Thom Mayne established his firm, Morphosis, in 1972.
Ian Allen Thom Mayne established his firm, Morphosis, in 1972.

This fading April afternoon, just a few hours before the gala dinner celebrating its 40th anniversary, there’s ample evidence that the Southern California Institute of Architecture remains as committed as ever to in-your-face provocation. Meander the Undergraduate Thesis and Spring Show exhibition and you’ll spot torched soldier toys melting into a field of ashy sludge; a vest made of bisected rubber baby dolls linked together with safety pins; and a model of an office tower so contorted it might as well have been run through a food processor. The titles of the projects are playful (“When in Wien”), quasi-quantum mechanical (“Synthetic Conjunction”), or deceptively straightforward (“The Black City—Black Isn’t as Easy as It Looks”).

Even if he wasn’t a Pritzker Prize–winner and newly decorated AIA Gold Medal recipient, Thom Mayne couldn’t help but cut an outsized figure among the distinguished group of architects and academics who’ve gathered to critique the most promising senior class projects. Mayne, FAIA, towers above his colleagues at 6 feet 4 inches. The weave of his custom-made Italian suit jacket gives off an azure glow. His close-cropped brown hair and sparse beard culminate in tapered points more or less in alignment with a large, pugnacious nose. He settles himself in a folding chair across from a dozen balls of magenta, lemon, pink, and crimson with strategic slices taken out of them, deployed onto what looks like a residential tract. With hair slicked back, dressed in a de-rigeur black jacket, one of the student co-creators begins explaining this work in a way sure to make even the most sophisticated client’s head spin: “Our thesis and our goal is to re-adapt a representational technique where a form’s process and evolution is created through a system of axonometric cuts.”

Most of the panelists, while not necessarily full of praise for the project, manage to be rigorous and supportive in their observations. Not Mayne. “Poor me,” he says. “I just go back and fuck around in my little office, and I’ve got to deal with all the contingent crap of architecture. But isn’t there a threshold where there has to be some minimum connection between technology, culture, political status, and social status—a connection with some idea of how we exist in the world? Can you operate with no conversations about any of those things?”

On the surface at least, the two students seem remarkably poised as Mayne shoots a few more barbs their way. “You did this stuff,” he tells them, “and you’re at the beginning of your career, and I’m about to hire one of you guys. So you come into my office, and the first problem I give, you fall down on your face: ‘Oh my God, I can’t do that,’ because you’ve got 15 constraints in front of you.” Mayne’s argument moves inexorably toward questioning the mission of SCI-Arc itself. As a founding faculty member, Mayne was as responsible as anyone for making the school a laboratory of the avant-garde. Some of his colleagues rise to the students’—and SCI-Arc’s—defense, bemused more than irritated by this latest episode of Thom being Thom.

San Francisco Federal Building, 2008
Iwan Baan San Francisco Federal Building, 2008

Eric Owen Moss, SCI-Arc’s director, who’s known Mayne since the early ’70s, tries taking his friend and colleague’s concerns to a more constructive plane. “I think that the issue may be at the preliminary level of thinking and advising about the project,” Moss, FAIA, says. “How are you doing this? Why are you doing this? What are the constraints? What are the possibilities? When you look at this thing, I mean for instance, why should it appear as a ball at the end?”

At the end of a debate that he’s come to dominate, Mayne delivers a small consolation prize. “By the way,” he tells the students, “we can have this conversation because this is a highly articulate, extremely skilled project.”

Mayne leaves the exhibition hall in long strides towards the mid-section of the former Santa Fe Freight Depot, which now serves as SCI-Arc’s downtown L.A. campus. He pauses just outside the makeshift banquet room where the catering staffers are scurrying about in preparation for tonight’s dinner. He resumes his musing about the crop of young architects SCI-Arc is turning out nowadays. “Once they see a practice,” he says, “they have so little relationship to reality, they’re not even sure they should be architects.” He compares their strivings to those of a would-be jazz musician, who plunges into improvisation without putting in anywhere near the 10,000 hours required to master the instrument. “These guys,” he says. “They just want to be Miles Davis, but they didn’t do any of the work.”

