Q/A Frame – Thom Mayne Morphosis – The Rebel transformed

Thom Mayne: ’I’ve been designated as a kind of formal architect my whole life. The buddies I grew up with as a young architect, Wolf Prix, Zaha Hadid and others, we were all kind of put on by this. First it was a compliment, and then I realized it was not. We used to ask ourselves why it took us so long to get started; the joke was that we couldn’t talk to each other about architecture until our building had elevators! So when I gave my first lecture at AA in London, I was presented as some kind of paper architect. Next time was no better; they said I just did small houses. The third time I got there I interrupted the moderator, and presented myself: ”Now I shall show you some buildings. With elevators! Fuck you!”’

’We were disconnected from reality. We all had this ability to draw, but that was absolutely nonsense. We have a world where people want to place you in some singularity, but I’m wildly against that because architecture is always about multiciplicity and complexity that comes out of radical conflicts. And conflict and its relationship to conversation has been the singular thing I’ve been concentrating at since I was a kid. Now the conflict becomes more interesting because it represent an acceptance of diverse influences on a complex problem. We as architects wouldn’t be needed if all these multiple forces that affect the things we are working on are in alignment, but they are not since they are never neutral, they are all linked to values, and it’s our profession’s job to make them relevant.’

‘As a child I was definitely interested in music thanks to my mother being a pianist, and particularly painting, but I wasn’t even aware of architecture. In high school I did a competition for a house, I was on a lark, it played me, but it was a mere coincidence that I began study architecture, I had no idea what I was getting into. And sure, I’ve been labeled the L.A. bad boy, but that’s not how I recognize myself. There is definitely a part of me that enjoys provoking, though, to have a certain type of conversation. I admire people who deal with innovation, with creativity, and I’m myself nurtured to be that way: to be inquisitive, to tenaciously asking questions about the world. I locate my architectural projects in that set of challenges of the status quo. It’s true that as a young architect I could be a little bit upsetting, but just a little! I guess that by getting older I’m a bit more relaxed, and I do have a better sense of humor.’

’I started my career as an urban planner, and I left it because it was completely quantitative. I got back to architecture because I was interested in the quality of things, which was an aesthetic excercise. But I thought this notion of the formal, especially in this country, was narrowing the role of architects to the shaping of things totally disconnected to any functionality and to any broader social and political purposes. I was loaded with bits and pieces of modernist dreaming when I left the school of architecture, this idea that architecture could shape behavior and could have some effect in shaping the world, ok, maybe divided by a power of ten or something. I thought of myself as a tortured Borromini, and I was one of the people who promoted this total isolation of this artistic world. But as you become absorbed and given broader commissions, how do you maintain that outsiderness? To project Caltrans involved huge constraints, you are suddenly in a different profession. It took me awhile to understand how to deal with a very broad group of people outside my reference territory, and I had to develop some type of diplomatic and communication skills. It’s like having had two professions, a before and after. The first one quite painful, although most of my clients were totally in love with me, and they would think I was fairly tough and insistent, and probably egomaniacal without any sense of compromise. But then you start working at another level, you don’t pound your fist on the table to defend your project, you start to negotiate instead. It’s a lot of fun, but it takes a very different set of abilities to operate and invent things which are now part of a much broader activity, and realizing them, giving them life with programs and materials.’

‘Yeah, sure I’m more happy now, I’m like a ball, even if architecture is a masochistic ball. Something happened with me, I realized I had to change my attitude towards things and apply a different approach. The world is not here to produce my architecture, I have to find a way of negotiating, a way of making this things happening. And it ended up being useful, and actually enjoyable, I used to be a private person who didn’t want to speak in front of an audience, and now I love it. It’s not just a task, it’s giving me rewards and allowing me to build both on a public and a large scale, which I think I’m actually much better at. Now my ambitions are a bit more realistic.’

‘I love listening to people incognito, standing next to my Cooper Union, and I kind of egg them on, and it’s amazing what the uninitiated, with no prior understanding of architecture, get out of it, and even the broad general notion of freedom. I’m interested in architecture, which expresses possibilities, which is a kind of interesting issue at this moment, because politically one of the central ideas is the limits and the uses of the individual versus the collective. Architecture is a terrific medium in that sense, because it is about a conversation, which involves these relationships, and it’s about you having a voice in a collective system. And I sure don’t believe in the notion of average, because that is a mathematical idea, there is no one sitting at the average. Architecture should allow for differences among people, so maybe we should make buildings with high and low spaces, dark and light, and so on? If you believe architecture is just technical knowledge, do change career! It’s about creativity and finding your role in-between all the constraints. You use this very minimum of resources, this very limited material language, and the kind of simplicity of the project to produce an intensity which speaks architecture.’

