Too young to reason and too grown up to dream

(View House, Rosario, Argentina)

What is it?

The title of a lecture given yesterday evening at the Faculty of Art and Design at Monash University by Mark Lee of American architecture practice, Johnston Marklee.

Lee presented a number of the practice’s projects to the predominantly student audience, both complete and current, spanning countries as amazingly diverse as the United States, Italy, Argentina and Mongolia. Despite the claim of the lecture title to hover between the poles of reason and dreams (New York brains and Los Angeles beauty), the practice’s work is far from subtle or nuanced. Indeed, we found it to be the opposite – bold and striking, unapologetically monolithic. Most of the projects shown during the course of the lecture employ heavy mass, carved into shape and punctured by sharp apertures that serve only to emphasis the solidity of the volume.

Lee’s stage presence was similarly emphatic. Relatively young to be treading an international lecture circuit, his “prodigious knowledge of both architectural history and contemporary discourse” leant an academic air to his address. Curiously though, his references to architectural, artistic and literary influences were so regular they bordered on an uncomfortable intellectual snobbery (“of course you will recognise this photo by Julius Schulman…”). However, his imagery was polished, ideas interesting and built forms beautiful. This is an architectural practice already comfortable with the world stage, an arena in which we expect them to feature even more prominently in coming years.

What do we think?

During the lecture we experienced an odd nostalgia that we were able to place only later. Thinking about it, we understood it to be a nostalgia rooted in the lectures we attended as architecture students, impressed and inspired by the rich world of ideas introduced to us for the first time. The ideas of that world were expressed via an intoxicating alchemy of slickly crafted images and thesaurus-augmented parlance. Eagerly we drank it all in.

More than a few years have passed since we first fawned over Sean Godsell’s timber boxes and Howard Raggatt’s photocopying distortions. As practising architects, we are alas all too familiar with the responsibilities of planning regulations, tight budgets, building codes and clients who are less interested in esotery than having a good view from their master bedroom.

Now that we know how things get done, we ask how Johnston Marklee can continue to occupy a world of pure ideas? Questioning Lee after the lecture on this subject, he was quick to reassure us that pragmatics are indeed central to their decision making during the evolution of a project’s design. The accidental intersections that occur between the “randomly arranged” vaults in Vault House for instance are not accidental at all, but carefully placed to ensure the program is addressed and the client is satisfied.

(Vault House, California, United States of America)

This was a revealing insight into the truth lurking within or perhaps behind Lee’s smooth architectural discourse, and perhaps an interpretation contrary to his claims. The pure world of ideas that delighted us as students is dirtier than we might have thought. It exists, but it does so alongside, or even in subservience to, the more mundane priorities of construction, engineering, affordability and planning guidelines.

At first glance, this may read like a pessimistic conclusion with which to finish, but we see it otherwise. Our takeaway message is that the opportunity for us to engage at an intellectual level in our work is limited only by our desire to do so and commitment to see our ideas through to completion. As architects, we must be careful to keep one foot firmly planted in two worlds – we must forever remain grown up enough to reason and young enough to dream.

(Hill House, California, United States of America)

2 thoughts on “Too young to reason and too grown up to dream

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  1. Excellent wrap up.

    I agree with your view that it is a fine balance however these guys provide an impression of the scales tipped heavily on the dream. This is obviously the skill that they possess and the reason they are on tour.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I agree their work (or at least the way they speak about their work) is heavily slanted towards the esoteric, as are a lot of international architects whom we see present. It’s interesting to note that most Australian architects we see speak are predominantly interesting in real, physical issues – site, budget, environment, programme, history, context. Is this because Australia doesn’t have the architectural intellect to engage with broader issues or are these in fact the broader issues?

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