This year, a number of Los Angeles museums including LACMA, MOCA, The Hammer and The Getty will feature exhibitions centered on the work and influence of the city’s architects.
Known collectively as Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. the shows are an outgrowth of the 2012 Pacific Standard Time series which explored the work of Southern California artists in the area from the years 1945 – 1980. Among them? Great artists of the Light and Space movement such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell.
Of course, Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, who participates in MDC 2013 as part of a special presentation in honor of his 2013 AIA National Gold Medal Award had already done his direct investigation of the Light and Space moment when he lived and worked in Venice.
In this interview, Mayne talks about his encounter with Turrell’s work and the era’s explosive influence on architecture. —Tibby Rothman
When I interview you, we always end up taking more about breakthroughs in other disciplines–the mapping of the human genome or the early days of rap music, for instance–instead of architecture. Why is that?
From early on I was part of a generation that started questioning what I saw as the somewhat introverted nature of architecture. I was not conscious of it at the time, I couldn’t verbalize what was taking place but really, what was happening, is that architecture was—it was the first signs of what we now call ‘globalization.’ [Architecture] was expanding and the interests, or the initiating acts, that stimulate architectural ideas were moving outside of the discipline.
In hindsight, you could say that the modern project was somewhat exhausted at that time and I had found Soriano and Gregory Ain and Pierre Koenig as they were, kind of, retiring. They were very important but also they were not particularly interesting to me at that point in my life—that being nineteen, twenty, twenty-one-years-old. What was happening was: it was a very particular time in history, a particular time in the U.S.–the sixties.
“You could say the work that I did was kind of clumsy and searching…”
I was interested in the invention taking place in music and the films young people saw at the time were Godard and Truffaut and Fellini—amazing amazing people. And all of this somehow trumped the historical, the orthodoxy of the modern of that time. It was just far more interesting and it captivated you.
There was also the political culture and what was triggered out of that, poetry and literature and all these other things—whether it was Allen Ginsberg or the reality of having a “number” from Vietnam. [Mayne’s referring to draft numbers: which determined when or if you’d sent to fight a war.] And, of course, the huge empowerment of students which was something that was unheard of. Interestingly enough, we’ve been watching that happen in Egypt and Tunisia. Clearly [this particular time in history] was the beginning of that—Paris in 1969.
And there were these very specific things happening, which were really tangible just after my education. We’d started SciArc by now, so it was after ’72 and it was probably more like late ’70s. And I remember I was so blown away by a [James] Turrell installation that appeared to be a solid black painting but it was actually a [void]. This was a guy who focused on perception. And I was so blown away. And the next day I took my class, [and told them] “You know, architects just don’t do any really interesting primary research. You gotta go outside!” and [actually] I was talking about myself.
Architecture was undergoing a rethinking—and it was clear that the third generation modernists, many of the best ones were right here in LA, the [projects] were somewhat exhausted. Parallel to this was—architecture was globalizing through the media. And I didn’t even quite understand it—it’s not like I just quickly got it. But our first project was probably ’79, ’80, it was 2-4-6-8 House, shows up in Domus and right after that, the issue on the LA School and Craig Hodgetts and Frank Gehry etc, and we were all put on the cover in Italy.
And then our first work in the early eighties was in Japan. And I was traveling twice a month to Tokyo. And okay, we get our first little projects, they’re local—I’m still proud of that—but right away, we moved out to get any serious work—no possibility of getting [large scale institutional] work here, in LA, neither did the generation in front of us. They were doing residences, very few big buildings.
[Ray] Kappe was one of my teachers at USC—he would say he came directly from Schindler and Neutra etc, the work was located there. This was an incredibly rich but a highly provincial regional place. And somehow none of us belonged to that. We just sensed it. And these are people I really admired. Ray and I have been friends for our whole lives. But you could separate a generation—there would be no question about it. We were just not interested in continuing that strand. It ended. Ray would be the last of that generation. It went someplace else.
So there was this intersection between a particular time in history when there was an immense amount of creative activity, and broad [activity in the arts and the political sphere] and a shift away from the regional.
You could probably see the multiplicity of influences in the work and it could be a criticism in that it lacks clarity. You could say the work that I did—a lot was kind of clumsy and searching. I would say—yeah, it should have been. I was young, in my thirties, I was searching for something and I knew that I had to go some place else and it takes a while to focus in—I’m still doing that.
The main discussion is: the source of architecture expanded radically in terms of the influences—and the interests that you had—that found its way into the work. And, the research, it was no longer within the discipline. And that is only expanding today.
Need continuing education credits? They’re a walk on the beach at the Monterey Design Conference
Additional Photo Credits
The Perot Museum of Nature and Science
Featured Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan
Photo 2 courtesy of Roland Halbe