Thom Mayne: Architecture is a new way to connect to the world

I don’t know your name. Audience Member: Howard. Howard. Thom Mayne: Howard? I’m sitting next to Howard. I don’t know Howard, obviously, and he’s going, I hope you’re not next. (Laughter) Amazing. Amazing performance. I kind of erased everything in my brain to follow that. Let me start some place. I’m interested — I kind of do the same thing, but I don’t move my body. (Laughter) And instead of using human figures to develop ideas of time and space, I work in the mineral world. I work with more or less inert matter. And I organize it. And, well, it’s also a bit different because an architect versus, let’s say, a dance company finally is a negotiation between one’s private world, one’s conceptual world, the world of ideas, the world of aspirations, of inventions, with the relationship of the exterior world and all the limitations, the naysayers. Because I have to say, for my whole career, if there’s anything that’s been consistent, it’s been that you can’t do it. No matter what I’ve done, what I’ve tried to do, everybody says it can’t be done. And it’s continuous across the complete spectrum of the various kind of realities that you confront with your ideas. And to be an architect, somehow you have to negotiate between left and right, and you have to negotiate between this very private place where ideas take place and the outside world, and then make it understood. I can start any number of places, because this process is also — I think — very different from some of the morning sessions, which you had such a kind of very clear, such a lineal idea, like the last one, say, with Howard, that I think the creative process in architecture, the design process, is extremely circuitous. It’s labyrinthine. It’s Calvino’s idea of the quickest way between two points is the circuitous line, not the straight line. And definitely my life has been part of that. I’m going to start with some simple kind of notions of how we organize things. But basically, what we do is, we try to give coherence to the world. We make physical things, buildings that become a part in an accretional process; they make cities. And those things are the reflection of the processes, and the time that they are made. And what I’m doing is attempting to synthesize the way one sees the world and the territories which are useful as generative material. Because, really, all I’m interested in, always, as an architect, is the way things are produced because that’s what I do. Right? And it’s not based on an a priori notion. I have no interest at all in conceiving something in my brain and saying, “This is what it looks like.” In fact, somebody mentioned — Ewan, maybe it was you in your introduction — about this is what architects — did somebody say it’s what business people come to, it’s what the corporate world comes to when they want to make it look like something at the end of the line? Huh. Wow. It doesn’t work that way for me at all. I have no interest in that whatsoever. Architecture is the beginning of something, because it’s — if you’re not involved in first principles, if you’re not involved in the absolute, the beginning of that generative process, it’s cake decoration. And I’ve nothing wrong with cake decoration and cake decorators, if anybody’s involved in cake decorations — it’s not what I’m interested in doing. (Laughter) And so, in the formation of things, in giving it form, in concretizing these things, it starts with some notion of how one organizes. And I’ve had for 30 years an interest in a series of complexities where a series of forces are brought to bear, and to understand the nature of the final result of that, representing the building itself. There’s been a continual relationship between inventions, which are private, and reality, which has been important to me. A project which is part of an exhibition in Copenhagen 10 years ago, which was the modeling of a hippocampus — the territory of the brain that records short-term memory — and the documentation of that, the imaginative and documentation of that through a series of drawings which literally attempt to organize that experience. And it had to do with the notion of walking a kilometer, observing every kilometer a particular object of desire, and then placing that within this. And the notion was that I could make an organization not built on normal coherencies, but built on non-sequiturs, built on randomness. And I’d been extremely interested in this notion of randomness as it produces architectural work and as it definitely connects to the notion of the city, an accretional notion of the city, and that led to various ideas of organization. And then this led to broader ideas of buildings that come together through the multiplicity of systems. And it’s not any single system that makes the work. It’s the relationship — it’s the dynamics between the systems — which have the power to transform and invent and produce an architecture that is — that would otherwise not exist. And those systems could be identified, and they could be grouped together. And of course, today, with the technology of the computer and with the rapid prototyping, etc., we have the mechanisms to understand and to respond to these systems, and to allow them to adjust to the various accommodations of functionalities because that’s all we do. We’re producing spaces that accommodate human activity. And what I’m interested in is not the styling of that, but the relationship of that as it enhances that activity. And that directly connects to ideas of city-making. This is a project that we just finished in Penang for a very, very large city project that came directly out of this process, which is the result of the multiplicity of forces that produce it. And the project — again, enormous, enormous competition — on the Hudson River and in New York that we were asked to do three years ago, which uses these processes. And what you’re looking at are possibilities that have to do with the generation of the city as one applies a methodology that uses notions of these multiple forces, that deals with the enormity of the problem, the complexity of the problem, when we’re designing cities at larger and larger aggregates. Because one of the issues today is that the economic aggregate is driving the development aggregate, and as the aggregates get larger we require more and more complex investigation processes to solve these problems. And that led us directly to the Olympic Village. I was in New York on Monday presenting it to the IOC. We won the competition — what was it, nine months ago? Again, a direct reflection from using these processes to develop extremely complicated, very large-scale organisms. And