This interview was published in the Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, on April 1, 2005.
Anna Tilroe, art and culture critic and writer, lives in Amsterdam, NL.
Translation from the Dutch: Nancy Forest-Flier

Interview with Thom Mayne by Anna Tilroe

They told me to expect an intense man, but that, I discovered, is putting it mildly. No sooner do we sit down at the table in his home in Santa Monica, California, than Thom Mayne, the American architect who recently was awarded the most prestigious prize in the field of architecture, the Pritzker Prize, suddenly bursts forth. In the hours that follow it is only with the greatest reluctance that he allows his passionate, urgent line of reasoning to be interrupted.

‘Look,’ he says, pointing to a picture on his laptop during his discourse on architecture, art and science, which he delivers at breakneck speed, ‘this is where contemporary architecture begins.’ We’re looking at the laughing head of a woman on a swarthy body whose bulging muscles could easily match those of the governor of California. It is a woman? A man? ‘For me,’ he says, ‘this picture represents the hybrid, ambiguous character of our culture and the radical changes taking place in our relationship to nature and within nature itself. What is nature? What does “natural” mean today? Nothing! We no longer can see nature as Caspar David Friedrich did in the 19th century: as tribute to a higher power. That’s why it’s become irrelevant as a concept. Our idea of nature is increasingly being determined by scientific developments. And they have become decisive for our image of reality. Scientific reality is the modern human condition, and you can see that in the symbolic nature of my work.’

Mayne (1944), a tall, sturdy man with a stubbly beard and a fierce, almost savage expression, is not an uncontroversial architect. The jury of the Pritzker Prize described him as ‘a product of the turbulent sixties who has carried that rebellious attitude and fervent desire for change into his practice, the fruits of which are only now becoming visible in a group of large-scale projects.’ The robust, steel-coloured buildings he and his bureau Morphosis have designed in recent years are characterised by sharp corners and protruding, canting sections and are often covered by leaning or half-folded metal screens. Their complex, linear arrangement of forms, impressive façades and high-tech allure is described by his opponents as alienating, hostile and even nihilistic.

The building he produced last year for Caltrans, the California state company that handles public transportation, bridges and road construction, is sneeringly referred to by locals as ‘the Death Star’. The hundred twenty metre long and sixty metre high building is located in downtown Los Angeles close to the Disney Concert Hall, built by his famous California colleague Frank Gehry. Both structures incorporate the inimitable complexity of computer-designed architecture and feature gleaming ‘skins’ of aluminium and stainless steel. But that’s where the similarity ends. In Mayne there’s none of the flair of waves, whirls and curves that make Gehry’s work so playful and engaging. The Caltrans Building has long, staggered, iron-coloured outer walls in which the horizontal strips of embrasure-like windows, steel plates and glowing red neon tubes evoke the idea of a gigantic hissing meteorite. This is the architecture of awe that hardly budges an inch from the half-encapsulated square in front of the main entrance.

Mayne doesn’t see anything negative about it. For him, conflict and confrontation as architectural principles are part and parcel of the age we live in. He believes his work radiates progress and optimism. But what does he mean by progress and optimism? And what values does he associate with these words?

Mayne points once again to the exaggeratedly muscle-bound woman on his laptop and continues. ‘Thirty years ago this wouldn’t have been possible. The chemical substances she takes weren’t available back then, or they would have killed her off in no time. But now constructing your own body has become part of the general culture. People can decide how they want their bodies to look, and that determines how they think about themselves and the reality they live in. They believe that now you can construct your own reality. As an architect, I start with that optimism.’

He’s not interested in talking about values. He far prefers to adopt a scientific attitude, he says: something is. Period. Concepts like good and evil are as irrelevant in the scientific reality we live in as they are in nature. Nature has no compassion; nature couldn’t care less whether we live or die. When I point out that it’s still not quite the same with people and ask if he, as an architect, isn’t interested in the human aspect, he is visibly rattled. Whereupon a game begins of dodge and advance.

Mayne: ‘Architecture is involved with the world, but at the same time it has a certain autonomy. This autonomy cannot be explained in terms of traditional logic because the most interesting parts of the work are non-verbal. They operate within the terms of the work, like any art.’

The idea of autonomous art is a 19th-century idea. It gave artists a great deal of freedom to make new important discoveries, but ultimately it detached art – and to a certain extent architecture – from the social domain. Today this is increasingly being felt as a shortcoming.

Mayne: ‘The huge problem in our society is the enormous ignorance of the ideas that underlie modern art. Whether you look at Picasso, the surrealists or Duchamp, somewhere along the line you’re going to encounter Marx, Freud or Einstein. In a certain sense they redefined our image of ourselves, because when we ask the question who we are as human beings, the answer always refers back to ideas. They form our brains and in doing so they form the world. If the human species collectively were to decide that philosophical ideas don’t matter and were to replace Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, with the story of Adam and Eve (which is now threatening to happen in America), we would become extinct as a species because we cannot undo the biotechnical developments that are based on his theory. They are critical to our survival in the world as we know it. So we can’t go backwards, we can only go where the evolutionary trajectory is taking us and attune our ideas about ourselves and our existence to that course. We only exist in terms of how we think we exist. Meaning every cultural development is fabricated and can be fabricated. So at a time in which the media give the public everything it wants and desires, maybe art should adopt a much more aggressive attitude towards the public. I myself am very much inclined to take this position.’

Generally you are described as an unyielding, uncompromising architect who only in the past few years has succeeded in obtaining large-scale public projects. What has changed?

