Los Angeles Design Integrity: A Conversation with Lee+Mundwiler

David Plick — 

0c408dcf721ea40f4b537009e80faeab1424797018Cara Lee and Stephan Mundwiler are Los Angeles modern architectural design innovators, and artists in every sense of the word. Their work, from the plans for the Iraqi Ray of Hope, to their modern homes, breathing buildings and the Dapeng Geology Museum and Research Center, is simulteanously visually stunning, culturally relevant, and forward thinking. It is both globally conscious yet deeply intimate and human.

Most recently the couple’s studio was a WAN Awards Winner for Civic Buildings, for the Dapeng Geology Museum, but recognition was not new to them. They have won AIA awards for urban design, housing, and in 2011, they won the Emerging Practice Award. They have been successes in their industry since the mid-1990’s, yet because they are so visionary, it seems like they have only just begun.

The Value of Architecture is currently teamed up with Lee+Mundwiler in selling their award-winning Coconut House in Mar Vista, and had a chance to talk with the couple about their past, present, and future in LA architectual design, and the rest of the world.

TVOA: You two met in the mid-90’s while pursuing Master’s degrees in architecture at SCI-Arc. Did you collaborate on a project while studying? What was the first project you collaborated on?

Lee+Mundwiler: The first project we collaborated on was the Hornli Cemetery, Riehen, Switzerland in the summer, 1994. By then Stephan already had won the competition of the Swiss Government Piazza collaborating with graphic designers from Basel. Stephan and I met at Vico Morcote in Switzrland, SCI-arc’s branch campus in 1993. It was my first semester and his last semester doing his thesis. The following year after two semesters of staying in Vico, I needed to come back to LA to take the rest of my classes to get the degree. I was in a hurry to finish my education that I decided to take a summer course as an independent study, which SCI-arc gratefully allowed. I was looking for a subject for the independent study at that time and Stephan mentioned one interesting competition—a cemetery near Basel needed to be redone due to being old and running out of burial space. It was a fascinating subject to us that involved urban planning, building and landscape design, all in one pot that had to be dealt with human emotion; morbidity, death, grief, reflection within architectural content and context. The city was looking for the best solution for that matter and we were up to this challenge!—just kidding, I was just happy to utilize the material to get on with my studies.

While I was in LA and he was in Basel, we’d communicate design progress through fax; a dawn of civilization. And it was one week before the due date when we made our decision to enter the competition for the heck of it, so I was losing my sleep for one week to wrap up the design to meet their submission requirement, and sent it out to Stephan. He had to translate it into German and deliver it to the city in person: no Fedex overnight. We took our vacation afterward, and completely forgot about the competition. When we got home Stephan almost fell from his seat when he heard the voice from the answering machine: the guy from the city directly called and informed that unfortunately they chose another project as a winning but our project was compelling enough to give out as Archive, which was a higher prize money than 2nd prize.

TVOA: So your first project together never ended up being made?

Lee+Mundwiler: No, but they really appreciated our design. Their regret was our project wasn’t developed enough to build the cemetery right away, which would take months to work on details and they were in hurry to build for the need. We were disappointed yet elated by the validation of our design approach. The concept was to contour all of the cemetery land, which was located on a hillside, as a gradual descendent and ascendant approach respecting existing topo. The distant view of Basel city as descending and the forest view as ascending was the magnitude of people’s field of view to calm the mind/body down. The slow and gradual move was sync’ed with people’s emotional and physical condition. The chapel and urn storage were tucked in under this landscape as earthy touch/consolation. I imagined myself in it, how my body would slow down if I were in shock. For visitors, mainly elderly in wheelchairs, it would be easier to access with this approach. We still think the design is the best solution even if the cemetery was built with the other one, but I still hope it has a second chance someday.

TVOA: Your firm, Lee+Mundwiler, has worked on a total of 88 projects. Do the two of you always collaborate on every project? Are there times when you work individually, but still bounce ideas off of each other? Is it always different or do you have a “process”?

Lee+Mundwiler: Our blessing or curse on some occasions is we both have a similar taste in liking things around us, yet there could be a rebel coming from either side. In sum, we are turned on by an object, concept, and ideology that get to the point. We know by our experience, the conciseness is intrinsically different from simplicity or being minimal, that how it is to be that way needs to be thought out in a much deeper level to resonate to intellectual latitude with no frilled appearance. That said, we are the cruelest critics during our design process and we both are pretty much in it for the design process all the way; some with no drama, some with a huge commotion, a project gets done while one smiling, one grieving.

TVOA: Your Swiss Pavilion project seeks to “simulate the way a living organism’s skin, or a living cell would respond to environmental stimuli.” You also are interested in the way a “Thing Breathes.” What is your interest in cellular biology and organisms breathing? How does it relate to architecture?