Perot Museum of Science and Nature in Dallas, 2012
Iwan Baan Perot Museum of Science and Nature in Dallas, 2012

Like most American architects of ambition, Thom Mayne, 69, had far more than 10,000 hours to hone his talents and develop his vision before he was permitted to create anything of lasting significance. In the past decade, Morphosis, the firm he established in 1972, has made its prodigious mark on Manhattan’s East Village, with 41 Cooper Square, a 175,000-square-foot expansion of the Cooper Union college of science and art; on Dallas, with the Perot Museum of Science and Nature; and on San Francisco, with the U.S. Federal Building.

Nevertheless, until he turned 50, Mayne did his most influential work strictly on paper, and as a lecturer and theorist. His sparse portfolio of completed projects contained mostly residences, restaurant interiors, and the occasional office building. Over the course of so many competitions Mayne entered and lost, he developed a design palette incorporating fissures, fragmentation, and a semicollapsed geometry. Taking apparent inspiration from the firm’s name, several of these projects looked like they were in the midst of a metamorphosis—caught in the process of becoming something else.

Blythe Alison-Mayne, who served as the financial manager of her husband’s firm during many of those lean years, recalls how Mayne spent his time between commissions. “One of Thom’s friends would say that ‘busy hands are happy hands,’ and he was talking specifically about Thom,” Alison-Mayne says. “He would complete a house and then if there wasn’t a new project, he’d rework it, even though it was already done. In that way, he’d re-inform himself of the design. That’s the way he kept his brain busy.”

Nevertheless, in the absence of any opportunity to make a major impact on the built landscape, busy work could only take Mayne so far. His reputation as a bad boy was solidified in middle age. “When I was 45,” he says, “I was starting to get difficult. There was an anger I couldn’t suppress, and a frustration at being ready to go full speed, and I still couldn’t find the venue.”

John Enright, FAIA, who currently chairs SCI-Arc’s undergraduate program, worked at Morphosis for 13 years. He offers to clear up a common misconception as to why Mayne’s firm couldn’t seem to win design competitions. “For all Thom’s reputation,” Enright says, “his work was always buildable. But he was beautifully uncompromising.”

Mayne found himself on the margins long before he began studying architecture. He was eight years old when his father, an executive with U.S. Steel, abandoned the family. His mother moved with her boys from Gary, Ind., to Santa Fe Springs, Calif., an industrial suburb just south of downtown Los Angeles. A concert-level pianist trained at the Sorbonne and the Chicago Conservatory of Music, his mother took a job at a department store and decorated the home with her reproductions of Modigliani paintings. Outside their front door, Mayne says, “it was like gangland.” His first day of school, he was beaten and robbed of his jacket and bike. “I was a private kid,” he says. “A very lonely kid.”

Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, Calif., 1999
Kim Zwarts Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, Calif., 1999

As a student at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, Mayne experienced a liberation of consciousness. “My grandfather was a Methodist minister,” he says, “and my brother and I were very conservative puritanical Midwestern kids who went to church every Sunday. I came out of a family that the 1960s were made for.” While earning his 1969 undergraduate degree, Mayne began defining himself intellectually and professionally as someone in total opposition. “Resistance was autonomy—and cause for celebration,” he recalls. “It was the raison d’etre for your existence as an architect, and absolutely fundamental to your work.”

Three years out of USC, Mayne held an assistant professorship at the California Polytechnic University at Pomona. He worked under architect and urban planner Ray Kappe, FAIA, who headed up Cal Poly’s architecture department. After Kappe was fired over a disagreement with the administration, he launched SCI-Arc, and invited Mayne to join him. The school adhered to Kappe’s rationalist vision—at least until the sensibilities of young professors like Mayne and Eric Owen Moss took hold. “The combination of architecture and science seemed important to me,” Kappe says. “We were experimenting a lot more with structured environmental control systems, rather than with intuitive flamboyant design—whatever anyone felt like doing.” By 1980, SCI-Arc had shifted decisively into Postmodernism, which held no attraction whatsoever for Kappe. He knew then it was time to leave.

