The Second Studio Podcast: Interview with Mark Lee, Chair of the Architecture Department at Harvard Graduate School of Design

The Second Studio (formerly The Midnight Charette) is an explicit podcast about design, architecture, and the everyday. Hosted by Architects David Lee and Marina Bourderonnet, it features different creative professionals in unscripted conversations that allow for thoughtful takes and personal discussions.

A variety of subjects are covered with honesty and humor: some episodes are interviews, while others are tips for fellow designers, reviews of buildings and other projects, or casual explorations of everyday life and design. The Second Studio is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

This week David and Marina are joined by Mark Lee, Principal and Founding Partner of Johnston Marklee and Chair of the Architecture Department at Harvard Graduate School of Design to discuss cities, architecture's responsibility to context, the cultural value of iconic architecture and everyday buildings, architectural education, designing for other cultures, working with clients, designing buildings, 'appropriateness' in architecture, and much more.

Highlights & Timestamps

Mark discusses his early interests in architecture, moving from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, studying at the University of Southern California and Harvard University. (00:00)

Mark discusses his approach to architecture and responding to context. How does one produce iconic architecture that is also responsible to its context? (12:25)  

“I would say the second half of the twentieth century, I feel that the gap between iconic architecture and everyday architecture has become wider and wider and wider. So I think to raise the quality of the everyday architecture is important. For example, in school you can talk about Michael Graves versus Rem Koolhaas and probably they’d be on opposite ends of the spectrum. But I would ask the student, the everyday architecture that he or she experiences when they commutes from home to school, 90% of what they’ve seen would not even amount to the difference between Graves and Koolhaas. It’s not even at that level of quality. So if the quality of everyday architecture continues to decline, at the end, it erodes the cultural power of these iconic architectures as something that the general public cares for. I’m not against exciting and expressionistic architecture, I just think right now the problem is on the other end.” (22:33)

Architecture’s cultural value and how architecture is consumed by different audiences. (26:16:) 

“The cultural value of an artwork can increase its value by many folds against its original value, original value in terms of labor, materials, time, and such. If that work is shown in a gallery, later in a museum, and later in a collection, the value of that work accrues many times. It’s different in architecture because architecture is much more expensive, it needs a lot of physical labor and it’s tied to the real estate value a lot more. So if a building is designed by Frank Gehry versus someone anonymous, it adds value to it, but it’s not exponential the way that art is.” (26:59) 

Mark talks about Johnston Marklee’s first projects in Marfa, Texas. (31:38) 

The common discrepancy between most clients’ concerns in a building project and issues that architects are concerned with. (33:25)

“What is fundamental that needs to be taken care of and works together with the creative approach. We look into what the needs are first and see if there’s a moment there, as opposed to seeing that this something that will eventually be fit into my form.” (35:55)

Working on projects in other countries and cultures and a shift toward expertise as the main focus for hiring a specific one. (38:35)  

“I don’t think that architects will be brought into different places because you are star. You might be brought in because of a certain expertise you have but I don’t think people are collecting blue chip architects the way that it was ten years ago.” (40:22)

Mark discusses the Vault House and designing buildings to be of high-quality in different ways. (45:02) 

“As a student I realized that’s what great buildings are [referring to the Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier, as an example]. They are quality in many different ways. So maybe the Vault House client doesn’t care about the vaults or the syntax or the light, but he does care about cross ventilation, he does care about the economy. So having multiple ways of creating quality in a building also as means to get everyone who are co-conspirators on board, I think it’s an important task for an architect.” (51:00)

The relationship between the pedagogy and profession of architecture. Over designing projects versus designing projects to be successful in reality and the work of Frank Gehry. (52:25) 

“For a student, do you do the craziest and freest thing in school and realize the rest of your life you’re doing lesser versions of that? Or do you believe what you do in school is so important that even a 30% version of that is good for the world and the city? I think it’s much more about integrating all of these different layers at the outset and understanding creative ways of how they come together as opposed to, “It’s me against the world and this my brilliance and everything else is to reduce the acknowledgment of my brilliance.” (53:04)

“I don’t want my students to do their best work in school. I want them to do their best work when they are building their buildings and hopefully work that is beyond my imagination. This is not only for the student as a person, but for the city. We want to train architects that we can see the results in the city. I don’t want to waste talent!” (54:52)

Teaching, becoming Chair of the Architecture Department at Harvard Graduate School of Design, and lack of synergy between the academic world and the practicing world. (01:01:22)

Mark talks about getting projects, the story behind Dropbox hiring Johnston Marklee to design their Headquarters, the desire to design low-income multi-family housing, and how his office started. (01:11:10) 

Mark’s convictions about architecture and idea of appropriateness in architecture. (01:22:50) 

“To conform is the baseline for individual expression. So it’s not putting it in polar opposite. I like Georgian architecture so much because it puts the city over the building. Not that Georgian architecture had no great individual buildings, there were a lot, but all of them have the baseline of understanding the larger context from where it operates from. So this is something I do believe in. It’s one of the convictions that I have. You are a part of that context. Conforming, being part of the context, is a prerequisite for excellence. So I’m not pitching competence against excellence, but competence is a baseline for excellence.” (01:25:00)link

Check out The Second Studio Podcast's previous editions.

About this author
Cite: The Second Studio Podcast. "The Second Studio Podcast: Interview with Mark Lee, Chair of the Architecture Department at Harvard Graduate School of Design " 07 Nov 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.