National News

Architect Kulapat Yantrasast Loves ‘Making Good Spaces’

Posted May 25, 2018 2:12 a.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — Dressed in a green jumpsuit and iridescent green wingtips, architect Kulapat Yantrasast was driving his Tesla all over this sprawling city on a warm afternoon this month.

Everyone seemed to know him: Greetings of “Hey, Kulapat!” rang out, both at arts institutions he had designed, like the David Kordansky Gallery and the Marciano Art Foundation, but also in a restaurant near the striking home of concrete, glass and steel that he had designed for himself in the Venice neighborhood.

His renown now reaches far beyond Los Angeles, too. Yantrasast has established his firm, wHY, as one of the go-to designers for art spaces, from galleries to museums and everything in between, as well as other civic and cultural projects.

Yantrasast’s specialty has been what he calls “acupuncture architecture”: ingenious renovations of existing spaces and context-sensitive additions.

Among the projects wHY has in the works are a renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; a renovation and 13,000-square-foot addition to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco; and a new master plan for the Worcester Museum of Art, in Massachusetts.

His space for the New York design gallery R&Co. will open in June, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has engaged him to design a proposed renovation of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas galleries.

“I have a pretty driven work ethic,” said Yantrasast, 49, who was born in Thailand. “I don’t have a family, so this is all. I don’t have other things I need to think about.”

What’s especially noteworthy, given that workload, is that between his two offices — he maintains one in New York, where he spends time every month — he has barely 30 employees.

His creatively cluttered Culver City office here has an inflatable lobster hanging from the ceiling, and the structure has been pared back to reveal the trusses and beams holding it up, a signature move of his. Nearby is a drawing of a smiling octopus holding up signs that tick off some the firm’s specialties, including exhibit design, artist collaboration and “one-offs.”

Known as a garrulous and social sort, Yantrasast actually attributes his success to listening.

“I think I’m definitely a collaborator,” he said. “I’m a matchmaker — between me and other people.”

“I love making good spaces,” he added. “I’m not in it to create a monument to myself.”

Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, praised Yantrasast’s “fresh approach” and his subtlety.

“It’s a highly sensitive group of people — artists, and those who run art galleries and museums,” Govan said. “There aren’t that many architects who have the right sensibility.”

Govan hired Yantrasast to design a 2014 exhibition of samurai armor. “It was brilliant how he organized it as a march, using the long space of the Resnick Pavilion,” he said. “It was super dramatic and theatrical, without taking away from the work.”

Govan added, “It was a great example of why you don’t always do the white box,” the default minimal setting of art spaces. New York architect Annabelle Selldorf — a contemporary of Yantrasast’s who has much gallery and museum work under her belt — said that in addition to his honed sensibility, Yantrasast has the elusive ability to motivate others.

“He has a way to rally people,” Selldorf said. “They can sense his devotion to art.”

Growing up in Bangkok, Yantrasast was making drawings alongside his engineer father by the time he was in the sixth grade. After graduate school at the University of Tokyo, he went to work with Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando for eight years.

Like Ando, Yantrasast has a penchant for the power of concrete, but he has established a distinct style: decidedly modern but with openness and warmth.

“I love minimalism and the strong gesture as much anyone, but sometimes when you do that it’s more exclusive than inclusive — only for the select few,” he said. Yantrasast has a passion for food, and he elaborated on his approach with a cuisine metaphor related to his roots.

“Japanese food is all about refinement, abstraction clarity,” he said. “Thai food is about everything at once — flexibility and improvisation. I really think the world of architecture and design is moving from Japanese food to Thai food.”

Prominent architects travel widely as part of their jobs, living much of their life in airports. In late March and April alone, Yantrasast was in Tokyo; Hong Kong; Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in addition to his usual bicoastal hubs in the United States.

Design was on his mind when he settled in Los Angeles. “Part of why I moved here was Frank Gehry,” Yantrasast said of the influential architect. But it was not Gehry’s buildings exactly, which are quite distinct from Yantrasast’s. It was more Gehry’s ability to break tradition: “He created a sense of place that wasn’t European.”

“And I saw his background as encouragement,” Yantrasast added, referring to his working-class roots. “Frank didn’t fit in.”

Two of Yantrasast’s biggest museum projects have been in the middle of the country. 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 wHY, Yo-Ichiro Hakomori; they founded the firm in 2003.)

In 2016, he completed a $60 million renovation and an addition, in the form of an elegant glass box, to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest and oldest art museum.

In some ways, the Marciano Art Foundation project in Los Angeles, completed a year ago, perfectly illustrates Yantrasast’s skill set. The building, a 1961 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, has a fortresslike appearance with its soaring, largely plain travertine exterior, but inside, the big spaces had potential for art.

“We cleaned it up and really let the DNA of the building shine through,” Yantrasast said. He pared back what he could, all the way to the wide-span architecture of the roof; he even revealed the structural elements behind the stained glass windows, which feature dramatic eagle figures. He added a couple of partial walls in the top-floor gallery, not only to hang more art but also to change the proportions of the room, which to him seemed too wide.

Yantrasast could probably ride the wave of similar projects for the rest of his career, but he is also branching out.

In Edinburgh, wHY won a competition for its plans for the Ross Pavilion and West Princes Street Gardens. The structure, topped by an undulating green roof, will hold a visitors center and cafe, and it will connect a park adjacent to Edinburgh Castle with a central pedestrian thoroughfare.

So what else is on his architectural bucket list? As in his buildings, Yantrasast is comfortable throwing in a curve to the shape of his career.

“I want to design senior housing,” he said at the end of a long day. “I’m looking to make an impact.”