A Pritzker Prize-winning architect and the visionary founder of the Morphosis firm, Thom Mayne filled Lewis auditorium with an overflow crowd last Friday evening with his lecture “tC: The Continuity of Contradictions.” No doubt, much of this excitement can be attributed to the way in which Mayne’s work demonstrates how architecture can change how the public sees the world.
His design philosophy opposes the “conservative” idea of “architecture as a contextual activity,” wherein buildings are simply efficient containers for the prearranged activities that take place inside them. Mayne prefers constructing large-scale “environments” wherein the architecture provokes an active dialogue: the buildings and its surroundings mutually interpret each other. Innovation arises in a matrix of conflicts — rather than necessarily underwriting the given function of a space, Mayne’s designs often challenge the idea of spatial coherence.
One of his funniest examples of how architecture is embedded in the performativity of social activities is a courtroom where he “exploded the convention” of legal decorum. A large escarpment curves from the prominent jury area outward to the defendant’s seat in an asymmetrical arrangement of space that has hidden nooks and crannies; above the rather small judge’s chair, as seen from certain privileged positions, the line made by two small windows, supports and plinths covertly form the shape of a guillotine.
Such humorous eccentricities might affect the proceedings differently than a traditional courtroom arrangement, where the building’s influence on decisions often goes unacknowledged. Mayne’s courtroom might tacitly favor constitutional relativism over original intent, for instance, creating a dialectical tension between the institution of law that operates under a staid gridlock of precedents and the radical recontextualist vision that his design embodies.
Mayne’s philosophy has roots in two movements from the preceding generation, Brutalism and Deconstruction. Like the Brutalists, he is interested in making architecture more “transparent,” that is, in exposing the materials and structural elements of a building as well as making the activities that take place within the building — especially political or pedagogical ones — more visible, less covert.
Like the Deconstructionists, too, Mayne wants to interrogate such oft-unquestioned background notions as function, the dichotomy between environment and architecture and the teleology of designing for rational organization. In this vein, he thinks that “nature” is already a contaminated, man-made occupation of space.
However, Mayne’s oeuvre shifts such concerns away from being purely formalist abstractions and employs them in a “systems” approach that looks toward reshaping the possibilities of the public sphere. Architecture, he believes, is integrally involved in the process of “prioritiz[ing] what to make coherent in public space.” He claimed there is a perennial conflict in architecture between the “autonomy” of the discipline and its vision of “connectedness.”
On the one hand, architecture — like much modernist art — is speaking a specific cultural dialect that depends on knowing the evolution and problems of the discipline. Understanding the significance of a Jackson Pollack painting, for example, depends on “access” to knowledge about the history of art. But unlike a Pollack, the general public, which doesn’t usually have access to the discipline of architecture, must nonetheless confront it on a daily basis. An architect’s work, unlike a painting, literally determines the pathways of human interaction.
For Mayne, this conflict, instead of becoming stultifying, is a source of generative tension. Mayne admitted to wanting to create demanding, art-for-art’s-sake architecture that only other architects can appreciate. He poked fun at himself, though, by showing graffiti near his Cooper Union building that read, “Aliens please park spacecraft elsewhere.” Cooper Union is, of course, an architecture school, so its architecture-centric austerity is appropriate; Mayne also described it fitting in with the “fuck you” attitude of the Lower East Side.
On the campus of Cincinnati, on the other hand, he is credited with making an “urban condition” where there was none before by producing a site where the radical differentiation of buildings creates spontaneous pockets of “found space,” funky zones where people can hang-out or odd slopes that could be appropriated by skateboarders. Here, as elsewhere, he is committed to providing “non-program space” to “accelerate communication in large institutions, which often get Balkanized.”
Mayne said that while an architect must be responsive to site-specific intricacies, there are design principles about the underlying strategy of creating an “organizational fabric” that an architect brings with him from project to project. With rapid urban expansion there are some sites that have virtually “no context.” Mayne refuses to take context as a given, anyway: for his new, large-scale Shanghai project he reconfigured the ground itself. His collaborative studio process attempts to “disrupt schematic design development,” and think at all scales — formal, functional, situational, organizational — simultaneously, using a computer program that allows him to layer and disintegrate discrete elements.
Even at the level of the ontology of organization itself, Mayne asked whether there was a “threshold of organization.” Is organization intrinsic to a work or is it, too, a result of the interaction between the design and the observer’s expectation of a ready-made condition?
Once we recognize that a space is not just “random,” Mayne said, the question then becomes “how is it organized?” Mayne’s work re-envisions organization beyond a merely geometrical model, loosening the form/function dichotomy through its “lyrical character of differentiation.” His work attempts to be an “idiosyncratic event” that juxtaposes various historical and formal typologies, offering the people who traverse his environments unforeseen spaces and inter-spaces for “spontaneous activities.”