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Thom Mayne’s quest to replace the straightforward connection

Paul Finch
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A lecture by the Pritzker-winning architect – to mark Peter Cook’s birthday – related how an interest in objects and technologies embedded in buildings eventually developed into a new architecture, writes Paul Finch

A brilliant address by Thom Mayne marked Peter Cook’s 80th birthday, celebrated in style at the Bartlett last week. Bob Shiel was an urbane master of ceremonies at the talk and dinner, where an array of ex-students and pals gathered to celebrate, many having travelled from abroad, including Bernard Tschumi, Benedetta Tagliabue, Odile Decq, and the Aedes Gallery duo from Berlin, Kristin Feireiss and Hans-Jürgen Commerell.

Informal tributes referred to Peter’s generosity of spirit, his ability to spot the germ of a good idea in a student’s work, his consistent championing of flair and networks, and what he himself referred to as the important matter of making ‘good choices’.

The formal lecture was a good example of how rolling back the years can be about the future rather than the past, since Mayne’s architectural journey has been the constant quest to find a language with which to express ideas about fragmentation, the incomplete, and visual association rather than straightforward connection.

Mayne said if he saw a rendering of what he was designing, this would ‘kill the project’ since his interest was in the chance results

His chronological account of the Morphosis story made excellent sense, showing how an interest in objects and technologies embedded in buildings eventually developed into a new architecture. (Mayne was 47 when he completed his first big building.) Computer processes supplanted the ‘preconceived drawing’, interiors became extensions of surface, the site increasingly became the project, and his formal designer status morphed into a role as project strategist.

He described feeling he had nothing to add to what his teachers, Case Study House guys, had achieved with their particular language, and that studying Aldo Rossi had made him realise that pursuing that line of investigation would be a ‘dead-end’. Instead, his evolving architectural language merged with the rise and rise of digital design, resulting in a way of working in which a concept line, once started, could become construction method and a working document – which could be reversed if necessary.

Indeterminacy as an idea was being pushed to its limits; Mayne declared that if he saw a rendering of what he was designing, this would ‘kill the project’ since his interest was in the chance results, including residual space, of those computer processes replacing formal composition. References to John Coltrane and Miles Davis made the point: the collaboration of fragments rather than organised completeness.

Caltrans district 7 hq

Caltrans district 7 hq

Source: Alossix - Stephen Friday

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters Building, by Morphosis

Three informing ideas were workplace organisation (ie understanding interactive flows of activity); social/public space; and energy/sustainability. The latter consideration results in the extraordinary appearance of many of his buildings, but is anything but whimsical or arbitrary, the love of technology and manufacturing well illustrated by endless computer analyses of building elements, apparently as economical in practice as they are unusual aesthetically, for example in California’s Pomona High School or the Caltrans building (pictured) in downtown Los Angeles.

In discussing future possibilities, based on biology and the way molecular complexity might generate ‘infinite interaction’, Mayne said he was interested in the acceptance of the wilful – accidents waiting to be generated, as it were. His goal? ‘To do something beyond my capacity to understand.’

This proposition seemed an appropriate way to celebrate Cook’s eight decades, a tribute to art and the power of the imagination rather than the ‘scientific’ method of survey, diagnosis and prognosis which fits so well the worldview of the planner and project manager.

Ironically science is critical to Mayne’s World; but it is a world in which it is embraced as a determining element rather than functional helpmate in delivering pre-planned outcomes. It suggests a way to think about city growth, as fractal accident rather than the formal product of a five-year ‘plan’, where residual space could be anticipated and relished, rather than shunned as the consequence of a process offering illusory perfection.

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