‘Yes, I use to say that architecture is performance based instead of intuitive and subjective. And yes, you might call it confrontational because I’m asking questions about the role of architecture as a political and social art form. It forces you to challenge the world we live in, and the role of architecture in the relation to landscape, to infrastructure, to the nature of communication and dialogue. This forces you to kind of rethink who we are in social and political terms, and at some point I believe the purpose of architecture is to shape behavior, it has the power to reshape who we really are.’

’Today I believe infrastructure projects are the most compelling projects of the 21st century. But there are too few architects dealing with these types of issues when the role of architecture expands to connect the qualitative with the quantitative. I’m not interested in politics, but in the relationships where it takes you. I want to go through scenarios leading to the development of a city, a neighborhood, or a piece of infrastructure, it’s an exercise, which finally has to do with the nature of the qualitative environment. I’m more and more interested in the alignments that resolves, and I believe in the city as a social and cultural enterprise, and where architecture change how people meet and interact. My work with UCLA and with our study L.A. NOW is all about how L.A. will grow with some 1,5 – 2 million people, and trying to grasp these enormous quantitative numbers and write a strategy on how to make L.A. sustainable for the Mayor. And it’s perfectly doable.’

’If architecture is really alive and operating, then it’s open to all kind of possibilities. It’s all about that openness and flexibility, the viability, how the character of architecture is shaped by the transformation of the world that is happening on this enormous scale we see today. I can anticipate some of the response I get, but it’s not about that benign beauty and harmony craved for by a certain audience which have a harder time in adapting to the world, and who goes nostalgic longing for what used to be. It’s about discovering complexity, the nature of an ever more global world, and the huge potential of possibilities and the richness of the world we live in.’

‘I’m in a profession where all you do is to interpret, you make things that embody your sense of the world within political cultural, aesthetic, and historic terms, and those things finally speak about the nature of your time and your generation. You have to be open and non-linear, you have to allow yourself to explore, to observe, and to be alert in an essential way. The process fascinates me; I work at the idea, not the thing. The outcome is a surprise, what I’m looking for is what I couldn’t imagine. And it somehow defines our era, our lives, our time, and we leave little pieces of ourselves that outlives us, a little reminiscence of this little short time we spend in the universe, we monumentalizing our existence.’

Cooper Union

Thom Mayne

1944 Born in Waterbury, Connecticut

1968 Receives his BA architectural degree at University of Southern California and begins to work as a planner for Ki Suh Park

1972 Cofounds Morphosis, as well as the free architectural school SCI-Arc

1978 Completes his master at Harvard University Graduate School of Design

1999 Diamond Ranch High School, Pomona

2004 Caltrans (aka The Death Star) completed in L.A.

2005 Awarded the Pritzker Prize

2009 Cooper Union, New York

2017- started work on the Bloomberg Center at the Cornell campus in New York

’As an architect you are comfortable working within multicultural conditions, you are trying to be useful and reconfiguring the nature of things has to do with the vast problems we are confronted with as human beings in our built enviroment. It has to do both with quality and the more complex poetic part of it, which takes us in a direction of a much more complicated construct in an artistic sense. It has to do with performances in the real world, and the culture of architecture has always been about the interactions, you don’t escape the conceptual and the artistic or human aspect that comes out of the performances, and today we deal with the advance of computation and the digital environment, it brings huge amount of reality to the project early on, there’s an immense amount of information. It wasn’t there 20 years ago when you actually could hold all of it in your head when you are doing a sketch.’

‘I’ve watched my friends in medicine, and there was a time when it changed from technological advancements to a more holistic notion of delivery, it was huge shift! You can have the best medicine in the world, but it’s the total that counts. It’s the same thing in archtecture. Architects can produce these amazing things, and 100 years later you can read about the interesting characters, but eventually there is the questions: how was it used? How did it change society?’

‘When I talk to the students about doing conceptual work, I tell them that 90% of architecture is constraints. In order to be a serious architect you turn this constraints into an advantage. It is like Tai Chi: the force, this consistent pounding, no matter what political culture or environment. There are constraints at every level and you use them as positives, as a building plan, but you humanize them as go along, you put them within lyrical, poetic, and artistic conceptual terms. And that way the constraints are no longer seen as burdens, they give you an advantage because they give you rules, they set up a framework, they deal with the radical arbitrariness of anything in life. You bring some external ideas to the project, but I think you’ll find in most cases architecture are very much an interpretation of found conditions. It’s like playing an instrument that comes with exact and precise rules of how you touch it, and which makes you able to bring forth all the nuances within these limitations. The problem of the infinite arbitrariness of something is to find out the rules which governs, and to use your discipline to start organizing so the coherency can have some sort of a meaning that communcate in a kind of abstract sensibility that other people can understand.’

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