American Pritzker laureate Thom Mayne on his fascination with the unfinished

In an interview with Vladimir Belogolovksy, Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Thom Mayne talks about an individual's role in architecture and the aesthetic originality of buildings.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Apr 17, 2020

A few years ago, when my interview with Enrique Norten was published online, I was contacted by Thom Mayne with a request to see me over lunch. I said, it would be an honour, but I would rather meet him for a proper interview. When we met at his New York office, he greeted me with, “So you think my architecture is bombastic!” He was referring to my dialogue with Norten, in which Enrique implied that the work of such architects as (Zaha) Hadid and (Frank) Gehry is… bombastic. Knowing that Norten and Mayne were friends, I retorted, “And you think that Mayne’s work is not bombastic?” To that Norten suggested that architecture of both Hadid and Gehry is about “extravagance, excess, and expenditure,” while Mayne is “rational”. I wonder if it is at all productive to paint architecture in such broad, abstract terms because words and images no longer seem to correlate and could be easily interchanged, depending on the skills of the presenter. Isn’t it more meaningful to try to understand each individual approach and examine the actual intentions behind these visions?

Pritzker laureate Thom Mayne, the founder of architecture practice Morphosis | Thom Mayne | STIRworld
Pritzker laureate Thom Mayne, the founder of architecture practice Morphosis Architects Image Credit: Michael Powers

In this feature, I am presenting a 10-minute audio-visual excerpt from my two-hour conversation with Mayne. It was originally shown last year, as part of my exhibition I am Interested in Seeing the Future at Shanghai’s Fab-Union Space gallery, where I presented 10 conversations – five with Chinese and five with American architects. And before that here is a short passage from that interview’s transcript about the role of the individual, without which, I am convinced, architecture will turn into cold walls of concrete and glass with no meaning and no future.

  • The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York designed by Morphosis in 2009 | Thom Mayne | STIRworld
    The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York designed by Morphosis in 2009 Image Credit: Alex Fradkin
  • The Cooper Union building was conceived as a vehicle to foster collaboration and cross-disciplinary dialogue among the college’s three schools, previously housed in separate buildings | Thom Mayne | STIRworld
    The Cooper Union building was conceived as a vehicle to foster collaboration and cross-disciplinary dialogue among the college’s three schools, previously housed in separate buildings Image Credit: Alex Fradkin

Thom Mayne (TM): I don’t see myself as part of any group. We (architects) have broader interests and there are certain commonalities and associations. We all are interested in innovation, but all of us have individual paths. What is missing today is the collective discourse; instead, so much energy is spent on criticising the individual.   

  • The Emerson College Los Angeles built in 2014 by Morphosis  | Thom Mayne | STIRworld
    The Emerson College Los Angeles built in 2014 by Morphosis Image Credit: Courtesy of Morphosis
  • The Emerson College Los Angeles was designed as a college campus condensed into an urban site | Thom Mayne | STIRworld
    The Emerson College Los Angeles was designed as a college campus condensed into an urban site Image Credit: Courtesy of Morphosis

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Don’t you think this critique is consequential? There are so many individuals. Isn’t it only natural to resist the whole notion of the current diversity? Seriously, how many different types of architecture does the world need?

TM: That’s the position I came to believe. There is a limitation on the form. When I go to places like Dubai or Shenzhen … I once spent the whole morning photographing different tower tops and I question myself – is there anything left? Or do you really care? Do we need another shape? That’s not an interesting project. For example, I am now working on my own house and it has to have a certain look. But I am not even vaguely interested in the form. My fascination is with the unfinished, the performance, and so on. I will submerge architecture. It will be about what it means to have a family at this point in my life. The look is secondary.

Watch the video above to hear excerpts from the interview.

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About Author

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky is an American curator, critic, and a columnist with STIR. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture (1996) and after practicing architecture for 12 years, founded New York-based Curatorial Project for curating architectural exhibitions. He has written nine books, including Conversations with Architects, curated over 50 international exhibitions and has lectured in more than 30 countries.

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