Architects Johnston Marklee are redefining art spaces
Los Angeles architecture firm Johnston Marklee’s list of art world projects is long – from the white geometric planes of the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston to the recent transformation of Roy Lichtenstein’s former New York studio into a permanent home for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program. In LA, the firm has played a significant role in the ongoing evolution of the city’s artistic landscape, having designed the West Coast galleries of New Yorkers Karma and Marian Goodman, plus the studios of Alex Israel, Sterling Ruby, and many more.
Throughout, founders Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee continually find new meaning to the old adage, “form follows function,” as the expanding culture of public programming in both galleries and museums demands new types of architecture. Below, they discuss their unique approach to designing art spaces, and their particular affinity for working with artists.
Let’s start by defining the features of a great exhibition space. Is the conventional white cube still the ideal?
Sharon Johnston: As we work on museums and bigger galleries, we look at both the room and the connectivity between rooms. Galleries are spaces for art – and often ancillary things: they have a social dimension, and in the case of Karma or Marian Goodman, they might also have a publishing practice. We designed Marian Goodman’s gallery with the circulation of a mini city, rather than the formality of the white cube as a solitary space. The rooms are like different blocks oriented around a civic common – an open, central area where you have breathing room to move between things. Each space feels quite different and specific. There are some high ceilings where the texture of the roof is exposed, and others with lowered ceilings and borrowed light.
Mark Lee: That specificity of different scales is very important. Smaller, more intimate works often work better in smaller rooms. When people ask for spaces that can do everything, including accommodate 1,000 people, they’re sacrificing the quality of the space for a situation that only happens 1% of the time. Art needs a defined space that slightly isolates your senses for you to engage with artworks, and it’s the proportions and the neutrality of a room that makes it great.
A space that can do everything, including host an exhibition, performance, or gala, has been a recurring theme in new museums of the last 10 or 15 years. Does the rise of flexible architecture reflect the evolution in how museums engage with the public?
SJ: A couple of years ago, we finished a partial renovation of the MCA Chicago, and what was interesting was that our scope was not gallery space, but all the other spaces. We worked with Chris Ofili on the restaurant, and created a space called The Commons to just hang out, or to see an activation. These are more informal, temporal spaces, rather than a white box, so it’s a much more multi-dimensional experience. That was based on a lot of research that the director Madeleine Grynsztejn and others have done, where audiences said that they’re looking for great exhibition experiences, but they’re also going to the museum to hang out and be with their friends. People stay longer; they’re not just going to show and leaving.
Earlier, as you were describing Marian Goodman gallery as an urban planning project, it sounded similar to your approach to the art studios for UCLA’s graduate program.
SJ: Yes, and I think it’s worked really well. It’s like a neighborhood of studios where students can feel a sense of community; they can hear things happening, but they each have their own studio. We also built an addition around the perimeter of the building that’s really open, volumetric and unbounded. We love those qualities in a building that’s both intimate and small, yet has spaces to get messy and work big.
You recently converted Roy Lichtenstein’s former studio into the new home of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. What can you tell us about the project?
ML: This is a legendary program that a lot of artists, curators, and directors came through, but never had a permanent home until Roy Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein, donated his old studio to the museum. Alongside the retirement of Ron Clark, who’s led the ISP for more than half a century, the building marks a new chapter for the program. For the curatorial and critical studies areas, we referred to institutional types of libraries and study carousels, but approached the visual artists’ spaces very differently. For us, a space conducive to creation has to be a bit open, casual, and not too constrained, so we actually exposed a lot of the studs of these new walls of these studios that we’ve created. It creates a sense of incompleteness, or always becoming. We also kept a lot of Lichtenstein’s relics; he was a bit like Da Vinci in that he invented a lot of tools, like racks for hanging his paintings or a rotating easel.
You also often work directly with artists, whether it’s in designing exhibitions or their personal studios. What kind of potential does the dialogue between artist and architects hold?
SJ: There are so many problems to solve in architecture, and I think working with artists crystallizes certain conditions, even outside direct collaboration. When we were developing the Drawing Institute at the Menil, Luisa Lambri would come by for studio visits, and we would talk about how the tonality of the floor could tell a story about moving through the building. The way she sees architecture through light—she has such a mastery of atmosphere. She gave us a fresh lens through which to look at colors or work through materials.
ML: These creative moments are important for us. When we worked with Robert Irwin early in his Chinati project, he really taught us how to look at things. He would draw these very profane examples to illustrate something quite deep. Once, out of the blue, he asked, “What is the darkest place you’ve experienced?” and explained how in the middle of Las Vegas, the slant of the Luxor Hotel’s walls didn’t reflect any light. We also love the art world because we’re not technically in it, which we find very invigorating. It’s a refuge from the architecture world.
Janelle Zara is a freelance writer specializing in art and architecture. She is the author of Masters at Work: Becoming an Architect (2019). She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Published on December 19, 2023.
Caption for full-bleed image: 1. Studio Hallway at UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios. Photograph by Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Johnston Marklee.