Fresh Morphosis

Thom Mayne, once considered the “bad boy” of contemporary architecture, is now 61 years old and, by his own estimation, finally calming down. “I remember when I was 45, I was just a raving maniac,” Mayne said in lecture at Columbia University November 30. “I was so angry I just couldn’t contain myself.”

This anger stemmed, Mayne said, from his inability to get large public projects built—a hurdle that he has clearly overcome in the last several years. Since 1999, Mayne and his Santa Monica-based firm, Morphosis, have completed a slew of major new projects, including the San Francisco Federal Building, the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles, and the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California. In March 2004, Mayne’s achievements were recognized with the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award.

At the lecture, titled “Fresh Morphosis,” Mayne discussed his recent work, as well as his development as an architect, his use of fragments in buildings, and the importance of values in architecture. Below are selected excerpts of Mayne’s lecture.

His development as an architect:

There have been certain things that I’ve been preoccupied with, and they started with contradiction—contradiction within intellectual terms and within physical terms and within personal, emotional terms. This started early in my career within a broader interest in looking at the content of architecture and how it describes the world—because architecture is only advertising who we are, our role in the world, describing that world. And [I adopted] a position of something radically more idiosyncratic and specific. And I have been driven by that interest of specificity.

I come out of the sixties, and I share with a lot of my colleagues from that period of time a severe ambivalence. I’m somewhat schizophrenic towards the formal and towards the idea of the aesthetic experience through more intuitive means. I came out of an education that was highly rational and modeled itself on the scientific method, and it took me 15 years to get past that, to find myself.

I recognized early on that I was a very incomplete person—personally, intellectually. I’m the type of person that requires feedback and a social milieu—in my studio, within my friends, within my colleagues—and I need push-back and I need a relational structure.

The early years of his career:

Starting right out of school, I was in Los Angeles, and there were several things that just struck me intuitively. One is that I wanted to control the output of my own creative capacity—meaning I wanted to be responsible for it, meaning I would take responsibility for making, constructing. [I was also] very unclear about the role of architecture and its relationship to broader conceptual and intellectual concerns. I was intent on having an architecture which had its own meaning, which was very connected to a notion of the intelligence of things, which came out of a fascination with somebody like Eero [Saarinen].

I was interested in the intelligence of things and in the responsibility of that process of making. A huge amount of the generative stuff that produced the work had to do with a very direct role in this process, and understanding, especially as a young architect in Los Angeles, the limited culture of making—not just limited but primitive—and not being comfortable with turning my work over to that culture.

Values in architecture:

Values—it starts with a question. What is a cultural value and how does it come about? Because, again, [as architects] we’re constructing reality. How do you locate the value of that, of the nature of our work? History was about identifying the source of value in objects, and the assumption was that things had intrinsic values and intrinsic resonance and meaning. And of course, paraphrasing somebody like Susan Sontag, it’s not that way at all. We confer value on things. It’s much more ephemeral, much more culturally specific, much more malleable. And it’s the act of conferring that is the nature of our activity, or a major part of that.

Use of fragments in his work:

I think more or less by serendipity or accident, [Morphosis] started recognizing that the tools of exploration—which were highly focused on models, on physical objects—that the fragments of those objects were more compelling than the total objects. And so, like any creative process, as you play it out and work through this idea, the result takes you someplace. And it doesn’t take you necessarily where anticipated. In this case it became very apparent to us that these fragments were the most compelling of ideas. And we went about building these unfinished pieces using this strategy in more or less localized areas—places of intensification, all of it alluding to the future, the unfinished, the infinitive evolution as a potential of the work.

On organizational logic:

If there’s a single interest I’ve had, it has had to do with the logic of organization, and how our work differentiates and opens up possibilities for huge numbers of organizational types that are the source of our work. All of it has had to do with an interest in making a series of connections between more or less non sequitur information.

Our work has been preoccupied with connections between unrelated systems that generate more complex provisional entities. What is returned to is emergent behavior and complexity, less concerned with the contradictions between discreet identities, but rather more with the continuities that emerge through the fusion of discreet elements that retain aspects of their singular character.

Everything I’m involved in is interested in relationships—not objects, but the relationships between things.

Reaction to competition losses:

When you’re working on projects, you realize that everything you do is part of your research and is part of defining your own development as an architect. You never, never have to worry about wasted effort—meaning you lost the competition or you didn’t get the piece of work. Because you just keep working. And it’s your level of research. It’s how you grow, it’s how you develop.

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