Issue 01: Interview

Mark Lee | Scale and Tension

对话Mark Lee: 尺度与张力

Mark Lee is a principal and founding partner of the Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee. Since its establishment in 1998, Johnston Marklee has been recognized nationally and internationally with over 30 major awards. Mark has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Princeton University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Technical University of Berlin, and ETH Zurich. He  has served as Chair of the Architecture Department at the GSD since 2018. He has held the Cullinan Chair at Rice University and the Frank Gehry International Chair at the University of Toronto. Together with partner Sharon Johnston, Mark Lee was the Artistic Director for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Mark Lee © johnstonmarklee.com

“ I think great public spaces can accommodate various scales and various sizes. By sizes, I mean that public spaces should be able to accommodate the collective and the individual. You can always be yourself in a public space, as well as you can always feel that you are a part of a larger group. In terms of scales, I think being heterogeneous in scale is essential. ”

ChinaGSD: Johnston Marklee has done a series of exciting public and cultural buildings, including museums, exhibitions, pavilions. Most recently was the completion of the Menil Drawing institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Ideally, what qualities should public spaces have? Can you give an example of public space that you think embodies those qualities?

Johnston Marklee设计了一系列令人兴奋的公共和文化建筑,包括博物馆和展览馆。最近完成了梅尼尔绘画学院(Menil Drawing institute)和芝加哥当代艺术博物馆(the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago)。理想情况下,公共空间应该具备哪些品质?你能举一个公共空间体现这些品质的例子吗?

梅尼尔绘画学院(Menil Drawing institute) © johnstonmarklee.com
Mark: When you invoke public space, you often think about the opposite of public spaces, which is private space. How do you define public space might be how you define the opposite of what private spaces. For me, I think good public spaces often have a fascinating interface between the public and the private. It is interesting to find out when does it become private, when does it become public, and where is that interface? I think having the porosity of the boundaries between public and private is always important.

For example, the Menil Drawing Institute buildings we design are situated in a 30-acre campus within the Menil, the art foundation. Unlike many art museums, the boundary is not very clearly defined. It's not like the experience you drive past a wall or gate and suddenly arrive at the foundation. The foundation keeps some of the institutional buildings and private single-family houses, and it is really like a neighborhood. So, it's like you suddenly find yourself arriving into the Menil foundation without knowing when you pass that threshold. I find it very beguiling and an exciting moment of how public space comes to be. It is not like you suddenly walk through the Italian Renaissance gate, then you arrive in the Piazza. The transition is much more surreptitious.



芝加哥当代艺术博物馆 (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago © johnstonmarklee.com

In contrast, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was the intervention we did in a building by Josef Paul Kleihues. He designed a modern building based on the new classical ideal of a museum. The museum sits on a socle, being raised at these grand stairs that bring you up. In a way, there is a very classical ideal between private spaces and public spaces. What we are trying to do to that museum is to keep the syntax and the ethos of the project while at the same time opening it up a lot more. By doing this, what used to be closed is more connected to the exterior, and what used to be a close educational, private space is becoming public space that is connected to more lobby spaces.

相比之下,芝加哥的当代艺术博物馆是我们对Josef Paul Kleihues的一栋建筑进行的改造。他设计了一个基于新古典理想的现代博物馆。博物馆坐落在一个大台基上,人们通过大的阶梯拾级而上。在某种程度上,这是一种非常经典的私人空间和公共空间的原型。我们试图对博物馆做的是保持该项目的秩序和气质,同时将它变得更加开放。由此,过去封闭的空间与外部更紧密地联系在一起,而过去封闭的教育、私人空间变成了公共空间,与更多的大厅相连。

If asked what examples of great public spaces are, I can think of a few and question why they are great public spaces. I think great public spaces can accommodate various scales and various sizes. By sizes, I mean that public spaces should be able to accommodate the collective and the individual. You can always be yourself in a public space, as well as you can always feel that you are a part of a larger group. In terms of scales, I think being heterogeneous in scale is essential.

