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Thom Mayne | icon 034 | April 2006

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photo: Dominik Gigler

words Justin McGuirk

“I see myself as an incomplete person,” says Thom Mayne. This doesn’t sound good. Mayne has achieved almost everything that an architect can. He has won the Pritzker Prize, he has designed a succession of radical public buildings in architecturally conservative America and he has a retrospective exhibition about to open at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. What price his sense of wholeness?

But it turns out that Mayne, who is the head of Los Angeles practice Morphosis, is talking less about his psyche than his working method. What he means is that he doesn’t see himself as an auteur architect but one whose buildings are defined by external factors – his collaborations, the culture at large and ultimately “the observer, the user, whatever”. And yet he talks like a man who uses his work as a form of psychoanalysis (he is “somewhat schizophrenic with the formal” but he is “comfortable” with other things). The story of the 62-year-old’s career, as he tells it, is one long test of the strength of his character. And the figure that emerges is tenacious Thom, different Thom, Thom with an “h”.

We meet in Vienna on Mozart’s 250th birthday. Mayne has spent the week as a visiting professor on the Urban Strategies course at the University of Applied Arts, and this afternoon the crew-cut, 6ft 5in figure is towering over a map of the city listening to a presentation from a student whose English stretches to words like “performativity”. “Get smart and really know the problem,” he tells her, advocating research as the way to solve urban problems. “Don’t rely on how good a designer you are – a lot of times you just need to be knowledgeable.”

Teaching has been an integral part of Mayne’s career. In 1972, the same year he co-founded Morphosis, he was one of the founders of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), which has nurtured a generation of young architects producing computational – or “parametric” – design, and he remains a longstanding professor at UCLA. Back in his wilderness years, when he either couldn’t get serious work or couldn’t hold on to it (“when I went to work I got fired”), teaching gave him a sense of momentum. “The teaching is a kind of inquiry that can’t take place in a practice, that’s unfettered by the vicissitudes of day-to-day stuff,” he says. He manages to seem laid back and yet he can talk incessantly and has that quality that people used to attribute to Bill Clinton of fixing whomever he’s speaking to with absolute attention.

Although success has come relatively late in his career, Mayne has always been one of the most distinctive and challenging architects in America. Closely associated with Los Angeles (although he is from Chicago), he has dotted the city with machinic buildings that do all they can to exude an operational rigour. The Diamond Ranch High School (2000) mimics the complexity of the urban condition but also evokes the
Los Angeles foothills in metal ridges and canyons. The Caltrans District Headquarters (2004) for LA’s transportation authority is more monolithic, and greets South Main Street with a barrier-like aluminium facade and a 40ft-high street number proclaiming “100”. It’s an uncompromising automotive language for, as Reyner Banham put it, “a highly mobile population that measures distance in time at the wheel”.

What sets Mayne apart from his peers – and is in a sense the great irony of his career – is that he is designing so many public buildings. “Public work requires major investment, meaning that you have to have some kind of compatibility with the culture you’re existing in, and I don’t have to tell you that we’re in kind of an odd period in my country,” says Mayne, going on to list the ways in which he is at odds with the prevailing politics in the US: its conservatism, its Calvinism and Puritanism, its provincialism. More to the point, he has a long-standing reputation as a difficult architect, as – he can now joke – the “bad boy”. “As a younger architect I saw it as my obligation to protect my artistic and creative capital, and there was very little opportunity in my culture because architects serve business, they serve capital. And I had no interest in it whatsoever … I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Oh, yessir.’”

Yet now he is designing schools, municipal authority buildings, a federal building in San Francisco and a courthouse in Eugene, Oregon. Mayne quotes someone as describing the latter as “the most extreme interpretation of a courthouse in the United States”. That he is being allowed to abandon historical courthouse references – given the break with traditional values that that might imply – suggests that at some point Mayne’s obstinate independence paid off. “The funny thing is, at the Pritzker [ceremony] I was joking that the same people who lambasted me when I was 30 are now here honouring me – so I just made it through the 30 years of bullshit.”

Morphosis’ latest building, the $113m Recreation Centre at the University of Cincinnati, is the most ambitious and complex it has yet undertaken. On a campus dotted with signature buildings by Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves and others, Mayne took the opportunity to provide not another icon but what he describes as – and it is one of his favourite terms – the “connective tissue”. “It’s a background building not an object building,” says Mayne. In fact, it is effectively five buildings – a dormitory, a sports complex, a food hall, an academic building and new stands closing off one end of a stadium – gathered under one sweeping roof and woven into the campus fabric. With its component parts and programmes, the project gave the architect, who started his career as an urban planner, the most obvious opportunity yet to emulate the density of a city.

