Alumni Q&A with Mark Lee MArch ’95, Chair of the Department of Architecture
Mark Lee MArch ’95 assumed the role of Chair of the Department of Architecture and Professor in Practice of Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) on July 1, 2018. He is a principal and founding partner of Johnston Marklee, which since its establishment in 1998 has been recognized nationally and internationally with over thirty major awards. Projects undertaken by Johnston Marklee span seven countries throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Recent projects include the renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which opened in September 2017; the new UCLA Graduate Art Studios campus in Culver City, California; the design of the new Dropbox global headquarters in San Francisco; and the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, Texas, opening November 2018. Along with partner Sharon Johnston MArch ’95, Lee served as Co-Artistic Director of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial and participated in the GSD’s symposium “New Materialism: Histories Make Practice | Practices Make History” at the Biennial last September.
Prior to his appointment as Professor in Practice at Harvard GSD, Lee held the position of Frank Gehry Chair at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, and Cullinan Guest Professor at Rice University School of Architecture, in addition to appointments at ETH (Zurich) and UCLA. Lee has taught as a design critic at the GSD since 2013, and has served as a visiting critic at institutions around the world. He was also a member of Harvard GSD’s 2018 Wheelwright Prize jury.
1. Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong while it was a British Colony. In 1983, I moved to Los Angeles. I was part of the generation who left Hong Kong after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Deng Xiaoping and confirmed that Hong Kong would return to China. A lot of my friends went to either the UK or other Commonwealth countries. I came to Los Angeles and went to the University of Southern California for my Bachelor of Architecture degree. At first, I did not intend to stay in the US, but after a while, Los Angeles began to feel like home. I worked for a couple of years after graduation, and then I came to the GSD for my MArch degree.
2. What drew you to the GSD?
GSD was at the time, and is still, head and shoulders above other schools. When I was a student in Los Angeles, I was aware of the GSD graduates who took very high profile positions within large offices, like Gehry Partners or S.O.M., and others who started their own exciting practices right away or soon after school. I was attracted to the diversity of the types of practices and positions represented by GSD alumni. The profile of GSD alumni was and is very strong. Also, Harvard as a university is an incredible attraction with the other great departments and schools. Being in this type of intellectual community has always been highly appealing to me.
3. What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
One of the things I learned at the GSD is the human dimension behind the architects we studied. When you look at architects from a distance, or when you learn of them and their work from a distance, they could come across as these towering figures. However, when you’re at the GSD, you actually get to work closely with them and know them as human beings. As a student, I had the opportunity to work with Peter Eisenman, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. You get to know them as people and understand that you can also be one of them, which is very liberating; you can achieve what they have achieved, as opposed to their being these distant deities or figures.
My first option studio was taught by Peter Eisenman, who was a visiting design critic at the time. I had the chance to work in his highly theoretical studio for fifteen weeks, which was incredibly intense. This was followed by an option studio taught by Herzog & de Meuron, which was the diametric opposite of Peter Eisenman’s but equally fantastic. It was a time before they designed the Tate Gallery in London, while they were working on incredibly important small projects such as the Goetz Collection in Munich. I had the opportunity to work with them very intimately on many aspects of the design project. Also, this was the studio where I met Sharon [Johnston MArch ’95, partner and spouse].
4. While you were a student at the GSD, did you experience classes or lectures at other Harvard schools?
I’ve always been interested in the arts and history. When I was a student at the GSD, I took a lot of classes in art history and in Sackler. I took classes with the art history professor Yve-Alain Bois and Norman Bryson, who was a visiting professor. Dave Hickey, an art critic who was also a visiting professor, was an incredible teacher. We stayed in touch over the years. These experiences really benefited mine and Sharon’s professional career later on when we were working with institutions and artists.
5. Tell us about your professional career.
My lifelong interest in modern and contemporary art has certainly shaped our career in many ways. Our first projects were in Marfa, Texas a few years after Donald Judd passed away. We started renovating houses and designing structures for poets and writers in residence for the Lannan Foundation. Over the course of a few years, we met a lot of artists or curators who were doing their residencies in Marfa. Many of them became lifelong friends and collaborators. We started helping them design their exhibitions or collaborating on their projects. Eventually, we designed houses for the collectors and museum exhibitions for their shows. Now we’re designing museums or institutions with directors and chief curators that were young curators at the beginning of their careers back then. We have been blessed with having very good friends and collaborators that we crossed paths with early on.