then, also, was working with broad strategies. In this case, we only used 15 of the 60 acres of land, and the 45 acres was a park and would become the legacy of the Olympic Village. And it would become the second largest park in the boroughs, etc. Its position, of course, in the middle of Manhattan — it’s on Hunter’s Point. And then the broader ideas of city-making start having direct influences on architecture, on the elements that make up the broader scheme, the buildings themselves, and start guiding us. Architecture for me has been an investigation of a multiplicity of forces that could come from literally any place. And so I can start this discussion in any number of places, and I’ve chosen three or four to talk about. And it has also to do with an interest in the vast kind of territory that architecture touches. It literally is connected to anything in terms of knowledge base. There’s just no place that it doesn’t somehow have a connective tissue to. This is Jim Dine, and it’s the absence of presence, etc. It’s the clothing, the skin, without the presence of the character. It became kind of an idea for the notion of the surface of a work, and it was used in a project where we could unravel that surface, and it was a figurative idea that was going to be folded and made into a very, kind of complex space. And the idea was the relationship of the space, which was made up of the fold of the image, and the dialectic or the conflict between the figuration, and the clarity of the image and the complexity of the space, which were in dialog. And it made us rethink the whole notion of how we work and how we make things, and it led us to ideas that were closer to fashion design as we flattened out surfaces, and then brought them back together as they could make spatial combinations. And this was the first prototype in Korea, as we’re dealing with a dynamic envelope, and then the same characteristic of the fabric. It has a material identity and it’s translucent and it’s porous, and it allows us for a very different notion of what a skin of a building is. And that turned right away into another project. This is the Caltrans building in Los Angeles. And now we’re seeing as the skin and the body is differentiated. Again, it’s a very, very simple notion. If you look at most buildings, what you look at is the building, the facade, and it is the building. And all of a sudden we’re kind of moving away, and we’re separating the skin from the body, and that’s going to lead to broader performance criteria, which I’m going to talk about in a minute. And you’re looking at how it drapes over and differentiates from the body. And then, again, the building itself, middle of Los Angeles, right across from City Hall. And as it moves, it takes pieces of the earth with it. It bends up. It’s part of a sign system, which was part of the kind of legacy of Los Angeles — the two-dimension, three-dimension signing, etc. And then it allows one to penetrate the work itself. It’s transparent, and it allows you to understand, I think, what is always the most interesting thing in any building, which is the actual constructional processes that make it. And it’s probably the most intense kind of territory of the work, which is not occupied, because architecture is always the most interesting in some mechanism when it’s separated from function, and this is an area that allows for that. And then the skin starts transforming into other materials. We’re using light as a building material in this case. We’re working with Keith Sonnier in New York, and we’re making this large outside room, which is possible in Los Angeles, and which is very much reflective of the urban, the contemporary urban environments that you would find in Shibuya or you’d find in Mexico City or Sao Paulo, etc., that have to do with activating the city over a longer span of time. And that was very much part of the notion of the urban objective of this project in Los Angeles. And, again, all of it promoting transparency. And an image which may be closest talks about the use of light as a medium, that light becomes literally a building material. Well, that immediately turned into something much broader, and as a scope. And again, we’re looking at an early sketch where I’m understanding now that the skin can be a transition between the ground and the tower. This is a building in San Francisco which is under construction. And now it turned into something much, much broader as a problem, and it has to do with performance. This will be the first building in the United States that took — well, I can’t say it took the air conditioning out. It’s a hybrid. I wanted a pure thing, and I can’t get it. It’s a wrong attitude, actually, because the hybrid is probably more interesting. But we took the air conditioning out of the tower. There’s some air conditioning left in the base, but the skin now moves on hydraulics. It forces air through a Venturi force if there’s no wind. It adjusts continually. And we removed the air conditioning. Huge, huge thing. Half a million dollars a year delta. 10 of these — it’s just under a million square feet — 800 and some thousand square feet — 10 of these would power Sausalito — the delta on this. And so now what we’re looking at, as the projects get larger in scale, as they interface with broader problems, that they expand the capabilities in terms of their performance. Well, I could also start here. We could talk about the relationship at a more biological sense of the relationship of building and ground. Well, our research — my generation for sure, people who were going to school in the late ’60s — made very much a shift out of the internal focus of architecture, looking at architecture within its own territory, and we were much more affected by film, by what was going on in the art world, etc. This is, of course, Michael Heizer. And when I saw this, first an image and then visited, it completely changed the way I thought after that point. And I understood that building really could be the augmentation of the Earth’s surface, and it completely shifted the notion of building ground in the most basic sense. And then — well, he was probably looking at this — this is Nazca; this is 700 years ago — the most amazing four-kilometer land sculptures. They’re just totally incredible. And that led us to then completely rethinking how we draw, how we work. This is the first sketch of a high school in Pomona — well, whatever it is, a model, a conceptual, kind of idea. And it’s the reshaping of the Earth to make it occupiable. So it puts 200,000 square feet of stuff that make a high school work in the surface of that Earth. There it is modeled as it was developing into a piece of work. And there it is, again, as