Mayne sees the building as a break with the modernist rules of the campus, with its prescriptions about where to put the housing and where the education facilities. Instead of that ordered system, Mayne’s design crashes the various facilities together so that they butt into each other or overlap. The way he introduces a sense of clarity to this knot is by interspersing the parts with glass walls so that from the gym, for instance, one can see the adjoining stadium, the Olympic pool and one of the main campus arteries. This way, the various activities taking place in the complex are connected by site and understood as part of the vibrant life of the university.

This is a project that finally provides the degree of complexity that Mayne seemed to be striving to find in his earlier buildings. It is a mother lode of the kind of programmatic and contextual demands – what he calls “the resistance” – that Mayne feels he requires to work: “With the bean field stuff – an empty site – I’m lost and always have been. I’m lost because I don’t conceive of architecture as an isolated act.”

Slicing into the eastern side of the Cincinnati jigsaw puzzle is the dormitory building, which broods over the ensemble like a control centre. Like the Caltrans headquarters, its aluminium facade feels barely penetrable, windowed only in thin strips somewhat like the syncopated circuitry of a motherboard. It’s a stern face that it puts to the world and it forces a slightly awkward question: why are Mayne’s buildings so confrontational? “I don’t build in an intentionally confrontational way, it’s just who I am,” he answers.

Mayne doesn’t like to address the aesthetic meaning of his work. Indeed, aesthetics, so he argues, rarely feature in his thinking but merely emerge as the inevitable result of a process geared to functionality. “It happens out of an inquiry, and I probably prioritize the conceptual direction over more arbitrary, or aesthetic positions,” he says. “I want to keep it to the rigour of its logic. That keeps me from getting lost.” And anyway, “It’s an impossibility to satisfy aesthetic taste.”

However, there are clearly gestural moments in Cincinnati, such as the swooping metal screen over the classroom wing. More generally, Mayne’s metal facades, with their paucity of apertures, amount to a consistent visual language, and one that impacts on the citizen’s – not just the user’s – experience of the city. In his Pritzker Prize speech, in 2005, Mayne said that we in the 21st century were “infused by fear, immobilised by the complexity of the realities that come with living in the present.” If society is dogged by fear and complexity, then Mayne’s response is not to soothe us but to give us aversion therapy, confronting us with intimidating, complex buildings so we can get used to the idea that things change. “When I was 40 I used to say that I was interested in buildings that would scare little children.” As he says this his grizzled features soften into a child-like smile and then his eyes widen momentarily with a white rim of lunacy.

Mayne, who constantly harks back to his younger, hungrier, angrier years, has clearly mellowed. And yet, he is at pains to stress that his work still embraces fear and complexity, that he is comfortable with change and a society in which all the borders are blurring and creating a condition that seems too complicated for any of us to understand anymore. “I’ll prove to you that you can live with it,” he says. In this sense, Mayne is that rarest of things: a creative figure who is fully in sync with his age. Like Rem Koolhaas, and Andy Warhol before him, he takes a very accepting stance towards the changes – good and bad – affecting society and culture. He does not try to make them more palatable or coherent or beautiful. He just assumes that – like the once loathed Eiffel Tower and Centre Pompidou – his works will come to be those things.

Mayne is a unique figure in American architecture: neither a populist nor a formalist in the Frank Gehry mould, he is much closer to those professor-architects Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman, but is now more successful than them and has more establishment approval. And yet Mayne still can’t seem to accept how long it took him to get where he is. It rankles him. “I’d have been much better off in Europe,” he says. Perhaps the retrospective at the Pompidou will offer a different perspective on his achievements, though it will probably not quench any of his ambition.

Asked whether he has tackled any of the innate problems with architecture exhibitions – their inaccessibility and didactism, for instance – Mayne describes an unconventional installation that has no wall texts but is merely a string of projects under a winding glass walkway. “I did a piece on the hippocampus a few years ago …” Mayne kicks off a long scientific analogy about how memories are organised in the brain in non-sequential patterns, and applies it to the exhibition. “So probably the public will hate it,” he says. And then he laughs.

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