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.
Examples of that strategic economy are not hard to find in the firm’s built work. In the Hill House, a three-story residence cantilevered out over Santa Monica Canyon in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles, it is evident in the building’s dramatic rhomboid form.
The house, completed in 2004 and widely published since, was a spec project. Though the owners of the lot appreciated contemporary architecture and sought out Johnston Marklee, they also wanted to maximize their square footage. At the same time, the new house had to meet L.A.’s rigorous, even oppressive, hillside building ordinance, which mandates significant setbacks from the lot line and strict height limits. The setbacks are measured from where the house comes out of the ground, not from how far it hangs over the hillside. As a result, Lee and Johnston pushed the main floor out as far as they could, then pinched the lower level back toward the hill.
The pinching both produced the house’s most memorable moment—when you stand at the corner of the living room, looking out over the canyon, with a tiny sliver of Pacific Ocean visible above the treetops to the west, you feel that you’re on the prow of a ship, with no architectural mass beneath you—and allowed the architects to pack 3,600 square feet of interior space into a building that seems to touch the steep hillside not with work boots but with ballet slippers.
“We tried to see the hillside ordinance not as a policing device, but as a design opportunity,” Lee said matter-of-factly.
The Hill House is also very much an L.A. design. The waterproof cement finish that wraps the exterior is tinted a very faint lavender to pick up the colors of the Eucalyptus trunks that rise around it. And the use of the stucco-like material itself, and the rather banal way it sheathes this otherwise otherworldly architectural shape, is a nod to all kinds of local precedents, most notably Gehry’s deadpan early buildings (the Danziger Studio, say) and the L.A. streetscape photography of the artist Ed Ruscha.
Similarly flexible in both its materials and its relationship to Los Angeles is Johnston Marklee’s retail outlet, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, created for the Belgian designer Martin Margiela. The shop, which opened in 2007, features a façade covered with shimmering white plastic discs. The choice was inspired by the architects’ immersion in Margiela’s archive, where they discovered dresses covered in plastic sequins. The discs Johnston Marklee specified are made in Germany and used as reflectors on road signs, embedding in the design a sly nod to L.A. car culture.
Taken together, these projects and others like them—including a chiseled concrete house finished in Rosario, Argentina, in 2009, and a series of buildings in Marfa, Texas—suggest a firm, like many of Johnston Marklee’s generation, that is picking up momentum but still finding its voice. That’s one reason the Menil commission came as such a surprise.
“They are young, and they haven’t built that many things,” said Josef Helfenstein, the Menil’s director. “There is a tendency in these commissions to choose a big name. I think it took some courage on the part of our trustees not to do that.”