From Morphosis’s inception, Mayne favored collaboration over sole authorship. “It used to be a real art form, the way Thom would give really smart young people even more than they could handle and see if they rose to the occasion,” says Enright, remembering his time as a young Morphosis associate. From a bricks-and-mortar standpoint, there usually wasn’t a whole lot at stake. “He kept rewarding me with the biggest projects—the ones that would never get built.” In 1999, more than a quarter-century after Morphosis opened its doors, Enright found himself the project architect for an impossible building that had somehow seen its way toward fruition. Sinuous and fragmentary, Diamond Ranch High School near Pomona was a monument of defiance to a public education system beholden to uniform instruction and standardized testing.

While Morphosis’s body of finished work remained relatively modest until the turn of the millennium, “modest” has never been an adjective attached to Mayne himself. “There’s a huge misunderstanding or abuse of the word ‘ego’ in architecture,” he says, “which is really disgusting. There’s a group of people who will challenge you as egotistical, and I’m like, ‘How could you possibly be an architect, starting with your earliest conversations, and you’re not even going to get there until you’re 50, without having an immense ego?’ It’s absurd.”

“Ego,” Mayne continues. “What is ego? There has to be some kind of strength or confidence or blindness. Otherwise you don’t care, you don’t keep waking up and going to work, and keep working your ass off until midnight, seven days a week, for fucking 30 years.”

Wayne L. Morse United States Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Ore., 1999
Tim Griffith/Esto Wayne L. Morse United States Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Ore., 1999

While he never invested a dime of his own money on a Morphosis project, Edward Feiner will almost certainly be regarded as the pivotal patron of Mayne’s career. As chief architect of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) from 1995 to 2005, Feiner, FAIA, headed up the agency’s Design Excellence Program, which for the first time engaged architects who had accomplished far more in the way of innovation than in square footage. The three massive Morphosis projects developed during Feiner’s GSA tenure are perhaps the three most counterintuitive landmarks ever green-lit by the federal government. At least in their early stages, they all caused some friction.

Not long after Mayne won the commission for the Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse in Eugene, Ore., in 1999, Feiner was paged at Portland International Airport. It was Michael Hogan, then head of the U.S. District Court that would be occupying the building. Feiner remembers the judge upset by more than just Mayne’s radical design: “He asked me, ‘How do I get this overturned? I will not have my courthouse designed by someone like that—liberal.’ ” After failing to oust Mayne, Hogan was surprised to find himself bonding with the bad boy liberal architect over their shared passion for fine wine. Seeking inspiration, the two of them traveled to Paris together to see the government buildings constructed during the era of French President François Mitterand. Until about five years ago, Alison-Mayne recalls her husband wearing black shirts and slacks—the standard uniform for an American design visionary. Under Hogan’s influence, he began favoring bespoke suits and Gucci footwear.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) initially bristled at Mayne’s design for the agency’s Satellite Operations Facility, which opened in 2006. With its sunken labs covered in greenery, and its many antennae bunched into a loose interpretation of a submarine’s conning tower, the building was anything but the familiar technology box. One concerned citizen called Feiner to complain that she could find no trace of San Francisco in the Morphosis-conceived 2008 U.S. San Francisco Federal Building, whose slim, slightly bowed metallic face resembles a gigantic chunk of some cosmic Berlin Wall. Feiner explained to her that the four windows that pucker its frontage were in fact bay windows paying homage to the city’s Victorian architecture. Actually, what Mayne’s ecologically sustainable 21st-century postmodern government building has most in common with a 19th-century San Francisco mansion is a total absence of air-conditioning in design and construction—to the continuing dismay of many of the employees currently working there.

“The reason I think that Thom’s public projects are really so remarkable is that he excited my imagination as a client,” Feiner says. “Working with him I found out that the best client is one who’s interested—not in having an architect find solutions to a problem, because that can usually be done, but in having the architect identify the opportunity and the promise of what a project can be, and open that horizon and those possibilities that are beyond the client’s imagination. I may not have agreed with all of Thom’s ideas, but I was truly stimulated by the discourse.”

