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TED2005

Thom Mayne: How architecture can connect us

February 25, 2005

Architect Thom Mayne has never been one to take the easy option, and this whistle-stop tour of the buildings he's created makes you glad for it. These are big ideas cast in material form.

Thom Mayne - Architect
Founder of the influential studio Morphosis, and co-founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne marries conceptual ideas with form, challenging the way we perceive structure, building and the environment. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I don't know your name. Audience Member: Howard. Howard.
00:26
Thom Mayne: Howard? I'm sitting next to Howard. I don't know Howard, obviously,
00:28
and he's going, I hope you're not next.
00:33
(Laughter)
00:35
Amazing. Amazing performance.
00:42
I kind of erased everything in my brain to follow that.
00:44
Let me start some place. I'm interested --
00:49
I kind of do the same thing, but I don't move my body. (Laughter)
00:54
And instead of using human figures to develop ideas of time and space,
00:58
I work in the mineral world. I work with more or less inert matter.
01:09
And I organize it. And, well, it's also a bit different
01:13
because an architect versus, let's say, a dance company
01:17
finally is a negotiation between one's private world,
01:21
one's conceptual world, the world of ideas, the world of aspirations,
01:26
of inventions, with the relationship of the exterior world
01:31
and all the limitations, the naysayers.
01:35
Because I have to say, for my whole career,
01:40
if there's anything that's been consistent, it's been that you can't do it.
01:43
No matter what I've done, what I've tried to do,
01:46
everybody says it can't be done.
01:48
And it's continuous across the complete spectrum of the various
01:50
kind of realities that you confront with your ideas.
01:54
And to be an architect, somehow you have to negotiate between left and right,
01:56
and you have to negotiate between this very private place where ideas take place
02:01
and the outside world, and then make it understood.
02:05
I can start any number of places, because this process is also --
02:09
I think -- very different from some of the morning sessions,
02:14
which you had such a kind of very clear, such a lineal idea,
02:17
like the last one, say, with Howard,
02:21
that I think the creative process in architecture,
02:23
the design process, is extremely circuitous. It's labyrinthine.
02:26
It's Calvino's idea of the quickest way between two points
02:31
is the circuitous line, not the straight line.
02:35
And definitely my life has been part of that.
02:37
I'm going to start with some simple kind of
02:39
notions of how we organize things.
02:41
But basically, what we do is, we try to give coherence to the world.
02:43
We make physical things, buildings
02:47
that become a part in an accretional process; they make cities.
02:49
And those things are the reflection of the processes,
02:52
and the time that they are made.
02:57
And what I'm doing is attempting to synthesize the way one sees the world
02:59
and the territories which are useful as generative material.
03:04
Because, really, all I'm interested in, always, as an architect,
03:09
is the way things are produced because that's what I do. Right?
03:13
And it's not based on an a priori notion.
03:17
I have no interest at all in conceiving something in my brain
03:19
and saying, "This is what it looks like." In fact, somebody mentioned --
03:23
Ewan, maybe it was you in your introduction --
03:26
about this is what architects --
03:28
did somebody say it's what business people come to,
03:30
it's what the corporate world comes to
03:32
when they want to make it look like something at the end of the line? Huh. Wow.
03:34
It doesn't work that way for me at all.
03:38
I have no interest in that whatsoever.
03:40
Architecture is the beginning of something, because it's --
03:42
if you're not involved in first principles,
03:44
if you're not involved in the absolute,
03:46
the beginning of that generative process, it's cake decoration.
03:48
And I've nothing wrong with cake decoration and cake decorators,
03:53
if anybody's involved in cake decorations --
03:56
it's not what I'm interested in doing. (Laughter)
03:58
And so, in the formation of things, in giving it form,
04:00
in concretizing these things,
04:05
it starts with some notion of how one organizes.
04:08
And I've had for 30 years an interest in a series of complexities
04:11
where a series of forces are brought to bear,
04:16
and to understand the nature of the final result of that,
04:19
representing the building itself.
04:23
There's been a continual relationship between inventions,
04:26
which are private, and reality, which has been important to me.
04:30
A project which is part of an exhibition in Copenhagen 10 years ago,
04:34
which was the modeling of a hippocampus --
04:39
the territory of the brain that records short-term memory --
04:41
and the documentation of that, the imaginative and documentation of that
04:44
through a series of drawings which literally attempt to organize that experience.
04:48
And it had to do with the notion of walking a kilometer,
04:53
observing every kilometer a particular object of desire,
04:57
and then placing that within this.
05:00
And the notion was that I could make an organization
05:02
not built on normal coherencies, but built on non-sequiturs, built on randomness.
05:05
And I'd been extremely interested in this notion of randomness
05:11
as it produces architectural work
05:14
and as it definitely connects to the notion of the city,
05:16
an accretional notion of the city,
05:18
and that led to various ideas of organization.
05:20
And then this led to broader ideas of buildings
05:23
that come together through the multiplicity of systems.
05:26
And it's not any single system that makes the work.
05:30
It's the relationship -- it's the dynamics between the systems --
05:33
which have the power to transform and invent
05:36
and produce an architecture that is -- that would otherwise not exist.
05:39
And those systems could be identified,
05:45
and they could be grouped together.
05:47
And of course, today, with the technology of the computer
05:48
and with the rapid prototyping, etc., we have the mechanisms
05:51
to understand and to respond to these systems,
05:55
and to allow them to adjust to the various accommodations of functionalities
05:58
because that's all we do.
06:03
We're producing spaces that accommodate human activity.
06:05
And what I'm interested in is not the styling of that,
06:08
but the relationship of that as it enhances that activity.
06:11
And that directly connects to ideas of city-making.
06:17
This is a project that we just finished in Penang
06:20
for a very, very large city project that came directly out of this process,
06:22
which is the result of the multiplicity of forces that produce it.
06:26
And the project -- again, enormous, enormous competition --
06:32
on the Hudson River and in New York
06:34
that we were asked to do three years ago, which uses these processes.
06:36
And what you're looking at are possibilities that have to do
06:39
with the generation of the city as one applies a methodology
06:42
that uses notions of these multiple forces,
06:48
that deals with the enormity of the problem, the complexity of the problem,
06:51
when we're designing cities at larger and larger aggregates.
06:56
Because one of the issues today is
06:59
that the economic aggregate is driving the development aggregate,
07:01
and as the aggregates get larger we require
07:06
more and more complex investigation processes to solve these problems.
07:08
And that led us directly to the Olympic Village.
07:13
I was in New York on Monday presenting it to the IOC.
07:16
We won the competition -- what was it, nine months ago?
07:19
Again, a direct reflection from using these processes
07:23
to develop extremely complicated, very large-scale organisms.
07:26
And then, also, was working with broad strategies.
07:31
In this case, we only used 15 of the 60 acres of land,
07:34
and the 45 acres was a park and would become the legacy of the Olympic Village.
07:39
And it would become the second largest park in the boroughs, etc.
07:43
Its position, of course, in the middle of Manhattan -- it's on Hunter's Point.
07:47
And then the broader ideas of city-making
07:51
start having direct influences on architecture,
07:55
on the elements that make up the broader scheme,
07:58
the buildings themselves, and start guiding us.
08:01
Architecture for me has been an investigation of a multiplicity of forces
08:06
that could come from literally any place.
08:10
And so I can start this discussion in any number of places,
08:12
and I've chosen three or four to talk about.
08:16
And it has also to do with an interest in
08:19
the vast kind of territory that architecture touches.
08:24
It literally is connected to anything in terms of knowledge base.
08:28
There's just no place that it doesn't somehow
08:33
have a connective tissue to.
08:36
This is Jim Dine, and it's the absence of presence, etc.
08:38
It's the clothing, the skin, without the presence of the character.
08:41
It became kind of an idea for the notion of the surface of a work,
08:45
and it was used in a project where we could unravel that surface,
08:49
and it was a figurative idea that was going to be folded
08:54
and made into a very, kind of complex space.
08:58
And the idea was the relationship of the space,
09:01
which was made up of the fold of the image,
09:04
and the dialectic or the conflict between the figuration,
09:07
and the clarity of the image
09:12
and the complexity of the space, which were in dialog.
09:14
And it made us rethink the whole notion of how we work
09:17
and how we make things,
09:20
and it led us to ideas that were closer to fashion design as we flattened out surfaces,
09:22
and then brought them back together as they could make spatial combinations.
09:28
And this was the first prototype in Korea,
09:31
as we're dealing with a dynamic envelope,
09:34
and then the same characteristic of the fabric.
09:37
It has a material identity and it's translucent and it's porous,
09:40
and it allows us for a very different notion of what a skin of a building is.
09:45
And that turned right away into another project.
09:49
This is the Caltrans building in Los Angeles.
09:51
And now we're seeing as the skin and the body is differentiated.
09:54
Again, it's a very, very simple notion.
09:58
If you look at most buildings,
10:00
what you look at is the building, the facade, and it is the building.
10:02
And all of a sudden we're kind of moving away,
10:04
and we're separating the skin from the body,
10:06
and that's going to lead to broader performance criteria,
10:08
which I'm going to talk about in a minute.
10:10
And you're looking at how it drapes over
10:12
and differentiates from the body.
10:14
And then, again, the building itself,
10:16
middle of Los Angeles, right across from City Hall.
10:19
And as it moves, it takes pieces of the earth with it. It bends up.
10:22
It's part of a sign system,
10:25
which was part of the kind of legacy of Los Angeles --
10:27
the two-dimension, three-dimension signing, etc.
10:29
And then it allows one to penetrate the work itself.
10:33
It's transparent, and it allows you to understand, I think,
10:37
what is always the most interesting thing in any building,
10:41
which is the actual constructional processes that make it.
10:43
And it's probably the most intense kind of territory
10:46
of the work, which is not occupied,
10:51
because architecture is always the most interesting in some mechanism
10:53
when it's separated from function,
10:56
and this is an area that allows for that.
10:58
And then the skin starts transforming into other materials.
11:00
We're using light as a building material in this case.
11:03
We're working with Keith Sonnier in New York,
11:05
and we're making this large outside room,
11:07
which is possible in Los Angeles, and which is very much reflective
11:09
of the urban, the contemporary urban environments
11:13
that you would find in Shibuya or you'd find in Mexico City
11:16
or Sao Paulo, etc.,
11:19
that have to do with activating the city over a longer span of time.
11:21
And that was very much part of the notion
11:25
of the urban objective of this project in Los Angeles.
11:27
And, again, all of it promoting transparency.
11:31
And an image which may be closest talks about the use of light as a medium,
11:35
that light becomes literally a building material.
11:42
Well, that immediately turned into something much broader, and as a scope.
11:45
And again, we're looking at an early sketch
11:49
where I'm understanding now
11:53
that the skin can be a transition between the ground and the tower.
11:55
This is a building in San Francisco which is under construction.
11:58
And now it turned into something much, much broader as a problem,
12:01
and it has to do with performance.
12:05
This will be the first building in the United States that took --
12:07
well, I can't say it took the air conditioning out. It's a hybrid.
12:10
I wanted a pure thing, and I can't get it.
12:12
It's a wrong attitude, actually, because the hybrid is probably more interesting.
12:14
But we took the air conditioning out of the tower.
12:17
There's some air conditioning left in the base,
12:19
but the skin now moves on hydraulics.
12:21
It forces air through a Venturi force if there's no wind.
12:23
It adjusts continually. And we removed the air conditioning.
12:27
Huge, huge thing. Half a million dollars a year delta.
12:30
10 of these -- it's just under a million square feet --
12:34
800 and some thousand square feet --
12:36
10 of these would power Sausalito -- the delta on this.
12:38
And so now what we're looking at, as the projects get larger in scale,
12:41
as they interface with broader problems,
12:44
that they expand the capabilities
12:49
in terms of their performance.
12:52
Well, I could also start here.
12:55
We could talk about the relationship
12:57
at a more biological sense of the relationship of building and ground.
12:59
Well, our research -- my generation for sure,
13:03
people who were going to school in the late '60s --
13:06
made very much a shift out of the internal focus of architecture,
13:08
looking at architecture within its own territory,
13:14
and we were much more affected by film,
13:16
by what was going on in the art world, etc.
13:18
This is, of course, Michael Heizer.
13:20
And when I saw this, first an image and then visited,
13:22
it completely changed the way I thought after that point.
