Tuesday, 30 September, 2014

Published July 26, 2014
Home & Garden
Ideas and reality meld
Thom Mayne believes that an architect must not only be creative, but also be able to deal with developers' and builders' demands. By Tay Suan Chiang
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Artist impression of the upcoming Phare Tower in France (above); Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas; Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. - PHOTO: MORPHOSIS ARCHITECTS

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AT 70, most people are likely to be taking it slow, enjoying the finer things in life. But not American architect Thom Mayne. Instead, his life has gotten even busier. He has been away from his office in the United States for the past two and a half weeks, having spent much of that time in Sydney and Perth, before arriving in Singapore this week to be on the jury panel for the President's Design Award. Then he's off to China where he is working on several projects. Architecture, he says, is like being in a long distance run. He started his career at 27, "but it was only when I was 50 that I was getting a series of larger works, then everything started speeding up, which is completely typical of an architect's life."

Ask him what has been the best moment of his 43-year career, and he says it is difficult to pinpoint one moment. "It's getting better and better and I love it. I have never had more fun."

He says: "Architecture is completely out of sync with the current world, which is moving at the speed of light. Young people today have a much shorter fuse, and I often tell younger architects to keep at what they are doing, to get the serious work."

Mr Mayne started his firm Morphosis, an interdisciplinary practice involved in rigorous design and research that yields innovative, iconic buildings and urban environments in 1972. His early works were private residences, but today he does a myriad of works, from commercial to cultural, government and educational. His name may not be familiar in this part of the world, but Mr Mayne is considered one of the world's most influential architects. Among the many accolades he has received is the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2005. Of the award, he says, it is a great honour as not many Americans have won it. "But I'm the most unlikely person to receive it. I do modest commissions, and public work. I'm a private person, and I don't see public recognition," he says.

Some of his key projects include the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and Emerson College Los Angeles, as well as the upcoming Phare Tower in France. In Asia, he's built the Giant Interactive Group Corporate Headquarters in Shanghai, Seoul Performing Arts Centre and the Taipei Performing Arts Centre.

On top of his work, Mr Mayne also leads The Now Institute, an academic research think tank and master planning design group, embedded in UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design. His buildings come in non-conventional shapes and form, but are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Yet, he points out that he isn't interested in the aesthetic side of things.

"I'm interested in the building's ability to interact and change things. If architecture doesn't do that, then I have no idea what architecture is," he says.

With Cooper Union, the institution resembles a cube, but with "cracks" running down it. It looks massive but strangely is light at the same time. "The client was looking for a building that is idiosyncratic," he says. He conceived the building as a vehicle to foster collaboration and cross-disciplinary dialogue among the college's three schools, previously housed in separate buildings. A vertical piazza, the central space for informal social, intellectual and creative exchange, forms the heart of the new academic building.

In the spirit of the institution's dedication to free, open and accessible education, the building itself is symbolically open to the city. Visual transparencies and accessible public spaces connect the institution to the physical, social and cultural fabric of its urban context. At street level, the transparent facade invites the neighbourhood to observe and to take part in the intensity of activity contained within.

Mr Mayne is particularly proud of the building which is not just a school, but a "whole programme for cultural and social pedagogy".

He doesn't see architecture as a "singular act", but connected to urban design. His approach to architecture is also why he doesn't go with preconceived notions of how a building should look when approached by a client. "I don't start with ideas. I start by asking what is the problem. Is it a social, environment or urban problem? Then ideas start generating and a form comes out of that," he says. "If you are too focused on a form, you cannot rejuvenate yourself."

The job of an architect he says is to "make physical an idea".

With over four decades of experience, Mr Mayne has the formula to being a successful architect down pat.

"You need to be able to switch from a creative world to the real world," he says. By that, he means being able to have ideas, but also to be able to deal with the demands of developers and builders. "That is the most demanding part of the job, either you are meant for it or not," he says.

Having a client who is open to ideas is another. "You need to have clients who are not resistant to ideas," he says, adding that a successful collaboration is much like a marriage. "I've turned away work that I didn't want to do," he points out. "In architecture, a huge amount of who you become as an architect is by the work you choose to do."