Interview With Thom Mayne: “I Am a Pragmatic Idealist”


Emerson College Los Angeles, 2014. Image © Iwan Baan

Emerson College Los Angeles, 2014. Image © Iwan Baan

For many observers, Thom Mayne might easily be considered the most unpredictable personality in architecture. Once labeled the “bad boy of architecture” by critics—a moniker which he has, at times, enthusiastically adopted and even encouraged—Mayne’s actions in the architecture world can range from something as responsible as designing one of the United States’ most sustainable university campuses to something as outrageous as proposing one of the world’s tallest towers in a revered Austrian mountain town. In this interview, the latest from Vladimir Belogolovsky’s “City of Ideas” series, Mayne discusses his ideas, his past statements on architecture, and where he thinks the profession will go next.

Thom Mayne: …When I started, there was no notion of making money. It wasn’t even in my brain. I was completely fascinated with architecture. My heroes were James Stirling, John Hejduk, Raimund Abraham, Lebbeus Woods. They were producing such interesting work. I had no interest in working in a conventional sense. I was interested in figuring out who I was as an architect, understanding architecture as an art form, a social art form, a cultural art form, and what I could contribute to the discourse.


Four-Towers-in-One competition proposal for Shenzhen. Image Courtesy of Morphosis

Four-Towers-in-One competition proposal for Shenzhen. Image Courtesy of Morphosis

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Did you try to find your own voice?

TM: Yes, but only in the very beginning. I asked myself, “Who am I? How can I participate in this collaboration of voices?” So it was not ego, it was the fear of being nothing. I am no longer interested in that. I am confident now about my voice. I was coming out of school in the 1960s when architecture, as the Modernist project, exhausted itself. Venturi’s 1966 Complexity and Contradiction book set us free. Of course, architecture then turned to the Post-Modernism or historicism. But I was very much interested in his ideas of hybridization…

VB: Of course, you were. Look at the text on the back cover of your latest monograph [Morphosis: Recent Works]: “I have been interested in an architecture of complexity – an architecture promoting difference, the pursuit of ambiguity, the coexistence of apparent contradictions…” These are Venturi’s words, really.

TM: That’s right. Well, the first six pages [of Venturi’s book] were very influential and the rest – just forget it. So anyway, I was consumed with developing my own creative language then. I was interested in multiple forces, in the unfinished, the misalignments of various elements.


Hanking Center Tower in Shenzhen. Image Courtesy of Morphosis

Hanking Center Tower in Shenzhen. Image Courtesy of Morphosis

VB: Your work and the world you have been constructing with your very distinctive, iconic buildings is a whole culture of architecture making. I want to read to you several of your quotes, one by one. Could you elaborate them in very short responses for me?

TM: Fire away!

VB: “I love architecture that starts with impossibilities.”

TM: I love the complexities in which architecture is embedded. I am interested in anything and everything that potentially may affect our work. And you can never master the initial goal or projection. It is unattainable, impossible.

VB: “We give coherence to the world.”

TM: That’s what we do. We order the world.


Emerson College Los Angeles, 2014. Image © Iwan Baan

Emerson College Los Angeles, 2014. Image © Iwan Baan

VB: Speaking of order, you said, “I am interested in the notion of randomness.”

TM: Hmm… I was thinking of a complex order, not in a classical sense. The idea is to stay alert, to continuously observe the world. I am never interested in one thing and it is always random.

VB: And provocative.

TM: Not to us. To others, yes.

VB: You did say, “To produce something neutral is a failure.”

TM: Hmm… I’m not sure I agree with that anymore… Yes, in most cases.


Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, 2004. Image © Roland Halbe

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, 2004. Image © Roland Halbe

VB: “Architecture is always a political statement.”

TM: What else can it be? Of course, architecture is all about taking a position – socially, environmentally, urbanistically, ecologically. Any architecture is there to make a statement.

