Thom Mayne Lecture

What did you all think of the Thom Mayne lecture last night?

He had some valuable insights into all aspects of our profession and the architecture education system.   I hope it provokes discussion, and not blind acceptance, complacency, resignation, or denial.   His ideas on an architecture of complex systems and idiosyncratic notes was intriguing.

The theory of a design “growing” (thus the reference to the biological paradigm) or being generated through a process based on pre-scripted (prescriptive?) parameters, with an outcome unknown at the beginning, is noteworthy.  But I think there are many possible variations on this idea: truly good design has always embodied aspects of this idea.  It’s only novices or amateurs that preconceive of an idea and then just execute it.  But the method, process, and techniques through which one arrives at conclusions are numerous and very subjective: difficult to learn, define, or teach categorically.  He did not talk much about that ultimately subjective part of his process: which parameters to foreground, or how to chose between the many variations that a computer can generate.

What did you think about his views of the profession and its future?   Are you all willing to work only as a small part of a giant team?  Are you as pessimistic as he?

How about the issue of scale and complexity?  Will “architecture” be limited to these kinds of mega-projects only?  What do we make of the arguments by someone like Jane Jacobs who argued that (1960s) megastructures are by definition inhuman.  Anything designed by one person, or even one large team of sophisticated thinkers, is bound to be monolithic and determinative.  What about the proverbial “kitchen addition” and the more humble “buildings” (as opposed to “architecture”) that makes up the majority of our built environment?   Will those be generated using the same paradigms?  Are they even part of Mayne’s definition of architecture?

How about what Mayne said about the role of drawing in architecture?  It’s fun to think that Mayne was at one time most famous for the amazing drawings he produced, and now he is rejecting it entirely.  What should be the role of drawing at CMU or in architecture education?  Can we learn all there is to know about architecture through the keyboard?  How does one build up to, or become educated to generate the kind of sophisticated modeling Mayne showed us?

Certainly his projects can’t be “drawn” in the conventional sense.  Are the visual images he showed us always so different though?  Should all architecture be merely the 3D digital output of scripts and parameters?  Silvetti’s article “The Muses are Not Amused: Pandemonium in the House of Architecture” warned about these kind of auto-generated substitutes for good design skills.  What is the role of personal expression and individual creative gestures?  Should architecture really be like a “tricked out BMW,” as Mayne claimed?

What about the role of craft, construction, and the resistance of materials?  Is all architecture to be merely “fabrication” of a-priori digital data?  Can “making” be so objective that we can leave it to computers?

Mayne, ever intent on rattling the establishment and the academy, has been saying these things for years.  See his ultimatum “Change or Perish” to the AIA from 2005.


8 Responses to “Thom Mayne Lecture”

  1. 2010/04/21 at 12:01 am

    I took away a few crucial differences between his method of spatial arrangement and the traditional process. Thom “designs values”, as he said in the lecture, where we design spaces.

    We spend weeks playing “Tetris” with a project’s spatial arrangement, coming up with reasons for the placement of each programmatic component. During the review process, we are then held accountable for each of those decisions, and professors/jurors ask us, “why is component X in spot Y? What about component A in spot B?” The goal, as I perceive it, is to find the best arrangement for your given idea.

    With the introduction of computers, there is suddenly a decision-making tool more powerful (but not more creative) than our own mind. As such, when we investigate new, expanded, more complex questions and goals, the computer’s answers are simply too large for our brain to fully validate… we end up saying, “iteration Q is better than the other 25 my computer has spewed out, so I’ll go with that.”

    My point is, the descriptor has changed from “best” to “better”. We are no longer aiming to achieve the perfect answer to the question, because the question is now too hard for our brain.

    And yet, while the authenticity of this new architecture feels a bit shammy, it opens up new worlds for spatial understanding which are very exciting. Thom & Co. investigate the models their scripts create, and discover moments (read: the Great Hall in the Phare Tower) which were unplanned but are still very valid, spatially rich Architecture.

    It’s post-justification. But in 2nd semester, Pablo mentioned to us that post-justification is still a valuable design step. Thom “designed the values”, and the building that results is Architecture, attached to its Architect in a new way.

  2. 2 anarchytect
    2010/04/21 at 12:26 am

    “Certainly his projects can’t be “drawn” in the conventional sense.”

    The basis of the architectural SKIN, that Mayne implements is mathematical, hence scriped and programmed. But there is nothing the computer can do, that we cannot do, given enough time. And these, warped ‘undrawable’ surfaces can certainly be drawn, through the use of a mathematical system. And it has been done. Maybe not to to complexity to which Morphosis takes it, but given time, it would be there. Iannis Xenakis (May 29, 1922 – February 4, 2001), Greek composer, musician, mathematician and architect who worked for Corbusier utilized music and math to generate surface geometries that pre date the skins used by Mayne. And he, basically, drew them, he figured them out, one line at a time.