it’s starting to get resolved tectonically, and then there’s the school. And, of course, we’re interested in participating with education. I have absolutely no interest in producing a building that just accommodates X, Y and Z function. What I’m interested in are how these ideas participate in the educational process of young people. It demands some sort of notion of inquiry because it’s a system that’s developed not sculpturally. It’s an idea that started from my first discussion. It has to do with a broad, consistent logic, and that logic could be understood as one occupies the building. And there’s an overt — at least, there’s an attempt to make a very overt notion of a building that connects to the land in a very different way because I was interested in a very didactic approach to the problem, as one would understand that. And the second project that was just finished in Los Angeles that uses some of the same ideas. It uses landscape as a major idea. Then, again, we’re doing the headquarters for NOAA — National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency — outside of Washington in Maryland. And this is how they see the world. They have 22 satellites zipping around at plus or minus 100 miles, and the site’s in red. And what we really want to do — well, the architects, if there are architects out there, this is the Laugier Hut; this is the primitive hut that’s been around for so long — and what we wanted to do is really build this, because they see themselves as the caretakers of the world, and we wanted them to look down at their satellite, how they see their own site, that eight-acre site, and we wanted nothing left. We wanted it to stay green. There’s actually three baseball fields on it right now, and they’re going to stay there. We put one piece directly north-south, and it holds the dishes at the ears, right? And then right below that the processing, and the mission lift, and the mission control room, and all the other spaces are underground. And what you look at is an aircraft carrier that’s performance-driven by the cone vision of these satellite dishes. And that the building itself is occupied in the lower portion, broken up by a series of courts, and it’s five acres of uninterrupted, horizontal space for their administrative offices. And then that, in turn, propelled us to look at larger-scale projects where this notion of landscape building interface becomes a connective tissue. The new capital competition for Berlin, four years ago. And again we just finished the ECB — actually Coop Himmelblau in Vienna just won this project, where the building was separated into a series of landscape elements that became part of a connective tissue of a park, which is parallel to the river, and develops ideas of the buildings themselves and becomes part of the connective fabric — the social, cultural and the landscape, recreational fabric of the city. And the building is no longer seen as an autonomous thing, but something that’s only inextricably connected to this city and this place at this time. And a project that was realized in Austria, the Hooper Bank, which again used this idea of connecting typology, the traditional buildings, and morphology, or the relationship of the development of land as an idea, into a complex, which is a piece of a city where we can see part of it is literally just this augmenting, this movement of the land that’s a very simple idea of just lifting it up and occupying it, and other parts are much more energetic and intense. And talk about that intensity in terms of the collisions of the kind of events they make that have to do with putting a series of systems together, and then where part of it is in the ground, part of it is oppositional lifts. One enters the building as it lifts off the ground, and it becomes part of the idea. And then the skin — the edges of this — all promote the dynamic, the movement of the building as a series of seismic shifts, geologic shifts. Right? And it makes for event space and then it breaks in places that allow you to peer into the interior, and those interiors, again, are promoting transparency for the workplace, which has been a continual interest of ours. And then, again, in a more, kind of traditional setting, this is a graduate student housing in Toronto, and it’s very much about the relationship of a building as it makes a connective tissue to the city. The main idea was the gateway, where it breaks the site, and the building occupies both the public space and the private space. And it’s that territory of — it’s this thing. I visited the site many times, and everybody, kind of — you can see this from two kilometers away; it’s an exact center of the street, and the whole notion is to engage the public, to engage buildings as part of the public tissue of the city. And finally, one of the most interesting projects — it’s a courthouse. And what I want to talk about — this is the Supreme Court, of course — and, well, I’m dealing with Michael Hogan, the Chief Justice of Oregon. You could not proceed without making this negotiation between one’s own values and the relationship of the character you’re working with and how he understands the court, because I’m showing him, of course, Corbusier at Savoy, which is 1928, which is the beginning of modern architecture. Well, then we get to this image. And this is where the project started. Because I’m going, I’m interested in the phenomenon that’s taking place in here. And really what we’re talking about is constructing reality. And I’m a character that’s extremely interested in understanding the nature of that constructed reality because there’s no such thing as nature any more. Nature is gone. Nature in the 19th-century sense, alright? Nature is only a cultural edifice today, right? We construct it and we construct those ideas. And then of course, this one, our governor at the moment. And we spent some time with Conan, believe it or not, and then that led us to, kind of, the very differences of our worlds from a legal and an artistic, architectural. And it forced us to talk about notions of how we work, and the dynamics of that, and what other sources of the work is. And it led us to the project, the courthouse, which is absolutely a part of a negotiation between tradition and pieces of the traditional courthouse. You’ll find a stair that’s the same length as the Supreme Court. Here’s a piano nobile, which is a device used in the Renaissance. The courts were made of that. The skin is this series of layers that reflect even rusticated stonework, but which were embedded with fragments of the Constitution, which were part of the little process, all set on a plinth that defined it from the community. Thank you so much. (Applause)