6. What is your vision for the Department of Architecture?
The GSD Architecture Department has always played a critical role in reflecting upon and shaping the field. Today, a lot of focus within the field has been placed upon the discipline itself, as opposed to the last thirty or forty years where there has been a general tendency of going towards the periphery of the discipline, interrogating its boundaries. Now that the so-called boundaries have been eroded, people are much more interested in the irreducible cores of the discipline itself. So with the newly demarcated and redrawn boundaries on the discipline, I would like to foster connections through strategic bridge-building between these redefined boundaries. I like to use bridge building as an analogy because bridges are much more defined and articulated than the dissolution of boundaries for the way I would like the Department of Architecture to operate within the School. How can we build bridges between different cultures? I see the GSD as the most Eurocentric school in America, and that is really our strength. This is something that needs to be preserved and expanded, but at the same time, we should consider the other bridges that we need to build in different cultures, especially into Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The GSD is much more global today, and these bridges are important because of the global makeup of the GSD community and the architecture community. This will be reflected in the visitors we bring to our department, which reflect our current student body. I hope to see this in our courses and our interdepartmental work. Also, I hope to build a bridge that will promote collaboration across all departments. I look forward to working closely with Diane Davis (Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design) and Anita Berrizbeitia MLA ’87 (Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture).
7. What is your first order of business as Chair?
I see my first year as a year of orientation. I know the GSD from when I was here as a student. I know the GSD as a visitor from the last four or five years. But, I won’t really know the GSD until I am here in the trenches. As an architect, I’m a contextualist in the sense that I always try to understand the history and the context of a site first. I’m trying to take the same approach to my chairmanship. There are a lot of things I need to learn and understand how the GSD works.
Dean Mohsen Mostafavi talks about the importance of community and the relationships between students and faculty; this is certainly something on which I would like to build. Also, junior faculty should be more connected to senior faculty, to our visitors, and the students, as they’re such an important core of our department. As part of my orientation, I’m having one-on-one meetings with faculty and staff and making myself available to the students. The foundations of core are very important, and following the tradition of Chairs of the Department, I’m serving as the coordinator of the core one studio this first semester. I see my immediate task as understanding where these foundations evolve from, and then where they could go.
Additionally, I’m planning a series of lectures that pair a junior faculty member with a visitor or senior faculty member, where I would moderate the discussion. This type of intergeneration discussion is very important. It breaks down the hierarchy. Whether one is at the beginning of their career or more advanced in their career, there may be many points that overlap. Seeing and hearing that discussion will be invaluable for both the participants and the students.
8. What do you see as the future of design education for architecture? And/or how do you see how the GSD can help shape this?
Historically, architecture has both been overestimated and underestimated. Understanding exactly what architecture could contribute to is much more empowering than thinking architecture could solve every problem in the world. Having a grasp on the limitations and possibilities of architecture demands a mastery and very delicate balance. This is something I hope could be an ethos that I’d focus on under my chairmanship.
It is important for students to learn about pacing one’s career. I recall the words of John Hejduk MArch ’53, who spoke about how there are architects who are short distance runners, and there are architects that are long-distance runners. Architecture is a marathon; it’s essential to find your colleagues, your friends, and your fellow travelers who will go along with you.
9. What are some of the biggest challenges in the field today? How might this change in the future?
Too much attention has been placed upon the exceptional buildings; the 1%. Whereas the quality of architecture for the 99% of our city fabric is quite low. There’s a big gap between what is being discussed and what we experience in the city. For architecture to have strong powers as a discourse as a cultural category, the quality of the 99% has to be raised higher. Not to take away from that 1%, but the discussion and the focus have to be much more spread out.
10. Johnston Marklee is one of the most talented practices currently working in the United States and beyond. How will you balance your role at the GSD with your practice?
I’m still learning how to balance my practice with my role as Chair; but to run the department, I have to be at the GSD in person. Johnston Marklee has opened a satellite office that is within walking distance of the school. Our main base is still in LA because we’ve been there more than twenty years, and our team is there, but we are in the process of building our Cambridge office, starting with a few GSD alumni. I would like to see my academic and professional commitments have a reciprocal relationship with one another.
