Mayne Challenges Performative Notions

Reports from the Field by • 01/26

Event: The Happold Trust Presents: Thom Mayne on Performalism — Fundraising Event for Engineers Without Borders
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.20.10
Keynote Speaker: Thom Mayne, FAIA — Founder, Morphosis
Organizer: The Happold Trust
Sponsors: AIANY; AHSRAE NY Chapter; Buro Happold Consulting Engineers; Bentley Systems; Rias Baixas


The Federal Building in San Francisco.


Observers of debates about aesthetics and sustainability could pick up some useful perspective from Thom Mayne, FAIA. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he recalled, in debates over what might replace an exhausted Modernist consensus, performance-oriented functionalism struck him as offputtingly self-righteous, and a concern with formal innovation seemed more congenial — yet today he frequently finds himself addressing green conferences. Performance concerns and formal explorations appear to be fusing, he finds, with the old conflict fading under the combined pressure of new digital tools and radical rethinkings of design procedures.

This event served several purposes: fundraising and publicity for the humanitarian work of Engineers Without Borders, a detailed tour through several major Morphosis projects, and a witty, provocative immersion in a set of 21st-century design strategies that transcend 20th-century categories. Mayne is not the only architectural thinker to use the portmanteau word performalism, and he steered clear of ambitious claims about the term itself; in fact, he barely used it. Yet the impact and implications of Morphosis’s work, as admirers of the Cooper Union Academic Building will attest, stretch the boundaries of any descriptive vocabulary, established or new.

From early school and residential projects in Los Angeles through transformative commissions in Austria, Korea, Denmark, China, France, and elsewhere, Mayne and colleagues have placed the precision of digital abstraction at the service of a new type of organic architecture, consistent with that of biology and complexity. The juxtapositions in the firm’s buildings represent embodiments of pragmatic solutions to problems. “Our projects start digitally,” he proclaims; Morphosis engages deeply with BIM tools to “build the thing itself,” thinking through the computer rather than using computation for secondary representation. At times, he pursues certain ideas for the sake of wit or daring — he spoke of a gung-ho Shanghai client who encouraged Morphosis to extend a cantilever as far as 150 feet over a lake, rendering it even more vertiginous with glass flooring — but there is nothing gratuitous in the process; even this “pterodactyl” building, the Giant Group headquarters, responds to the site’s conditions and potentials.

In some ways, Mayne’s cognitive acrobatics are variations on the concept of freedom: from expectations, from the generic, and from technical limits, but never from coherence, no matter how he redefines that concept. As information technology allowed precise 3-D anatomization of the “Hippocampus” competition project in Copenhagen, resembling serial slices of computed axial tomographic imaging in medicine, Mayne says he came to realize that “plan and section are no longer valuable words”: the concept of a plan falls away, and “they’re all sections.” The building/ground distinction likewise dissolves among the mounds and planes of the Pudong Cultural Park; at the University of Cincinnati, a multi-use recreation center interweaves so that “everything that touches everything only happens once” and the building is more a network of connective tissues than a discrete object.

Mayne offered a critique of value engineering, a practice that Morphosis’s integration of construction methods with thought processes not only renders unnecessary but shows to be hopelessly counterproductive: “Value engineering,” he commented, “is about taking value out of a building.” Working in San Francisco, he determined that most residents, while politically liberal, were “beyond conservative” about aesthetics and preservation, even “fundamentalists,” so Morphosis used a simple operating principle for the Federal Building: “no aesthetics,” just a thorough extension of performance efficiency into the realms of human health and workplace social organization; the result is a building whose complex site-specific geometries and “living skin” make air conditioning unnecessary on the higher floors. LEED, too, strikes him as “secondary to solving the problem” of energy efficiency, since “Americans won’t touch the real solution: changing the shape of the building.” Perhaps the visible synergies between performance and aesthetics will help the broader culture catch up to the high standards that Morphosis continues to set, challenge, and redefine.

Comments are closed.

