Thom Mayne’s Moment

Six years ago he was the rowdy prince of paper architecture. Now he’s got eight major projects in the works. Has success tamed this confrontation artist?

For some people the worst possible caricature of American architecture came to life at UCLA a few months ago, when a dozen leading architects spoke at a student event called “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.” The stage had the usual two long tables forming a V, with a seat and microphone for each speaker. Strangely the V bent away from the audience and the architects sat with their backs to the crowd, talking to one another as if nobody else was present. There was a lengthy discourse about the importance of deconstructing the path of travel through an art exhibition. For a long time a photo of several clean Dutch children dyeing Easter eggs was used to make a point about the faces of morphing “manimals” and their essential relevance to structure. Most of the work discussed was paper architecture that would never be built; only other architects would ever see it—or understand it. In other words, it was just one more day in the life of progressive architecture.

After an hour or so the oldest architect there, 58-year-old Thom Mayne, was asked to speak. He did something surprising: he turned around, faced the audience, and talked about his feelings and what he was hoping to accomplish in clear language easily understood by the uninitiated. Mayne spoke about built work—buildings he designed that had actually been constructed and exist in the world. He described the Diamond Ranch High School, completed in 1999, which he says moved him from being a paper architect to someone whose ideas and designs interact with the world outside progressive architecture. And, he said, the experience changed his life: “I was over 50 years old and this was the first time I produced a piece of work that I could believe in. This was the first project where the aesthetic act and the social act were singular.”

A few days later Mayne said he’d been upset that the rest of the conversation was so abstract, so disconnected from the people who would actually use the buildings these speakers hoped to design. But, he said, it’s hard to blame young architects for discussing projects that haven’t been built since in the United States few major commissions go to architects under the age of 50. “I remember when I was forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, and I was seething because I couldn’t get serious work,” Mayne said. But because young architects are limited largely to paper architecture, they aren’t engaging the public. “It furthers this kind of marginalization,” he said. “The discussions remain esoteric—they remain within the aesthetic, formal, philosophical realm.”

It’s odd hearing Thom Mayne dismiss paper architecture. For much of his career he was famous for being one of the best—and most esoteric—paper architects in the country. He designed brilliant major works—an art center for Emory University; a golf clubhouse in Chiba, Japan; studios for MTV—that were never built, though other architects saw them in magazines like Progressive Architecture. Mayne did build several small projects—mostly homes and restaurants—for the architectural cognoscenti, but, he says, this time was immensely frustrating. He would scream at clients and became famous for his explosive temper. “None of my clients would recommend me,” he says. “At the beginning of your work, you’re defining who you are artistically. It’s intensely confrontational and radical.”

Mayne’s early work was eclectic, and it’s difficult to describe a signature style, but there’s a lot of metal, concrete, and glass in severe yet playful shapes. The form is aggressive: large irregular blocks jut out into public spaces. There is often some detail—a door or a large clock—that is so elaborately overdesigned it looks like a twenty-first-century Rube Goldberg device. Mayne won countless awards—including 19 Progressive Architecture awards or citations in 25 years—and had a strong effect on other architects, particularly in Southern California. “It’s kind of ridiculous how many projects were influenced by Thom,” L.A. architect Greg Lynn says. “There’s a high degree of fragmentation—the use of screens of different materials. I don’t know what you’d call the way Thom still does aperture, where he slices open exits in walls without framing them.”

Mayne may have been the darling of architecture’s in-crowd, but he couldn’t get the large public projects that would allow him to engage a broader audience. “I shouldn’t have been doing cafés and restaurants at 45 years old,” he says. “I could have been president of the United States.” By then his architectural vision was well developed and powerful, and he had calmed considerably. (“I was a raging maniac until five years of shrink,” he says.) Mayne was ready, but he couldn’t get the work. As recently as 1994 he had only six people in his office. He was lucky to get restaurant commissions.

And then it all changed. Suddenly, the year he turned 55, he started getting major work. “My practice went from jobs that were half a million dollars to jobs that are 200 million dollars,” Mayne says. “It was just this weird, bizarre shift.” It began in 1997 with a design competition for Diamond Ranch High School. Only this time, rather than lose the competition and win some design award, Mayne was actually offered the job. He says it’s still his favorite building and insists that I go out to see it with him.

Mayne picks me up in downtown L.A., and we drive 40 minutes into the eastern suburbs. We pass South Whittier, the working-class suburb where Mayne grew up. His father abandoned the family early, so it was just him and his mom and his little brother. Mayne’s mother was a pianist who didn’t make much money, and she refused to drive a car. So, he says, they were trapped—a cultured family in a neighborhood without culture. Mayne was an angry, difficult kid. “I was a terror,” he says. “In the hall or the principal’s office all the time.”

