Thom Mayne’s powerful buildings not only impact the way we see the California cityscape, but also how we live in it.
You may not know his name, but you probably recognize his work: the imposing futuristic form of San Francisco’s towering Federal Building; the space age-y Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, often dubbed the “Death Star,” in Downtown Los Angeles; or the newly completed Emerson College outpost in Hollywood. All showcase elegant glass and steel lines around a bold interior of asymmetry and curves.
Thom Mayne, the much-decorated Los Angeles-based architect, and his firm Morphosis, are known for monochromatic, state-of-the-art structures: austere, sleek and dramatic, often provocativein their sculptural dimensions. And Mayne’s buildings are designed to conserve natural resources. Responses to his projects typically run the gamut from “bold and breathtaking” to “soulless,” “hideous” and “crackpot.”
“I came out of the ’60s; I have no interest in conventional notions of beauty,” says the tall and imposing Mayne as he walks haltingly into the conference room of his gleaming, net-zero-energy Culver City offices.
“Most of our work has been somewhat tough, somewhat hard-edged. It’s metallic, it’s performance-based. But I like to promote concept and idea over material; I’m interested in the bigger idea.”
Many of his structures swiftly achieve iconic status, recontouring cityscapes such as Los Angeles, New York City (the Cooper Union building, 2009), Cincinnati (University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, 2005) and Dallas (Perot Museum of Nature and Science, 2013) as well as Seoul, South Korea (Sun Tower, 1997), and Klagenfurt, Austria (the Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, 2002). Morphosis is also currently at work on projects including the vast, curving Phare tower in Paris, a U.S. embassy in Beirut, a corporate headquarters in Milan and a commercial skyscraper in China, the Hanking Center Tower.
Long described as a “maverick” and “an outsider,” Mayne has spent more than four decades pushing boundaries and honing his oeuvre to what it is today: arresting, complex “green” structures that promote public space and human interaction. They aim to connect with their surroundings and reject traditional aesthetics in favor of function.
Today, he is a veteran of numerous federal government projects and—along with Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson and Zaha Hadid—the recipient of the profession’s highest accolade, the Pritzker prize, which he received in 2005, as well as a host of other awards. He may no longer be the “angry young man” of American architecture, but he remains energized and uncompromising and is busier than he has ever been.
“It takes a while (in architecture),” says Mayne. “Architects get going around 50, 55. I just turned 70 and it’s weird, because my brain thinks I’m still 37 or 42, and we’re working at full tilt.”
The newest Morphosis project, the $110-million Emerson Los Angeles building on Sunset Boulevard, rises boldly from a scrappy, ripe-for-renewal section of freeway-adjacent Hollywood. Resembling a shimmering giant tabletop or a rock festival stage, it comprises two 10-story towers of student accommodations connected by a bridge. Within these glass-faced structures tilt and flow before jutting out over the street. As Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times architecture critic, put it, the sight makes “you think of the alien popping out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach.”
With the Emerson project, Mayne aimed to create “a miniature city,” evoking the metropolitan energy of the Boston-based college; everything, from lecture halls to communal kitchens, is contained within the tightly woven complex. Angled walkways, bridges, a giant staircase, and raised plazas complete with trees connect the facilities while vast, undulating screens of sculpted metal panels double as decorative relief and sunshades.
The building is “green” and aims for a LEED gold rating. It’s covered with a dynamic metal “skin” that moves as the sun and weather change, deflecting light and helping to regulate temperatures inside. The San Francisco Federal Building also has such a skin—it even managed to dispense with air conditioning, saving enough energy to power 600 homes, says Mayne. His three-year-old offices in Culver City, meanwhile, are one of the greenest in the U.S., employing pioneering high-tech rooftop wind catchers and a photovoltaic array.
Connecticut-born Mayne moved to California to study architecture at University of Southern California and never left, launching Morphosis in 1972, around the same time he co-founded the experimental and independent SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) with a group of six like-minded architects.
The firm’s early work focused on small commercial and residential projects, such as the Kate Mantilini restaurant in Beverly Hills and the Crawford Residence in Montecito. In the 1990s, however, Morphosis got its first major public building, Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, a stunning, jagged-edged structure that sought “to challenge the message sent by a society that routinely communicates its disregard for the young by educating them in cheap, institutional boxes surrounded by impenetrable chain link fencing.”
Big federal government projects under the Design Excellence Program of the General Service Administration followed, including Caltrans, the San Francisco Federal Building and a courthouse in Eugene, Oregon.
The San Francisco building, says Mayne, marked a “huge shift” for Morphosis. “We went from design to strategy,” explains Mayne. “It was the first time we realized that we were now working on projects that had broad political and social and cultural impact. We were shifting from aesthetics as the primary interest to aligning values and architecture, and it was really, really key for us.”
Several of Mayne’s buildings have “skip stop” elevators (an idea from Le Corbusier) that do not stop on every floor, encouraging users to take the stairs, a “social” element to “break down the Balkanization of big organizations,” he says. Energizing public space is also vital to Mayne, creating plazas where people can mingle and eat.
Though he travels every two weeks to his other home in New York—“it’s a city for adults”—Mayne remains inspired by Los Angeles, its open, questioning approach and the “radical autonomy” of its architects.
“It’s the absolute center for conceptual thinking,” says Mayne. “In New York, art is completely institutionalized. But here people are searching because there’s no existing set of ideas that are dominant.”
As to the future, Mayne would still like to build an airport and an opera hall and continue to focus on “the public realm.”
“But the other answer is I don’t plan my future,” says Mayne. “It’s kind of a waste of time. The phone rings—basically I wake up and I deal with today.”
Written by Catherine Elsworth.
Edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler.
PHOTOS: Roland Halbe.