January 26, 2010
by: Bill Millard

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.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.


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