Sep 19, 201309:00 AMPoint of View
Q&A: Thom Mayne
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National Building Museum and Metropolis Magazine contributor Andrew Caruso recently sat down with AIA Gold Medalist Thom Mayne to talk about the early days of his career and the major design school, public projects, and trajectory of work that followed. Thom talks innovation, politics, education… and about debunking his reputation as the “bad boy” of architecture.
Adrew Caruso: Your professional career began in the discipline of planning. What led to the shift toward architecture and your eventual partnership with Jim Stafford?
Thom Mayne: I started working at the Pasadena redevelopment agency doing low cost housing, and that’s where I met Jim [Stafford]. Coming out of USC, I had no background about Mies, Khan or Corbusier, for example. USC was very strong in being anti-historical, looking forward instead of backward. I was essentially naive.
Jim was a year ahead of me at USC and had part of the older regime at the school. When I met him at the planning agency, he started introducing me to history. I got fascinated by [Paul] Rudolph; and then it just took off. Jim guided me through this thought process, reestablishing me in the tradition of architecture.
AC: So you left the planning agency…
TM: I went to Dworsky for six months and didn’t care for it, even though it was one of the more interesting offices in town at that time. Then I went to Gruen, the intellectual watering hole in LA. I really thrived there. They gave young people huge responsibility and that had enormous impact on my own office. I literally set my practice up with huge parallels to Gruen in terms of how I treat young people, the openness of the office and the atelier model. It’s very egalitarian. The youngest person is treated with the same respect as the oldest.
AC: Tell us about the origins of your firm, Morphosis.
TM: The Archigram boys were setting up shop at UCLA in 1968-69 (my fourth and fifth year at USC). Word got out, and a group of us started hanging out at UCLA. It had a huge influence on me. Peter Cook and I now joke about it.
In 1972, Jim Stafford and I started our firm and the concept came directly from Archigram: the idea of a flexible, multi-faceted collective. It was a silent attack on the singularity and authority of the author, very much part of the political, social, and cultural thinking of the late 60s and early 70s.
AC: How did a budding teaching career fold into these formative years?
TM: In 1971, Jim brought me to Pomona for my first teaching job. But all of us got fired and, instead, we started the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in 1972, the same year Jim and I started Morphosis. Jim and I had very similar ideas about the multidisciplinary notion of a practice in terms of its social and collective structure.
Three years disappeared in a huge effort to get the school going. I did three small projects—all conceptual. We won our first Progressive Architecture award for the Sequoyah Educational Research Center in 1974 -- that was the first time anyone heard our name, Morphosis. And, SCI-Arc was on its feet. It was a miracle.