Mayne turns his car off the 60 freeway, into Pomona, another eastern suburb built into barren hills. I’ve seen Diamond Ranch in dozens of pictures, and in movies like Orange County and The Cell, but my first glance of the real building is shocking and exciting. It’s an imagined city of concrete buildings with broad lines of glass under gigantic undulating silver roofs that mimick the surrounding hills.

A group of senior football players walks by. When I ask what they think of the school, they smile and laugh. “It feels all futuristic, like 2010 or something,” one says. “Nice school. Real nice.”

“Most schools are just straight up and down,” the second says. “This is like, this is creative—all sorts of shapes and things.”

“It just looks all…at first I thought it was a penitentiary,” the third says.

Mayne can’t contain himself: “Penitentiary?” He leans in toward the kid, holding his head in exasperation. “I worked so hard. We tried to get rid of all the fences. I think it’s horrible when schools look like penitentiaries. That’s what the school I went to looked like. I hated it. I want a school that makes you guys dream, man. We worked so hard to make this thing look like it flies.” He stretches his long arm and shakes his hand like a bird flying. “I wanted you to think: if I can do it, you can do it.”

Without a beat, the penitentiary critic says, “You put too many stairs. Get here in the morning and after practice, climbing all over, man.” He laughs. “It’s a workout, all those stairs.”

At that UCLA conference, when Mayne said Diamond Ranch represented the meeting place of the aesthetic and social, I thought that meant some specific idea about better physical spaces for learning. Maybe he’d designed a classroom that encourages cooperative education. But walking through the building, Mayne tells me that’s not it at all. In fact, the interior of the school is pretty much identical to any other new school. There are regulations that even he didn’t fight. I ask him to point out a place where the social and the aesthetic come together. “It’s not a point,” he says. “It’s the whole idea. Pulling up to the school, it’s over. It’s either working or not working for you.”

Mayne explains that the building was meant to be a critique of education: “We live in a culture that’s so unsophisticated, so bottom-line. They’re just getting people to read and do math. It’s tragic. Let culture drive education: learn poetry, learn art—and then you’ll be driven to learn the mechanics of doing mathematics and reading.” The brief for this project was much like the one for any new school: there wasn’t much money, there wasn’t much time, and there was a conservative culture pushing for a conservative building. It’s a lot like the education going on in the classrooms. So this building is a refutation of the premises of contemporary public-school education. “Like it or hate it,” he says. “Doesn’t matter.” Mayne wants students to see that this building does not “accept the nature of what a school is supposed to be today—the immense ordinariness. It’s trying to do something. It proves as illegitimate this reality that people are constructing.”

It’s also a personal manifesto—an attack on “the resistance to my dreams, my whole life,” Mayne says. “I’m a fucking dreamer, and I was always told I couldn’t do it. But here it is. It’s not perfect, but it’s as good as I could do, and it’s here. And you could do it. Don’t let anybody tell you, ‘You can’t do it.’ That’s their problem.” It is a statement that can only be made in concrete and steel and glass. The power of the school is that it exists and interacts every day with students and teachers, and an entire educational system. “Architecture can’t just be on paper,” Mayne says. “You have to build. That’s what makes us architects.”

“Spoken like a true betrayer of his kind,” replies Sylvia Lavin, chair of architecture at UCLA. “That just makes me want to kill Thom. You can print that—and I am a huge supporter of Thom and always have been.” She says that Mayne spent most of his career in a more academic context. “For him to then turn and call the group of which he was a member five minutes ago irrelevant because they haven’t attained his level of success is offensive,” she says. “What is it that is so alluring about the world of businessmen and money and international fame that requires somebody like Thom to abandon the roots and the structure—the academy and its conversations—that made it possible for him to do what he’s doing? Is architecture only determined by how many square feet the project is or by how big the budget is?”

Mayne’s office is in a big warehouse on a dull street in Santa Monica. It’s mostly one huge room with several rows of long wooden tables where 50 young architects work side by side. Mayne’s desk, in a corner of the room, is only a little larger than anyone else’s. Most of the time he’s wandering from desk to desk looking at sketches or models. Mayne gives his colleagues the encouragement and trust he never had. The firm’s name is Morphosis, not Mayne & Associates, because he wants to make it clear that each building is a true collaboration. Mayne provides the ideas, and the young architects create models based on them. He critiques their models, they create new ones, and eventually a design evolves. Mayne is clearly the leader, but it would be impossible to identify what parts he designed and what parts were created by a 28-year-old just out of grad school. “Thom is amazing; he gives us so much responsibility and opportunity,” says Eui-Sung Yi, who has been with Morphosis for ten years. “And he provides the energy for the office. He has more energy than any of us young people.”