‘I have changed. I’ve learned that in order to achieve what I wanted, it made more sense to negotiate than to defend the autonomy of my work by pounding my fist on the table. Large-scale public projects require the agreement of large numbers of people. It’s too simplistic to advance the notion of the autonomy of art as a reason for turning away from the public. You can have autonomy and simultaneously have connections with the social and political world. So I am totally aware that when I defend the autonomy of art I’m going counter to my own development. It’s more an instinctive reaction, meant to protect the private aspect of the work, the part I am most interested in and which nowadays is at risk in our culture. Although the private cannot be substantiated by common logic, you have to find a workable logic in which to argue on behalf of the work. Today every architect has to find a way to make this connection. Koolhaas is a genius in this respect. But often it’s doubtful whether the logic of the work itself and the words used to describe it really have anything to do with each other.’

In your work you leave your mark on people’s everyday surroundings. Are your aesthetic principles the predominant factor in this or are there other, more idealistic factors involved, such as how you would like to see the world and the people in it?

‘I’m often called an old-fashioned modernist. But the modernists had the absurd idea that architecture could heal the world. That’s impossible. And today nobody expects architects to have these grand visions any more. We work within a much more realistic framework. But I absolutely believe that architecture is a social activity that has to do with some sort of communication or places of interaction, and that to change the environment is to change behaviour.

How would you like people to behave?

Mayne hesitates now, starts a long-winded story about the ugliness and dubiousness of social architecture with a therapeutic function, and then seizes on the social project with which he made his big breakthrough as an architect five years ago: the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, not far from Los Angeles. The school was praised up and down for its unconventional bond with the hilly landscape, its panoramic view and the energy-saving solutions incorporated in its construction. But the social aspects have also been applauded. The intimate, ‘canyon-like’ passages between the building’s various leaning and staggered blocks, the spacious corridors and the monumental stairs embedded in the hillside that double as an amphitheatre were seen as a very successful means of building a school as a community. But now Mayne offers no more than platitudes such as ‘I was interested in the way architecture participates in education’ and ‘it became more of a landscape than a building’.

His wife Blythe, who has been sitting silently beside him all this time, joins in the conversation. ‘I think’ she says, ‘that the building mainly influences the attitudes and aspirations of the students. The children at this school all come from the lower social strata. They don’t know any architecture, certainly no architecture that was designed especially for them. The fact that the building is valuable and special reinforces the idea that they themselves are valuable and special. That changes their own sense of self and their perception of their own future. This is especially evident among the poorest children. Several of the students have already announced that they want to become architects.’

Mayne: ‘The aesthetic of architecture has to be rooted in a broader idea about human activities like walking, relaxing and communicating. Architecture thinks about how these activities can be given added value.’

But the question still remains: what is that added value based on – what notions of stimulation, regulation and control? It’s no longer possible to design total concepts like the urban development and architectural planning that produced Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Brasilia served as a model for a fully socially engineered world: houses and shops here, hotels and government buildings there. And we’ve lost our belief in the all-embracing adventure of the imagination as sketched out in projects like New Babylon by Constant and the Situationists. Does this mean that today’s architectural vision can only be fragmentary, temporary and personal? Or are there still concepts that we experience as more or less stable, that we can use to form an idea of the future?

Mayne, fiercely: ‘The idea of the future is dead! Now we know that the world changes in totally unpredictable ways and that a single human act can make the future look entirely different. So it’s pointless to come up with ideas about the future. As an architect, do I need a vision of the world? Of course! But that vision doesn’t extend any further than tomorrow. Ask me if I’m optimistic and hopeful. I’ll say, Yes, definitely. It’s in my nature.’

What are you optimistic about?

‘About human potential. And then I come back to evolutionary biology. And ecology. Those are the leading forces in the architecture of tomorrow. There are striking parallels between the way molecular tissues organize themselves and the way people design systems. That insight will have a direct effect on architecture and urban planning. But it won’t mean any more than a transitional phase. It’s a useful idea for the moment, that will develop into something else.’

When I ask if his buildings are expressions of this optimism, he tells me he can’t say. I’ve got to see them for myself. And once more his wife steps in: ‘But Thom, it’s obvious what you stand for! Take the lay-out of the Federal Building in San Francisco. In traditional architecture, the “important” people get the edges of the building, the corners with the glass, the beautiful view. The “lower” employees are in the centre, the darkest part. In your buildings it’s just the opposite. And they don’t sit in hermetically sealed rooms with air conditioning either; everyone can open his own window. It’s the only building with 22 stories in the United States that offers that kind of freedom. Even the elevators are carefully thought out. They only stop at every third floor. If you want to go to the floors in between you have to walk. That gets people to move their bodies. Plus they encounter other employees on the stairs, people they would normally never meet. The stairs, the corridors and the elevators are spacious, because lots of people pass by all the time. They’re social spaces, like piazzas. All of that is the product of enormous optimism.’

Mayne: ‘Descriptions of my work depress me. They make me feel pinned down. For me the meaning of my work is much more fluid. My buildings don’t speak in words but by means of their own spaciousness. You might say that when you step inside, you’re entering a honorific space, but that’s something totally different than experiencing it. And in architecture the experience comes first. That has the deepest effect on us.’

The day after our conversation Mayne learns that he has bagged the contract for the building of the Capitol in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. It’s his fifth major public project within a few years’ time, and the most prestigious after his assignment for an Olympic village in New York – a design that will still be implemented even if the city doesn’t win the bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. There’s no reticence in his description of the future Capitol as it was presented to the jury. The government building will be ‘a new symbolic centre’ of unity and national pride, confidence and accessibility, community and diversity, ceremony and public debate, of environmentally conscious choices and a healthy investment policy. And finally the dome of the Capitol will ‘glow as a beacon in the long and often foggy dark of winter for the hopes and aspirations of Alaska’s people and the majesty and bounty of its land.’
The big words are in place. Now for the experience.

Click here to download a PDF file of the original article published in the Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad

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