PRINT September 2014


Kulapat Yantrasast

wHY, Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation, anticipated completion 2016, Los Angeles. Rendering.

KULAPAT YANTRASAST is willing (though perhaps not happy) to play second fiddle. For seven years he worked for Tadao Ando, serving as project architect on the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, a quintessentially Ando-ish collection of concrete boxes. And though Yantrasast started his own firm, wHY, in Los Angeles in 2003, he continued serving as Ando’s right hand on additions to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, unveiled this summer. At the same time, he has been working with the curators of the Harvard Art Museums to install their collection in Renzo Piano’s new galleries (set to open in November). Piano, busy with dozens of large commissions, trusted Yantrasast not just to design display cases and pedestals but to position pieces within the galleries.

The forty-five-year-old Yantrasast, who seems to have learned much from his apprenticeships with these masters of gray and white, avoided adding ornament to Piano’s white-on-white galleries, even those devoted to decorative arts. The Chinese galleries, for instance, will house folding screens and hanging scrolls originally displayed in ornate spaces. But the rooms won’t have even a hint of what he calls “Chinese-ness.” “I find the idea of fabricating context patronizing,” says Yantrasast, who was born in Thailand and spent over a decade in Japan (chez Ando) before moving to the US in 2003. Without distracting details or colors other than white, he explains, objects are free to tell their own stories. That may not be strictly true, but it is a (modernist) approach that has helped Yantrasast, now playing first fiddle, win three major museum commissions, as well as the loyalty of gallerists such as LA’s David Kordansky (whose new space on South La Brea, designed by Yantrasast, opens this September). Yantrasast recognizes the simple truth of architecture in the art world: Context must recede.

True, there is plenty of discussion about how art museums should build: Go for the Bilbao effect (that is, try for an instant icon) or take a more restrained approach, exemplified by Yantrasast’s 2007 Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, a relatively staid concrete structure that delights in subtle ways. But whatever the outward form of the buildings, the galleries are pretty much the same: simple volumes with white walls and floors of wood or concrete, creating the viewing environment that has long been de rigueur for contemporary art.

All this explains why Yantrasast’s Marciano Art Foundation, in a former Scottish Rite Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard in LA, may be the most exciting museum building in decades. To display some of their holdings, including Mark Grotjahn and Sterling Ruby pieces that are difficult to show in compact spaces, brothers Maurice and Paul Marciano, creators of the clothing brand Guess, bought the mothballed temple. It is a rarity among Masonic halls in that it was built in the postwar period; Millard Sheets, best known for branch banks across Southern California adorned with gigantic historical mosaics, designed the vaguely modernist building and created most of the Masonic iconography for its largely windowless interior. Somewhat surprisingly, given the relative austerity of his other projects, Yantrasast describes this elaborate setup as “close to a dream come true” for both architect and artists—“an interesting building, so much material to play with.” Ryan Trecartin has already featured the exotic imagery of the building’s abandoned interiors in a video, and other artists will create site-specific works inspired by, and even incorporating, Sheets’s handiwork. Now, with the opening planned for 2016, it is Yantrasast’s turn. His biggest intervention will be functional: leveling the floor of an auditorium formerly used for Masonic pageants so that it will work as a gallery space. Otherwise, he is preserving as much as he can.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has been reinstalling parts of the permanent collection, Yantrasast has likewise maintained the thick moldings and richly colored surfaces of the 1893 beaux arts building. And at the venerable Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, which he is renovating and expanding, he is allowing himself to “play with the existing decorative elements” of the 1927 building. Yet the galleries in Yantrasast’s addition will be as neutral as those in Grand Rapids and Fort Worth, dependent, he says, on “subtle plays of scale [and] light.” Is it cognitive dissonance—a pleasure in ornament, so long as it is someone else’s—that allows his multifaceted approach?

Luckily, Yantrasast is good at emphasizing whatever details he has to work with, such as the string trusses in the new Kordansky gallery. The ceiling of his space for Perry Rubenstein in LA, meanwhile, contains a skylight that is also a visual pun: It is the precise shape of one of the o’s—complete with chamfered corners—in the nearby HOLLYWOOD sign. But that bit of literalism is OK in the art world, since cutting a through a ceiling can’t be described as adding ornament. This is presumably why Yantrasast is so popular: His spaces offer just enough excitement, without ever abandoning a minimalist vocabulary in favor of decoration. Still, anyone looking to start a museum with more than bare white galleries will have to do what the Marcianos did: Buy an existing building.

Fred Bernstein studied architecture at Princeton University and writes about buildings for newspapers and magazines.