One great space I love is the Piazza of Saint Peter's in Rome with the famous Bernini colonnade. The colonnade is so axial, ceremonial, and so much about the Catholic Church. However, when you go into that space, you will realize that the columns' base is very anthropomorphic in scale, with 17 or 18 inches as the chair's scale. You can see people sitting down on the base of a column. It's a gigantic column that relates to the Cathedral scale, but there is a scale for the human being, and I find that quite important.

Another example I could think about is St. Peter's Square (Red Square) in Moscow. Unlike the Roman Baroque example, where all the buildings work in concert to form the space, it is formed by multiple types of buildings. It has the Moscow Kremlin on one side, and the Lenin's Tomb on the other. It has St. Basil's Cathedral on one side, and the great GUM Department Store on the other. It seems like very different buildings that come together to form this public space.




There is a kind of generosity about this type of heterogeneity of the building that forms the public space. I could think of examples like Saint Peter's Square and more contemporary examples, like the famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. Very different buildings form them, and it is also a very different type of public space. Shibuya is more about speed people crossing, as opposed to space for contemplation or worship.

The issue of scale can sometimes be accommodated in the example of the detail, like Saint Peter's, but I also see it in the arcade scale. I think Ballet Royal in Paris is also a great example of public space. It is a homogeneous space, but also with a heterogeneous scale of the arcade and the gardens that many things could happen within it.



“I think great public spaces have a way of transcending politics and time and spaces. They are always generous and can accommodate different regimes. ”

ChinaGSD: Together with Sharon Johnston, you were the artistic director of Chicago Biennial’s "Make New History". How do you view public space through the lens of historical contexts? What does history give to public space?

您曾与Sharon Johnston一起担任芝加哥双年展“创造新历史”的艺术总监。您如何透过历史语境的镜头来看待公共空间?历史给了公共空间什么?

2017年芝加哥双年展 (Chicago Architecture Biennial 2017) © johnstonmarklee.com

Mark: When I think about history, I also think about the opposite, which is the future. It is easy to think about these dialectics. For many people, they think history as something that is attributed to the past or something nostalgic. But for me, I see history as a much larger continuum. It is not about the opposition between revolution versus evolution. It is a series of many revolutions that, if you zoom back out, it becomes an evolutionary trajectory.

When we worked on the biennial, one book that was very influential for us was the book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. What the book described really fits into the cultural phenomenon that we see today. Everything is available today, including any images and information is available, which is excellent in high speed. Nevertheless, the problems also appear when everything is available that everything becomes equal and the same. You can put Saint Peter's Cathedral next to a popup shop. As an image, everything is flattened. So, there is a desire for meaning and a desire for structure.

For me, history provides a fundamental structure to what is out there that's very flat and very homogeneous. When we look into how history has been utilized, we can find that historiography has always been within the culture of architecture. Sometimes there are moments when history was like a straitjacket. It is like doing the Beaux-Arts or during the post-modern period. However, I think now we have past that period. Now history is a way for us to learn the patterns and things that happened before informing us about the parallel of how things could happen today.


当我们思考双年展时,有一本书对我们很有影响,那就是迈克尔·哈特(Michael Hardt)和安东尼奥·内格里(Antonio Negri)合著的《帝国》(《Empire》)。这本书所描述的确实符合我们今天所看到的文化现象。现在一切都可以很快被获取,包括图像和信息。然而,问题也出现了,当一切都可获取,一切变得平等和相同。你可以把圣彼得大教堂放在商店橱窗旁边。作为一个图像,一切都是平坦的。所以,人们渴望意义,渴望结构。


So, when I think about the biennial, there are many projects that address the issue of public space. For example, the Belgian Office 51N4E did this project for the Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, Albania. They think about how a traditional square could accommodate this type of dynamics activity. By the design of the square and the landscape, the change of water, the public square becomes an active participant in shaping, as well as responding to activities, opposed to a more static way that reticent to the site.

