Kulapat Yantrasast

Photo by Olivia Fougeirol

“I think the one great essence of architecture and design is people.”

Kulapat Yantrasast is a Los Angeles-based architect. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Yantrasast moved to Japan to earn both his M.Arch. and Ph.D. degrees in Architecture at the University of Tokyo and work closely with world-renowned architect Tadao Ando for eight years. Yantrasast founded wHY in 2003, an interdisciplinary design firm specializing in constructing and renovating museums, galleries and other cultural institutions, including the Grand Rapids Art Museum. In 2009, Yantrasast became the first architect to receive the Silpathorn Award for Design from Thailand’s Ministry of Culture.

In this interview, Kulapat Yantrasast shares his experience being mentored by Tadao Ando, why he coined the term "acupuncture architecture," and his process for designing an art museum or gallery.

TGL: You grew up in Bangkok and you left to study architecture with Tadao Ando in Japan. Can you describe the decisive moment when you felt you were on the right path?

KY: Tadao Ando was a great mentor, and I absorbed so much from him as a person and an architect, but I felt like I was on my path when I had my own clear idea, which was quite different from Ando, even though I was still working with him. I credit that decisive moment to my Thai roots, Thai habits. Even though I love the Japanese sense of abstraction, order, and clarity, I also feel its limitations in terms of diversity, human warmth, and spontaneity, which I find in Thai culture. I decided to come to Los Angeles because it is a perfect open ground where diversity and clarity can be celebrated together.

TGL: You have a unique relationship with Los Angeles. How does Los Angeles inspire you?

KY: Absolutely! I moved to Los Angeles by choice from Asia—I had never lived outside of Asia before. Los Angeles has a sense of freedom, openness, and curiosity that I appreciate. The city allows you to explore and also leaves you alone when you need your own space or silence. You can plug in and unplug at will. I love it, and I think it is truly a 21st century center of the world.

TGL: You mentioned in a conversation with The New York Times a few months ago that listening is important to success. Why is listening important to you?

KY: I love curiosity, and I love to absorb; I want to be surprised and I seek delight in my work. I love to ask questions and listen for sparks. I think questions are the best ambassadors of ideas and relationships. I don’t just listen to people, I listen to cities, to communities, to art objects, and nature...Everything is here for you to listen and absorb.

TGL: You created the expression "acupuncture architecture" to describe your architecture. What does “acupuncture architecture" mean?

KY: It is a concept I use when I work with historic buildings and urbanism. It started with the notion that everything has a life. When we work on old buildings and historic institutions, we help them be sustainable and relevant for years to come, so it is like acupuncture, not plastic surgery. It is about the health and longevity of an organization, not a beautiful facade pageant. We deployed our acupuncture architecture with great success at the Speed Art Museum, we are now under construction at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and on the drawing board for the Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

TGL: What is the starting point for your renovation of the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York?

KY: The Rockefeller Wing renovation project at the Met is a very art collection focused renovation for one of the most important wings at the Met. The transformation needs to come from the art objects and how people encounter and experience them. Our design attempts to create an immersive, appropriate, and uplifting environment for the art collection to be experienced. At the same time, it is absolutely crucial that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Rockefeller Wing synergize across culture and across time with the arts of other civilizations and cultures within the same museum. This cross-cultural experience of art from diverse cultures and ages could only be planned at an encyclopedic, inclusive museum such as the Met.

TGL: You have built many galleries and art museums. What specifications do you make when you conceive a building for art?

KY: When I design spaces for art, I think of myself as a keen matchmaker between art and people—like two good friends that you want to set up. You should be generous and create a clear, comfortable environment for both the art to be in and for the people to be themselves in. Then, you should be confident enough to be there, but not overwhelm the encounter.

TGL: You love food and organizing salons. How are conversations, food, and events related to your work as an architect?

KY: I think the one great essence of architecture and design is people. People make cultures, inventions, and explorations. I don’t assume to know all relevant things and I don’t like to take things for granted, so I use social interactions as a way to hear and to absorb. I find the process of co-creating or co-designing with other thought leaders and communities to be so fresh and uplifting. Yes, it is more difficult to arrive at a strong and clear design together as a group, but when you can, the product is not only strong and clear, but also inclusive and sustainable. I think the future of architecture resides in how we synergize our talents in designing and planning with the socio-political agendas and strategies shared by our communities and thought leaders. The age of design in a vacuum is over. The damage has been done.

Food is crucial for me because it is an art form that is so intimate and so personal to people. Everyone has an opinion about food, and the nurturing experience of cooking and eating together is so primal and so essential. I want architecture to have that close of a relationship with people and communities. I think we used to have that, but architecture has fallen into a professional niche and has lost touch with people. We should try to re-engage and reactivate a cultural way of making architecture.

TGL: What kind of building would you like to create in the future?

KY: I have always been interested and intrigued by senior housing—the end of life process. I think it is something that we do not want to address; we want to postpone and prolong it. But senior housing should be a building of compassion, a celebration of life and where things come full circle. I am working on a few prototypal projects that allow me to explore aspects of design and planning that not only assist seniors in their physical living, but also encourage spiritual and cultural reflection and nourishment. We all will die on the inside—at any age—if we are not curious, not loving, and not connecting to nature and to life. Senior housing should allow all these connections to continue and be celebrated.

TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?

KY: I would love to have lunch with Buddha. Knowing that lunch is the only meal he would eat with me, I have lots of questions for him.

TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?

KY: Listen, explore, fail, fail better, repeat.