Thom Mayne: Architecture IS About Connection (Despite Himself)

Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects had an opportunity to give a TED talk in 2005.  Before diving into the content, it’s worth noting that at an event characterized by its animated, compelling, unforgettable speakers, Mr. Mayne’s talk falls, well, flat.  He mentions once or twice that he’s following a tough act; if you go back and take a look at the agenda you see that his talk, “How Architecture Can Connect Us,” came right on the heels of dance duo Pilobolus and their piece “Symbiosis”, and not too far after Howard Rheingold and his talk on “The New Power of Collaboration”, two vibrant and dynamic acts after which any talk would have been a challenge to come.

Compelling themes of integration and accord; funny, then, that the person chosen to continue the conversation was an architect long comfortable with conflict and his spiky affect (and buildings).

The first entry in Architectstasy’s hall of shame, the “Cor-boo Awards”, is the Morphosis San Francisco Federal Building.  While unarguably a remarkable piece of skyline furniture and an example worth following in terms of its sustainable interventions, on the human front this building fails in every way.  Of what use a lovingly detailed, undulating concrete ceiling designed by ARUP when the communal space it covers is depressingly empty?  How far removed from the human experience do you have to be to design “intimate” gathering spaces clustering five or six lonely seats at the bottom of a claustrophobic four-story atrium, decorated by one of Ed Ruscha’s typically gleefully unnerving oversized banners?

Nothing about this discordance is new for Mr. Mayne.  The earliest parts of his career included contested material explorations that made early, albeit questionably effective, use of BIM (building information modeling), rapid prototyping, and parametric modeling.  The objects that he created then were critical to the development of his verbal and formal vocabulary in exploring complexity and relationships.  Unfortunately, what he seemed to have learned from those explorations is that any adjacency resulting from a design process gets to constitute a relationship, which is a bit like saying that rhinos and tigers serve the same ecological functions just because you can find them both at the zoo.

Cooper Union Morphosis

Cooper Union

Judging by the talk and the work he’s done in the decade since then, hope seems slim that he’ll outgrow the phase.  The San Francisco Federal Building has been repeated in New York’s 41 Cooper Square and Cal Tech’s Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.  Charles Eames, with an edge that seems to run counter to his typical sunny disposition, said of designers that “the extent to which you have a style is the extent to which you have failed to solve the design problem.”  Architecture is notorious for having an impossibly long feedback loop – months of design, years of construction, and decades of occupancy pose serious obstacles to obtaining legitimate feedback, and it can be very difficult for architects to have a boots-on-the-ground understanding of how their designs are functioning.  Mr. Mayne’s most effective design elements are, not the objects he creates, but how he speaks about design and architecture.  He understands the necessity, power, embodied energy, and extended time required by complexity and successful negotiation.

San Francisco Federal Building atrium Morphosis

But really – does it take focus groups and post-occupancy questionnaires to understand that unresolved public spaces and awkward scalar relationships are alienation, not connection?

At a time when even the Pope is questioning the motives of architects and urbanists, it’s up to us to teach people why our disciplines are still so vitally, frighteningly relevant; but that path is not paved with prodigal designs and a mule-headed design process.  Despite Martin Mull’s dismissive ‘might as well “dance about architecture”‘ feeling, perhaps it’s more instructive to return to Pilobolus after all.  The dance troupe relentlessly manifests spatial and bodily awareness in a way any architect would be proud to accomplish.  Perhaps, on this particular day, there was more to learn architecturally from an interpretive dance on biological symbiosis than there was from an architect.

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