What is more, HHF, the Swiss office, who teaches here at GSD this year, they looked into the future of parking garages. They suggested that maybe in the future we need less parking because of wide sharing on public transportation. When they designed parking garages that are required today, they already think of how these garages in the future could be converted to spaces like offices and living spaces, with an understanding that it is just a fleeting moment.

Another well-known work is from Standard Architecture. They have been looking at the hutong spaces in Beijing, with an understanding of the lens of metabolism. It is quite interesting for someone outside of China to look back into how a Chinese architect is looking at something historical in China and looking at something that is a much more international in terms of thinking about the metabolism.

In the end, I think great public spaces have a way of transcending politics and time and spaces. They are always generous and can accommodate different regimes. It is thus essential to think of how one could plan that ahead of time.

所以,当我想到双年展的时候,有很多项目都是关于公共空间的。例如, 比利时事务所 51N4E在阿尔巴尼亚的地拉那做了斯坎德培广场的项目。他们思考传统的广场如何适应这种动态的活动。通过广场和景观的设计、水的变化,公共广场成为塑造和回应活动的积极参与者,而不是一个更静态、沉默的场地。




“ The culture and the scale cannot be just paralleled to what is happening in Europe or America, and simply take their models and transplant in China. I'm very interested in how that evolved based on the scale and how these public spaces are used.”

ChinaGSD: In 2012, you have been invited by Ai Weiwei to be part of the Ordos 100 in China. Later In 2013, Pavilion of Six Views was completed for the West Bund Art and Architecture Biennale in Shanghai. How is designing Chinese public space any different to designing elsewhere, like Europe and the United States?

2012年,你受艾未未邀请参加中国鄂尔多斯100 (Ordos 100)。2013年晚些时候,为上海西岸艺术区与建筑双年展(West Bund Art and Architecture Biennale)设计建造的六景馆竣工。你认为中国的公共空间设计与欧洲和美国以及其他地方的设计有什么不同?

House House © johnstonmarklee.com

Mark: The Pavilion of Six Views was the only built project in China designed by us. The design for Ordos 100 was not built. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable moment because, in Ordos 100, we met many people in person, people that we know of, know a little bit of, and admire each other’s work. It became a springboard event for many future collaborations, not all hundred of them, but a smaller group of collaborations. Sometimes when we get together, we still think about Christoph Gantenbein, Kersten Geers, and many other people involved.

When we look back, we always suspect that Ai Weiwei actually did not really care about the buildings. However, he wanted 100 architects to be in the Mongolian desert together in the hotel. In this way, when we were relatively isolated there, much discussion happened.

上海六景馆(Shanghai Pavilion of Six Views)是我们在中国设计的唯一一个已建成的项目。虽然我们为鄂尔多斯100的设计并没有落地,但是,这确是一段难以忘怀的经历,我们在鄂尔多斯100遇到了很多人,一些是我们之前认识的,一些是我们了解比较少的,还有一些彼此欣赏的。鄂尔多斯100就这样成为了未来合作的“跳板”,并不是大范围的合作,而是成就了较小规模的合作。当我们一群人再次聚在一起的时候,仍然会想起Christoph Gantenbein, Kersten Geers和其他参与鄂尔多斯100的朋友们。


上海六望亭 (Shanghai Pavilion of Six Views) © johnstonmarklee.com

The Shanghai Pavilion of Six Views was for the West Bund Art and Architecture Biennale. It was a pavilion design for the three months that the West Bund Biennale was held, but at the same time, they wanted a permanent building, as opposed to something that could be a dismantled in three months. When we asked what is the permanent building for, they are not quite sure about it. So, there is much unknown about how things could change. We designed these six views based on the exhibition and site. We thought about how three of the pavilions captured the view of the outside, which are more extroverted, while another three of them are introverted. Now it is the Shanghai Center of Photography. If we had known before, we would not have built any curve walls because now they cannot accommodate large scale photography.

