NB: This is a write-up of a talk that took place at Postopolis! LA during April 2009. Notes are taken in real-time, with editing and context added afterward so reader beware. All Postopolis! LA entries are gathered here.
Johnston Marklee are LA-based and were formed in 1998. Their key works include the Sale House, the Hill House in Pacific Palisades (ArchDaily), and the recent Complex concrete house in Argentina. They say the office has a “team of between 7 and 12 people depending on what month it is …”
(I’m afraid I didn’t generally record which answers were from Johnston or Lee, so these answers below might present an accidentally unified view of the practice.)
The David’s now-familiar opening gambit: “What is architecture?”
They take the answer for a walk along on a circuitous route, noting that there are “different moments in history where architecture is discussed a lot - say with the ‘80s and pomo. Now it’s discussed a lot in the general public.” They say that “architecture has to bear the responsibility to take on every new thing” but that it’s “important to realise what architecture does best - and there are certain things that other media does better …” (A playfully evasive answer, but interesting.)
The Davids ask “what do you think should be the role of an architect?”
Johnston replies that “we’re heading off to a lecture - “Designing Life” - and the gist of it is about how design thinking can inform practice and inform discipline …” They say they’re certainly “interested in how architects can inform political practice.”
Lee adds, tongue firmly in cheek, that “architects should be superstars - and solve all problems of the world.” He then proceeds with “culture is very fast and architecture is very slow. It demands a lot of financial resources, impacts on city in a very permanent way. It’s a very slow art. What an architect does best is to reaffirm the importance of the physical environment. In virtual world, many different human relationships have been consecrated, and less attention paid on the physical realm.” (This slowness, like slow food perhaps, could certainly be a strategic virtue.)
When asked about innovation and creativity, Lee continues by mentioning George (what sounded like Batard but was probably) Bataille, who “talked about writing out of pure experimentation as opposed to writing that came out of pure necessity. When you need to be inventive out of necessity, that’s a time for architects to step up and be creative. Now architects needs to address the most important issues - whether it needs to be sustainability or housing. We have to deal with moments of excess we have to deal with in our practice. You have to be in both realms.”
Johnston notes that “we reference a lot. We have a extensive library. We measure our work against history - so we don’t have the impetus at the start of every project to ‘be innovative’. It’s a by-product of the way we understand the parameters of our practice.”
They reply that “it’s important, but not separate from process of architecture.”
As if cheekily following on from this question, David A asks how they got involved in the (in)famous Ordos project. Sure enough, Johnston responds with “Networks”, with a grin. They both studied at Harvard; they both studied with Herzog + De Meuron. They describe Ordos as a “mega architectural orgy”. They say “the scale is what fascinates us. Beyond a certain scale it beocmes something more than just a collection. We suspect our disbelief. We’re interested in a selection - and how it’s curated, when all don’t necessarily share the same tastes or sensibility … Ai Wei Wei is an important figure. There may be a way of still creating a certain coherence despite all the difference.”
In their work in general, they say they’re “interested in finding clients and collaborators that we will travel with together. We’re interested in clients who come to us who see an aspiration in the long run, as opposed to someone who has arrived and sees us as a trophy …”
Afterwards, Joseph Grima asks about their work with the photographer Livia Corona and their work on the Sale House project. They say she was interested in “the content, the mathematics of the house, the colour scheme of the house.” She “created a portfolio that became her commentary on gerontology.” They were interested in the “life outside of architecture - the inhabitants … We asked her to do the project as we thought it would bring out something that we wouldn’t see … which we then took into the new project.”
(I like this idea very much - the idea of working with multidisciplinary collaborators to further explore the work. It’s not only humble, but exploratory.)In general, I’d like to have heard Johnston and Lee talking more, outside the constraints of the interview format, either around their own work or that of others. They were articulate and considered, though not without a light touch.