VB: And the final one, “Architecture is an investigation of a multiplicity of forces. We produce spaces that accommodate and enhance human activities.”

TM: I like that! Yes, we shape behavior or we accommodate behavior. Well, we really shape it; we influence how people operate, to some degree. It is a social idea. I think it is inevitable. It is a fact of architecture. It is impossible not to have an effect on people.


The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 2006. Image © Iwan Baan

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 2006. Image © Iwan Baan

VB: Let me give you an example of how invisible architecture may be, if it is not a spectacle. I was at the Kimbell Art Museum by Kahn, the undisputed masterpiece, right? Everyone says, if you want to see real architecture go see Kimbell. Now, I was there, paying attention to how people’s behavior “is shaped by architecture.” And almost every single person coming in would go straight to the paintings, move from painting to painting, from room to room, back to paintings, and then leave. It was as if architecture was not there.

TM: Look, Prince died last year and, shortly after, I was watching a video of him playing guitar. It was just startling. I watched again and again. Then I sent it to Wolf Prix; he is a Rock ‘n’ Roll guy; he plays guitar. He said, “Thom, this is a masterpiece, I listen to it all the time.” I said, “Is it like Jimi Hendrix?” He said, “No, better than Hendrix.” And he gave me a quote by Eric Clapton who was asked, “What’s it like to be the best guitarist in the world?” And he said, “Ask Prince.” Now, I sent this clip by Prince to several other people and they didn’t even respond. The point being, is that certain art forms affect various people, alright? Yes, I am aware of how little people are affected by architecture, although they seem to be paying attention to some of my projects such as the Cooper Union building here in New York. Perhaps because it has a certain amount of eccentricity in it that attracts people.


Perot Museum of Nature and Science, 2012. Image © Roland Halbe

Perot Museum of Nature and Science, 2012. Image © Roland Halbe

VB: You said, “I am an architect and I am interested in making exciting buildings.” This was your reaction to what you called “the exhaustion of the modernist project with its utopian ideas.” Don’t you think the modernist project still has potential? For example, Enrique Norten said to me, “I believe, one thing everyone is doing now is reinventing modernism in his or her own way. Some architects will not admit this, but we all are looking for inspiration in the work of the great masters of Modernism.” Are you looking for inspiration elsewhere?

TM: First of all, if you are going to keep quoting me with quotes over my 40-year career, I am not going to agree with many of them because my position is shifting. As far as Enrique’s position, he defines Modernism in a particular way and not in a literal historicist way. I think he talks about the return to our focus on innovation. No question about it, and it was instilled more recently through the digital as part of that. The digital is just a technique but it allowed us to reconsider a radically different notion of organization of form-making and it freed us in a way to deal with complexity at a power of ten. But I would argue that the digital played itself out and now we are looking for new ideas.


Emerson College Los Angeles, 2014. Image © Jasmine Park

Emerson College Los Angeles, 2014. Image © Jasmine Park

VB: You have organized exhibitions and written books. These projects force architects to clarify and condense their ideas into a series of projects that convey what you are, who you are, your values, and the territory you are interested in. What is on your mind at this point and time?

TM: Today, the issue I am most interested in is urbanization, which in the 21st century will supersede individual buildings. The most urgent issues today are infrastructural and urban. Architecture is expanding toward issues that become more and more relevant to our rapidly growing cities. There is negligence towards addressing these issues right now, but we will have to pay attention to them, as they are very urgent. We have to focus on the complexity and intensity of the forces at work in our vast new cities that no one understands.


Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, 2004. Image © Liao Yusheng

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, 2004. Image © Liao Yusheng

VB: How important for you was Frank Gehry’s House, which he transformed for his family in Santa Monica in 1978, the year you received your Masters Degree from Harvard? What was your reaction when you first saw it?