上海六景馆是为上海西岸艺术区与建筑双年展设计的。这是一个为西岸双年展(West Bund Biennale)举办的三个月的展馆设计,但与此同时,主办更想要一个永久性的建筑而不是在三个月内就可以拆除的东西。当我们问永久建筑的作用是什么的时候,他们也并不是很确定。所以,对于事情会如何改变,是很多未知数的。我们根据展览和场地设计了这“六景”。其中三个展馆着重捕捉外部的景象,更加向外,而另外三个则是更加向内的。现在六景馆成为了上海摄影中心,如果我们之前知道了,就应该不会建造任何曲线墙,因为现在场馆不太能容纳大规模的摄影展览。

For the issue of how Chinese public spaces differ from the US and Europe, I would speak for myself. I myself grew up in Hong Kong, and I saw many types of public spaces, or the types of ways for living, which also happens in Mainland China. The homes are tiny, so people go back mostly for sleep. The public spaces are their living room, and people would like to go out to use public spaces. It is like extending the private spaces into the public realm. When I go to China today, I see the same thing as people in Chinese cities, especially the type of density, take outside spaces as their living rooms.

It is certainly different in terms of scale compared to the American cities. The Chinese block is often eight to ten times over the Manhattan block, so it is a much larger scale at a much larger collect one has to deal with. I am also interested in different ways of occupying the public spaces that you do not see as much in the US or Europe. For example, eating in public spaces is normal and usual in China, much less so in America or Europe for that sense.

The culture and the scale cannot be just paralleled to what is happening in Europe or America, and simply take their models and transplant in China. So, I'm very interested in how that evolved based on the scale and how these public spaces are used.




Another thing I would think of is the acceptance of surveillance. In Beijing Airport, we can board a plane with facial recognition. Regarding the surveillance, people are somehow used to it. Somehow most people do not mind because surveillance makes the space safer. I'm just curious about how this type of surveillance could be broken down into the homes' privacy with 5G technology.

Indeed, it is happening all around the world. Yet, with facial recognition and the 5G technology speed, how would the boundaries between the public and private space also break down virtually opposed to the Menil, which is more like a physical breakdown of the boundaries? The virtually break down in terms of public and private is also something that interests me, and it expects more observation at this moment.



“ How can we stand very close to each other, but still find these view corridors between this density to have the spatial projection? How can we be collective but still maintain the moment of individuality?”

ChinaGSD: Your practice is well regarded for the design of high qualities residential projects situated on beaches, plains, hills. The drivers for these projects might be more specific due to the nature of their scale. Yet, the exterior of these residences suggests these buildings are not introverted, but active in engaging with the outside world. When designing these projects, what is your stance towards neighbors, and by extension the neighborhood?


Vault House © johnstonmarklee.com

Mark: This is something that we have been working on ever since we started our practice, because many US cities are made out of single-family houses like in Los Angeles. Now we have some more, maybe quality public buildings. However, for decades, not a century, Los Angeles architecture was made up of single-family houses. When we started our practice, what we have been noticing is also this notion of density.

Therefore, there is a conflict between the desire to have your own space, your own house, a lot of space around, and how to deal with this encroaching density. Many projects, like the View House in Argentine, the Hill House, the Vault House, or even the Pavilion of Six Views, have to deal with density but still provide a view corridor. This is sort of a Japanese idea of a view borrowing. The analogy I always use is that when you are standing in a very crowded subway train when people are standing right next to you, but between the heads, you can look further.

How can we stand very close to each other, but still find these view corridors between this density to have the spatial projection? It is how we have been thinking about the relationship between a single-family house and the neighborhood. How can we be collective but still maintain the moment of individuality? It is something that has many historical comparisons.


