Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne last spoke at the Monterey Design Conference in 2009. Though he’s not speaking this year, we thought it would be interesting to check in with him. Here’s the first part of our conversation. (Don’t forget Jeanne Gang, Dr. Dickson Despommier, Tom Kundig, and the Office of Architecture in Barcelona’s Borja Ferrater speak this year) — Tibby Rothman
When I interview you, we always end up taking more about breakthroughs in other disciplines–the mapping of the human gnome or the early days of rap music, for instance—instead of architecture. Why is that?
“You could say the work that I did was kind of clumsy and searching…”
From early on I was part of a generation that started questioning what I saw as the somewhat introverted nature of architecture. I was not conscious of it at the time, I couldn’t verbalize what was taking place but really, what was happening, is that architecture was—it was the first signs of what we now call globalization. It was expanding and the interests, or the initiating acts, that stimulate architectural ideas were moving outside of the discipline.
In hindsight, you could say that the modern project was somewhat exhausted at that time and I had found Soriano and Gregory Ain and Pierre Koenig as they were, kind of, retiring. They were very important but also they were not particularly interesting to me at that point in my life—that being nineteen, twenty, twenty-one-years-old. What was happening was it was a very particular time in history, a particular time in the U.S., the sixties.
I was interested in the invention taking place in music and the films young people saw at the time were Godard and Truffaut and Fellini—amazing amazing people. And all of this somehow trumped the historical, the orthodoxy of the modern of that time. It was just far more interesting and it captivated you.
“…right away, we moved out [of Los Angeles] to get any serious work…”
There was also the political culture and what was triggered out of that, poetry and literature and all these other things—whether it was Allen Ginsberg or the reality of having a number from Vietnam. And, of course, the huge empowerment of students which was something that was unheard of. (Interestingly enough, we’ve been watching that happen in Egypt and Tunisia. Clearly that was the beginning of that—Paris in 1969.)
And there were these very specific things happening, which were really tangible just after my education. We’d started SciArc by now, so it was after ’72 and it was probably more like late ’70s. And I remember I was so blown away by a [James] Turrell installation that appeared to be a solid black painting but it was actually a [void]. This was a guy who focused on perception. And I was so blown away. And the next day I took my class, [and told them] “You know, architects just don’t do any really interesting primary research. You gotta go outside!” and [actually] I was talking about myself.
“…architects don’t do any really interesting primary research. You gotta go outside!”
Architecture was undergoing a rethinking—and it was clear that the third generation modernists, many of the best ones were right here in LA, the [projects] were somewhat exhausted. Parallel to this was—architecture was globalizing through the media. And I didn’t even quite understand it—it’s not like I just quickly got it. But our first project was probably ’79, ’80, it was 2-4-6-8 House, shows up in Domus and right after that, the issue on the LA School and Craig Hodgetts and Frank Gehry etc, and we were all put on the cover in Italy.
And then our first work in the early eighties was in Japan. And I was traveling twice a month to Tokyo. And okay, we get our first little projects, they’re local—I’m still proud of that—but right away, we moved out to get any serious work—no possibility of getting [large scale institutional] work here, in LA, neither did the generation in front of us. They were doing residences, very few big buildings.
[Ray] Kappe was one of my teachers at USC—he would say he came directly from Schindler and Neutra etc, the work was located there. This was an incredibly rich but a highly provincial regional place. And somehow none of us belonged to that. We just sensed it. And these are people I really admired. Ray and I have been friends for our whole lives. But you could separate a generation—there would be no question about it. We were just not interested in continuing that strand. It ended. Ray would be the last of that generation. It went someplace else.
I was so blown away by a [James] Turrell installation…”
So there was this intersection between a particular time in history when there was an immense amount of creative activity, and broad [activity in the arts and the political sphere] and a shift away from the regional.
You could probably see the multiplicity of influences in the work and it could be a criticism in that it lacks clarity. You could say the work that I did—a lot was kind of clumsy and searching. I would say—yeah, it should have been. I was young, in my thirties, I was searching for something and I knew that I had to go some place else and it takes a while to focus in—I’m still doing that.
The main discussion is: the source of architecture expanded radically in terms of the influences—and the interests that you had—that found its way into the work. And, the research, it was no longer within the discipline. And that is only expanding today.
Need continuing education credits? They’re a walk on the beach at the Monterey Design Conference.
How can fabricator Andreas Froech change your design possibilities. He’ll present breakthroughs from over two years of research for the first time at this year’s MDC.
Tom Kundig speaks at this year’s conference. You can read our interview with him, here.
Check out the video interview we grabbed with conference chair Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA on the roof of his home, the Solar Umbrella, here.