AIA International Speaker Series: Thom Mayne

Thom Mayne, a founding member of Morphosis gave three talks in Australia as a guest of the Australian Institute of Architects. The 2010 International Speaker series was extended to Perth (after lots of hard work from the local chapter). The WA architectural community showed up in force, filling a large lecture theatre at UWA to the brim - there was a great, enthusiastic atmosphere. Geoff Warn introduced, noting that Thom Mayne, who is part of an exclusive group of architects, the 38 Pritzker Prizewinners, is now a member of a far more exclusive set: those radical architects of great stature and international importance who have visited Perth - Buckminster Fuller in 1966, Wolf Prix (Co-op Himmenblau) and Peter Cook (Archigram) in the 1980's.

There was a lot of anticipation and fanfare, and with a mighty roar of applause in welcome, Thom Mayne himself, post-modern radical turned jet-setting starchitect rose to the stage.

Mayne recounted the whirlwind tour of the world that he has been on for the past week or so, and he was evidently tired. At first he seemed to mumble a bit, but soon he was into the swing of it, delivering a talk that was rich with ideas about cities, building, design process and education. The talk itself remained loose, branching off on all kinds of tangents. The format followed a plethora of themes and ideas, but was mainly, but loosely grouped around three buildings (with others thrown in more briefly), and then a series of abstracted sculpture/painting works which he has been working on recently.

Cooper Union (image: time.com)
Mayne discussed Cooper Union in terms of urban response; it's in East Village, an old-school area of New York where people are tough and buildings have to be too. An important part of the building is it's social landscapes - wide steps for sitting on, a soft edge, shelter, activated edges (including a tea shop), and interior designed for interaction between disciplines. He discussed the role of the architect - spatial planners have already come up with the room sizes and relationships, urban planners have suggested an appropriate envelope, engineers stand by to solve construction problems. The architect challenges everything, mixes it up, injects ideas. 

Phare Tower (image: fastcodedesign.com)
Phare Tower: a proposed new tower for Paris' La Defense. Discussion of design process (including a lot of BIM and rapid prototyping - 3 to 4 models a day). Skin is developed for energy management (the image shows different panel types being developed - first 4,500 panel types are developed, then this is progressively simplified till a happy medium between constructibility and energy efficiency is reached). The main atrium is incredible - some of images shown reminded me strongly of Piranesi's carceri etchings, looking upward into vertical spaces of mystery.

There was discussion authorship and the design process - Mayne said we did this rather than I did this (once correcting himself). He described designing the process which does the designing (office structures, software etc.), and talked about auto-generative design where the hand is removed from direct influence over the work - not parametric design, but Jackson Pollock throwing paint across the canvas. I got the impression that despite the fact that all their design is done on computers, Mayne himself isn't very good at using them.

Giant Interactive Group Corporate HQ (image: Arch Daily)
The Chinese are very interested in using architecture to express their national and corporate identities. This massive project is an incredible merging of landscape and built form. There was discussion of Mayne's generation being mechanical, while those younger than 45 are more biological, or ecological in thought pattern. He described himself as being a cusp person, inhabiting the blur between these two major thought patterns, bridging between them.

Another interesting discussion (I say discussion, because while, barring 'Question Time' at the end, Mayne was the only one talking, there was a definite sense that he was recounting his dialogue with the world - his thoughts, reactions, readings, results of conversations with other people) was about 'willfulness & chance', and how many of the most interesting things that happen in cities are not designed, they are accidents or the results of contingency measures which had to be deployed very quickly. He also talked about design fastidiousness, and said very few people care about perfection and consistency to the level architects do - perhaps we should be focusing on more important things than exactly where the fridge has to be. Morphosis buildings don't need to be just so - during design rooms can be added or subtracted on a whim, because it the result of a design system rather than a specific, perfect outcome.

Thom Mayne ended on something of a confused and pessimistic note; he was discussing the difficulty of working in the U.S., the rise and rise of China and the Middle East, the way BIM and gloabalisation means the design and construction process is increasingly homogenised across the globe, and young architects, presented with easily generated sections etc. don't really understand how to use them to design as well as the mechanistic pen to paper architects do. It was an odd contradiction to his earlier celebrations of the freedoms of these approaches. He said he didn't know where to go next, as architecture was becoming, dangerously, a status symbol akin to a Rolex watch, and started flicking madly through images of buildings that there wasn't time to fit into the talk. Deprived of the discussion of the intricacies of their design (which, having seen the design effort and detail and contextualisation in the other buildings, was certainly there), they did indeed begin to blur into so many slick curved esquisite bling buildings.

Geoff Warn probably should have thrown questions out to the audience rather than asking them all himself (though he asked pretty good ones), and Thom Mayne could have answered them a bit more succinctly. It was an excellent talk, and everyone got out in support - so we should get another one here in WA next time! I went in with some concern - are starchitcts all they are cracked up to be? Certainly thus far, I have found their talks of value (I am also thinking of Glen Murcutt, who I saw speak at RE:HAB).

Check out the excellent Morphopedia - all the projects discussed in the talk (along with many others) are there with photos, drawings and process work.


Parallels between LA and Perth - objects in the landscape, organised by infrastructure, young cities, people come to them wanting Paris, Milan or London - no wonder they are disappointed. 

Graphics: his presentation was amazing in this department - Mayne said video was better than photography - it shows human progression and movement through space, allows perspective and human scale in a richer manner. Animations were used to great effect, and an interactive model (Giant HQ) which can be rotated, and different components switched on and off was shown briefly.

China and Dubai: It is getting increasingly difficult to work in the U.S. (due to lack of money and too much red tape), clients and builders are extremely cautious. When presented with a 42m cantilever, a Chinese client said "should we go further?" in all seriousness.


AJH said...

Great overview! I strangely lacked the motivation to attend, SS did give us a similar rundown when we caught up with SW and a few other graduates from BJ's uni year.

Interesting that the final comments did contradict previous views spoken especially on the use of BIM. Is their anyone practicing, starchitect or otherwise, who know what side of the BIM fence they sit?

Hmm the homogenisation of the design process globally is an interesting issue?

What of the speech particularly resonated with yourself? Normally I remember a catchphrase from speeches such as these, my strongest memory of Glenn Murcutt at RE:HAB was that '90% of Architecture is advertising'.

FJE said...

resonation; I don't find catchphrases lodging in my mind so much, more ideas and images - I think some of his discussion of new cities - Perth and LA are not London and Paris, and a lot of Morphosis' process work was exciting, visually and conceptually.

I think the thing that sticks in my head from this talk is here is an architect who has achieved everything he can on his chosen career path (design architect). He has designed and seen built everything from small houses to mega-structures with populations of thousands, developed concepts based on ideas generated in an art studio context, which draw on and succeed in a wide cultural arena, has worked with the most challenging forms, materials, has pushed ideas about sustainability, incorporated high technology and engineering into his buildings.

I guess it just makes me think, what do I want to do?

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