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The Art World’s Favorite Architect Strikes Again

And the Frieze Art Fair arrived for the first time in Los Angeles last week.

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The planet’s most committed collectors and patrons, with a California cool emphasis on tech moguls and Hollywood royalty––Pitt and DiCaprio were among early arrivals––descended on the global marketplace of contemporary arts and ideas. This time around, the fair took place in a 62,000-square-foot tent erected at Paramount Pictures’ historic 1926 backlot. Installations and studios were temporarily inserted into the lot’s famous recreations of New York City streets and storefronts.

The tent, designed by wHY Architecture founder and creative director Kulapat Yantrasast, ornamented the usual white gallery booths with playful touches like interior amenities clad in blue strandboard and whimsical fake grass and ivy outside. Kool Kat, as Yantrasat is known to his fans, has designed West Coast branches for the likes of Gagosian, Christie’s, and the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. A major emerging voice at the crossroads of art and design, Yantrasat is currently at work on rehabilitations of wings of two of New York City’s most distinguished institutions, the Museum of Natural History and the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Throughout the Frieze week, events were hosted in historic properties designed by such pioneering architects of the West Coast as Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and (designer of the city’s celebrated Greystone Mansion) Gordon B. Kaufman––good settings for LA's maturing art scene. I sat down with Kool Kat at Jeff Klein’s recently opened San Vicente Bungalows to hear a little of his wide ranging cross-cultural influences and interests, and his unique take on the art of architecture, and architecture for art.

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As a Thai/Japanese architect, how does the confluence of cultures in your background affect the design process?

Design in a bubble or thinking in a vacuum is over! In the 21st century, we live in a deeply diverse [and] complex world; designers should be connecting and collaborating with various communities and drawing from diverse sources of values, meanings, and solutions. That is why I formed our practice ‘wHY’ as an ecology of design disciplines where designers work together with clients and communities to form unique and fitting solutions.

How did you decide to pursue architecture in the first place?

When I was around nine, my father decided to expand our house. One summer morning while I was still sleeping, the workers started to demolish my bedroom wall, and all of a sudden the whole wall disappeared [and was] replaced with treetops outside. It was a revelation to me that we are absolutely capable of defining and reshaping our own environment.

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What or who do you cite as your influences in your work?

Nature is my most important mentor; nature in all her glorious aspects––from plants and animals to oceans and mountains, down to abstract nature in light, heat, sound, and senses.

Tell me about the first house you designed.

It was a villa for an art-collecting family in Osaka. I started with the concept that every room in the house would have an adjoining garden, so living there means you have a room and a garden to yourself, fully integrated [from the] indoors [to the] outdoors. The house has rooms and a series of courtyards, all connecting through a concrete and glass passage. The composition is clean and minimal, but the experience is rich and natural.

What are you currently working on?

Two large renovations: one for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one at the Museum of Natural History. On the drawing board are also a private museum in the Philippines, the historic West Princes Street Gardens right under the Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, as well as a design for an archeological museum in Jerusalem. We are also planning a humble home for a revered Buddhist Lama in Kathmandu, Nepal.

What is it like designing for top collectors in the art world?

I am very curious and I love to listen in order to find the key ingredients to building unique architecture for each collection. I want to understand the passion for art, the reasons to collect and the goals of a collection. I see myself as a matchmaker between art and people; I want people to be confident and comfortable in their encounters with art.

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Tell me about a project you are particularly excited about.

We are working on a mixed-use project near the Watts Tower in the Watts Community of Los Angeles. This project combines affordable housing, housing for artists, community services, and art programs all into one vision. I love the fact that art and culture could be the bloodline and the glue for this project. And since the project is very open and porous, I hope it will also integrate and galvanize the communities as well.

Do you enjoy collaborating?

Very much. At wHY, we always invite other designers and non-designers to co-create solutions with us. I am interested in how one design can have the most impact on society, and in order to do that I need to bring in various ways of looking and try to integrate diverse goals. For example, can a museum project lessen inequality in a city? Can a housing project improve safety issues in a neighborhood? The role of an architect has been shifting from a primadonna to a conductor who can create symphonies from diverse voices and talents. That is the future of the profession.


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