Kulapat Yantrasast's Concrete Ideas
The art world’s latest go-to architect does some of his best thinking at home.
Kulapat Yantrasast can recall the moment he met his destiny as an architect. He was 10. Asleep in his family’s tropical Thai house in Bangkok, he was jolted awake by the collapse of a wall in his tiny bedroom. (His father, an electronics engineer, had taken it upon himself to redesign the place.) “It wasn’t pretty,” Yantrasast says. “But it made me realize that you can form your own environment—something I then took for granted as the rule.”
His house in Venice, California, is a testament to that. Built two years ago on a 5,000-square-foot lot, the three-story amalgam of concrete, glass, and steel towers over neighboring funky wood-frame cottages. Tucked into a cul-de-sac, it suggests a flying barge from an advanced civilization that has dropped anchor on an island of primitives. A polycarbonate box juts from the roof like a gangplank. Behind it, a crane suitable for, say, lowering lifeboats, is used to hoist potted plants or cases of wine to the upper deck for parties. Translucent white panels frame third-floor windows that open upward to resemble sails, and the master bedroom extends over the garage like a wheelhouse, supported by the sort of concrete pillar that might hold up a freeway overpass.
“They call architecture an old man’s profession,” says Yantrasast. “But I’m just getting started.”
Visitors enter on the second floor, after stepping through a garden of tall African grasses, mounting a staircase, and skirting a swimming pool that fronts the house like a moat. A wall of sliding glass doors that opens the main living space to the pool also admits the sound of traffic carried on breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The exposure to the street doesn’t bother Yantrasast, who says he likes the feeling of living with, and not just in, a city. The only real hideaway is the bunker-ish concrete-walled guest suite on the ground floor, where the sole window is a porthole that looks into the pool.
This fluid exchange between inside and out is partly the legacy of his seven-year association with the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando. In 1996, after Yantrasast, now 45, had earned both a master’s and a Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Tokyo, he started working as Ando’s translator and project architect on all of his commissions outside Japan. (The two are currently collaborating on the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, scheduled for completion this summer.) His first assignment was the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Widely regarded as one of the most elevating examples of museum architecture in the country, the building has a cavernous interior that seamlessly connects with the landscape outdoors—a design philosophy Yantrasast has embraced. He also has an almost childlike reverence for the textured gray cast concrete that Ando favors. “I love concrete, yeah,” Yantrasast admits. “I don’t like the idea of cladding a structure with expensive materials like stone or metal. When I came to America, that’s what I disliked the most.”
Yantrasast arrived in Los Angeles in 2003, and with Yo-ichiro Hakomori, a former classmate from Tokyo, he established wHY Architecture in Culver City. Not a month later, he nailed a major commission—a $70 million building for the Grand Rapids Art Museum, in Michigan. The first such institution in the world to earn a LEED certificate for sustainable architecture, it also galvanized a formerly moribund downtown. “For me, a young guy who just opened—” Yantrasast says, a broad smile lighting up his face “—they took the chance. Now I have another job in Grand Rapids, and every time I go back, people remember me and say, ‘Thank you for that building.’ ”
Other commissions in the art world soon followed. After buying the shuttered Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Los Angeles, Guess cofounders Maurice and Paul Marciano turned to wHY to transform it into a private museum. When the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, wanted an addition to its 1927 building, wHY got the job. And when Harvard University needed a new design for the galleries in three museums that Renzo Piano is combining into one, it, too, asked wHY. In just 10 years, Yantrasast’s business has grown rapidly in a field that is usually slow to reward next-level talent. (The firm, now simply called wHY, recently opened offices in New York and Louisville, Kentucky.) “They say architecture is the old man’s profession,” Yantrasast says. “Because you have to mature. You have to have knowledge and experience. But I’m just getting started.”
In L.A. he has designed two art galleries as well as exhibitions for the Museum for Contemporary Art; a pedestrian bridge over the Los Angeles River made from salvage is under construction, as are private homes on both coasts and in Thailand. A studio building he did for Pomona College, opening in September, has an unusual roof that slopes like a floppy hat. “That building is very important for us,” says Yantrasast, who has a touch of melancholy in his eyes—and a distinctive birthmark near his hairline that made him the brunt of cruel jokes when he was a boy. The ribbing had an upside: “From day one, you learn how to be different.”
Yantrasast is a single—though hardly solitary—man, and his professional and personal lives merge in his house, which functions as a test kitchen for ideas he cooks up with his 36-member staff. It is also the site of monthly catered salons—informal talks by a guest artist, designer, or curator—with drinks served from a mechanic’s tool chest that makes a handy bar. “The whole house is very DIY,” Yantrasast says with a laugh, casting a glance over a gray, black, and white decor that looks less like bachelor quarters than a stage set for a hip comedy of manners. Light gray felt-covered chairs and lamps with white or black synthetic-hair shades mix with a pair of silver inflated-steel side chairs by the Polish designer Oskar Zieta, a Frank Gehry corrugated-cardboard chair, and a honeycombed-paper armchair by Tokujin Yoshioka. “I like the house to be minimal and soulful in its materials and light,” Yantrasast says. “But I would not be able to leave it like that without putting in a funny disjunction. Even nature has exceptions.”
Most of the house, including the bathroom, is stocked with prototypes that come out of HOW, the design laboratory that is the H in wHY. (The W stands for “workshop”; the Y for Yantrasast.) “Stuff is expensive,” Yantrasast explains. “I’d rather design my own chair and my own lamp.” A white sofa that converts from two-sided to one-sided by a simple rearrangement of its pillows is an example. A drafting table that can be raised for cocktail parties and lowered for dinners divides the open kitchen from the slim living area, where a feather-and-bamboo mobile by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco hangs from the ceiling. “It’s the first piece of art I ever bought,” Yantrasast says. “It’s like a wonderful piece of music that doesn’t call attention to itself but seems effortless. I want architecture to have that feeling, so I live with it as a reminder that that’s what I want to do.”
Yantrasast is particularly fond of fetish objects, which he regards as household pets—fossilized ceramic vessels from a shipwreck, antique rug-making tools from Turkey. A frieze-like display case fashioned from Styrofoam packing boxes contains artifacts including a pair of Pillsbury Doughboys, a plastic souvenir replica of the Lincoln Memorial, and a bison knuckle. “I never throw anything away, even clothes that don’t fit me anymore,” he says. Much of the wardrobe in his large walk-in closet comes from Comme des Garçons, a label he admires for its deconstructed tailoring. “I must have bought a ton of those jackets that have the seams showing—where the cutting-to-reveal process is part of the beauty.” Like those jackets, he explains, the house is not a polished thing. “It looks like a work in progress.”