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An evening with the Mayne Man

Thom Mayne disposes of the myth of the Great Architectural Creators in his SCI-Arc lecture In Los Angeles

On 14 March Morphosis principal Thom Mayne delivered SCI-Arc’s second annual Raimund Abraham Lecture, dedicated to the late architect, who died just after speaking at SCI-Arc in 2010. For someone who himself admits to having trouble thinking linearly (and has often proven this), Mayne’s talk was a well-organised round-up of his work and his architectural philosophy.

The lecture was as much a commentary on our time as it was on Mayne’s work. The themes that kept recurring: the importance of collective thinking and working (as opposed to the myth of the Great Architectural Creators); of increasing complexity (which necessitates such collective work); and the importance of grounding architecture in social, economic and political reality, which he was sure to point out many architects these days shy away from. ‘If you were born when I was, it would be impossible not to see architecture in the political realm,’ pointed out Mayne. Which isn’t to say that Mayne likes to toe the party line. In fact he reminisced fondly about his bad-boy roots, portraying architecture as a constant struggle against those who want to stop it from happening, limit it, or just don’t care about it. One of his first slides contained a notable phrase: ‘Fuck You’. But he and friend Eric Owen Moss, who introduced Mayne, both chafed at the designers who claim that architecture can be created in a vacuum, above the fray of everyday existence.

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The intricate skin of Morphosis’ Phare Tower, Paris, took a dedicated team over two years to create — an example of the kind of collective approach Mayne advocated in his lecture

Perhaps to drive home his points about complexity, collectivity and contextual relevance, Mayne focused his lecture on his large-scale projects, which by their nature constantly get mixed up with all of these factors. He described the first project he showed, Diamond Ranch High School (1999), as an example of ‘connecting an aesthetic project with a social project’. His firm’s village-like composition of jagged, masculine structures was an early example of working with collective clients (as opposed to individual homeowners or business owners), heroic scale, intricacy and, thanks to advances in digital technology, a radical shift in the immediate translation of ideas into form and engineering.

Mayne went on to discuss the Hypo Center in Austria (2002), in which he began experimenting with the fusion of landscape and architecture; the ‘tectonic’ University of Toronto Graduate House (2000); the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles (2005), with its ‘fragments of incompleteness’ and infrastructural inspiration; the Eugene, Oregon Federal Courthouse (2006), balancing radical tectonic forms with very traditional courtroom elements; the University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center (2005), with its organic growth, ‘drama’ and ‘spatial complexity’; and the Cooper Union Academic Building (2009), which he considered a piece of ‘connective tissue’ shaped by its strict urban constraints, and whose interior, he said, ‘oozes out into the street’.

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The final project, Giant Pharmaceuticals (2010; AR May 2011) near Shanghai, was a triumphant combination of all these lessons, combining earthwork and architecture, complicating the boundary between inside and outside, and ‘navigating the territory between wilfulness and chance’.All of these works exhibited a progression in scale and complexity through the years coinciding with a shift in digital methodology and hierarchy. ‘Building, designing and inventing are all becoming the same,’ he pointed out. ‘We don’t make drawings anymore. We make virtual buildings,’ said Mayne of the digital processes that have radically transformed the profession in recent years. The digital tools, he added, allow for ‘infinite differentiation’, and open up ‘opportunities for a collaborative self’.

That collaborative spirit, he added, dispels the notion that we are waiting for the next architectural ‘messiah’, and would be a function of increased specialisation, like the small Morphosis team working solely on the skin of the firm’s Phare Tower in Paris for over two years. All this emphasis on collectivity seemed a bit shocking from someone who has risen to prominence in a time of starchitects. But it was evidently a practical response to what Mayne called the ‘limitations of the formal’. Through collaboration and specialisation, he noted, we can move beyond architecture’s possible ‘dead end’, and ‘radically expand the nature of tasks that we can undertake’.

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A sketch of Giant Pharmaceuticals’ campus in Shanghai shows the sweeping organic topography of the site and the asymmetric disposition of structural elements — both contribute to the village-like atmosphere of the project

At the same time the progression of projects he showed from over the last decade or so displayed Mayne’s maturation as he developed an ability to negotiate with clients and to develop forms directly from programmatic needs, not formal ones. Moreover the amazing round-up of work in the lecture reminded this author of the firm’s outlandish accomplishments since the new millennium. For a firm so decidedly un-corporate to have conquered bureaucracies and institutions alike is something of a miracle that never would have happened 20 years ago. Yet the bad-boy spirit was still there. In discussing his San Francisco Federal Building (2007), Mayne complained about the ‘immensely hostile climate’ of San Francisco, where residents ‘who wanted the stuff that they like’ dismissed his firm as ‘those radical architects’. And Mayne boasted that his social housing project in Madrid attacked the institutional nature of housing by allowing inhabitants to take control of their own property.

And a stark example of the insular culture of architecture reared its head when several upper level SCI-Arc staff asked circular, extremely obtuse questions, by which Mayne often seemed perplexed, but did not dismiss (they are his friends after all). Mayne himself revealed some architectural exceptionalism (perhaps not entirely off base) when he complained about architects being much more advanced than most people in their perception of the world, but only getting to build a tiny fraction of the structures that fill it. But overall it was refreshing to see a prime example of architecture’s star system at least preaching the importance of the collective, of the city, of planning, of (gasp) clients and neighbours, and even of pushing Modernism forward by letting go of some of its utopianism and paying attention to reality. Of course that doesn’t mean reducing expectations. Never one to shy away from a fight, or from ambition, he noted that our culture needs to again embrace big thinking and big ideas: ‘We can’t continue along this line of infantile thinking. This has got to change.’

Thom Mayne, What’s Next?

Raimund Abraham Lecture
SCI-Arc lecture, Los Angeles

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