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.
Lee, who is 45, grew up in Hong Kong and moved with his sister to Claremont, a tree-lined college town about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, near the end of high school. He studied architecture at the University of Southern California. He met Johnston—who is 47, grew up in Malibu, and graduated from Stanford University—when both were earning master’s degrees at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. The pair opened their office in 1998, after Johnston moved back to Los Angeles. Lee had been living in Switzerland, teaching at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. That set the tone for a practice that continues to have one foot in California and the other somewhere else.
It was hard not to think of how different this mild estrangement from their local colleagues is from the generation of Southern California architects who came before them: the so-called L.A. School, made up of Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, Franklin Israel, and Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis, among others. This group of architects not only emerged together from the same place—the west side of Los Angeles, specifically Santa Monica, Venice, and Culver City—in the 1980s, but their work shared a number of formal and conceptual preoccupations.
One should be careful not to overstate the collegiality of the L.A School. Its architects were fiercely competitive with one another and often conflicted, as self-styled rebels, about accepting membership in any movement or collective. (“The first time I heard of Frank Gehry I was 38 years old,” Mayne once said.) Still, at least as viewed from the outside—from New York, say, or Tokyo—the L.A. School made up a coherent group that took American architecture in a specific and barbed direction. And in the days before the Internet arrived to distribute images of new architecture instantly around the world, the L.A School architects worked in relative geographic isolation. Their primary audience was one another.
Nothing similar could be said about the current crop of L.A. architects now in their 40s and 50s, who make up a diffuse group. There are the sunny, effortlessly savvy houses of Barbara Bestor, deeply connected to place and L.A.’s Modernist heritage; the macabre digital fantasies of the cigar-chomping Hernan Diaz Alonso; and the wide-ranging work of Michael Maltzan, which formally owes a debt to Álvaro Siza but has found patrons in Southern California as diverse as the former super-agent Michael Ovitz and the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust.
Johnston Marklee’s architecture, meanwhile, stands out for its coolness and efficiency, and for initially appearing simpler, or less layered, than it actually is. In all three of those ways, it is a reaction against the sculpturalism, machismo, and occasional histrionics (architectural and personal) of the L.A. School. Johnston and Lee know that work well: Almost a decade ago, their firm was hired to design and build a ground-up bungalow on the same property as a 1978 Morphosis studio known as “2-4-6-8,” and they studied the older building obsessively. But they are outspoken about how different the L.A. School sensibility is from their own.
“That generation really strived for spectacle or excessiveness, but often at the cost of something else,” Lee told me. “It was almost a case of overpromising and underdelivering—architecture that hawked itself to gain attention. Maybe historically it was good because it was an adrenaline shot for architecture, but in the long run it did more damage than good.”
Or, as Johnston put it, “Maybe in contrast to a Thom [Mayne] or an Eric [Owen Moss], we’re really excited when we can make one move that does two things. And if it does three or four, we’re even happier.”