Being Mayne

When I was in undergraduate architecture in the early- to mid-1990s, Morphosis was one of the most popular designers for "inspiration" for many reasons, but most notably for their presentation drawing and model techniques. The former tended to feature multiple layers of information (plans, sections, perspectives, photographs, other imagery) that illustrated the project's complexity and mood over the actual design; the latter were covered with a plaster-like coating that gave each model a mono or duotone look, nullifying any hierarchy in the model but also putting the focus on the form rather than materiality. We picked up on these techniques (usually to lesser degrees of success) realizing that each could help mask an otherwise weak design, or distract from poor craftsmanship, what have you, but mainly we looked to Morphosis because their stuff was so damn cool and we wanted our designs to be just as cool. 

Their competition entry (below) for the Los Angeles Arts Park is a good example of their unique presentation techniques. The 2d presentation combines model photographs, a floor plan, a building section, and a carefully-composed though indistinguishable background (are those the bright lights of a concert? is that a burning cross?). It's difficult to ascertain what exactly is represented or what is going on, but the mood is unmistakably bleak and aggressive, perhaps a bit too much for an Arts Park, though it's unique enough that they won the competition. An aerial view of the model doesn't exactly help explain things, but built in sections the large scale model could be taken apart to reveal sections of the mainly underground spaces.
This - and many projects like it - were a product of the Morphosis of Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi. Since they split in the early 90s, I've come to the over-simplified conclusion that Mayne was the theoretical, avant-garde partner and Rotondi was the tectonic, practical one. Since they've gone their separate ways, Rotondi (with RoTo Architects) has experimented with the construction process, sometimes designing on site, a far cry from the labored presentation artifacts of early Morphosis. Mayne, on the other hand, turned to the computer in a move away from the firm's early aesthetic and into a whole new layer of complexity. Folded planes and porous, exterior materials like perforated metal are the norm these days.
The San Francisco Federal Building (above) is a good example of this later stage of Morphosis, the one befitting the Pritzker Prize. Currently under construction, this project is part of a string of large built works that started with the Diamond Ranch High School (and numerous school-related buildings) and have continued with the Hypo Alpe-Adria Center and last year's Caltrans District 7 HQ (the icing on the cake for the Pritzker jury, as is the firm's selection for the NYC2012 Olympic Village). Two other projects are also currently under construction, the University of Cincinnati Student Recreation Center and NOAA Satellite Operation Facility

For many years Mayne was a "paper architect", paying the bills with lavishly illustrated books, lecturing and teaching around the country, and cheap interns. But like other of his contemporaries (particularly Hadid and Libeskind), Mayne is now racking up the commissions. And at 61, he is probably considered in his prime with many more years and great designs to come. 

Is Morphosis as big an influence at universities now as ten to fifteen years ago? I can't really say for sure, but given Mayne's ability to design AND build aggressive, in-your-face buildings for a diverse range of clients (from schools to the Federal government), all the while creating super-sexy computer renderings, I would have to say yes.


  1. Again, thanks for such a quality site.

    Murray McMillan

  2. John,

    I tried to email but the adress link wont work on my computer...... i am a student currently studying morphosis and I would love to know where you got the picture of the Artspark project. could you email me at all?

    i would really aprreciat it


  3. Hi John,

    have to say that I really enjoy your blog.
    I have just gotten interested in Morphosis, particularly on their methods of presentation. I find some of them really hard to read and understand.

    I especially want to know whether you have any insights to the modelling paste that they smother on their models and what materials are the models usually made of.

    Would appreciate any ideas in this area.


  4. Nathanael - Not exactly sure what Morphosis use(d), though in undergrad other students used to glop Bondo on models, usually site models (great for contours) but other surfaces as well. Works really well, but the fumes and stench are murder. Use in a WELL-ventilated space.

    I kinda recall Morphosis using something similar but not exactly the same...unfortunately can't recall it right now.



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