An Essay on Thom Mayne
By Lebbeus Woods
Lebbeus Woods is an architect and teacher who has known Thom Mayne since they shared space in the 1974 awards issue of Progressive Architecture magazine. Over the years since that time, they have encountered each other professionally at the MAK Vienna symposium “The End of Architecture,” in 1992, the “Sarajevo: Reconstruction and Resistance” workshops in 1994, and the “Again Architecture” conference in Havana, in 1995, as well as numerous other public and private occasions. Their many opportunities to exchange ideas and opinions, as well as the author’s first-hand familiarity with the projects discussed, have informed this article.
After a century of global violence, cultural upheaval, and technological transformations that have radically restructured everyday life, architecture remains a monumental art securely rooted in its traditions. Great buildings are still defined as singular, exceptional objects, set into landscapes of the ordinary. In the utopian dreams of modernists and post modernists alike, architecture with a capital A was to have dispersed itself by now into the fabric of everyday life, acquiring a small a without giving up a shred of its aesthetical and ethical mission—but this has not occurred. At the same time, we can observe that a generation of fiercely independent architects, now approaching or entering their sixties, who were the great hope of architecture’s future, are now entrusted with the design of large pubic projects. Confronted by clients whose wealth and power enables them to commission significant buildings, this generation faces a crisis. They can accept the mantle of their maturity and take on the ages-old task of designing monuments valorizing hierarchies of power and authority, or they can seek ways to carry forward their former ideas, which—in one way or another—aimed at realizing a transformation of architecture, and of its meaning in society. Thom Mayne is one of this generation, and not just any one, but particularly prominent, celebrated and influential. In very tangible terms, he personifies the crisis of thought, and of conscience, in architecture today.
Thom Mayne has been, throughout his career, regarded as a rebel. Even today, after his recognized success as an architect of major building projects, requiring the management of a large office—Morphosis—and a world-wide practice, terms like “maverick” and “bad boy” and “difficult to work with” still cling to his reputation. Part of this is the attraction of the popular press, where he appears frequently, to anything racy and even slightly scandalous. Part of it is a sign of respect—we want our American heroes to be tough and independent, having their own ideals, charting their own paths. Part of it is, in Mayne’s case, simply true. The profession of architecture is so filled with gray personalities, corporate equivocators willing to say and do anything it takes to get commissions, that when an architect comes along who is uncompromising and determined to make the architecture he wants, he inspires both love and hate, not to mention resentment and envy. Mayne’s early years as an architect were filled with conflicts and struggles—with clients, potential clients, and the builders of the few small projects he was able to get to the stage of realization. There are stories, apocryphal and not, of him walking out of meetings with clients who demanded some unacceptable compromise, and blowing the commission; of his going to a construction jobsite, demanding changes in what the contractor had built and, when refused, returning with his own crew to tear it down. There are stories of his telling journalists to go to blazes when they asked what he thought were stupid questions, and tales of his aggressive behavior at conferences and other public events. Anyone who has known Mayne well over the years recognizes that most of the stories are exaggerated, if true at all, though he is the first to admit that in recent years he is more relaxed and open than he once was. And there is another factor: at a broad-shouldered, lanky six feet five inches tall, with a chiseled face, and a direct, unblinking manner, he makes a physically intimidating figure, without his saying a word. In the 70s and 80s he wore longish dark hair and beard, which added to the effect and used to get him regularly searched as a potential terrorist by airport security people whenever he traveled. Today, with very close-cropped hair and beard, leavened by gray, his presence is softer, a bit, but he is, as they say, nobody you would want to mess with.
Still, the most forceful thing about Thom Mayne has been, and remains to this day, his architecture. His perceived rebel persona has been perhaps inevitable, given his personality and convictions, and has worked both for and against his career, but at the same time it is quite different from his work as an architect. Far from being volatile and openly rebellious against the norm, the work has been, above all things, deeply thoughtful and reflective. This may seem incongruous to those who see only bold forms and spaces in his architecture, which are indeed its most obvious feature, but the clue to its essential inwardness, in a conceptual sense, is its steady evolution over the more than three decades of his working life. Not only steady, but slow, thoughtful, questioning, always questioning of itself. The work has evolved not in flashes of inspiration or one-off projects that grab headlines, but rather in restrained, sometimes almost reticent advances in a realm of ideas he has nurtured from the beginning. Mayne’s architecture does not rebel against conventions so much as it absorbs and transforms them and moves on in a direction that demonstrates how buildings and the spaces they provide, both within and without, can engage the unpredictable yet highly tangible dynamics of the present. He accepts the conventional typologies—bank, high school, courthouse, office building—of the programs his clients hand to him, with a generosity that speaks of his respect for the needs of others, even those with whom he shares little in the way of outlook and sensibility. He accepts, but does not believe in merely clothing the conventional in new fashions, creating—as many architects do—the illusion of innovation. He accepts a given program, but then interrogates its contents first by rigorous analysis, then by testing them (perhaps measuring is a more accurate term) against his radical architectural forms ...