Architect Kulapat Yantrasast is insatiably curious. At his striking home of concrete, glass, and steel that he designed for himself in Venice Beach, he hosts salons. About a month ago I attended one about beekeeping. When I met with him on a recent Saturday morning he told me he plans to host one soon about homelessness. “I want to be informed about how we can solve this problem, and how architecture can help.”
Kulapat’s resume is mighty. In 2007, he completed a $75 million, 127,000-square-foot building for Michigan’s Grand Rapids Art Museum, now credited with bolstering urban renewal there. (It was designed with his former partner at his firm wHY, Yo-Ichiro Hakomori). In 2016, he completed a $60 million renovation to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest and oldest art museum. In 2017, he completed the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles, formally a Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. He is renowned for his galleries and museums, as well as civic and cultural projects, but his body of work expands well beyond this.
Kulapat grew up in Bangkok. He was making drawings alongside his engineer father by the time he was in sixth grade. After graduate school at the University of Tokyo, he went to work with celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando for eight years. In 2003, he co-founded wHY, “an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to serving the arts, communities, culture, and the environment.”
I was drawn to the notion of service, and in my conversations with Kulapat about architecture, environmentalism, and the creative process, I got the sense that this was not just some cheap buzzword, but something he understood and embodied. We sat at the dining table of his Venice home. The floor-to-ceiling windows were open, blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor. His swimming pool shimmered in the bright sun.
How does your creative process go, from, say, the initial meeting about the project to the expression of your idea?
I don’t have a particular language or oeuvre, for me it’s really the encounters and the fascination of something new, some place new, that allows for me to envision, How can something beautiful come out of this encounter? How can I make this most exciting—for me, for the client, for the communities? Most of my work is problem-solving. And I often recruit friends and people I admire as part of our design team. And we host dinners and things, and we talk about the project, and through that process I’m kind of waiting for sparks to happen. We ask ourselves, Okay, this is the program, but what else can this do? Can it make something meaningful that will have an impact beyond its own program? When I work I feel like I’m in this amazing band, and everyone plays the best of their instrument.
Collaboration, curiosity, the ability to listen—you seem to really shine on these fronts.
Thank you. I think architecture is an art form. But are architects artists? Not sure. Because, first of all, we have to rely on someone to commission the work. You’re really a dream seller. You have a dream and you sell it, but the dream has to connect with the other person, too. But the position of an architect from day one is to create the most successful compromised situation for everyone. You have to see your work in the work, the client needs to be happy in the place, the society needs to see it as an innovation in architecture, and all of this, right? So how can you negotiate that to get all that to happen? So a lot of architects do not want to listen because there are already a lot of ingredients you have to cook, and you don’t want more because that will only make it more complicated. I feel that modern architecture is that. But we’ve moved on. Since 20 years ago the world is no longer the simple place that modernity was made. Now it’s about complexity, diversity. And conflating—How can you want a minimal house but also have a lot of objects? How can you want to be alone but also want to be with other people? How can a house create all of that for you? And I don’t think architects come up with these solutions on their own. I think architects do not have to generate all of the original ideas, but we need to source it from the best sources—philosophers, artists, economists, social workers, anthropologists. And of course we learn some of this in university, but we need to keep learning, because things are moving.
With the LA River Art Bridge you created a pedestrian bridge built from trash salvaged from the river itself—concrete walls cast with bottle glass, cans, Styrofoam, dirt and debris; floor and pavement made from recycled tires, tennis balls, and scrap metal; bridge guardrail made from recycled parts of shopping carts scattered in the riverbed. Tell me about this.
It started as a non-profit project. A group of artists who do the mural on the river channel wall said that they needed to replace the bridge and they asked for my help. I was excited, and went to look at it. I was amazingly angry, like, What, this is the river? It was the worst irrigation trash! I thought, If this is how people treat the river, then we need to give the river back to them, you know, like, You are your river. So we collected all this trash and threw it into the bridge, and it turned out that everyone loved it, we got an award for it. So I always have to go to the site—to see what it will stir in me, and how I react to a particular context.
Are you always thinking about the environment?
All the time. When we did our first museum, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, in 2007, a ground-up museum in Michigan, it was the first LEED-certified art museum, the first green museum in the world. So we got a lot of publicity because of that. But it’s not just a token thing; it’s about passion. And we need to do something outside of the box; we can’t just put solar panels on the roof. You’ve got to go deeper than that. Is it easy to maintain? Is it durable in its material? Is it something where people can continue to live without having to change? There are all kinds of things that go into what the carbon footprint of a building will look like. I think a lot of the sustainable features have become sadly a little bit of a token. But now sustainability has become such a big subject in architecture, thank god, so you can’t not think about it. It’s a big part of what we do.
Talk to me about “architecture acupuncture.”
Many years ago I was asked to do a big renovation of a museum, and I was talking to a friend about it, and I said, “Well, I walked in and felt that it was a very confused body, like meat got slopped together, and I kind of want to take a needle and acupuncture it, just make it clear and make it flow better.” And she said, “That’s a very good metaphor, you should tell them about that.” And I thought about that a lot, because this museum had been going on for 150 years, it lived before us and it will continue to live after us. We only touch it for a short time. So therefore we should not be trying to conclude it. Let’s make it the best we can. But let’s make sure we do not change the whole spirit, which is metaphorically a body, so let’s not do plastic surgery on it to try to make it look young ‘cause that’ll be regretful 10 years later, so let’s respect the city, let’s respect the neighborhood and the building as if it’s always had life. So our job is to actually let this energy, this life, to be well and to extend towards the next generation. So it’s not about trying to beautify, it’s not about trying to add something on which is just your own ego that has nothing to do with that life. It’s about helping that life to be healthier. It’s about prolonging that wellness.
When did you know that you wanted to be an architect?
I was interested in design from about the age of nine. But even before that we traveled to Europe as a family, and by seeing other places I was able to think, Oh, we can really make our city better. When I was nine my father decided to do some house renovation, and I was in awe at how you could change the environment. I ended up helping the workers, and I developed a big respect for people that work with their hands.
Is there a project you’re most proud of?
I think that would be my house. It felt like me. I didn’t plan on building a house that looked like me, I just wanted a house that I could be happy in. I bought the land when I was 40—I’m now 49. I felt like I needed roots, I wanted a swimming pool, I wanted a place where I could receive my parents better. It’s kind of become the assemblage of these little vignettes that I have in my life as how I want to spend time in the house. Most of the time architects are outside in, but this is more inside out.
Is there a project you’ve yet to do that you feel you could really sink your teeth into?
Yes. I’ve been very obsessed with senior housing. Because isn’t that a wonderful moment to really celebrate your life, to think about what you have done, the friends you have made? And there you have a community of people with the same interests. I think about this a lot, a human ecology story that architecture can help. I think that’s my excitement. I feel most alive when I’m helpful, when I know I have a purpose, when my actions have positive impact.
Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out jamiebrisick.com & @jamiebrisick