11. What value have you seen in engaging with the GSD alumni community?
I’ve been fortunate to participate in various alumni events such as the 2016 GSD reception at DesignMiami/ and several events in Los Angeles. Sharon and I have hosted talks in our office and dinners in the buildings we have designed for donors. We have also participated and returned to campus for the Grounded Visionaries campaign. These times where meaningful, not were we able to reconnect with alumni we haven’t seen in a long time, but also see former teachers; like when I saw Eduard Seckler [the former Osgood Hooker Professor of Visual Art Emeritus and Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the Graduate School of Design] and his students at the Grounded Visionaries launch. Seeing the multiple generations of alumni helps realize, as alumni and students we are part of this larger chain of the students here.
12. About what design problems are you passionate?
Often, Johnston Marklee is commissioned to do one very specific project. The ones that we’re most passionate about are the projects that have larger implications. When we get to understand that the one problem we have been trying to solve is actually a larger, global problem. The results not only serve the building that you’re designing, but could have implications on other future buildings such as challenges in zoning a house within a city or sustainable ways of construction.
Some examples are the early houses that we have built in Los Angeles. We built on difficult hillsides, and we realized that it’s not just about this house, but it’s about how we deal with the hillside ordinance, and the desire to preserve the ecology of the hillside but still allow for development to happen. Or when we built the Vault House, which we saw as a typology of how to build on the beach. Understanding these different ecologies of what architecture could do was a learning experience.
13. How has the GSD changed since you were a student?
There are pros and cons. When I was a student, you could see and feel the size of the entire community and see everyone’s face on the trays. I have not experienced any architecture school like the trays in Gund Hall where you really feel the presence of everybody. As the school has grown larger, there are more people you don’t see or people who don’t take studios. The community has become more extended, but that’s also its strength. You get a lot more people who are not just focused on architecture. I think those are the most interesting things I see at GSD right now.
14. You along with Sharon Johnston MArch ’95 served as Artistic Directors for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial that drew over 550,000 residents and visitors from the U.S. and around the world. What was most memorable about this experience?
It was an incredible experience because it was the second year of the biennial exhibition. I feel it’s important because you need a second one to make it a biennial. It is the only North American architecture biennial and is situated in a city where architecture is so important. The duration of the show was half that of the Venice Biennial, which is the grandfather of biennials, but it drew twice as many visitors, which speaks to the interest in architecture to the general audience. We certainly tried to appeal to cognoscenti or architects, but also to the general audience. The nice thing about it was over the three months it was open, every time we went back, we saw kids, we saw students, we saw senior citizens enjoying the show. We tried to speak to many different demographics.
15. You have taught at several other universities including Princeton University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Technical University of Berlin, ETH Zurich, Rice University, and the University of Toronto. What sets the GSD apart?
The difference is that the teachers at the GSD are usually the ones who actually wrote the books that are studied and referenced in other schools. Another difference is the generally high quality of the students, they are really incredible. When the students have such a high intellectual capacity, the discourse and the thinking are at a completely different level.
There are always two aspects to teaching. There’s knowledge transference; as a teacher, you have more experience than students, and you transfer that knowledge to them. Secondly, there is knowledge production, which produces new knowledge. I think that is one of the attractions for faculty to be at the GSD is not just transferring what you know, but to use this opportunity to create new knowledge or work with students to test new ideas. This calls for a high caliber of student, and Harvard has the highest caliber of students. It’s an attraction for the visiting faculty to be here too. It is really unparalleled.
16. What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?
Finding your friends and finding your fellow travelers are important. When we first started our practice after we left GSD, we decided we didn’t want to be architects where our clients are people who have arrived and hire us as a trophy. We want to find our fellow travelers, and we want to travel with them—whether they are collaborators or clients. In understanding that architecture is a long distance race, you realize the importance of finding people that you share, have sympathies or empathies with what you believe in, and then travel the path of a career with them. Developing relationships and friendships is important.
17. Where do you go to feel inspired?
When I am in Southern California I like to go to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla to the structures designed by Louis Kahn. It’s a place where I feel the power of solitude. When I feel melancholic, my spirits are lifted there. When I am happy, I feel joyous there. This is the power of great architecture; it leaves you alone when you want to be, but when you want to inquire it tells you a lot, just like a good friend. That’s the quality that I see in great buildings. When I feel the need for solitude or refuge here in Cambridge, I simply walk down the block to the Carpenter Center and take a stroll through the ramp.
This Q&A is part of a series of articles profiling newly appointed department chairs. The series includes: