Credit: Joe Pugliese
Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston, AIA, in a conference room in their firm's Los Angeles office. The two architects just secured the commission for the Drawing Institute on the legendary Menil Collection campus in Houston, beating out an impressive list of contenders.
Of all the questions I posed to the Los Angeles architects Sharon Johnston, AIA, and Mark Lee, who run an increasingly busy practice together under the name Johnston Marklee & Associates, the one that elicited what I found to be the most telling response had to do with their relationship with other emerging firms in Southern California. We were sitting in a long, all-white conference room in their office, which is located just north of Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles. On a table in the middle of the room were totems of the firm’s current obsessions: a mock-up of the cover of their book House Is a House Is a House Is a House, which will be published next year by Springer Vienna, and a model of a preliminary design for the Drawing Institute at the Menil Collection in Houston.
Johnston Marklee won the Drawing Institute commission last summer, giving the two partners by far the biggest break of their 14-year career together. They prevailed in a competition that produced one of the most intriguing architectural shortlists of recent memory; the other finalists were Tokyo’s Sanaa, London’s David Chipperfield Architects (who had already produced a larger master plan for the Menil campus), and the Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao.
As Johnston clicked through a series of images of the firm’s recent work—a mixture of houses, small pavilions, competition entries, and installation designs in the U.S., Europe, and South America—it quickly became apparent that the pair, married since 1998, is in some ways more closely associated with a group of well-traveled youngish architects from around the world than with its home city of L.A.
Again and again, she’d introduce a project—Ordos in Mongolia, the Solo Houses in Spain, the post-earthquake META pavilions in southern Chile—in which Johnston Marklee contributed a design along with a small group of other firms. And the same names kept coming up: Office, the firm run by Kersten Geers and David Van Severen in Belgium. Bilbao, their competitor at the Menil. Studio Mumbai of India. Sou Fujimoto, from Tokyo. Given their membership in this multinational group, I asked Lee and Johnston, did they feel any similar connection or sense of kinship with L.A. architects around their age?
Johnston’s response was immediate. “Not really,” she said with a shrug.
Later, in a phone interview, she elaborated on that answer. “I think for architects of our generation, this sense of community is more global,” she said. “There is more opportunity for that kind of engagement across continents because of publications, because of technology—all the things that make the marketplace bigger.”
Lee added, “We always feel a bit like outsiders in L.A., but not complete outliers. We find more of a community outside the U.S. In Europe or Latin America, it’s more possible for very open dialogue than with our L.A. colleagues.”