TM: I got off the plane from Boston, and went there the next day. It was not quite finished. It was a huge sigh of relief and a breath of fresh air. I was not very interested in the specifics, but I was completely enamored with the ambition. It justified my instincts in challenging the norm. What I liked was the freedom of thought. There was none of that East Coast, over-intellectualized insecurity. It was clear that his sources were coming from outside of architecture, particularly such artists as Frank Stella and Richard Serra. But I am much more systematic and eventually I was driven toward the work and methodology of such architects as Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman. Also I am into a discourse, but Gehry is complete. There is nowhere to go. The same with Rossi. His work was complete. He himself ended it. The same with Mies, unlike Le Corbusier who left so many trails. He had so many ideas and kept moving to something else all the time.

VB: Do you think Tschumi and Eisenman can be followed?

TM: There is logic there, discourse, methodology. Gehry is much more personal.


"LIUFFALO" by Thom Mayne. Image © Jasmine Park

"LIUFFALO" by Thom Mayne. Image © Jasmine Park

VB: Tschumi and Eisenman, and Gehry, including his Santa Monica house were all shown at the MoMA’s “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition in 1988. Do you see yourself as part of that group?

TM: I don’t see myself as part of any group. We have broader interests and there are certain commonalities and associations. We all are interested in innovation, but all of us have individual paths. Anyway, what is missing today is the collective discourse; instead, so much energy is spent on criticizing the individual.


Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, 2014. Image © Roland Halbe

Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, 2014. Image © Roland Halbe

VB: But this critique is consequential, don’t you think? There are so many individuals that it is only natural to resist the whole notion of the current oversaturation of diversity in architecture, just as you resisted the Modernist project in the 1960s. If resistance is a given then you resist the current condition, whatever it may be. Seriously, how many different types of architecture does the world need?

TM: That’s the position I came to believe. There is a limitation on the form. When I go to places like Dubai or Shenzhen… I once spent the whole morning photographing different tower tops and I question myself – is there anything left? Or do you really care? Do we need another shape? That’s not an interesting project. For example, I am now working on my own house and it has to have a certain look. But I am not even vaguely interested in the form. My fascination is with the unfinished, the performance, and so on. I will submerge architecture. It will be about what it means to have a family at this point in my life. The look is secondary.


The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 2006. Image © Iwan Baan

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 2006. Image © Iwan Baan

VB: Wait a minute, this house without a look and without a form, and with submerged architecture, will it reflect your internal world and who you are?

TM: Of course, it will.

VB: And it will have very little to do with the external world, right?

TM: Just the opposite. It will be extremely about the internal world.

VB: Well, you just answered your own question. You were walking around Dubai and Shenzhen wondering why we need all these different towers. But the reason we have these towers is not because we need them but because the architects of these towers are constructing their internal, highly individual worlds, just like you are constructing your own house. Very interesting.

TM: No, no, no, I am interested in ways of how we can rethink the notion of office environment, living environment… The form is just a form. It is what it is. Well, of course, it is personal; it represents a set of my values.


Diamond Ranch High School (sketch), 2000. Image © Brandon Welling

Diamond Ranch High School (sketch), 2000. Image © Brandon Welling

Diamond Ranch High School (site plan), 2000. Image © Brandon Welling

Diamond Ranch High School (site plan), 2000. Image © Brandon Welling

VB: Speaking of the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California, built in 2000, you said, “It makes no reference to traditional typology but rather looks elsewhere to encourage inquiry and provoke curiosity.” Was this your breakthrough project? Did it strike you as, “Aha, now I know what I am doing!”

TM: Yes, this was the first opportunity where I had an aesthetic act and the social act to come to an alignment. It was the beginning of me.

VB: How would you define your overall project? Where are you headed?

TM: I have no interest in any particular trajectory. I have no idea where I am going. I live totally in the present and I deal with questions in front of me. Anything can become an inspiration. I am a pragmatic idealist.


Thom Mayne. Image © Michael Powers

Thom Mayne. Image © Michael Powers

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.

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