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.
The plans for the Drawing Institute remain preliminary and have not yet been released to the public. Johnston Marklee has proposed a single-story building, encompassing roughly 20,000 square feet, wrapped in gray brick and snaking around three courtyards, each containing a large existing live oak tree. Like Renzo Piano’s Menil galleries and the other buildings that make up the museum campus, such as the Rothko Chapel by Philip Johnson and Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, the design has a frankness and a domestic character, and it takes advantage of the parklike setting. Though the scale is small, the program incorporates not just exhibition space for works on paper but studios and conservation rooms.
According to Helfenstein, the clarity of Johnston Marklee’s competition entry made the firm a good fit for that context: “There was a minimalism and efficiency in their proposal, very much serving the cause and not advertising itself or pointing out itself. I thought that was encouraging and refreshing. And very much in the spirit of this institution.”
I know what Helfenstein means when he says that, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call Johnston and Lee simply minimalists, as if they were Southern California devotees of Tadao Ando or John Pawson. There is a geometric and conceptual complexity to their work—subtle, but present all the same. It’s visible in the firm’s proposal for the huge Grand Traiano Art Complex just southeast of Rome—a hillside stack of big boxes—and in its design, still awaiting funding, for new University of California at Los Angeles graduate art studios in Culver City, which call for a vaulted polycarbonate roof covering a kind of interior city.
I’m also not sure I’d agree with the Houston Chronicle, which in a headline announcing the results of the Drawing Institute competition described Johnston and Lee as “glam L.A. architects.” Their connections in the fashion and art worlds and their own sense of style might lead one to that conclusion. (Lee was wearing suspenders over a black T-shirt the day we talked at the office, and both architects are prominently bespectacled even by the standards of the profession.) But in person and in their architecture, Johnston and Lee aim for a kind of accessible mystery; the work is veiled, but the veil is light and easily removed.
As Lee put it, “We do strive for a certain reticence, but it’s not an aloofness. It’s not being elitist. I think in a way it’s an aura we use as a kind of protection. But if people want to penetrate it they can.”
To get a final reading, I emailed Kersten Geers of Office, which has often worked side-by-side with Johnston Marklee on group projects. He described their architecture as “part pragmatism, part show, part tongue in cheek, but most of all very intelligent.”
Geers knows Southern California well; he and his Office partner, Van Severen, met while living in Southern California in their 20s. As a result, he zeroed right in on the complicated relationship Johnston and Lee enjoy with Los Angeles and the L.A. firms that came before them. In their work, he wrote, “It is possible that there are some connections with [older] L.A. architects—Owen Moss, perhaps, Gehry—but always without the forced exuberance. More dry, less outspoken.”
He added, “L.A. has always been a strange place, a kind of Western Eden, as much artificial as it is aware of it. Mark and Sharon are a perfect product of that ambivalent scene.”