New York Public Library 53rd Street Branch by TEN Arquitectos. Steele's role: Principal in Charge/Project Architect. Photo: TEN Arquitectos.
Featured Member: Andrea Steele, AIA Featured Member
Congratulations to @babkwth for winning our first-ever #ArchtoberSelects Instagram Challenge.
Field Condition Names Winners in Debut #ArchtoberSelects Instagram Challenge Reports from the Field
CLP 2017 Inaugural class: (l-r) Ayodele Yusuf, Jenna Leigh Wandishin, Daniel Horn (back row), Michael Caton, Michaela Metcalfe, Christina Hernandez, A.L. Hu, Shilpa Patel, Jack Dinning, Jessica Morris. Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: Announcing 2017 Civic Leadership Program Class Policy Pulse
AIANY Emerging New York Architects Committee Civic Leadership Program (CLP) kick off at the Center for Architecture. Credit: Center for Architecture.
Civic Leadership Program Kicks Off At the Center for Architecture
Nike New York Headquarters by Studios Architecture and Workplace Design + Connectivity. Photos courtesy of Nike.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Submit your work to the 2017 AIANY COTE Awards!
New Deadlines New Deadlines
The Bier House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” on view through 08.26.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Public Square by FXFOWLE. Image: FXFOWLE/Driverless Future Challenge.
Driverless Future Challenge Names Winner Reports from the Field
Apartment, New York. Photo: Michael Moran.
Featured Member: Leonard Kady, AIA Featured Member
A temporal collage of the historic site by Seher Erdogan Ford.
Announcing the Recipients of the 2017 Arnold W. Brunner Grant for Architectural Research At the Center for Architecture
Hyper-Efficient Building Workshop on 06.14.17 and 06.15.17. Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: New Hyper-Efficient Building Training Launches Policy Pulse
From left: Peter Lampen, AIA; Luke Surowiec, LEED AP; Steven Winter, FAIA; John Lee, AIA. Photo: Center for Architecture.
A Closer Look at 80×50 Initiative’s NYC Retrofit Accelerator Program At the Center for Architecture
Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, Principal, Voorsanger Architects, and Alastair Gordon, Contributing Editor, Architecture and Design, Wall Street Journal. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Cocktails and Conversation with Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, and Alastair Gordon At the Center for Architecture
Koray Duman, AIA, LEED AP, Founder, Büro Koray Duman. Photo: Nicholas Calcott/Surface Magazine.
Featured Member: Koray Duman, AIA, LEED AP Featured Member
Hilary Ballon (1956-2017). Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi.
In Memoriam: Hilary Ballon (1956-2017) In Memoriam
NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library renovation by Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Cast and Place by Team Aesop, winner of the 2017 FIGMENT City of Dreams pavilion competition.
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Harris House site plan by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” on view through 08.26.17. Courtesy of the Kaneji Domoto Family Archive.
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Waterproofing of the facade system and roof at 540 West 26th Street for Savanna. Design Architect: Morris Adjmi. Rendering: Morris Adjmi.
Featured Member: Howard Zimmerman Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
From left: Signe Nielsen, RLA, FASLA; Cynthia Rosenzweig; Susanne Desroches; Jeffrey Raven, FAIA, LEED BD+C; and Jee Mee Kim, AICP. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Climate Change in NYC: Bridging Science and Practice At the Center for Architecture
Courtesy of the Center for Active Design.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Lands in Queens Policy Pulse
Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Astoria, Queens, NY. Somvanshi’s role: Associate, Project Manager and On-site Supervisor. Firm: Ennead Architects (previously Polshek Partnership). Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto.
Featured Member: Kalavati Somvanshi Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA. Courtesy of Kliment Halsband Architects.
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA (1933 – 2017) In Memoriam
Museum of Modern Art  east section renovation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Credit: Iwan Baan
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.17.17: Call for Entries: 2017 AIANY COTE Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Lurie House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "“Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
New York City Police Academy by Perkins + Will. Photo: Courtesy of Perkins + Will.
Featured Member: Michael Plottel Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
AIANY Opposes Paris Climate Accord Exit From the Desk of the President
Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage and Salt Shed by Dattner Architects and WXY architecture + urban design, 2016 Building of the Day. Credit: Center for Architecture
Call for Archtober Buildings of the Day New Deadlines
Upper East Side residence by Gabellini Sheppard, New York. Photo: Paul Warchol.
Michael Gabellini, FAIA, Delivers AIANY 2017 Gil Oberfield Lecture At the Center for Architecture
AIANY representatives at AIA New York State's "Architects in Albany Advocacy Day." Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: 2017 Architects in Albany Advocacy Day Policy Pulse
Families make collages of their dream playgrounds. Credit: Center for Architecture
Draw, Design, Build! NYU Teams Up with the Center for Architecture for Family Programming Learning by Design
Weill Hall at Cornell University, Ithica, NY. Photo: Scott Frances.
Featured Member: Renny Logan Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
The Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Siegel House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
AIANY 2017 President David Piscuskas, FAIA, at the National Summit on Design and Urban Mobility. Credit: Center for Architecture
Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles? From the Executive Director
Reflections at Keppel Bay in Keppel Bay, Singapore. Photo: Keppel Bay Pte Ltd.
Featured Member: Daniel Libeskind Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Join us for FitCity 2017! Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park by Thomas Balsley Associates and WEISS/MANFREDI. Credit: Albert Vecerka/Esto.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Policy Pulse
Speakers of "Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice." Credit: Center for Architecture
Social Sciences, Good for Your Bottom Line and Society At the Center for Architecture
The Quad Cinema, renovated by Projects Design Associates with rebrand by Pentagram. Credit: Marion Curtis / StarPix.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News