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Thom Mayne Wins Pritzker Prize

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters

Diamond Ranch High School
Images Courtesy Roland Halbe (top), Tom Bonner (bottom)

Often referred to as architecture’s “bad boy,” Thom Mayne, FAIA, has officially become part of the establishment by winning the 2005 Pritzker Prize for Architecture.

Mayne, who turned 61 in January, becomes the 27th winner of the award, which he will receive, along with $100,000, in Chicago on May 31. His buildings- which often utilize scattered combinations of rough-hewn metals and translucent meshes, often maintain a coarse, unfinished air, while his practice has also been known for rough edges. Mayne is notorious for pushing clients with his design ideas, allowing little compromise to ensure artistic follow-through. Such unyielding vision helped the architect break new formal ground, deconstructing forms in unusual places and in fascinating ways, and maintaining a constant sense of sometimes-uneasy movement, often reminiscent of the earthquakes that strike his adopted state. Yet early in his career Mayne stayed on the fringes of the architectural elite, not to mention with a small-circle of clients. The architect notes that he has improved dramatically at compromise.

“I had to go through huge changes,” says Mayne. “I gradually learned how to balance my artistic life with the real world,” which, he acknowledges, is still difficult to negotiate. Yet the real world has certainly learned to embrace Mayne’s vision. Commissions have climbed steadily, while very traditional clients such as the U.S. General Services Administration have hired Mayne for major projects. These include federal courthouses in San Francisco and in Eugene, Oregon whose layered forms and unwoven constructions match the anarchic spirit of artistic tumult more than government efficiency. Such designs, also embodied in the recently-finished Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles, are good indicators of Mayne’s architectural vision, born out of the chaotic, often formless and rootless ethos of Los Angeles, and out of a desire, born in the 1960’s, to break free of the established norms and tunnel-visions of the “elite” architects he grew up admiring. All of Mayne’s projects utilize a vision of inspired mechanization, and the merging of many sources of contextual input, (hence the name of his firm, Morphosis)

“I see architecture as the synthesis of large numbers of interest and information,” says Mayne, who says he looks at buildings in terms of theory, structure, culture, technology, construction, urbanism, connectivity, landscape, ecology, and human interactivity, to name just a few sources. Cantilivers are a predominant structural element of Morphosis’s work, rippling aggressively from facades as if they never wanted to be there in the first place.


Mayne was born in Waterbury, Connecticut and spent most of his childhood in Whittier, California, outside of Los Angeles. He studied architecture at the University of Southern California, and later at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Mayne has taught architecture at UCLA and elsewhere for over twenty years. Mayne formed Morphosis with Jim Stafford, and later, Michael Rotondi.

Well-known earlier work, like the Blades Residence in Santa Barbara, California, and the Kate Mantilini restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, exemplify an early attempt to add rich intricacies into a smaller scale realm. Yet the larger scale of recent projects, acknowledges Mayne, is better suited to the intense complexity of his firm’s work.

“I’m much more equipped to deal with large-scale problems. If I can argue the logic and the performance, then I can often find a way to argue for aesthetics,” says Mayne, who thinks and talks about a mile a minute. He adds that the complexity of such works brings out his ability to break down problems in every respect. “In smaller projects it’s too complex for the client,” he says. The turning point for his firm’s work, the architect notes, was the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California, in which he created a complex web of spaces revolving around an angular main street and slanting and almost-kinetic smaller buildings forming an organic whole. The project won his firm widespread acclaim, and helped lead to a rush of future commissions, and to a breakout voice in American architecture. Mayne becomes the first American to win the Pritzker since Robert Venturi in 1991.

Sam Lubell