Interviews

A Museum Architect Sees Himself as a Matchmaker Between Artists and Art Lovers

Kulapat Yantrasast, who is designing the expansion for San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, prefers his museum designs to “take a backseat” to the art and visitors.

wHY pavilion exterior design for the Asian Art Museum, day view (image © wHY and Asian Art Museum)

SAN FRANCISCO — The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is currently undergoing a $38-million expansion for a pavilion and art terrace, set to open in 2020. The architect chosen for the project is Kulapat Yantrasast, whose designs are known for being modern, open, and elegantly restrained.

This expansion, which will add 13,000 square feet of exhibition space, is one of many projects that Yantrasast’s firm has done for art spaces. The architect grew up in Thailand and became interested in buildings on trips with his family to cities like Paris and London. When he was a child, his house was renovated, and he thinks he might have become an architect because of his fascination with that process. After studying at the University of Toyko and working for eight years with his mentor, the self-taught Pritzer-winning Tadao Ando, Yantrasast came to Los Angeles and started his own firm, wHY. Yantrasast has worked on a range of projects, but he’s known for his design of museums and galleries, including the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan’s Grand Rapids Art Museum, Harvard Art Museums’ galleries, a collaboration with artist Yoko Ono on the installation “Skylanding” in Chicago, and the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles.

wHY design for the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (image © wHY and Asian Art Museum)

Yantrasast sat down with Hyperallergic at the Asian Art Museum to talk about how three months with Ando turned into eight years, how he sees himself as a matchmaker between artists and art lovers, and how he envisions the Asian Art Museum as an inviting temple to art.

Art terrace design for the Asian Art Museum (image © wHY and Asian Art Museum)

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Emily Wilson: Why did you go to Japan to study architecture?

Kulapat Yantrasast:  When I was growing up, Thailand was full of these Western buildings, like glass buildings, which completely don’t belong in our tropical place. Even in my own house, a rather traditional house, we had black leather sofas, which don’t fit at all — it’s sweaty and humid. I felt like we’re so obsessed with the image of civilized environments that come from the West, but we’re not part of that Western culture. We didn’t create modern culture — we adopted it, but we have to be good at adopting this Western modernized design to fit with our own culture and habits. So I started to look at cities or cultures that do that well, like Japan. It adopted modern architecture and design, but it was integrated so well into the culture that it became theirs.

wHY, Harvard University Art Museums (image © wHY)

EW: How did you meet your mentor, Tadao Ando?

KY: He was giving a lecture in Thailand, and I was asked to do the moderation because I spoke Japanese. We became friends quickly. It was like love at first site with him and his wife, and they asked me to take them around to see buildings in Bangkok, which I did. Then he invited me to Japan, and he was working on this competition in Fort Worth Art Museum for three months he said, “Why don’t you come work with me?” And I thought, “Wow, this is a great opportunity.” We won the competition, so he asked me to come work for him, and I went. It was supposed to be three months, and it was eight years.

EW: Why did you decide to stop working with Ando?

KY: I started working with him when I was about 28, so I felt like I was already late — my friends had already designed buildings. Even though I was going all over the world with him and had amazing clients, I felt like this was not my party. I was just a plus one. Even though I respected the work, I started to feel like, well, if it were me, I would do it this way.

wHY, Maricano Art Foundation (image by Elizabeth Daniels)

In Japan we have a saying, “Nothing grows under big trees.” I left when I was around 35 years old, and I started feeling that my Thai habit kind of kicked in because everything in Japan is so tightly controlled, which I loved, but sometimes I felt like it was lifeless. I missed the smell and the vibrancy and the diversity and everything that is casual and open in Thailand. I didn’t want to go back to Thailand because I felt like it’s my parents’ home, and I was already working in America, so I thought I’ll come to America. I didn’t want to go to New York because I felt like I’d have to work for someone else and I’d be doing lofts and boutiques and interior work. I thought LA is very open, and I started wHY in 2004 with another classmate of mine from Japan who’s American.

wHY, Institute of Contemporary Arts,  Los Angeles (ICA LA) (image by Florian Holzherr)

EW: Why do you love working on museums?

KY: I’m one of few architects, I think, who really hangs out with artists. Artists represent a completely unknown world to me, and there are not a lot of things left where you can be completely shocked and inspired by something different. I think artists work very hard to bring that vision out. Architecture is the opposite of that — we’re kind of in a gravitas business. We’re about creating stability and a sense of place — we’re about identity. Art is about allowing you to see the world in a different way, so art gives me such amazing joy, and because of that when I talk to museums, it comes out. I feel like my work is to create this beautiful experience where people and art meet. I always think it’s like being a matchmaker because one is your friend, the artist, and one is your friend, the art lover, and they didn’t know each other before, and once you introduce them, you stay in the background. Most architects design museums like, look at me, look at me, look at me. It’s kind of not confident. If you’re confident in your work, you don’t have to always be present. You can take a backseat, and let people enjoy their life.

Art terrace design for the Asian Art Museum (image © wHY and Asian Art Museum)

EW: What are you excited about working on at the Asian Art Museum?

KY: This collection is one of the best in the world of this material. I’m blown away by how many masterpieces there are. At the same time, it fits within this way of what you think an Asian art museum would look like. I’ve always wanted to kind of free it up and allow people to be a part of it, which is something the museum is interested in. For this project, we started inside out. We didn’t plan on making any big renovation in the beginning. We thought, “Let’s focus on the art objects and let’s make the most meaningful, transformational moment between people and art,” which is kind of what I always want to do. We thought maybe we can have a variety of densities, so not everything looks busy all the time, and we can single out the masterpieces, change the lighting, so there’s kind of a temple that people feel like they’re invited to be part of.

EW: You’ve talked about masterpieces. What do you consider the masterpieces here?

KY: I love the Chinese collection here. I love bronzes. I love the three-legged vessels. Those big bronzes are just insane, they’re so beautiful, and they’re so difficult to make. I felt like if you have them, you have to flaunt them. We need to be able to show these 10 things that are all masterpieces, so you see the diversity and that each of them is unique on its own. That’s the challenge of having too many masterpieces!

wHY, south court for the Asian Art Museum (image © wHY and Asian Art Museum)

At the pavilion we’ll be able to open the museum out to the city, so that will change how people perceive the museum. The museum is a little like a hermit crab because this Asian spirit came in and occupied this shell. It’s this Italian beaux-art building that was built as a library. This pavilion is the first addition to this ex-library space, and it will be a large-scale, very flexible space that will connect to the Civic Center in a meaningful way. And people walking up from Union Square, that will be the first thing they see, so we hope that will be a little window, a gateway.

Pavilion interior for the Asian Art Museum (image © wHY and Asian Art Museum)
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