因此,存在这样一种冲突:人们想要拥有自己的空间、自己的房子和周围宽敞的空地,同时还要应对这个不断加剧的密度。许多项目,比如阿根廷的View House、the Hill House、the Vault House,甚至是the Pavilion of Six Views,都必须处理高密度的问题,但仍要提供一个景观视廊。这是日本的一种借景观念。我经常用的比喻是,当你站在非常拥挤的地铁上,人们就站在你旁边,但在头与头的空隙,你可以看得更远。


Poggio Golo Winery © johnstonmarklee.com

For example, a saying goes like houses on the outside need to be conservative, as gentlemen or ladies. We have a larger social decorum from the outside world that the houses have to respond to. Whereas on the inside of the house, it is your private realm. You can be extravagant and crazy. But it somehow breaks down the difference between the exterior and the interior, or the exterior's responsibility versus the interior's responsibility. For some others, there may be little distinction with the glass and wall. The interior and exterior are the same thing for them.

From my perspective, I think there is a middle point where there is a limited engagement to the exterior. Engaging the exterior neighborhood while maintaining privacy within the individual houses is the balance that we are trying to solve in our projects.



ChinaGSD:  There are various public space ideals that are taught in academia, but not always achievable in practice. From your vantage point between academia and practice, how do you value these ideals? What do they mean to us?

在2019年接受《透视》杂志雅克·赫尔佐格(Jacques Herzog)采访时,他提到M+是伦敦泰特现代美术馆(Tate Modern)唯一可能完工的项目。如果以1995年为契机,有哪些设计策略保持了惯例不变,此后又有哪些变化?回顾过去,您如何描述这种做法对公共空间的态度的演变?

Hill House © johnstonmarklee.com

Mark: This is a question, especially for educators and students in an academic environment, and it is a question we always ask ourselves. I want to allude to some artwork that I always refer to by the conceptual artist John Baldessari. In his seventies, he did a series of projects. One is called a photographic project in which he photographed his finger moving consistently. It is called using your finger to achieve a straight line. When he photographed, it's never a straight line but always kind of slightly curved. When I throw balls into the air and try to photograph the balls, it is never exactly safe to form a perfect triangle.

For me, the lesson from this work is that it is essential to have an ideal on the one hand, but also acknowledge that you can never achieve the ideal unless you are really in a totalitarian state. It is important to realize that your ideal and utopia are never achievable. However, rather than lamenting or being said that the ideal could never be achieved, it is better to realize that the discrepancy between the ideal and what you have, and your disposal to achieve that, are the world's content.

这是一个对处于学术环境中的教育者们和学生们的问题,也更是一个我们经常会问自己的问题。我想引用抽象艺术家John Baldessari的一些作品来回答。在John Baldessari 70多岁的时候,他做了一系列作品。其中有一个摄影作品,是他拍摄了他自己手指的持续运动,用手指去实现一条直线。当他拍照的时候,结果从来不是一条直线,总是有些许弯曲的。当我把球扔到空中并试图拍摄球时,同样的,结果从来不是一个完美的三角形。


Being in academia, you have, in a way, slightly insulated by some of the things that are happening outside. How can we introduce and interrogate some of these ideals that one could always think of when you are engaged in something much more professional and much more pragmatic at hand after school? When considering the relationship between academia and practice, I also think of the speed that ideals are realized or semi-realized.

When we trace back to the 20th century and explore how modernism came about worldwide, I tend to look at a place, Scandinavia. In Scandinavia, modernism came very late, like in Sweden, Finland, and Norway, because Scandinavia embraced a type of Nordic Classicism as the national identity at the turn of the century. Such architects like Gunnar Asplund or Alvar Aalto, they all did architecture of Nordic Classicism style. But when modernism finally came in Scandinavia, it came in a refined and mature way right away.

Unlike the modernism that happened in central or western Europe, when they went through the world wars, and when modernism becomes something to prove a point, Scandinavia did not have to do that. Modernism there happened in a much more evolutionary way when it finally happened. So, they didn't have to throw out many things from Nordic Classicism, but Nordic Classicism was incorporated within Scandinavia's modernism.

