it’s finished, people won’t be able to tell if it was built before or after the Piano building. I would say the same thing with the UCLA graduate studios that we are designing in Culver City. We are in the middle of Eric Owen Moss buildings, and we are trying to go back into the light industrial neighborhood that it once was and go back into more typical construction like tilt-up concrete, bow truss ceilings — so, bringing it back to the industrial era and not as a competition with Moss or a defense of the area being gentrified.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — How have these bigger commissions affected your creative process? 


MARK LEE — One thing that we decided very early on is that we didn’t want to have a signature style. The generation before us is all about having the Richard Meier style, the Morphosis style — there is a certain recognizable aspect about it, and we want to be very fresh with each project. One mechanism for this is really trying to always include young people; they always have a different way of seeing things that we see as a benefit for us to reinvent.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — I was influenced by Jean Nouvel as a student and later worked for him, and that was the direction. Conceptual and contextual — every project had a different approach and direction based on the program and the context. To come back to your practice, there is a distinct geometrical approach to your buildings. Not as in geometry for geometry’s sake — I see it as a more functional treatment, a way geometry can help resolve a problem. Some kind of reverse geometry or an invisible one, something I would call a geometry of the void.

MARK LEE — I think for us, geometry is never the end. It is always a tool to reach something else. I’m thinking of the Vault House, for example. The geometry was important because it gives a direction. It’s about having a similar shape for every room so that every room has its own personality, but also gives this continuity of the collective rooms connecting to light and air and views. I will also say we don’t invent new geometry. We often times use very primitive geometries in a slightly different way than expected. But in the Vault House, when we open the clerestory windows, we have an upside-down vault, it wasn’t just done for novelty — it opens up the space for more light to come in.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — It seems that more and more people are interested in architecture. I see that with clients who have all the books, go see exhibitions or take architectural tours, and sometimes know more than you. Does it change the nature of your work? 

MARK LEE — I have to say, we’re pretty optimistic about it, but I think it’s a very slow evolution. Thinking back maybe 20 years ago, most people who could afford architecture were not interested in modern architecture. A lot of them were into shabby chic. Then people were interested in mid-century modernism, in saving Richard Neutra buildings, and then Design Within Reach came. Was it the best furniture? No, but it helped spread out the sensibility. So for me, it’s already progress, and I feel today’s general interest in architecture is healthier than in the ’80s, where the architects became stars where you only knew
a few. People were fascinated by architects, drawings were sold as art, but that collapsed. And now I think the general interest in architecture is a healthy one and needs to move slowly.

SHARON JOHNSTON — We think of clients who have been the most trusting and willing to let us experiment. They’re very independent thinkers about architecture, and they also know how to trust people they think are talented. I would not say that that’s the Hollywood model of how people assess others. To do great work, you have to have a great client. Someone kind of radical.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Purple from the beginning has been interested in many disciplines: fashion, art, literature, design, architecture. Do you believe in crossing disciplines within a practice?

MARK LEE — We do believe in crossing disciplines, but not one discipline doing another. And I think back to Purple in the beginning — there were very different mediums, but what was shared was the same sensibility and ethos, and that was very strong for us. The photography, fashion.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — How would you define this sensibility? 

MARK LEE — I remember Mark Borthwick’s pictures. I’ve never seen anything like that — he was shooting on the sidewalk, like some trash on the floor. And it wasn’t quotidian, you know. It was something like oversized Margiela things. It was something about not trying too hard to scream at you, but having a lot to say. It had a type of mystique.

SHARON JOHNSTON — Some kind of openness, too. Like that it was not totally controlled.

MARK LEE — I always compare buildings to people. Oftentimes, the most interesting people have a lot to say, but they don’t necessarily say everything all at once. Is there something hidden that makes you want to know more when you talk to them? I think we see similar qualities in buildings that we admire.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Architecture is very different from fashion, where collections happen several times a year, and styles and trends come and go so fast. The complexity is that when you have an idea in architecture, sometimes it takes five or 10 years to get it built, while in the world of pop culture and fashion, everything is going faster and faster. 

MARK LEE — As an example, I think of the practices of Martin Margiela or Rick Owens, which we admire. They can experiment every season with something very radical, but there is always a basis they come back to. Because the core is strong, they can afford to be experimental, and I think that the relationship between the core and what is on the fringe is somehow important. We’ve thought a lot about Ellsworth Kelly, an American who went to France and adopted the European sensibility but with an American scale, and somehow this hybrid created something quite special. Same thing with Rick Owens — California guy, American proportions, but with a French sensibility, and somehow these things come together and create something quite unique.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Who do you think, outside of architecture, best represents our time? 

MARK LEE — We have been looking at Fischli/Weiss since the beginning of our practice. David Weiss is dead now, and Peter Fischli is still working. They address something very large about life and death and philosophy, but also combine it with something very, very light, a sense of humor. We’ve been asked before, “What are your models? Would you like to be Peter and Alison Smithson, or Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, or Charles and Ray Eames?” And we say we would like to be like Fischli and Weiss.


[Table of contents]

Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Table of contents

Purple Index 76

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