Lee+Mundwiler: While most of our projects are in line with the lineage of established architecture, progression has been always in our mind. Yet, we are not interested in installation or sculptural objects. As much these can be footing for the next development in architecture, for most cases, these are the architect/designer’s end goal rather than their first goal.

The way the public responds, thus diluting their understanding of architecture, has been a trouble for us to digest. At the same time, we are conscious about the fact that the architecture field hasn’t progressed much more than on the conceptual level with few viable new building materials. Thus, at the right given time, we’ve tried to experiment with our idea of “what if?”.

The first one we were into was the sand panel with House of Sand—that’s another story. 2006-2007 was our prolific time before the 2008 economic downturn. In 2006, we were participating in another competition—the Swiss Pavilion for the 2010 World’s Fair in Shanghai. We won two AIA National Awards and we were recognized at the AIA national convention in LA. Coconut House was awarded the AIA National Housing Award and included in the convention tour for architects. Soon, it was published in The New York Times as an Eco Green building. Plus, Bundesplatz, Swiss Government Piazza, also won the honor award. This was in about ten years of our practice and after four years of Stephan’s California architect’s license. We got deep into our vigorous process of making buildings 24/7, at least for the two of us. Around this time, we went for the test of our “what if”.

We’d been developing a design concept: what if a building being static, becomes dynamic, responsive to its environment in same way a living thing animates by nature? And we explored this premise step by step from a very elemental stage to a complex setup. We thought of the World Fair, the global event of introduction, of assumingly the most progressive technology and ideology among nations, as the optimum platform to introduce our idea. We plugged this concept into the real project proposal—the Swiss National Pavilion. Our design was chosen to be one of the twelve finalists and went on to the 2nd stage that engaged in serious level of reality. The outcome of the competition was, ours was the highest scored but took 3rd place with a mysterious reason: still we don’t know the answer. We were very disappointed by missing an opportunity for R+D on this concept. A German magazine nominated our design as one of the most advanced façade technologies right after the competition. We were told that our idea was ten years too early. Again, we are hoping to get into serious R+D with this concept and are still waiting for a right opportunity.

TVOA: As you just mentioned, your work is futuristic and progressive minded. What do you think is the predominant social and/or environmental issue that will shape the design and operation of future buildings?

Lee+Mundwiler: Both of us are more into getting to the point, and believe that the level of talking and reasoning of many in the architecture field is deceptive, and misleads the public in a damaging way. This should be stopped, especially with the sustainability and environmental issue. We need to see the big picture, cause and effect, not just prescriptive measures. Many do this for economic and political gain, and not for collective interest. The issue we are talking about should be a given thing for architects from the beginning, not an opportunity for flaunting. Further, what architects should engage actively in is any aspect in the process of making. Currently, the majority, in my opinion, underestimate their power and influence as an architect. I always believe that the intensity of architecture education can get anyone through any complex situation and I wish school teaching and practicing architects were involved more in bigger scales than of object making: in infrastructure such as the Mojave Desert Solar Power Station, water conservations, community building, city making, name a few. Further, many should be into the R+D in architecture based on reality.

TVOA: You have offices in both Basel, Switzerland and Los Angeles, California. In your opinion, what does America need to learn from European design, and vice-versa?

Lee+Mundwiler: One thing US can adopt from Europe is leveling the playing field. There is no system of opening up to truly talented designers unless you are a big firm or established name. These are very few and they are loaded with resources, while the rest are just getting by. Now, Europe is changing as well that RFQ, Request for Qualification, or invited competition, is usually only for a few. You can name them, and it becomes a norm.

I am very sympathetic to the talented yet struggling architects that we’ve been lucky enough to have a footing in due to Stephan’s home base. Also, I think if you could build a good residential building, you can build a museum, a hospital, an education facility, etc, with an army of consultants around. The fundamental issue for an architect/designer is the same as of a single family home: sensitivity to human condition. I am always muted by the question, “What kind of buildings do you design: residential or commercial?” Duh . . . I don’t know, if I said we design everything, they look at me suspiciously, and I am OK with that.

TVOA: Who’s the tougher art critic out of the two of you?

Lee+Mundwiler: Both. We don’t let the other win. It’s either the project gets built with one window or no window! And we call each other BS and shallow or “Bobby Trendy.”

TVOA: What are some museums you love to frequent—for the design of the building, or the art hanging on the walls, or inspiration?

Lee+Mundwiler: Dia Art: Beacon . . . envious of that space!!

TVOA: Where is your favorite travel destination?

Lee+Mundwiler: Any place related to good food.

By: David Plick

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