For me, that was a critical model. It is not just like one revolution overthrew another, but a prolonged and smooth transition. The speed and cadence of how these ideal models are achieved or interpreted is also an important factor. What we see ideals today might be achieved or inspire a different form of realization someday in the future.


当我们追溯至20世纪,探索现代主义是如何在世界范围内产生的,我倾向于这样一个地方,斯堪的纳维亚。在斯堪的纳维亚,现代主义出现得很晚,类似于瑞典、芬兰和挪威,因为在时代转换的过程中,斯堪的纳维亚是以北欧古典主义(Nordic Classicism)作为国家文化象征的。像Gunnar Asplund和Alvar Aalto这样的建筑师,他们都以北欧古典主义为建筑风格。当现代主义最终来到斯堪的纳维亚半岛时,它却迅速以一种精致且成熟的方式出现了。



ChinaGSD: The pandemic has severely impacted the way we use public space. How will this shift the way you understand the future public space?

Mark:  The pandemic is still at an early stage, and we are all experiencing it in a very personal way. Nonetheless, when I look at the furniture design companies, like Littrell, Nordfurniture, most of their main focus in the past was furniture provided for contracted offices with a small amount of dedication to domestic furniture.

However, even before the pandemic, they realized that they have to focus on domestic furniture because more people are working at home, and offices look more like home. You can see the shift in terms of the focus. From my view, the pandemic actually expedited this understanding of the importance of the private space as a workspace with a much more comfortable and acceptable way of using Zoom to communicate now.

目前疫情仍处于早期阶段,我们每个人都在以非常个人的方式经历着它。尽管如此,我发现一些家具设计类公司,如Littrell, Nordfurniture,他们在过去主要侧重的还是为签约的办公室提供家具,而对家庭家具上只做了少量的投入。


Then the question comes, if we have to rethink the private and interior space, what is left of the public space? I am quite optimistic about that. Admittedly, all these things are making the type of privatized lifestyle with working at home more possible. However, at least from my perspective, it can actually help amplifies what a public space truly does.

When people are isolated for so long, they can't wait to go to the beach and have real contact with people. I am very positive that I think public spaces are even more important because people, in the end, need to interact beyond virtual interaction.



“Admittedly, all these things are making the type of privatized lifestyle with working at home more possible. However, at least from my perspective, it can actually help amplifies what a public space truly does. ”

These are some of my thoughts from my own experience. I was quarantined in Hong Kong for two weeks when I was trapped in the room and had to wear a bracelet, activate my app, and walk the room's parameters. Though I asked for a hotel room that's higher with a view, on the 5th day, I still can't stand it. In the end, I went crazy as I looked at the view and started counting windows that I saw outside. The moment at midnight, when my quarantine finally expired, I went to the park that I have been looking at just from the same point of view for two weeks. Just walking around by myself made me feel so different from a very different point of view. It was the point that I started to realize how much I value the physical space versus the virtual screen, which was my window looking out.

I also see this as a parallel like in many forms of history. Like in art history, painting always has the responsibility to represent something. When photography was invented, people questioned whether the painting was dying since they had photography. Not exactly, because now that painting was relieved of its role to represent, painting found something deeper for what it is about. So, in the same way, I think public spaces will truly amplify what they do best for bringing people together in a physical way with this pandemic.



Questions by: 王轶群 Yiqun Wang, 吴逸欣 Yixin Wu, 何牧 Clara He, 陈勇图 Toby Chan
Interview by: 王轶群 Yiqun Wang, 吴逸欣 Yixin Wu
Graphics: 高盛枫 Lisa Gao,秦瑜 Qin Yu,吴叶 Bella Wu

Editing/Layout: 汪宸宇 Claire Wang,吴叶 Bella Wu,  施云子 Yunzi


Proofing/Overview: 何牧 Clara He,汪子京 Tommy Wang,曾迪 Di Zeng ,陈勇图 Toby Chan
Translation: 刘诗宇 Shiyu Liu, 王暠 Gao Wang

2020 | ChinaGSD