Do a search for the word “starchitect,” and you might find a photograph of Thom Mayne. The 78-year-old Pritzker prize recipient, who studied at the University of Southern California and, in 1972, was among the founders of the groundbreaking and experimental Southern California Institute of Architecture, has long lived and worked in Los Angeles. It’s no stretch to say that through his design firm, Morphosis (also launched in 1972), he has transformed the city’s built environment in both stark and subtle ways. Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, which opened in 2004, helped usher in a new era of public architecture in Los Angeles with its vast and striking surfaces and photovoltaic cells. Emerson College Los Angeles—which frames plazas and pavilions within a large, open cube-like structure—brought a similarly sweeping perspective to Hollywood when it was completed in 2014.
It’s tempting to call these edifices brutalist, but that’s not exactly right. Instead, let’s imagine them as statements, structures that call attention to themselves. This is part of the point of what Mayne does: to highlight the art in architecture, to recognize that all buildings serve a variety of purposes, both functional and aesthetic, that they can be pragmatic and theoretical at once. Certainly, such is the case with the Orange County Museum of Art, which opened in October; Mayne’s design is intended, among other things, to operate as a kind of installation in and of itself. (Read the Alta Journal review: “Take That, Guggenheim!”)
OCMA (as the museum is known) appears in M3: Modeled Works [Archive] 1972–2022, or sort of: it is represented by several models, which are essential to the methods Mayne and Morphosis use in their work. “Monograph,” it seems to me, is something of a misnomer. Coming in at more than 1,000 pages, with hundreds of images of projects built and unbuilt, the book—scheduled to be published in February—is nothing less than a comprehensive retrospective of Mayne’s 50-year career. What sets it apart is an emphasis on models, which is to say on process; as Mayne writes, “models, the physical objects here,…are departure points.” It’s an idea that infuses every page of M3. By zeroing in on models, after all, Mayne allows the book to step out from under his own outsize shadow, to become a record of how and what he thinks, which is (how could it not be?) the foundation of everything he has made.
M3 activates that notion with its field of images; it does something related in its text. Rather than rely on Mayne alone, or even primarily, the book invokes 150 voices—including critic Nicolai Ouroussoff and architects Barbara Bestor, Eric Owen Moss, Daniel Libeskind, and Michael Maltzan—in a kind of chorus or colloquy. The result is a project that functions, on a lot of levels, as a conversation, with Mayne and Morphosis as a catalyst. This conversation is about what architectural historian Todd Gannon calls “predictive potential,” revealing “the future of the urban realm as it could be, as it should be.” Yet even more, the conversation takes place in relation to the models, which, Gannon insists (and I agree with him), “conjure architecture into existence here and now…by boiling away (for the moment) irrelevant contingencies.” What he means, of course, is possibility, which is M3’s central theme and what Mayne’s entire corpus has long been about: “distilling the quotidian complexity of construction to its most crucial concepts…by revealing the naked logic of ideas.”•