These days Mayne works mostly on large public projects. Over the next three years his firm will finish eight significant works, including the San Francisco Federal Building and the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) District 7 headquarters in Los Angeles. Both are designed as tall thin slabs with a series of grand lobbies and a mesh skin. The federal building will be the first U.S. project to use several green technologies: its concrete core will absorb the cool night air, keeping the interior temperate during the day without air-conditioning. However, Yi, one of the designers on the building, says Mayne is not especially interested in green technology—he simply likes limitations and challenges. In this case solving environmental problems gave rise to key design elements.

Mayne says that these public projects are every bit as engaging as he imagined they’d be. He loves arguing with government bureaucrats who don’t know much about architecture. “They find me stubborn or obstinate or whatever,” he says. “I’m going, ‘No, no, no. I’m here to work with you, but I’m not here to pander to you. This is a good thing: out of the conflict will come some sort of resolution.’”

Mayne’s biggest fan among his clients is, surprisingly, U.S. district judge Michael Hogan, the point man on the design for a federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, which will be finished in 2005. Hogan says he’s never met anyone like Mayne in his life. “I was not pleased about Thom’s selection,” he admits. “Any federal judge, their idea of a courthouse is the Supreme Court. I read descriptions of Thom like ‘the bad boy of L.A. architecture.’” Hogan, an evangelical Christian, says one of his first meetings with Mayne did not go well. “He said he was a loyal proponent of the extreme opposition to everything I believe in,” he says, adding that Mayne told him anyone with faith “is not sane. He did it with such enthusiasm and relish; he was needling and provoking.”

Hogan decided that he had to understand Mayne better, so he asked the architect to spend a weekend teaching the federal court staff about architecture. After “a few bottles of red wine and eleven hundred slides,” Hogan became convinced that Mayne could build a wonderful courthouse. But he felt Mayne would have to know more about the courts. “I started with the meaning of columns to judges,” he says. Hogan explained that classical columns convey the solidity of living under the rule of law: “I wanted people to know this was a courthouse when they saw it without reading a sign.”

Although Hogan was soon Mayne’s chief defender within the courts, he still became frustrated. “Many times I would be working as hard as I could to understand the building and the ideas, and I would come to some emotional peace. I’d come back a week later and things were completely turned upside down again.”

The building’s design is now finished. There aren’t any classical columns, but most of Hogan’s other concerns are addressed. The first two stories of the building are built along a Cartesian grid—basically a large rectangular plinth, on top of which are three rounded organic pod shapes (the courtrooms) and the curved walkways that connect them. Anyone seeing the building would know it is a courthouse.

In late summer Mayne was asked by New York magazine to propose a plan for the World Trade Center site. He approached the project in his usual way: he invited a young architect, Chandler Ahrens, a recent graduate of UCLA’s architecture school, to sit with him and try out some ideas. Mayne read a sentence he had typed: “Jet(ison) the past, out of sync anyway (U.S. = bigness, power).” And then he laid out his thoughts about September 11 and Ground Zero. “It’s not just sobbing about three thousand people,” he said. “Thirty thousand people die in some avalanche in El Salvador. Think of the sacking of Rome. I have no empathy; it doesn’t make me weep. I could make a better case for justifying the terror than the other way around. I’m completely out of sync with America.” He explained that he saw Ground Zero as a thrilling opportunity to present a new vision of New York: “I want the systems of New York to collide, a reference to the heterogeneity of New York City. This will be a critique of Yamasaki’s isolated towers; our plan will be antithetical to the idea of Modernism.”

I told Mayne I was confused by all this. His plan for Ground Zero seemed to be exactly what he was condemning at the UCLA conference: a paper fantasy that doesn’t speak to the concerns of the average person. It was fairly clear that the people of New York were not clamoring for a critique of Modernism in Lower Manhattan. Mayne’s answer surprised me. The average person’s understanding of his projects is “irrelevant,” he told me. “There’s layers and layers of ideas that go into a piece of work. It can be engaged at many levels. Probably most people are engaged at a very direct level: how it affects them. Others will recognize that there’s an organizational or conceptual tissue.” What matters, he says, is that the thing be built and that the people of New York interact with it and be provoked and altered by the space.

This is all a bit ironic since Mayne’s Ground Zero proposal was designed for a magazine and will not be one of the plans considered to replace the World Trade Center. It is the ultimate paper architecture project. In fact, Mayne might not agree, but his whole career proves that paper architecture is essential. Every progressive project that gets built has within it the memory of all of the sketches and plans an architect proudly designed and then was forced to shelve. Sure, there’s an esoteric paper conversation going on between architects that most of us don’t know about and couldn’t understand if we did. But we nonarchitects don’t have to get into the fray. We can be glad that Mayne is building such exciting structures. And we can be glad that younger architects are laying the groundwork for the next generation of great buildings.

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