    Here’s a link to some of his work we saw at the Drawing Centre during the NYC trip:


    Obviously, Morphosis shadows the Philips Pavilion, but that doesnt change the fact that drawing cannot achieve complex geometry. So in that sense, his argument fails. We CAN draw.

    The question is, do we time? Do we want to, need to, figure all that out, when the computer can? Thom Mayne is a lazy fellow, (and so am I) he delegates the figuring out to the computer. But we still CAN draw.

    Further more, reflecting on what Doug Copper said during class, what aspect of drawing applies to the work of Morphosis, and why do architects draw?

    I feel that there is knowledge, more than truth, associated with drawing. Drawing can be seen as representation, but the process of drawing is more significant and valuable than the product. In drawing the line of the boundary edge of two surfaces for example, we internalize the nature of that specific condition. And that is why we draw. To develop this internalization, which is brought out in our design. In drawing or sketching, the stroke of the hand is more responsive to the context than moving a mouse or pushing a button. And then theres the question of originality. If everyone draws on the computer, i.e. the computer draws for everyone, style and technique dissolve.

    As Hylde in ‘Architecure Facing Modernism’, in striving for efficient and usefullness (the use of scripting and programming, short cut methods), we lose the MEANING of what it is we do. Which is what I feel, especially in the works of NOX. In the use of the computer, the meaning in their work disappears.

    These tools should be used with delicacy I feel. They create a distance from the architect and his work. Quoting Pallasma, ‘..by drawing by hand as well as model making, the designer is put into haptic contact with the object or space. In our imagination, the object is simultanesouly held in the hand and inside the head’ We use computers when we need to, not because we can. There is certain freedom of the hand that is not provided by the digital environment and hence only LIMITS the possibilities, as opposed to expanding them through computational permutation and combintaions. Drawing can only ADD to work of the same nature as Morphosis, it cannot be subtractive.

    Change or Perish?


    Change AND Perish.

  3. 3 Liza
    2010/04/21 at 5:41 am

    I spoke to Thom Mayne after the lecture and he answered the question about drawing. First, it became clear that there were too many undefined terms thrown around during the questions and answers portion of the lecture. Drawing was being referred to the gestural manner as well as in the hard line drafting manner. Also, there was a misunderstanding about the nuances of a precise understanding through calculation by throwing around the terms computational versus digital.

    Thom Mayne said he was very much in favor of gestural drawing, sketches, and other means quick communication tools with using the the body to directly produce the visual image. However, Mayne was discouraging the insistence of hand drafting in the professional world. With respect to Morphosis’s mass production of six thousand individual components, he described how the project was more clearly executed. By enhancing the instructional and precise construction documents through, not hand drafting but through a 3d model medium, the construction company produced the project efficiently. The intern on the project who presented each component to the construction company made six mistakes out of six thousand pieces, which is almost unheard from a 23 year old intern right out of school.

    The second point that Thom Mayne and other professors in conversation with him had made with respect to drawing after the lecture was that it is important in school to know the history of architecture. During the paradigm shift that Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had established, there was already an understanding from both architects about the space making from their classical education. Similarly, the paradigm shift that Thom Mayne, Frank Gehry, and more contemporary architects promoting complex geometries had established had come from a prior understanding of the architecture through their education of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The conversation brought up the point that there is an unspoken influence from history and their education of architecture that allows contemporary architects to make instinctive moves that reflect this understanding.

    While Thom Mayne was a proponent of advancing the field of construction in complex geometries that perform in the environment, he was also advocating to continue the education of drawing in the classroom while advancing the education of the computer and other virtual modes of communication. He found that ten years ago you could have an intern or an employee be either talented with the computer or talented with ideas and thinking. Now, he finds that there is a majority of workers talented in both the computer and the ideas.

    To end my reply on the comment on drawing, he spoke about his good friend Lebbeus Woods. He described how Woods was a master and that there is no replacement for his talent and genius with his abilities to draw. He described how Woods would have his small notebook, put his pen on the bottom left corner of the page and begin to draw. Not draw in the sense of moving the pen around the paper to create the composition, but draw in the sense of drawing purely from one corner of the notebook to the opposite top right. Lebbeus Woods is a the end of a generation of architecture genius. There is no place in contemporary professional world that has been shrunk by globalization for “romantic” drawings if there is a desire to build and influence on a larger scale. But there is a need for understanding one’s roots of architecture through a student’s education.