13:26
And I understood that building really could be
13:30
the augmentation of the Earth's surface,
13:32
and it completely shifted the notion of building ground in the most basic sense.
13:34
And then -- well, he was probably looking at this -- this is Nazca;
13:39
this is 700 years ago -- the most amazing four-kilometer land sculptures.
13:42
They're just totally incredible.
13:49
And that led us to then completely rethinking how we draw, how we work.
13:51
This is the first sketch of a high school in Pomona --
13:55
well, whatever it is, a model, a conceptual, kind of idea.
13:58
And it's the reshaping of the Earth to make it occupiable.
14:02
So it puts 200,000 square feet of stuff that make a high school work
14:06
in the surface of that Earth.
14:11
There it is modeled as it was developing into a piece of work.
14:13
And there it is, again, as it's starting to get resolved tectonically,
14:16
and then there's the school.
14:20
And, of course,
14:22
we're interested in participating with education.
14:24
I have absolutely no interest in producing a building
14:26
that just accommodates X, Y and Z function.
14:28
What I'm interested in are how these ideas
14:30
participate in the educational process of young people.
14:32
It demands some sort of notion of inquiry
14:35
because it's a system that's developed not sculpturally.
14:37
It's an idea that started from my first discussion.
14:39
It has to do with a broad, consistent logic,
14:42
and that logic could be understood as one occupies the building.
14:45
And there's an overt -- at least,
14:49
there's an attempt to make a very overt notion of a building
14:51
that connects to the land in a very different way
14:54
because I was interested in a very didactic approach to the problem,
14:56
as one would understand that.
14:59
And the second project that was just finished in Los Angeles
15:01
that uses some of the same ideas. It uses landscape as a major idea.
15:03
Then, again, we're doing the headquarters for NOAA --
15:07
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency --
15:10
outside of Washington in Maryland.
15:13
And this is how they see the world.
15:15
They have 22 satellites zipping around at plus or minus 100 miles,
15:17
and the site's in red.
15:21
And what we really want to do -- well, the architects,
15:23
if there are architects out there, this is the Laugier Hut;
15:26
this is the primitive hut that's been around for so long --
15:29
and what we wanted to do is really build this,
15:31
because they see themselves as the caretakers of the world,
15:33
and we wanted them to look down at their satellite,
15:37
how they see their own site, that eight-acre site,
15:39
and we wanted nothing left. We wanted it to stay green.
15:41
There's actually three baseball fields on it right now,
15:44
and they're going to stay there.
15:46
We put one piece directly north-south,
15:47
and it holds the dishes at the ears, right?
15:49
And then right below that the processing, and the mission lift,
15:52
and the mission control room, and all the other spaces are underground.
15:55
And what you look at is an aircraft carrier
15:59
that's performance-driven by the cone vision of these satellite dishes.
16:01
And that the building itself is occupied in the lower portion,
16:05
broken up by a series of courts,
16:09
and it's five acres of uninterrupted, horizontal space
16:11
for their administrative offices.
16:14
And then that, in turn, propelled us to look at
16:17
larger-scale projects where this notion of landscape building interface
16:20
becomes a connective tissue.
16:24
The new capital competition for Berlin, four years ago.
16:26
And again we just finished the ECB --
16:32
actually Coop Himmelblau in Vienna just won this project,
16:34
where the building was separated into a series of landscape elements
16:37
that became part of a connective tissue of a park,
16:43
which is parallel to the river, and develops ideas of the buildings themselves
16:46
and becomes part of the connective fabric --
16:52
the social, cultural and the landscape, recreational fabric of the city.
16:55
And the building is no longer seen as an autonomous thing,
17:00
but something that's only inextricably connected
17:02
to this city and this place at this time.
17:04
And a project that was realized in Austria, the Hooper Bank,
17:06
which again used this idea of connecting typology,
17:10
the traditional buildings, and morphology,
17:13
or the relationship of the development of land as an idea,
17:16
into a complex, which is a piece of a city where we can see part of it
17:19
is literally just this augmenting,
17:23
this movement of the land that's a very simple idea of
17:25
just lifting it up and occupying it,
17:28
and other parts are much more energetic and intense.
17:29
And talk about that intensity
17:32
in terms of the collisions of the kind of events they make
17:34
