Thom who?

A little-known architect named Mayne, who designs "prickly and provocative" buildings, many of them for the U.S. government, wins the Pritzker Prize.

By Jonathan Glancey
Published March 24, 2005 2:54PM (EST)

"Keep on truckin'" could well be Thom Mayne's motto -- if this talented and seemingly laid-back Californian architect hadn't had to work so very hard to get where he is today. The 61-year-old is the recipient of this year's Pritzker Prize, an American gong that comes with a $100,000 check and enormous international prestige. "Architecture is an endurance sport," says Mayne. "You put your mind to it, and stay with it for 30 years, and you're just getting started."

And -- who knows -- you might just get recognized by an award jury and become an international star. Past Pritzker medalists have included such stellar talents as Philip Johnson (who died in January), James Stirling, I.M. Pei, Kenzo Tange (who died Tuesday), Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. Unlike this distinguished list, Mayne is not an architect much known outside his home country. His talent, however, is not in doubt.

"Every now and then," says Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Pritzker jury, "an architect appears on the international scene who teaches us to look at the art of architecture with fresh eyes, and whose work marks him out as a man apart in the originality and exuberance of its vocabulary, the richness and diversity of its palette, the risks undertaken with confidence and brio, the seamless fusion of art and technology."

Mayne, born in Connecticut, founded Morphosis, an avant-garde architectural practice based in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1974. Ever since, he has worked a long way out of the box of convention. In fact, his buildings often have the look of exploding boxes. Highly expressive, seemingly fragmented, open-ended and a little bit on the deconstructivist side, they are beautifully wrought and very much all of a piece. Creations such as the Diamond Ranch High School in California (2000), which steps down hillside terraces in waves of sensational geometry, are, for all their energy and originality, remarkably serene and at one with the landscapes they adorn.

Pritzker juror Victoria Newhouse -- an architectural historian, author, and founder and director of the Architectural History Foundation -- says: "Diamond Ranch High School was, for me, the benchmark. I visited it in the year of its completion and found that not only was the original design admirable, but the way in which the architect adapted that design to the government's financial limitations was ingenious."

Mayne's early career did not get off to a particularly good start. After graduating in 1968, he was fired from a teaching job at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, and went on to found an alternative architecture school, SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) with six like-minded colleagues and 40 students in 1972. He remains a popular teacher, with professorships in California and around the world.

"Thom Mayne," says the Pritzker citation, "is a product of the turbulent 1960s who has carried that rebellious attitude and fervent desire for change into his practice, the fruits of which are only now becoming visible." Mayne doesn't disagree. "Your whole life," he says, "you're told you're an outsider and you can't do that ... and then you're honored for it."

Through the 1970s and '80s, Mayne worked in relative obscurity on designs for inventive new houses in Southern California. In the mid-1990s, Morphosis burst out of its West Coast box after a period of entering dozens of architectural competitions, largely unsuccessfully. The practice trucked on patiently and finally began to win. By the end of that decade, adventurous and even outrageous designs by the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas were being commissioned and built around the world. Mayne's time had come.

Mayne's most dramatic American buildings include the $190 million Caltrans District 7 Headquarters and the Science Education Resource Center and School, both completed in Los Angeles last year. Abroad, he has shaped the eye-catching Sun Tower in Seoul, South Korea, and the energetic Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, a bank and civic center in Klagenfurt, Austria, in the guise of what might be described as a deconstructivist landslide.

Gehry, a Pritzker juror and architect of the Bilbao, Spain, Guggenheim, says: "I've known [Mayne] for a long time, watched him grow into a mature and, I like to say, 'authentic' architect. He continues to explore and search for new ways to make buildings usable and exciting."

In California, Mayne's landmarks include, along with the Diamond Ranch school, two Salick medical office buildings in L.A. and the up-and-coming Cahill Center for Astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is also working on the newly announced state capitol building in Juneau, Alaska, and New York's 2012 Olympic Village, which is meant to be built even if the city fails to win its bid for the Games. And Mayne is completing three projects of major importance for the U.S. General Services Administration's "Design Excellence" program: a federal office building in San Francisco, a courthouse in Eugene, Ore., and the NOAA Satellite Operation Control Facility in Maryland.

What might seem remarkable to non-Americans is the fact that this radical architect is working on so many government projects. Mayne's work does not appear to express the might and general geopolitical thrust of George W. Bush's America. Yet this shows just what a gloriously complex and contradictory country the United States is; it is rare, anywhere in the world, to find such a body of adventurous architecture in government service.

There are those, however, who look aghast at Mayne's designs. Writing in the Dallas Morning News, David Dillon describes Mayne as "a prickly and provocative personality who designs prickly and provocative buildings." He goes on to write: "From his early restaurant interiors to his recent work, it has been tough, risky, adventurous, full of mistakes and miscalculations, and when it all comes together, produces astonishment bordering on disbelief."

Mayne himself can hardly believe he has won America's top architecture prize. "This is such a big deal," he says. "It is not in my nature to think about being the one who prevails. I've always seen myself as an outsider." Not anymore, Thom.

Jonathan Glancey

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