For Mayne, these spaces have a powerful metaphorical role to play. In the case of the Cahill Center, the fissured exterior is meant to make visible the myriad unseen forces in the universe that are bearing down on us. The way the exterior mass is lifted into the air above a ground floor wrapped in glass only exaggerates this effect. Inside, the stair is designed, as Mayne puts it, as "an occupiable telescope." It suggests the way in which the measured universe can shift and bend depending on your perspective and as you yourself, the measurer, move through space.
Still, some of these symbolic connections to clients grow less persuasive with each passing project. When it comes to the exteriors of his recent buildings, Mayne is making the case that the same skin system that was metaphorically perfect for state and federal bureaucrats and Midwestern university students is similarly appropriate for dozens of the world's leading astrophysicists.
There is nothing wrong with an architect pursuing and developing a consistent strategy over the course of several buildings. There is a compelling sense in this group of projects -- of which Mayne says Cahill is the last -- that the architect is testing out variations on a rich theme, taking the idea of the folded or ruptured skin and bringing it along from sketchy concept to confident motif.
But at the Cahill Center, the strategy has exhausted itself. It's as if Mayne were taking notions he's tested out in earlier buildings and rather rotely using them to cloak this one -- as if what he was hired to do was provide a kind of drive-by virtuosity, producing not Robert Venturi's decorated shed but something similar: a contorted shoe box.
The client probably played a significant part in all of that: It's easy to imagine that the faculty members were happy to see some daring geometry on the facade and in some of the public areas but balked at testing it out in their offices and labs. But this is hardly the first time Morphosis has been willing, even happy, to accept precisely such a trade-off.
Lacking a guide
The firm's surpassing achievement in recent years has been to take the kind of budget that usually produces a banal stucco box and use some variation on the skin system to produce a range of dark, confrontational effects.
Rarely, though, does Mayne's approach move past what is essentially scenography. There is almost never a sense in his work -- as there is so clearly in the best designs by Frank Gehry, for example -- that some guiding idea, spirit or skill is radiating out from the center of a building, suffusing the whole.
The design of the Cahill Center seems very eager to look as though it's putting various spatial and architectural hypotheses to the test. But it doesn't extend that inquiry very far. The forces that Mayne uses the skin of the building to conjure up so dramatically have almost no effect on the interior life of the place. They push and push but ultimately can barely deform its regular, box-like character or warp its true personality. In the end, the Cartesian wins -- or at least more than holds its own.
Architect Thom Mayne talks about the Cahill Center in a video interview.