Sep 19, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

Q&A: Thom Mayne

(page 3 of 3)

London Embassy

Courtesy © Morphosis

AC: Does the political dimension of architecture relate to (or drive) your portfolio of public projects?

TM: The GSA work is amazingly coincidental. It just showed up and it made total sense for me, because that’s what I think architecture is. A huge dilemma for the profession today is our lack of taking any control of the significant issues of our time. Our profession services the private sector in the most literal way, which is incredibly unuseful [sic] for our discipline that has limited voice.

AC: So what are some of the most significant issues of our time?

TM: I think the most compelling projects in our profession today are urbanistic [sic]. The issues of economic and environmental sustainability are going to be at an urban level.

You’re talking to somebody who has never run a traditional practice. It’s not a business. I produce work. I’ve never marketed, never called a publication. I’ve had times when the phone doesn’t ring. I’m willing to go plus/minus in terms of work.

AC: What parts of your persona have played into your success?

TM: Unbeknownst to most people, I’m not a bad boy. I’m a negotiator and I understand architecture as a negotiated act. If you’re going to get something built, there’s no choice.

The GSA work arrived at a time when I was prepared to take on that responsibility. As architecture, they are what they are. I’m operating at 60%, 70% capability, but that’s part of life. And I had to take a gulp to do that. At the same time, I’m really proud of working at that level. It’s a complicated conversation. Your notion as an architect is not completely connected to your role as a citizen of this country and how you participate with large public projects.

AC: How do you see your mindset shift across the breadth of your practice?

TM: We are so defensive and do a lot of self-editing with our clients in this country because they’re so conservative. I’m purposely overstating this, but by and large in this country, if a client asks if something has been done, the answer has to be, “Yes it has.” In China, it’s exactly the opposite. If I say, “Yes it has,” they ask, “Then why are we doing this?”

We can only survive from innovation. It wasn’t that many years ago that I was a “radical architect” and I wore that on my sleeve as a hugely positive thing. I connected myself to other people who considered themselves radical architects. But, it took me a long time to realize this was being used in an absolutely derogatory way to limit and isolate me.

AC: So what next for our profession?

TM: The nature of how we document our profession to the outside world is really destructive. The world needs only so many icons. Is it really a direction the whole profession can go? 

What we should be looking at is the pure notion of ideas, and the use of those ideas as they solve problems; cultural, political, ecological, urbanistic, infrastructural, etc. I’d be the first one to say it, and I guess I’m an icon maker. It’s not always appropriate. There are times when you need buildings with power, buildings that have a voice and talk optimistically about the potential of what architecture can be. But only certain projects demand that, and they’re mostly public projects.

By the way, what do they call us? “St(ar)chitects”? The press invented that. It’s embarrassing. It’s an absolutely disgusting kind of idea. The press needs to somehow simplify arguments for the public who still want People Magazine. I think a lot of areas in architecture that are the most interesting, are in fact not necessarily interesting to the public.

AC: You’ve said that naysayers have been a consistent thread throughout your career. How have you leveraged them into a positive force for your work?

TM: Anyone that knows me will tell you that when I commit myself to a project and get involved in an idea, I’m pretty relentless. I can stay focused for years. Architecture is distance running, not sprinting. I’m very positive. I just keep making arguments. It goes back to teaching – you have to make a case, a narrative for a particular direction. And, I’m pretty tenacious. A lot of the time, it’s the person that’s willing to stay in the room the longest that is going to win the battle.



Andrew Caruso, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, CDT, publishes and speaks internationally on issues of talent within the creative industries. His latest column, “Inside the Design Mind,” explores the motivations of today’s design icons and influencers, surfacing key elements of their identity and examining their agency within the community of practice. Andrew can be reached at:

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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