PEOPLE; Interview: Built to Last

Thom Mayne, a founder of SCI-Arc and Morphosis, built his architecture business in stages, moving from homes to major downtown office towers.

Staff Reporter

Thom Mayne seems especially qualified to discuss Los Angeles's recent architectural boom.

Founder of the Santa Monica-based firm Morphosis, Mayne competed in the city's two biggest architectural competitions of 2001, losing to Rem Koolhaas for the LACMA redesign, but winning the commission for the $171 million Caltrans regional headquarters downtown. The 700,000-square-foot building is expected to break ground by the end of the year and will be completed in 2004.

A founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), which recently consolidated its campus in a new downtown building, Mayne has put his stamp on work as disparate as Beverly Hills restaurant Kate Mantilini and the Cedars-Sinai Cancer Research Center.

Due out next month is "L.A. Now," a two-volume study of statistics, images, urban design proposals and quotations on which Mayne collaborated with Art Center College of Design President Richard Koshalek, former UCLA Architecture Dean Richard Weinstein, NPR Producer Frances Anderton and others.

Question: How did Caltrans come to commission a serious architectural work?

Answer: They had a really aggressive idea of trying to instill an importance of the building to produce a quality piece of work, and it came from the top (California State Business, Transportation & Housing Agency Secretary Maria Contreras-Sweet).

A lot of people are looking at Ed Feiner's program at the U.S. General Services Administration as a model. He's now bringing in all the best architects in the United States: The courthouses are now being done by (Richard) Meier and (Cesar) Pelli and (Michael) Graves. We got involved with (Feiner) three years ago on a courthouse in Oregon. The state is realizing that these are opportunities and that it should take seriously putting together buildings they feel proud of.

Q: What was it about your approach that won the Caltrans competition?

A: I refuse to be in a position, as an architect, where the client is the pragmatist and purse keeper and the architect is the dreamer and wants to spend money. You spend some time up front and develop common attitudes of what the building is or isn't. It's not aesthetically driven, it's value driven. What we did is show them kind of a menu and said, "We understand you want this and you should demand that, but you have a pocketbook with this, so this is what it takes to do that."

Q: Is it particularly exciting that you're doing more public-oriented work?

A: We did the cancer clinic at Cedars-Sinai in '87. We did the elementary school downtown (Los Angeles Science Center School) in '92. You don't go from a house to a $170 million building you've got to have some stuff in between. It's what I spent my whole life working for.

Q: So you've made a conscious decision to go from restaurants and homes to public buildings.

A: As an American architect, you're working more or less in the private sector. In Europe, architecture is in the public realm. I'm much more comfortable in large-scale projects that bring in a broader collective logic, and that are more urban and more complex and have politics, a social agenda, and a cultural agenda. When you're in the smaller projects, it's all kind of taste, and that's terrible, because you're starting to say to somebody, "this thing should be copper vs. this," and "this should be red or green," and I hate that stuff.

Q: Will this mean a U-turn of sorts for top local architects who have done much of their major work abroad?

A: I would hope so. L.A. has so many good architects. It's a miniature renaissance around here you look at the Cathedral with (Jose Raphael) Moneo, Disney Concert Hall, the Children's Museum, the Caltrans project, LACMA, the Getty this will be a decade with a series of absolutely significant buildings, all of them large, serious cultural projects. It's a really interesting time.

Q: Did LACMA's choice of Koolhaas, with the proposed rebuilding of the site, surprise you?

A: I have great respect for Rem Koolhaas as an architect. It's a hypothesis right now we have to let it play out and see if he can do what he said he could do. We gave them a strategy that was incremental and that followed what we thought the rules were in terms of dollars, and he gave them one huge gesture. There's a directness and simplicity in that act that was compelling. Whether it's going to match up with reality or not, that's the discussion. It's useful in developing a kind of heat and interest in the project, and at that level it might be a brilliant strategy. I thought we won it.

It'll have to do with the perception of the project as much as the project (itself) because when you're doing these things, it's how valuable they are that actually generates interest, which has to do with generating funding.

Q: What are the chances that his scheme will see the light of day?

A: I can't answer that. I wish him the best and I hope it happens. He's a guy who is extremely conceptual and is driven by singular ideas. The issue with that is watching how it develops. His work is always much more interesting as it starts to translate into the initial idea.

Q: With all the work you're doing, why did you take on the L.A. Now project?

A: Richard Koshalek came to me and had this idea of putting together a show to instill an interest in the city. Clearly L.A. is the late 20th century, early 21st century model of this new thing that doesn't come from traditional, Euro-centric roots (like) the Eastern cities. In Europe, the city is still a humanistic enterprise, it's not a real estate market enterprise.

Q: Are you referring to the common reference of Los Angeles as the first auto-based metropolis?

A: We live in a city with multiple centers. You couldn't possibly think about it like you could think about Paris or Madrid, where there's the cultural and social hub of the complete city. L.A. is unknowable. It's changing faster than you can absorb it. Nobody even knows how many people are here it's getting close to Sao Paolo or Mexico City. It's so enigmatic, and it's amazingly ugly, and it's annoying in its lack of resolve or logic. There are huge outskirts and now its becoming an outskirts for more and more cultures.

Q: Why did you name your firm Morphosis, as opposed to having your own name?

A: I had an interest in removing the notion of a singular artistic hand. I'm not interested in the singular idea as me as an artist I'm interested in myself as an auteur, a director, a collaborator, within a group of people that are sharing ideas to solve complicated problems. It's a collective endeavor. The collective practice talks about the incredible complexity that takes place within a project, which would be very much parallel to how a film develops over time. If you look at the project team, including mechanical engineers, structural engineers, acousticians, lighting designers, the credits to the buildings would look like film credits. There are 150-200 people on the list.

Q: How much will SCI-Arc's reputation and profile benefit from having its own campus in its new building downtown?

A: It's extremely important to have their own facility to allow them to go after different kinds of funding. It's a really lovely building. It's kind of an idiosyncratic building that fits the institution, and the location is great.

One of the problems with downtown is that there's a limited constituency of people living there that have proprietary interest in the city, and one of the best markets you can bring in would be young people, because they'd be homesteaders. You need a critical mass, and the school represents a huge plus for this a small increment for sure, but still something that the city encourages, and (downtown) needs more of it. It brings restaurants, cafes, shops, and a kind of vitality, but also a kind of youth.

Q: What's your favorite building in Los Angeles?

A: Schindler's Kings Road House. Incredible piece of work. Immensely sparse. It's incredibly inspiring, to see what you can get with minimal resources. The engagement with the land is just amazing. He was a short man, and made a house for himself, so I should be growling and hating it (Mayne is 6'5") because its not made for me, but it's absolutely a phenomenal place.

L.A.'s architects have always been on the edges. Just about all of (L.A.'s best) work is residential, and when it came to commercial, it's still the business of architecture, and not the art of architecture. Frank (Gehry) represents a monumental shift in that, as well as Moneo, and hopefully we'll become part of that.

Thom Mayne
Title: Founder and Principal
Organization: Morphosis
Born: 1944, Connecticut
Education: B.A., USC, 1969, Masters in Architecture, Harvard University, 1978
Career Turning Point: First year at USC
Most Admired Person: Psychiatrist, mentor and "adopted father" Herbert Gutman
Personal: Married, three sons

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