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Santa Monica Architect Wins Profession’s Top Prize: Thom Mayne is Names 2005 Pritzker Laureate

“Every now and then 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.”

The chairman of the Pritzker Prize Committee, Great Britain’s Lord Palumbo, was speaking about Thom Mayne, who was named the 2005 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize on Monday.

The first American Laureate in 14 years, Mayne is only the eighth American and the second Santa Monica-based architect to win architecture’s highest honor.

Frank Gehry was the 1989 Laureate.

In his 30-year career, Mayne, 61, has received 54 AIA Awards, some 25 Progressive Architecture Awards, as well as numerous other honors around the world.

At ceremonies on May 31 in Chicago’s Millennium Park in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a structure named for the founder of the prize and designed by juror and 1989 Pritzker Laureate Gehry, Mayne will be given a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion.

Gehry, a member of this year’s jury, said, “I was thrilled that our new Laureate hails from my part of the world. I’ve known him 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 useable and exciting.”

In a monograph about his firm Morphosis, which he founded in Los Angeles in 1972, Mayne wrote, “We will hold to that which is difficult, because it is difficult…and by its difficulty is worthwhile.”

When Mayne received the call on his cell phone from the Pritzker Prize executive director, Bill Lacy, he was in a cab crossing the Triborough Bridge in New York on his way to the airport. “When he told me I had been selected as the 2005 Laureate, I was speechless. This is such a big deal, and due to certain aspects of my upbringing, it is not in my nature to think about being the one who prevails…For my whole life I’ve always seen myself as an outsider.”

Born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1944, Mayne moved with his family to Gary, Indiana when he was an infant, and then to an area south of Whittier, California, which he has described as “the middle of nowhere with orange groves and avocado trees….I was completely out of place in Whittier… as a result, I became kind of a loner, and aloof.”

On graduating from high school in Whittier, Mayne headed for Cal Poly in Pomona, but as he got off the bus, he saw “three girls riding by on horses….and I got right back on the bus to L.A. and went over to USC…they accepted me, and for the first time I found a world that seemed to fit.”

After finishing at USC, Mayne worked as a planner for Victor Gruen for two years, and then taught at Pomona, until he and six of his colleagues, including the director, were fired. “We were young, committed and convinced that we could rethink where architecture was headed so when we got fired, we decided to start our own school. We sensed that it was the right time to initiate a radical alternative to the conventional educational system.”

That was the genesis of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC), which was located in Santa Monica for many years. “We made no money, we worked for nothing,” Mayne said, “I was working ten hours a day teaching, doing little gigs on the side, consulting, to survive. And I was living in Venice, over a bait and tackle shop, maybe $100 a month rent. You could live really simply then.”

After four years, he took a sabbatical and enrolled in the graduate program at Harvard. “By that time it had become clear to me that my interests were leading me away from planning…it just wasn’t tangible enough…toward architecture… By the end of ’79, I got back to Los Angeles, and boom, boom, I started receiving residential commissions. I realized what a unique city L.A. is for practicing architecture (Frank Gehry had just finished his house), how open it is to experimentation. Unbeknownst to all of us, the Los Angeles architecture scene was becoming interesting at a global level.”

Morphosis was founded during SCI-ARC’s first year. “It really wasn’t an office, it was an idea,” said Mayne. “We had no work. We didn’t think of having work, it had to do with an interdisciplinary collective practice… of starting a group of people who would work with graphics, interior design objects, furniture, architecture and urban design. We had a studio downtown. We sat around and talked. We’d do a little graphic thing here and there to make some money. We couldn’t get architecture. It was all very counter culture.”

At the time, his oldest son was going to a school in Pasadena that Mayne describes as “completely radical, but fabulous.” Parent meetings evolved into a first project for Morphosis, designing a new school, the Sequoyah Educational Research Center, which subsequently won the firm its first Progressive Architecture award in 1974.

“That was the beginning,” Mayne said. “The PA award led to inquiries from other publications around the world, wanting to publish this and that, suddenly we had an existence. After doing a lot of remodels in Venice, the Lawrence residence project came along and that’s when everything started breaking loose for us, getting published in L.A. and we became part of a group. We, as younger architects, were definitely taking over. It was a real shift in the context of architecture.”

As his reputation grew, some journalists labeled Mayne “an angry young man.”

He disagrees. “No doubt about it, I’m a complicated guy, but the bad boy description comes from, I think, a reaction to my being relentlessly tenacious and to having an independent voice. I have a long attention span, and when I grab on to something, I stick with it…I was nicknamed ‘pointer dog’ by my former partner. If anything, I think this award, the Pritzker Prize, acknowledges the necessity to act on one’s beliefs, to have the conviction of one’s beliefs, and to sometimes pay whatever it costs to see the work through with.”

Morphosis is now home to 40 architects and designers.

Mayne says, “An architect operates, finally, more as a director does than as a painter or a sculptor. They have to focus the energy of a large group of people on a common obsession. The architect has to know a little bit about everything…it’s a generalist discipline, not a discipline for the specialist.”

Today, Morphosis products range from designs for watches and teapots to homes to large-scale civic buildings and other urban design and planning schemes that aim to reshape entire cities.

Some of its recent commissions include a federal office building in San Francisco, a satellite operation control facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration near Washington, D.C., and a courthouse in Eugene, Oregon.

Mayne has also won the last two major competitions in New York City — a building to house the Albert Nerken School of Engineering of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and an Olympic Village for the 2012 games, to be built whether or not the Olympics come to New York in that year.

The firm’s design for a new Alaska State Capitol has just been awarded first prize in an international design competition.

Scheduled for completion in 2007 is the Palenque at JVC, a 6250-seat open-air multi-use arena for Guadalajara, Mexico, that is situated to function as a gateway to a larger campus consisting of ten distinguished building projects that are meant to revitalize the city. In Madrid, Morphosis is creating a public housing block consisting of 165 two-, three-, and four- bedroom units totaling 10,000 square meters.

One of his more significant Los Angeles projects is the recently completed Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles, which seeks to actively engage the city and people while blurring the distinction between outside and inside and creating a government bureau that is a truly public building. Artist Keith Sonnier collaborated closely with Morphosis to create an art piece that activates the outdoor lobby with half a mile of neon and argon tubes arranged in horizontal bands of red and blue light that mimic the ribbons of headlights and taillights on the freeways of L.A. Sonnier’s piece is now the city’s largest public art installation.

Mayne’s most celebrated school project to date is the Diamond Ranch High School for the Pomona Unified School District. Completed in 1999, the high school’s goals of educational flexibility and social interplay between the 1200 students, their teachers and administration are expressed in a heterogeneous design that blurs the lines between building and landscape. Two rows of fragmented forms of the structure are set tightly on either side of a “canyon” or sidewalk that cuts through the face of the hillside, making clear the vision of the campus as a reinterpreted landscape.

Among Mayne’s earliest works are several innovative residential projects: 24-6-8, Venice III, Sedlack, and Delmer, all in Venice, and the Lawrence residence in Hermosa Beach.

Over the years, Mayne has written a number of articles that describe not only his work, but the theories behind it. In addition to his work at SCI-ARC, he is now a tenured professor at UCLA, teaching a graduate program in architecture (See Mirror, January 19-26, 2005).

Mayne has said, “Architecture is a long distance sport. You put your mind to it, and stay with it for 30 years and then you’re just getting started.”

Part Two: Next week

Ed. Note: The information in this article was supplied by Pritzker Prize.

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