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On being Thom Mayne: reminding cynics of the beauty of serious design

Peter Cook shadows a hectic Thom Mayne in Los Angeles, Madrid and London

7 June, Los Angeles
Here in Los Angeles, the ‘Rumble’ is a festival with 50 or so critics - one third of them from the rival school in town, SCI-Arc (it’s funny that here one third of critics are from the UCLA). Yet the cumulative ‘buzz’ this creates requires capping by a ‘symposium’ at which a group of non-designer academics flannel around, searching for a relevant topic.

Suddenly Thom Mayne, a professor at the school, dares to say what most of us were thinking: this conversation is fatuous and boring. Jeff Kipnis (one of the speakers) jumps back at him and they bark at each other for 10 minutes. Out of all this one remembers a key shot from Mayne: ‘Don’t confuse intelligence with knowledge’. But Kipnis isn’t listening. They make it up over supper.

8 June, Culver City, California
Thom is proud of his future office; a rapidly built shed with a giant gantry jutting out of it, 110 per cent energy-generating, cool, but promising plenty of hot items. Unusually ‘villagey’ for Los Angeles - old buddy Eric Owen Moss is just across the street, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung are on the next corner.

24 June, Madrid
Thom is the keynote speaker at the IAAS ‘Summit’, where two dozen key academics meet in Herzog & de Meuron’s vegetated CaixaForum Madrid. He sets out a serious, questioning table of moral and operational directions for architecture. He recalls how the audience at UCLA were embarrassed by his altercation with Kipnis, citing this as evidence that no one in the US really wants a confrontation.

24 June, Segovia
The conference goes on without Thom, who has now dashed to Paris for heavyweight meetings with his Phare client. Most of the conference fails to respond to his challenge and drops back into self-congratulation, despite the erudition of Mark Wigley, Stan Allen and Hitoshi Abe.

27 June, Royal Academy of Arts, London
Thom gives an extraordinary lecture: highly structured and characteristically intense. Despite physical exhaustion, he systematically tackles his four key recent projects: the Wayne L Morse United States Courthouse in Eugene, Cooper Union New Academic Building in New York, Phare Tower in Paris and Giant Campus in Shanghai. He follows each description through with sequences of backward glances at earlier projects, where parallel or embryonic ideas are involved. The audience of 400 is stunned. I have not heard such long applause in any London lecture over the last five years. Thom and his wife Blythe are visibly taken aback.

Later that night, Thom is surrounded at dinner by some of the recognisable pillars of the London Scene: Nicholas Grimshaw (RA President), Paul Finch, Piers Gough, Richard MacCormac, Ted Cullinan, Ron Arad and Eric Parry. But the tradition of little speeches around the table takes on an unusual seriousness and level of sincerity. Each of them pays homage to a man who has clearly earned a special level of respect. Not all of them are aficionados of the West Coast scene, but they have just come up the stairs from seeing Thom’s extraordinary exhibition panel, temporarily prised away from the new office. A return to his ‘hands-on’ days. A piece of sculpted urbanism of strange, delving, boiling shapes: a city prototype no less.

For a moment, he has risen above the logistics of the International Architect, the Pritzker Prize Winner. For in that old Academy, in the small room as well as the big, is a realisation that we are in the presence of a Master. Such a realisation may make some people uncomfortable; it may have few recent precedents. Sure, big name architects learn how to make an amusing enough commentary to a one-hour run through their stuff. But this is different: Thom cares, digs deep into himself and communicates this activity in all its layers. He makes extraordinary armatures, and reminds even the most hardened cynic that architecture is difficult and engaging, but a beautifully serious business.

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