48 thoughts on “Thom Mayne: Architecture is a new way to connect to the world

  1. These Ted videos are great. I've been waiting to see lectures from people like Mayne and McDonough for a long time. I hope there will be more.

  2. I second this, it is practicly impossible to take most of what he has said and get something out of it. there were a few mentions of his principles, but really it seemed more confusing than informative.

  3. One of those guys who is obviously quite intelligent and talented, yet lacks any ability to convey his ideas in words.

    It would have been interesting to be introduced to any of the design concepts he put forth, but he goes over them without clarity or depth.

  4. Such a genious…yet so damn confusing. He really is the next level of architects–Sustainability, creativity, and functionality. I hope i can someday reach his level of architectural ability, he truly is an inspiration for me and many others.

  5. I would definitely love to have something of his in downtown São Paulo. It would be a fantastic rupture with that ugly, grey and unimaginative district.

  6. There is never a wrong or right approach in architecture. I know this phrase is corny, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder…

  7. He has a hard time expressing his ideas in words because he doesn't really have any ideas. The only idea behind this style of architecture is to attract attention to yourself by doing something weird and different. But the architects have to justify it, so they invent theories so arcane that no one can see they are not really saying anything. The plaza of this building is the bleakest public space I have seen: whenever the wind blows, it fills up with a whirlwind of dust and trash.

  8. There are not many professions that are as full of bullshitting as architecture. And I am one of them, so I know how meaningless these rambles of words really are. Its embarrassing, and the discussion of architecture needs to be saved from these people whose only accomplishment is to detach architecture even further from the realm of the real

  9. I couldn't agree more. I am studying architecture and long for the attempt of clarity in scientific writings, where jargon is used when needed, instead of architecture pseudophilosophy where it is used as substitute for good ideas.

  10. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. There are human universals. When asking large numbers of people the wast majority agree on what is beautiful and not, especially those not indoctrinated by the education. Ask 10 people yourself whether they find Canterbury Cathedral or some same-sized warehouse most beautiful. Ask anyone whether Venice or London is most beautiful. Ask anyone whether Angelina Jolie or the Queen of England is most beautiful. The wast majority will answer the same

  11. you know its so funny that you say the vast majority clarifies the "right" answer. Since you study architecture, you should know that the Effiel Tower was thought of as "ugly" and was so close to being torn down due to the majority's view of it. Now look in our modern time the Tower is the very icon of Paris. So what do think about what I said? I take criticism very kindly so you can feel free to say whatever. ; )

  12. The Eiffel tower is an example of something that our culture teaches us is beautiful. Angelina jolie is beautiful because she has characteristics that evolution has caused us to favour. Beauty is both culturally and genetically determined. Some things, like enjoyment of a good view, are universal, hence usually biological, while the awe for architectural simplicity is cultural. For the cultural i agree: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or culture. Not for the hard-wired biological.

