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The Education of Thom Mayne

How the uncompromising L.A. architect learned to build on common ground

January 14, 2007|Brett Campbell | Brett Campbell writes for the Wall Street Journal, Oregon Quarterly and other publications. He lives in Portland, Ore.

As he entered the Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., Thom Mayne sharpened his attack plan in his mind. The bad boy of American architecture was about to meet his new nemesis for the first time, and he wanted to set the tone early.

His opponent that day in 2001 was U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, a conservative jurist who stood for everything Mayne scorned. The court that Hogan oversaw would be the principal tenant of the Santa Monica architect's most ambitious project: one of the first major federal buildings of the century, a courthouse in Eugene, Ore.

Mayne already knew what Hogan thought of his concept. Hogan had sat on the panel that weighed the design options, and he was appalled at Mayne's modernist visions. When a panel member presented the proposal from Mayne's partnership, Morphosis, Hogan pounced, pummeling the man with hostile questions for 4 hours. Most of Hogan's objections stemmed from Mayne's space-age scheme, which looked nothing like a traditional courthouse, certainly not the U.S. Supreme Court building that Hogan so revered.

In the end, Hogan was outvoted. It was a major coup for Morphosis. But Mayne knew there was no way he'd get to build the courthouse he wanted without cooperation from the man who would run it.

And that's why Hogan had arranged the meeting at the restaurant on C Street near the U.S. Capitol--to see if the architect and the judge could find common ground. In his three-decade career, Mayne had always worked best in an atmosphere of confrontation; he typically kicked off relationships with clients by aggressively defining his artistic identity. He had researched the judge, and learned that he was a Christian and had been appointed by the first President George Bush. His rulings--especially those pertaining to environmental issues--often had provoked liberals, who were especially prevalent in the college town of Eugene. Only two years apart in age, Hogan and Mayne had both grown up in the 1960s--but on opposite sides.

Leaning forward at the table, the 6-foot-5-inch Mayne, wearing a black shirt adorned with a red star and his trademark striped socks, launched into his rehearsed diatribe, dark brown eyes glowering above his goatee. "My heroes are Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix," he declared. The fusillade continued as Mayne lambasted Hogan's judicial record, religious beliefs, even his taste in architecture and art, which favored traditional Greek Revival columns and photos and drawings of eagles like those that decorated his chambers.

Hogan, whose genial demeanor belied his august title, took a deep breath. He was coming to realize that Mayne regarded this encounter not as an angry battle--the attacks weren't personal--but more like the rough play of a pickup basketball game. Finally, Hogan smiled.

"Thom," he said, "I get it. You're pushing me because you need to know: Do I have what it takes to be a friend or an adversary or whatever this relationship is gonna be? But the point is, we're joined at the hip."

Born in Connecticut, Mayne grew up in Tipton, Ind., and Chicago, moving to Whittier in 1954 after his parents' divorce. He graduated from USC in 1968. Imbibing the spirit of the 1960s like cannabis smoke, Mayne and some equally edgy colleagues who were teaching at Cal Poly Pomona decided to create their own countercultural school for radical architects. Opening in 1972, the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) gained accreditation four years later and now boasts 500 students and 80 faculty members. Mayne also started the partnership in 1972, naming it Morphosis--loosely translated from Greek to mean "to be in formation." Both entities rejected received wisdom and advocated a more intuitive, interdisciplinary architecture (encompassing interior design and graphics) that emerged from what Mayne calls "the intelligence of things"--materials, fragments of physical objects and the relationships among them, the process of change and creation itself.His work reflected the freethinking tradition of West Coast composers such as John Cage and other California artists and architects, from the Eameses to contemporaries like Frank Gehry.

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