Interview: Thom Mayne

January 12, 2011

Pritzker Prize winner and Morphosis founder Thom Mayne on authorship, Rationalism and the principles that guide his practice.

Pritzker-Prize winner Thom Mayne, founder and design director of LA-based architecture practice Morphosis, is considered one of the world’s most influential architects. Mayne visited Australia in December 2010 as part of the AIA’s International Speaker Series. Here he speaks with Simon Knott, Stuart Harrison and Christine Phillips about authorship, his Rationalist roots and the challenges of creating meaningful local connections as a global architecture practice.

Simon Knott: I wanted to ask you to start with an overview of what you talked about last night: architecture and the urban environment, architecture and the landscape environment, and the organisation and theory of your work. Can you give us a brief summary of those?
Thom Mayne I’m interested in locating my work in terms of its ideas. What’s the generative trail of architecture – how do you generate ideas?
The general public still relies on this notion that design is located personally, intuitively – that it comes from a certain type of talent. I never believed in that. I was educated in the 60s, and we were already interrogating that idea – it was a highly rationalist view. I’m trying to make it apparent that first of all, those ideas aren’t as simple as being intuitive. They’re borrowed, and – like languages – appropriated. It has an origin in previous architecture.
If you’re interested in the progress of a language, the evolution of an architecture, you have to have some method of interrogating the broader aesthetic. The rules and the structure that lead you to a particular aesthetic. I guess anybody of my generation would have to have some interest in the location of creativity, the processes of removing certain rational instincts. Jackson Pollock is an example of how things happen because you nurture a certain kind of environment. The notion is: how do we develop our own trajectories within the knowledge of artistic behaviour? For me, this is huge territory that has to do with developing a certain type of complexity, finding an architecture which corresponds to the relationship of how we understand the world.
I’m now putting out a book on urbanism, using an idea that was actually discussed by Maki in the 1950s. He’s a modernist, and I think I’m in a different place and I’m able to rethink some of the same ideas, but that’s the evolution of architecture. Each of us attempts to move it forwards, a little bit.

Christine Phillips: You do privilege processes and systems, and you seem to deny the role or hand of the author, but how do you account for the fact that there is a certain Morphosis-ness and a particular language to your work?
TM Well it’s more than just my hand. It shifts somewhat from the hand to design leadership to thought leadership. I’m interested in constantly interrogating, critiquing the rules that we use to drive the work and critiquing the work that comes out of those rules. You operate at both levels. Both are valuable, but you operate under that loose idea of what we call ‘theory’ – a set of premises that develop the work, and you test them, and then the premises change.
Corbusier and Mies, they had a set of premises that have to do with their idea of perfection. You look at the plan of La Tourette, and you see the grid has rapidly shifted, and you look at the Villa Savoye, and the columns are missing in the middle or there’s a new set of columns. Corbusier seemed to be immensely comfortable that he had invented those rules and he could therefore change them. They were not fixed. It’s that flexibility that is incredibly important – and I’m talking as an architect, not as a critic. Those are my issues that I’m struggling with and developing.

Stuart Harrison There seems to be two stages to the Morphosis career. The early works that we studied as students, and then the more recent large body of built work. When you compare early work such as the LA Artspark Performing Arts Pavilion with the recent Giant Group Campus in Shanghai, you can see it manifest to a certain degree with the ground planes and the use of the land. What are the key differences between the early and later stages? Is it a bend towards the environmental and the performative?
TM I can’t separate early and late work. It’s a day-to-day, year-to-year process of searching and trying to locate yourself. I started architecture at an interesting time. Modernism was exhausted, Post Modernism was just beginning. At Harvard, I worked with Mathias Ungers and I was teaching at SciARC. I was interested in La Tendenza, the Rationalist movement in Italy. But I didn’t have the ability to associate historically or culturally with the Rationalist movement. Though I hugely admired Rossi, I recognised early on that his project was complete and there was no room for anybody. It’s your yard, you’re looking for trajectory. You have an instinct for your location of the work and you should be selfish about that and ask: “What is there for me?”
As for the environmental or performative shift, I think not. The evolution is continuous, you keep asking questions. It’s partly generational, I guess. There is a certain set of conditions that form your basic set of first principles [when you start practising]. And I absolutely recognise my limitations – the way I use the three dimensional environment, I have limits and I’m still a mechanical person. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. When I talk to the next generation, I recognise that the way they work is embedded in a knowledge of the electronic that I’ll never know.

SH I wanted to talk about the role of technology in visualisation and also manufacturing for architects such as you, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry. Would you ever have envisaged where we’d be in a relatively short period of time, that these buildings are now feasible?
TM There were two things that happened. One was tectonic, which was to do with the methodology that allows you to construct the buildings. We restructured the office 10 years ago to accommodate that. That’s the technological side. The second thing that happened was perfect for me. From the very beginning, I’ve been interested in what some people called ‘collage’ – a collective behaviour. It’s the connection of things. To draw that was insane. I had huge numbers of young people taking weeks to draw one little piece. Then the computer came along. All of a sudden, in 20 minutes I could look at a dozen options when before it had taken me a week to see one option. It was a clear opportunity that fitted our interests.

CP Your interest in those relationships between things comes out not just in the buildings, but in the way you deal with site and fabric. You say you’re not interested in cultural readings of a place, but more interested in creating kinetic spatial relationships. Can you discuss how you achieve that kinetic relationship between your buildings and the surrounding buildings?
TM The broader issue is how to adapt to local conditions. Instinctually I sense that is the obligation of the architect. But we work globally, I have very little connection to my own city. The reality is that we work all over the world, and the type of connections we make can be quite abstract. It would be disingenuous to say we have the ability to, in any real comprehensive terms, make those connections. Where they are, it’s so superficial that it’s sort of embarrassing to talk about, for example, dragons in my work in China (in the Giant project). What is great is that it means architecture operates within a global community. We can go to schools anywhere in the world, and you’ll find students with the same broad attitude. That aspiration of Modernism is now a reality; it has long since been a reality. In the context, you can deal with the more abstract conditions at a more basic level and it’s still absolutely about connection, but you’re now dealing with it on spatial terms, typologies, morphologies, etc. Those are the types of connections available today that aren’t literal. You can still critique certain attitudes in terms of city making, but you’re looking at commonalities that make humanistic cities. The argument can be cross-cultural and we’re looking for the glue that holds various cultures together.

Simon Knott, Stuart Harrison and Christine Phillips host ‘The Architects’ on Melbourne RRR. This interview will feature on an upcoming issue of ‘The Architects’.


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