  13. hehehe don't tell me your one of those critics that dance around the question with fancy words but never answer it directly? I simply said that the Effiel Tower was hated around its time of erection and in our modern time its the very icon of Paris. you barely responded as to why the Effiel Tower turned from hideous to the essence of Paris…if you say culture made society see it as beauty so quickly, then i guess anything can turn beautiful over night pretty much hehehe

  14. well i wouldn't say he was bullshitting, his personal approach to architectural investigation tends to be very conceptual and intellectual. Of course, translating his complicated ideas into built form must be very difficult given the constraints of the real world. I would say that his approach is overly analytical, convoluted and is ineffectively expressed both verbally in his presenation and his designs. Architecture, I think, should come mainly from the gut rather than the brain.

  15. I think architecture should come from both brain and gut in a nice healthy balance. You need the brain to logically analyze how, when and where the structure shall be built. But you also need to incorporate that special intuitive factor that makes the building worth experiencing. It is that intuitive factor that binds us all together and makes us gaze at unbelievable beauty. But that alone will not things get "done". Were all bullshitters to some point 😉

  16. This presentation tells us nothing about the skills if the architect. A truly great Architect should never need to justify his/her work. Happy occupiers, happy maintenance staff, happy builders – the true test of an architect is the opinion of the people who experience their buildings and there is no evidence of that here. Just lots of pictures with as little people in them as possible. Soon many high profile architects will be seen to have no clothes when we hit energy stress.

  17. Thom Mayne is a visionary architect who unfortunately suffers from what many great architects suffer from: the ability to convey his ideas to non-architects. They're perfectly able to communicate to clients, but in an environment like TED they rely on their portfolios to speak for them. And they end up doing what Mayne has done: explain the images on the screen, rather than expose us to their ideas about architecture as a field. A manifesto-style would have been more appropriate here.

  18. The work done by morphosis is evocative, architectonic, and forward thinking in terms of integrated technology and construction processes. I have always held Thom Mayne high in my books. I'm a little disappointed when i heard him speak in this video though.. unfortunate. typical flakey architecture speak. but anyways, still a fan of his (or at least his talented, under paid, slave driven employees) work. I'm a graduate architecture student btw..

  19. Architecture is a field that resolves its issues not through words but instead in a variety of needed elements. The english language is very inefficient at producing a desired answer in architecture, thus architects often have a difficult time manipulating what imagery they have in their head into a coherent sentence. Architects can only translate to a certain degree before the english language isn't enough. Clarity isn't possible unless you understand the field.

  20. wtf is this guy talking?

    how is whatever he is showing and saying going to chance the place i/we/us live in???

    please wake up

  21. @readux Exactly. This is the only language he can use to convey the ideas in 20ish minutes. To explain fully and in terms everyone can understand would take much longer than he had.

  22. @y3ko86 Are you and architect? have you worked as an architect? If not then pleeeeeease read my comment again and try to understand the context in which I am writing it before replying. If you are an architect and still think you get something out of this kind of ranting, then I can only assume you are the product of that very thing that I am criticizing, and I am sorry for you, but more for the world you make architecture for.

  23. the most interesting is the non stoping use of ambiguous terms as if they were neutral and clear to everyone. I mean, using the adjective tectonic doesn't make clear the idea, even if we needed to think on it while we were solving the problem. there is no clue of causal sequence… because it does not lead to a defined result. what could have been told on the contrary is a more practical or a kind of process description so that we could evaluate how it came up… without that ambiguous labels

  24. In all fairness, you could easily be lying to support your own comment. However, I do agree with you. Just wanted to point out how frivolous it is to make claims like that on the Internet specifically with the intent of supporting an argument.

  25. I was really curious about the presentation that came before Thom Mayne's…Does anyone knows which one is?

  26. full respect Thom… but he is pretty sh++ty at explaining architecture to non-architects. Not to mention the picture he shows of the primitive hut…

  27. Several people commented that they had difficulty understanding Mayne's presentation. Admittedly, his world has its own special language. Architects and designers speak a certain way, using words that are outside normal conversation. "Generative, methodology, aggregates, multiplicity of forces, etc." Essentially Mayne is an unconventional formalist, with an interest in alternative figurations so this places him in a category of esoteric thinkers. He does speak at a fast clip, so anyone with just a basic understanding is going to get lost.

  28. One word – pretentious. So what was that about – Architecture is a new way to connect to the world? It is as old as the wold. Yet, did not understand how Thom was connecting the world?

  29. Thom Mayne is one of my favorite architects, but there's definitely a strong sculptural/aesthetic quality to his work that he seems to not talk about. I actually asked him about it after a lecture once, and Hernan Diaz Alonso answered for him & said "once you're the Rolling Stones, you don't have to talk about how you sound like the Rolling Stones…"

  30. Very concentrated thoughts. Very interesting.
    Отдельное спасибо каналу за перевод субтитров на русский, хоть иной раз и не точно.

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