Headquarters for the Giant Interactive group, 

a software company in Shanghai, 2011
Iwan Baan Headquarters for the Giant Interactive group, a software company in Shanghai, 2011

Arrested career development suits some architects better than others (consider Frank Gehry’s dourness). Mayne may be pushing 70, but he presents himself as guileless, as enthusiastic, and as unencumbered by social niceties as a child. “Thom wakes up every morning like a chipmunk,” his wife, Alison-Mayne, says. “Ready to go.” Friends from Mayne’s generation who went into medicine or business began talking retirement as they neared age 55. “Literally, when I’m with those guys,” Mayne says, “they’re going, ‘Oh, I’m getting close. I’m going to get a boat and go around the world for five years and I’m done.’ ”

“It’s hilarious,” Mayne continues. “In my 30s, I wasn’t even quite a baby yet. When I was 55, now I’m a little kid.”

Eric Owen Moss doesn’t believe that the architectural establishment’s belated embrace of Mayne has much to do with repositioning—at least on Mayne’s part. “Thom could make the argument that, ‘I didn’t change—they changed,’ ” Moss says. “In his case, the center came to the edge, which is where he was. And if the center moves to the edge, that gives more venues, more voice, and more opportunity for the guys on the edge.”

The architect who for much of his career had next to no work at all adheres to a work schedule as frenetic as he is. He commutes back and forth from Morphosis’s recently opened Manhattan outpost and its headquarters in Culver City. He’s a tenured faculty member of UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and serves as a member of SCI-Arc’s board of trustees. He’s currently designing the Hanking Center Tower in Shenzhen, China, the Milanese headquarters of the Eni oil and gas company, and an information and computer sciences building at Cornell University.

At Morphosis’s Culver City office, there’s a lily-white model of the Eiffel Tower under glass, and right next to it, the Phare Tower, a sculptural spire of an office building 70 meters high slated for La Defence, Paris’s far west business district. The Phare Tower was originally due for completion last year, but the project has stalled. According to Alison-Mayne, the top corporate executives who are among the building’s likely tenants are the same ones who, following actor Gerard Depardieu, have been fleeing France to avoid French president François Hollande’s 75 percent tax rate.

Thom Mayne being Thom Mayne.
Ian Allen Thom Mayne being Thom Mayne.

As a dominant designer of postmodern landmarks, Mayne has been facing unintended consequences he rarely had to deal with as a theorist. Employees of the San Francisco federal building haven’t just been grumbling about the air quality; they’ve also bristled at the elevator system that only stops on every third floor, and a cafeteria situated in an outdoor plaza—elements Mayne conceived to ensure compulsory exercise on the job. According to the Morphosis website, 41 Cooper Square “aspires to manifest the character, culture, and vibrancy of both the 150-year-old institution and of the city in which it was founded.” Nevertheless, the building itself may have actually helped alter Cooper Union’s character and culture forever. Until May of this year, all students there were accorded full scholarships. Borrowing the $166 million cost of Mayne’s vision against the land it owns beneath the Chrysler Building, Cooper Union sunk itself deeper into the financial abyss that has forced the institution to charge tuition for the first time in its history, despite student protests.

And then there are the critics—the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Hawthorne the most damning among them. “It is a thoroughly cynical piece of work,” Hawthorne wrote earlier this year in his review of the Perot Museum. “A building that uses a frenzy of architectural forms to endorse the idea that architecture, in the end, is mere decoration.”

Mayne will tell you that attacks like these are not particularly bothersome. After all, it wasn’t so long ago when he could delight in storming the battlements of establishment architecture from the far margins. Now, having reached the profession’s pinnacle, it’s only fitting that he should find himself under siege. “I’ve been a huge thrower of hand grenades, and now I’m the receiver,” says Mayne, smiling. “Which is quite lovely.”

Gold Medal Advisory Jury
Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA (chair) Richter Architects, Corpus Christi, Texas; Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA Foster + Partners, London; Marlene S. Imirzian, AIA Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects, Phoenix; Beverly J. Prior, FAIA HMC + Beverly Prior Architects, San Francisco; William D. Sturm, AIA Serena Sturm Architects, Chicago; Carole C. Wedge, FAIA Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, Boston; David G. Woodcock, FAIA College Station, Texas; David Zach David Zach, Futurist, Milwaukee