  4. 2010/04/21 at 11:53 am

    The comment about drawing was also obviously with reference to where he sees architecture heading… his firm pays far less respect to orthogonal alignment than other firms of today. Even floor levels are less defined in Morphosis projects than in most contemporaries. A sectional drawing requires a useful axis in the project. The ICA Boston has a useful axis – its section is very informative and those drawings would probably behoove it as much as a 3d print. Most orthogonal buildings will by definition be good candidates for line drawings.

    The Giant headquarters works all three dimensions all the time. Without a dominating axis to organize the project, sections don’t have the “oomph” to really be useful for them. Parti diagrams, or 3d prints, however, are perfect matches.

    I think that his reason for disliking line drawings is tied to his vision for where architecture needs to go, but if buildings stay orthogonal, then they can still use drawings to good effect.

  5. 5 Liza
    2010/04/22 at 2:09 am

    For the buildings that are too far and very complex to comprehend to visit we cannot live vicariously through static plans, sections, axons, and details. I am not sure if you are displeased with the with Giant headquarters with respect to your axis comment. I think that in the other drawing descriptions that Thom Mayne visually used such as the layers presentation, there was a new understanding towards complex organization.

    However, if you ever get the chance to visit the Cooper Union building in New York (looking like a student or knowing a student can get you in) you will be pleased to experience the morphing atrium axis that locates one’s self in the building. And the “rip” that occurs on the front of the building is a great place for locating one’s self in the St. Mark’s place and Cooper Union.

  6. 6 Adam Lans
    2010/04/26 at 11:38 am

    Rohan said “I feel that there is knowledge, more than truth, associated with drawing. Drawing can be seen as representation, but the process of drawing is more significant and valuable than the product.”

    Although I agree with you in that the hand is the most direct tool we have in laying out a human response to the context, I disagree with this statement entirely.

    How can a form of representation be more important than the product? A drawing is only visual. I argue that the engagement of life itself is far more valuable than a representation. In fact, there is absolutely zero truth or knowledge as you say in a drawing. A drawing is a communication tool. Yet truth and knowledge it comes solely from experience, not symbols. In this sense, I agree with Liza, change gives us life, not a static drawing. Secondly, you said if the hand isn’t used, style and technique dissolve. What’s wrong with that! Who needs style in architecture. Let the artist be expressive, and his architecture be his canvas. Architecture’s noise should be silent so the musicians that play within it can be heard, and hear themselves speak. Drop style (at least the intention) in architecture, and technique only means tradition.

    Maine phrases his feelings in a radical way. I think he intended to suggest that drawing is not important in the design process, rather than a means of communicating with others. He’s so highly regarded, he doesn’t have to communicate in these countries he’s building in. Which is kind of disturbing. I just took his statement as a black and white interpretation of modern design process. What do you think?

  7. 7 gbt
    2010/04/29 at 4:16 am

    For me, Vittorio Gregotti conveys the most didactic example towards the resistance against modernist mega structures. Claiming architectures ‘enemy’ to be one which is considered “solely in terms of technical exigencies… indifferent to ideas of the site” I contend this understanding of architectural mega structures and propose that present-day mega structures are one which relentlessly draw out the parameters, allowing for local adaptation, as opposed to one which is exactly replicated.

    As for scripting and drawing, I feel we will once again realize the pertinence for the deterioration of structure and image through messiness, dirty algorithms, and smearing.

  8. 8 Richman
    2010/04/30 at 8:04 pm

    With this lecture, as well as ongoing discussions about models, animations, etc., I have been thinking about the relationship between drawing and audience. Does every person need to see wall thickness, to scale, all the time? What parties would find that useful, and what parties would not?

    As architecture students, we present to our professors, who are all well-versed in reading line drawings. However, some of the discussions about OMA animations, Morphosis models and diagrams, and Gehry sculptural models are re-alerting me that in the future I will need to be able to communicate with clients and public as well, and to them, line drawings are probably more of a challenge than a diagram would be!

    Rendered perspectival sections are one example of a hybrid class of drawing, in my opinion; however, I wish we were given more priority for innovative, truly “informative” drawings which tailor their presentation style to the project at hand. Animations? Hand-collaged images? Interactive, perhaps-Flash-based diagrams?

    I’m not certain which avenues would be worthwhile to study, but my gut tells me that many of them have potential to be both experiential AND technical, a feat which line drawings rarely achieve. And that’s exciting, yo.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

April 2010
« Mar   May »


Our Flickr Photos

Our YouTube Videos

can be found here

%d bloggers like this: