‘The houses establish a sense of place where none exists’
The small LA firm of Johnston Marklee is cultivating a singular reputation, one house at a time, competing for larger projects - and finally winning some.
Mark Lee was born in Hong Kong and Sharon Johnston in Santa Monica; they met in Herzog & de Meuron’s Harvard studio, got married and opened their office in 1998. Art is a consuming passion - evident in the dozen small houses they’ve sculpted, and in the mastery of light and space they’ve demonstrated in four small galleries. That endears them to curators and collectors, and brought them commissions to design the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, an art complex near Rome and an art school extension for UCLA.
The firm uses simple building blocks to achieve complexity and surprise. Though it makes full use of software, its architecture is hands on. Platonic solids are juxtaposed or carved away; planes are chamfered or curved, giving each project a distinct identity while using a similar language. The houses establish a sense of place where none exists.
Sale House (2001-04) replaced a Venice, California, bungalow that had been destroyed by fire. Its grey stucco cubes and courtyard complement the celebrated 2-4-6-8 annexe to the original house by Morphosis.
A precipitous site in Santa Monica Canyon determined the form of Hill House (2002-04). A cube is sharply tapered at the base to minimise the number of caissons required to support the steel-frame structure, and the upper storey slopes in to conform to strict limits on massing. The angles impart a feeling of ‘springiness’, as though the block were performing callisthenics, and there’s a dramatic contrast between the expansive main floor, which opens up to the canyon on two sides, and the intimate enclosures above and below.
In Vault House (2005-09) in Oxnard, Los Angeles, there is a balance of openness and privacy. Deep cuts animate the impassive white bar, pulling in light yet shutting out a neighbouring house. Split levels and an inner courtyard give rooms a glimpse of the ocean and a share of its breezes. It is named for its curved arches and ceiling vault, abstracting the Mediterranean tradition, still the default style in southern California.
Hut House, Kauai, Hawaii (2010-14) is a holiday home for a designer and her guests. It incorporates the ‘traditional Hawaiian roof’, while cleverly subverting it. This village-like cluster within a monolithic enclosure anticipates the larger projects that are now in development. The simplest of these is an extension to a bow-truss warehouse in Culver City, which UCLA’s graduate art school has outgrown. In contrast to the radical interventions of Eric Owen Moss on neighbouring blocks, Johnston Marklee has retained the light industrial character of the original, employing wood trusses skinned in polycarbonate for light-filled studios that open onto sculpture courtyards.
Source: Gustavo Frittegotto
The Gran Traiano Art Complex regenerates an abandoned site in the hill town of Grottaferrata near Rome. Commissioned by the Depart Foundation, it weaves existing buildings into a cluster of galleries, offices and house-studios for artists in residence. Cubic forms are stacked, rotated and extended into the landscape.
The firm’s most prestigious project is the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston however - a stand-alone addition across from Renzo Piano’s museum and the Cy Twombly Gallery, opening in 2017. The challenge, as on Kauai, was to unify separate elements and mitigate a hot, humid climate. Taking their cues from neighbouring houses and the small scale of works on paper, the architects designed a low pavilion with a shallow-pitch roof that extends out to embrace mature oaks and provide cooling areas of shade. The roof was conceived as a folded sheet of paper, and the whole building feels as delicate as origami, despite being clad in 800mm-wide cypress boards. Visitors enter an intimate gathering space from open courtyards at the east and west ends; scholars enjoy a private courtyard and a skylit viewing room. All the galleries are gently side-lit - to only five foot-candles - to protect the exhibits and evoke the subdued lighting of the private houses where many of these works were first displayed.
Johnston Marklee are still working on a small scale: building a cylindrical vacation house that rises above the almond groves of Catalonia, a modest annexe to Richard Neutra’s Sten House in Santa Monica and a barn-like private art gallery in Beverly Hills. However, the growth of their ambitions is best exemplified by their masterplan for Kleihues’s dysfunctional Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where they are striving to reconfigure a cramped site to increase exhibition space. The office has grown from seven to 20 people in the past few years and is likely to continue expanding in line with the practice.