Q + A – Thom Mayne

Congratulations on your Pritzker Prize. Does this mean you’re now safe for public consumption?

I’ve always worked best in an environment of confrontation. The bad boy, at 61, is a kick. But in reality it’s not true. In the past five years I’ve taken WPA stuff—tough projects—and it takes a huge amount of negotiation. I also prefer projects that have context I can be in dialogue with. I wouldn’t call it aggressive or radical work—I’d say intelligent work that moves away from the nostalgia and safety of another era.

The prize honors one person, but you don’t do all the work yourself and are bringing much of your staff along to accept the award.

I’ve had a collaborative office from the beginning. The whole idea of starting Morphosis in 1972 with four people—and simultaneously starting SCI-Arc—were these collective enterprises. Archigram was hugely influential on me, and people like Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au. We had an interest in architecture as a broad general area, working on graphics, interior design, industrial design, city design—a very open-ended idea. It’s somehow only in the past 10 years, really, that I’ve been able to utilize this.

So where do you fit into total-design jobs?

I think of myself more as a thought leader than as a designer. My role is to produce continuity and direction and stimulate a large group of people. We’re, what, 35, 45 people? It’s like Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen. You need to put a group of people together who can operate with a huge amount of unspoken stuff going on.

Has your design vocabulary changed in recent years with the larger, more public projects?

I don’t work in a style. I’m quite the opposite. I begin with principles, utilizing the specifics, everything idiosyncratic to a problem—all manner of circumstance and the nature of the client. In a collaborative environment, it’s very useful because I can manipulate the hands—the private nature of the hand connected to a work of art. So many people today see architecture in stylistic terms and not in terms of causality. It needs to look like what it looks like. Do we interpret? Of course, but we’re organizing. We’re architects. We take desires and interpret them in the mineral world.

What does the thought leader want to know?

What does this project mean? How do we even assign its values before we start—versus just beginning with an assumed vocabulary? Part of it is how it intersects with the user. Is it a school? A church? We start with basic questions.

And those architects who do work in a style, is there a place for them?

Of course there is. There’s a huge number of people for whom it makes more sense. I think the public would prefer to look at something and have comfort as to what they’re getting.

You’re working for some big, often unwieldy institutions right now—the federal government, no less. How do you bring a rather conservative bureaucracy around to your work?

It’s a huge change. But I’ve taught for over 30 years. Teaching allows you to develop verbally; you continually have to describe aspects of your work and a methodology with your students. You have to allow the client to understand the logic of your work.

Does it take a certain kind of client to appreciate the effort?

They’re people in leadership positions who have to be able to participate. When they see work that’s somehow strong, they think that it’s somehow expressionist or personal. But it all comes directly from very straightforward responses to pragmatic concerns. In Toronto [at the University of Toronto Graduate Student Housing], we have a big piece coming out over the street. The brief asked for a threshold or gateway to the campus. People think it’s a radical idea, but it’s directly from the client.

And construction quality? How do you get what you want?

We don’t do work without being able to do a lot of supervision.

Bradford McKee is a Washington, D.C.–based writer. He interviewed NEA design director Jeff Speck for the November 2004 I.D