Dinner Guest: Kulapat Yantrasast

Venice Beach House_4_credit Iwan Baan
Kulapat’s Venice Beach house by night

Kulapat_credit Richard PowersAlice Garbarini Hurley | You are the founding partner and creative director of wHY, known for being an ecology of disciplines – one cohesive team organized into 4 workshops. Can you explain the creative environment? Where are wHY workspaces based?
Kulapat Yantrasast | We have two main offices, in Los Angeles and New York, and a satellite studio in Louisville, Kentucky, where we just finished the Speed Art Museum but are still working on a few new projects. We plan our work environment so there is a sense of open collaboration and creativity. We tend to move people around frequently in the office layout, sometimes for better teamwork but sometimes just to disrupt familiarity. We also want our team to question ‘why’ certain things exist or should be made, and by getting them out of a routine, allow people to stay light and dynamic in their habits. We turn a few areas into shared stations for creative thinkers, designers and artists. In return, they give our team a certain amount of their time to engage and explore in our design projects, research or programs. Introducing disruption and entropy into our creative environment has brought a unique process to our work.

AGH | Wow. Were you raised in a family that included architects or creative thinkers?
KY | In Thailand, my father was an engineer and my mother was a librarian. They were not creative in the normal professional sense but I think they were very creative in how they exposed me to diverse cultural contexts and achievement, considering how little money they had as a young couple.

AGH | You were born in Bangkok. Is that your favorite Thai city?
KY | I love and hate Bangkok, like a rascal cousin. Everything goes and it will in Bangkok – full flexibility, full spontaneity and full in your face. I have traveled so much and there is no place like it. But having grown up there, it’s heartbreaking at times to think about old Bangkok with our river, canals and tree-lined avenues. There were rice fields and water buffalo around our house when I was little. Now, just a few decades later, these fields gave way to luxury condominiums and office towers. But the Bangkok spirit is alive and well. We Thais are so nimble and hardy at the same time.

Speed Art Museum_3_credit Rafael GamoAGH | On your first trip to the U.S., what cities did you visit? Were you struck by the architecture?
KY | The first U.S. city I visited was New York, on a backpacking trip. I was so in awe of Manhattan as an artifact. It was not any particular building per se, but the total image of a flat and skinny island with spikes of skyscrapers and valleys of avenues that was so alive and powerful to me. I had a thorough tour of the Chrysler Building, which was stunning, down to the last detail. After NYC, I went to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago on that journey. I was so inspired by what I perceived to be each American city’s sense of place – quite different from European and Asian cities. Each of the American cities seemed to develop a culture all its own.

AGH | Which teachers influenced you most, and why?
KY | I am not necessarily a rebel on the outset, so I have all my teachers to thank for pushing and bringing me along the path I see and walk forward on. I love knowledge and I love new ideas and teachers tend to show and challenge you with them. My architectural mentor is really Tadao Ando, with whom I worked closely for almost eight years. We did not just work together; we traveled and conversed together. I have the greatest respect for the man, but at the same time I know I have contributed much to his work and his success as well. Influences are most profound when they are mutual.

AGH | You lecture on food, creativity and architecture. Where?
KY | I see all creative practices as related and learning from one another. I lecture at universities, museums, idea festivals, community centers and kindergartens.

Speed Art Museum_4_credit Rafael GamoAGH | That LEED-certified Grand Rapids Art Museum your team did sounds great. Are environmental standards in architecture getting enough attention?
KY | It’s unfortunate that environmental thinking and solutions were separate from mainstream architecture, because environmental conscience must be the backbone of architecture and design thinking. Just as we cook food that delights the palate, enhances health and sustains the world, we should build to delight the senses, enhance quality of life and sustain our earth. The Grand Rapids Art Museum incorporates four elements. Earth: The museum gets more than fifty percent material from local sources, from recycled or recyclable origins. Water: We recycle rain and snow water to be used in a water feature, washrooms and then plant irrigation. Light: Seventy-eight percent of the spaces have natural light, filtered and regulated for perfect conditions for artwork. Air: We pioneered a low energy air-conditioning system.

AGH | What about the Harvard Art Museums? How did you transform that space?
KY | The entire process at Harvard took three years of planning, designing and construction. We worked very closely with the curators, conservators and all the museum departments to create a compelling art experience but also a working ‘teaching museum’ for the university. Our team studied and placed almost every object on view, wanting the art to come alive and be vibrant.

AGH | What makes a client desirable to work with? Are you drawn to forward thinkers?
KY | Clients are desirable in the same way that friend are; having a forward-thinking, intelligent mind with a visionary focus is a plus. I am drawn to unusual people, people with uncommon ideas, challenging thoughts. But I think it’s important to see a project as a relationship and/or a collaboration, and you need clients who are collaborative, not combative, and someone who loves the unknown as much as the known.

AGH | What about the architecture of food? Is there a theme there, something you see happening? Something you talk about in lectures?
KY | I see food as a great example and metaphor for architecture; both gain value through the way people interact with them. Food should not be consumed through pictures; same with architecture. These art forms possess an intrinsic and intimate relationship with people and their happiness/quality of life, and I want people to have a great sense of understanding and expectation towards architecture, just as they do with food.

AGH | Do you like furniture with an architectural edge?
KY | Sometimes, but usually not. While I appreciate architectural thinking in furniture design, when it comes to my own, I normally like furniture that provokes other voices, other expressions. I have tons of flea market furniture and pop objects in my architectural, rather minimal, spaces. I like the contradiction and the surprises. The consistency and continuity resides in the spirit and the whole, not in the forms.

Speed Art Museum_7_credit Rafael Gamo
Speed Art Museum, Louisville KY


If you could have dinner with anyone, living or from history, whom would it be?
I would love a dinner with our Buddha. I expect him to be so compassionate, wise, kind and full of great advice. But Buddha might not entertain dinner per his teaching. Buddhist monks only eat once a day, before noon. We might have to swap that for a brunch. Still totally worth it.

What is your favorite color for clothing? For interior design?
Obviously, I have my fair share of black, but I do have lots of pastels and pops as well. For interior, I tend to like neutral backgrounds with strong color accents, kind of Japanese minimal meets Thai maximal.

Your favorite building design in Thailand?
I like traditional Thai houses –raised on stilts, rooms as pavilions on raised platforms, lots of open veranda space. Very chic.

Beloved Thai food and drink?
My mother’s bitter melon soup and fresh coconut juice.

Excellent Thai restaurants in the U.S.?
You might try Jitlada in Los Angeles for Southern Thai food and Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas for Northern Thai food. Both are worth the pilgrimage.

Coffee or tea?
Espresso, please.

Beach or mountains?
Basically beach.

Car of your dreams? What do you think about the new cars that will drive themselves?
I have a Tesla, and it has become my dream car. I can’t wait for cars that drive themselves.

Beverage after a long day?
Scotch or bourbon, depending on how the day treats you.

Favorite TV show, past or present?
I am obsessed with John Oliver. That might pass, but now he is a fave.

Pancakes or toast? Burger or stacked club sandwich?
Love my croissant and U.S. Grade A burgers.

Architect you admire most?
I would say nature, but if pressed for a name, perhaps Gaudi.

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