Thom Talks

Sept. 1, 2007

By Maureen Patterson

When Thom Mayne of architectural firm Morphosis won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor, in 2005, he was the first American to win in 14 years. It capped a 30-year career in which he has received 54 American Institute of Architects awards among many other honors. He is also the MasterSpeaker at GreenBuild 2007.

In June, ARCHI-TECH Managing Editor Maureen Patterson sat down with Mayne in his Santa Monica, CA, studio. The following is an excerpt. Read the complete transcript...

On the Design Process...
You don't start with style or a formal idea, you start with first principle questions.

More important is actually the process that this questioning begins in terms of the method of inquiry and investigation. It is very interesting ... architecture can participate with this questioning ... we can start looking at a work that challenges certain conventions and intentionally stimulates or provokes thinking.

I'm observing the world. I'm not inventing the world. I observe it and I put it within some logic, and that logic keeps leading me to more knowledge about who we are and what we are.

You can start with certain ideas, but these ideas are merely going to be a departure point. It would not be that you would ever build this first notion. The work would be to attack this notion and take it somewhere else. It will turn into something as you question it because the questions are going to become more specific and idiosyncratic to the particular place, program, personalities, and all the circumstances that surround the problem, and by its nature will have to be differentiated.

All work starts with investigation and develops around the types of questions you ask.

On Technology...
All design starts with desire. There is a desire for technology. The capability of technology today is limitless. But prior to the technology comes a commitment to that technology, and this is now taking place on a cultural basis.

It's not the reality of technological intelligence that is going to be a cultural/political conversation. It is the will to activate the technology. Do you agree with that?

MP: Yeah, but what's it going to look like? How does it evolve? What is a building and how does this evolution - where is it going?

You don't know?

MP: I don't.

That's what's so ...

MP: That's why I'm asking you. [laughter]

The answer is, you don't know, and you shouldn't know, and you can't know. If there was a consciousness in dinosaurs ... did they know how the world would evolve 250 million years later or what the plant species would look like? Of course not. The notion of unknowability is one of the most exciting parts of our reality. That you recognize that part of your finite self is incapable of understanding the complexity of our universe is captivating.

The discussion we are having today with technology, and with the relationship of how we use various types of intelligences to solve problems is really more of a philosophical and cultural discussion. Technology influences everything with architecture. Architecture involves a huge amount of issues and individuals. We work with civil, mechanical, structural, light, acoustics. Our world requires the gathering together of multiple technologies and technological disciplines and integrating them into a single force. Like a film, we work toward some singularity and continuity and coherency and meaning that is relevant within the cultural realm, the artistic realm, and that speaks humanistically.

The total is always larger than the sum of the aggregate parts.

On Beauty and the Nature of Architecture...
Is beauty an operational idea in architecture? I'm going to say no, it is not, because if beauty is the operational idea, then who is the decision-maker defining beauty? There is some convention that guides you toward what you think architecture is or isn't. And when you see something that is outside of that realm, well, now we're talking about different personalities. It seems like a huge amount of people do not like things that are not part of their familiar world, while other people are totally fascinated with these things. The second category of people, probably 10 percent, are unfortunately in the minority, while the first category of people comprise more like 90 percent of the people.

MP: So you don't start with the looks, you start with the questions, but then, how much do things like performance and technology influence those questions?

They're completely integral. You cannot separate these things from a work. The performance, the engineering, the thinking, the method of investigation, and the formal work are all singular, interdependent, and interrelated.

On Phare Tower in Paris, Which Morphosis is Designing...
We have a remarkable client. They wanted to do something and they said, "Do it." We did a very aggressive building - a very complicated building on a very complicated site. We used the complications of the site to make the building. The building design is really a very clear response to solving the problem of an insanely weird site that is on top of a very complex infrastructure (rail, subway, roadways) and has a piece of public space and circulation that cuts directly through the middle of the site and had to be maintained. Our building design, in response, has a 100-foot-tall by 100-foot-wide open space right through its center. Because of this, the lobby ends up being 110 feet up in the air. Everything about the building emerged as a direct response to solving the project's unique kind of nonsite conditions.

What is funny is that I remember several people contacted me when we were doing the competition, saying that this was the perfect problem for me, that this was a Morphosis site. What they meant by that was that it had lots of constraints and complexities. People that know me understand that this office loves problems that come with constraints. I'm not a bean-field guy. If you give me a complete empty site with nothing, that would be the hardest problem. I need stuff to work off of, both in terms of a project's conditions and in terms of discourse, too - i.e. I need people to push back at me; I need someone to argue with. This is where the ideas come from.

From the very beginning ... I have always very much felt that architecture was a collective, collaborative experience, not about the self. The collaborative nature of the work in some ways is about attacking the idea of architecture as a reflection of the self.

On Social Consciousness...
I look at this container (a Figi water bottle). If I was going to show this container to a group of students and say, "We are going to redesign this container; what is our first step?" A lot of them would start with the shape and maybe try to design a more sexy object. This would be how one group of people would approach this problem. And this would probably be the largest group.

Another group might start by asking questions. They would say, "Well, how many of these are made? Oh, a billion a year, easily a billion. All right. How many times is it used? Once. Oh. How much total material is involved in it? What's it made out of? Oh, X amount of tons of blah blah blah. When it gets discarded, where does it go? When you discard it, how many square meters of space does it take for that three billion containers a year? How long does it take to de-evolve naturally, and does it emit anything? Are there toxins?" This is a really different way of approaching the problem.

The first approach represents what most of the public probably thinks architects do: style, restyle. I'm interested in the second approach because out of that approach comes a complete redefinition of a bottle.

In my office and in me, there is definitely a shift taking place in the last decade that has had to do with my planning work and my academic work. The work is getting more "strategical" and is looking more and more at macro issues and at the relationship between micro and macro. The bottle discussion symbolizes this best. That's why I use that. It seems to be the best metaphor. It's not the bottle. It's the three billion bottles that get used once, that finally are buried in a site and have enormous environmental, economical, and cultural impacts. When you finally realize this, you go, "Actually the solution isn't even redesigning the bottle, it's doing an ad campaign: Use glass bottles."

On His Use of Skip-stop Elevators and Influencing Social Behavior...
If architecture cannot influence social behavior, it is not doing anything. It is much less interesting. It is just benign. Why bother? You would be back to cake decoration. If you're not shaping behavior, and if behavior isn't shaping you, you're not doing your work.

Maureen Patterson can be reached at [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!