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Q&A: Thom Mayne

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Four Towers In One (Competition)

Courtesy © Morphosis

AC: Had you ever considered that you would start a design school?

TM: No. I think that period of time was much more relaxed. I was doing what I wanted to do; I lived simply. I had my summers off to travel in Europe. I was single, and I was part of that generation in every sense. I was completely captivated in my own education and where we stood at that particular time in history.

At 27, I had no idea who I was as an architect. It was an absolutely ideal situation because I was asking questions just one step ahead, or actually, maybe equal to my students. It was a very interesting time to teach and different than where I am now, when I may rely too much on my experience.

AC: And you quickly began to build a cadre of like-minded colleagues?

TM: We were all broke. I go back to all my buddies and we joke about it. Bernard Tschumi was staying in my studio when he was lecturing at SCI-Arc. Daniel Libeskind shows up and he’s still a kid. Steven Holl and I both had offices without air-conditioning or heating and we used gloves in the winter to draw.

We had this commonality among the whole group of us. We were all starting to practice, involved in our own questions, investigations, and research. We were curious. Inquiry was everything. It totally captivated us. It was 24/7.

AC: What guided you through this time in your career?

TM: It seemed very normal at the time. I was not at all ambitious. I had no idea where I was going and I couldn’t care, really. There were very few plans. I find that young people today are much more focused on some sort of a trajectory. They are much more conscious of where they want to be. I was just the opposite.

AC: It’s interesting that you find teaching during the earliest years of your career more valuable than teaching now.

TM: When I talk to young people who are starting to teach, it gives me a really useful perspective. I tell them to really enjoy it and to avoid insecurity about what they don’t know. This is a plus. They’re defining a generation in terms of what contemporary architecture means. As you get older, you can’t do that.

Teaching had a huge amount to do with my formation as an architect. We probably got more out of it than the students did; I had no idea. When you teach, you’re capable of articulating complex ideas that operate within an emotional, intuitive or private sense. But you learn to translate those because you have to. That’s what you do when you sit with your students.

I divide architects that teach and don’t teach. There’s a line. I can see it immediately.

AC: Is there a way that you would define the ethos of SCI-Arc when it started? Has it remained consistent?

TM: The school never had a singular agenda. Jim and I looked to the AA and the Cooper Union as models. There appears to be no structure at SCI-Arc, but there is a very complicated structure. It allows what appears to be a cacophony, a certain kind of chaos or randomness.

What is so interesting is that nothing has changed. It has its own idiosyncratic propulsion that allows it to maintain this diversity and energy.

AC: What has been its secret for success?

TM: The reverse of what is going on right now in congress. All of us seemed to be interested in having a conversation with other people we didn’t agree with. But, we could have a conversation. And that’s what the juries were. All of us had our own trajectories, but we were able to talk across the aisle. The school still has that. It somehow resists any singular notion of what architecture is or isn’t. It remains somehow committed to a broad and very idealistic notion of inquiry.

AC: What has architecture become for you over the course of your 40-year practice?

TM: I can’t see architecture as not being a political act [sic]. I think the U.S. is kind of unique in that way, though Europe may be the same way. We depoliticize it… that would be a far more complicated conversation that probably starts with the reshaping of our profession.

Sep 24, 2013 01:37 pm
 Posted by  SeanAsh

Nice interview. It does seem like academia is still the best place for true inquiry into ideas related to architecture, which you aren't gonna get from the design media which seems to have been annexed by public relations and people magazine wannabe editors.

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