that have to do with putting a series of systems together,
17:38
and then where part of it is in the ground, part of it is oppositional lifts.
17:40
One enters the building as it lifts off the ground,
17:44
and it becomes part of the idea.
17:47
And then the skin -- the edges of this --
17:49
all promote the dynamic, the movement of the building
17:52
as a series of seismic shifts, geologic shifts. Right?
17:55
And it makes for event space and then it breaks in places
18:00
that allow you to peer into the interior, and those interiors, again,
18:04
are promoting transparency for the workplace,
18:07
which has been a continual interest of ours.
18:09
And then, again, in a more, kind of traditional setting,
18:14
this is a graduate student housing in Toronto,
18:17
and it's very much about the relationship of a building
18:19
as it makes a connective tissue to the city.
18:23
The main idea was the gateway, where it breaks the site,
18:25
and the building occupies both the public space and the private space.
18:28
And it's that territory of -- it's this thing.
18:32
I visited the site many times, and everybody, kind of --
18:36
you can see this from two kilometers away; it's an exact center of the street,
18:39
and the whole notion is to engage the public,
18:43
to engage buildings as part of the public tissue of the city.
18:45
And finally, one of the most interesting projects -- it's a courthouse.
18:51
And what I want to talk about -- this is the Supreme Court, of course --
18:55
and, well, I'm dealing with Michael Hogan, the Chief Justice of Oregon.
18:58
You could not proceed without making this negotiation
19:02
between one's own values and the relationship
19:06
of the character you're working with and how he understands the court,
19:10
because I'm showing him, of course, Corbusier at Savoy,
19:14
which is 1928, which is the beginning of modern architecture.
19:17
Well, then we get to this image.
19:20
And this is where the project started. Because I'm going,
19:23
I'm interested in the phenomenon that's taking place in here.
19:27
And really what we're talking about is constructing reality.
19:32
And I'm a character that's extremely interested
19:36
in understanding the nature of that constructed reality
19:38
because there's no such thing as nature any more. Nature is gone.
19:41
Nature in the 19th-century sense, alright?
19:45
Nature is only a cultural edifice today, right?
19:47
We construct it and we construct those ideas.
19:50
And then of course, this one, our governor at the moment.
19:53
And we spent some time with Conan, believe it or not,
19:56
and then that led us to, kind of, the very differences of our worlds
20:01
from a legal and an artistic, architectural.
20:05
And it forced us to talk about notions of how we work,
20:07
and the dynamics of that, and what other sources of the work is.
20:11
And it led us to the project, the courthouse,
20:14
which is absolutely a part of a negotiation
20:17
between tradition and pieces of the traditional courthouse.
20:20
You'll find a stair that's the same length as the Supreme Court.
20:23
Here's a piano nobile, which is a device used in the Renaissance.
20:25
The courts were made of that. The skin is this series of layers
20:28
that reflect even rusticated stonework,
20:32
but which were embedded with fragments of the Constitution,
20:35
which were part of the little process,
20:39
all set on a plinth that defined it from the community.
20:41
Thank you so much.
20:43
(Applause)
20:45

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Thom Mayne - Architect
Founder of the influential studio Morphosis, and co-founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne marries conceptual ideas with form, challenging the way we perceive structure, building and the environment.

Why you should listen

Widely regarded as one of the world's most provocative architects, Thom Mayne is only interested in exploring the new, the present and the now. For him, architecture is not a matter of producing a readily imaginable building, but is instead a starting point for a larger discussion. The output of his Santa Monica-based studio, Morphosis, shows the results of the negotiations between concept and reality.

As Mayne describes things, the only constant in his professional career has been people telling him something can't be done. But he and his studio continue to produce astonishing work for clients worldwide, including government offices, hospitals, restaurants, residences and schools. Redefining how buildings work both within themselves and within their environment, Mayne and Morphosis are forging dramatic new landscapes for a startlingly modern world.

He joined President Obama's initiative Turnaround: Arts, which uses art education as a tool for success in struggling schools. 

The original video is available on TED.com
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