A Talk With: Thom Mayne

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41 Cooper Square, Morphosis, 2009/All photos: Iwan Baan

Not long ago, in connection with a story I’ll be posting soon on Time.com, I had a conversation with Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who heads the Santa Monica-based firm Morphosis. This fall New York got its first building by Mayne, a really compelling project in the East Village that holds offices, laboratories and classrooms for the Cooper Union, a college in Manhattan’s East Village. It’s striking, it’s different, it really brings the streetscape alive and it turns its main interior stairway into a four-story coiling trip. I talked to Mayne mostly about his approach to that project.

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LACAYO: So Cooper Union comes to you and says “Okay, here’s the program. We need laboratories, offices, classrooms.” They told you what they wanted. What did you want to bring to this project?

MAYNE: I don’t bring anything a priori to a project in a conscious way. I don’t come with an agenda. Clearly I come with interests that I’ve pursued over 35 years. Who I am as an architect and the history of my work — that’s clear to anybody who hires me. But I come in literally with nothing in my brain about what the building will look like.

And I really couldn’t with this one because it had a very complicated program. There was nothing to design until I knew how big it was and how many pieces there were. The envelope was given us — the basic shape — because it’s a zoning diagram. And we needed every ounce of it because we didn’t have enough. And then we looked at the program. On one side are laboratories and they go straight up and they’re very efficient and straightforward. And in the front where the offices are, ditto. There’s not a lot of room there for architecture.

LACAYO: What do you mean there by “architecture”?

MAYNE: One of the questions with architects in all of our work is: “By the way, where is the architecture in this project?” Early on we realized that the architecture would be in the public areas of the building — the entry spaces, the stairway, the vertical space. And also the exterior — by working against the generic-ness of the box, how could we make opportunities out of that?

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LACAYO: And how do you arrive at “the architecture”?

MAYNE: It’s very accretional. We work a little bit, change something, talk about it, work a little more. It didn’t arrive in one or two or even three moments. It came over a year of revising, pushing, changing. That vertical stairway space went through probably a dozen iterations.

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And you bring the client along. I think a lot of people have the Frank Lloyd Wright model in their brains. The architect comes in with this act of creation and lays it down and that’s it. But that’s not me.

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LACAYO: What did you want the perforated steel skin to accomplish?

MAYNE: Two primary things. [The large irregular slash in the screen that exposes the glass wall beneath it] radically differentiates the public space, which is visible, from the less public space, like the offices, which are suppressed behind the screen. Then, performance-wise, the skin is a sunscreen that takes out 50% of the heat load. It’s our fifth building to use a dynamic second skin like that.

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MAYNE: We also wanted the dynamism of the material as part of our response to the Cooper Union “foundation” building. [LACAYO: That’s the 1859 structure, diagonally across from the new building, that first housed Cooper Union and is still in use. You can see it in the picture below. ]

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MAYNE: Most people look at that building as an historic building. I look at it as the most innovative building in New York at the time it was built. It was the tallest building in the city then and it had the first elevator. And we’re producing a building that is equal, in its level of innovation, to that building 150 years ago.

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LACAYO: Next to the exterior skin, the most spectacular aspect of the building is the grand stairwell that twists and stretches upward. What were you thinking as that developed?

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MAYNE: The stair goes four floors up. We talked about the space as a “vertical piazza”. To begin with, we wanted people just to walk. And we wanted the scale to communicate a sense of something like the main outdoor stairway at Columbia University or in front of the Metropolitan Museum or the New York Public Library. It’s an idea that goes back to the Renaissance or to the Spanish Steps, a stairway in which the main purpose isn’t just movement up and down but it’s used for gathering, sitting, waiting. I was at Cooper Union the day after it opened and it was filled with people sitting on the stairs, talking, waiting for people — it’s a social gathering space.

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