Thom Mayne Reflects on the Founding of Morphosis

Thom Mayne Reflects on the Founding of Morphosis

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

Pritzker Prize Winner, Morphosis Founder & SCI-Arc Co-Founder, Thom Mayne joins the podcast to discuss his attraction to being an outsider, the use of technology within architecture, and how he founded the world-renowned architecture firm Morphosis.


You have taken an unusual approach to your career and design style. That has earned you nicknames like the ‘bad boy of architecture.’ Where does this unorthodox approach to architecture comes from? (2:19) 

“The bad boy thing… Someone invented that. You can call up any of my clients and they will just shrug and can’t figure it out. I am somebody that is interested in discourse. I’m fairly direct and will ask questions that people don’t want to ask, but that is nothing unusual in anybody that is looking for solutions to complex problems. It’s become kind of a joke, actually, but what it does relate to is that it fits a discourse. I emerged in the 70’s and 80’s and there was no question that I was interested in architecture as an autonomous discipline and I was positioning myself as an outsider… It was based on resistance, and it was based on a kind of challenging the status quo. The people that were influencing me, starting with James Stirling and his emphasis on that autonomy. His office didn’t have a place for clients, and he was maybe overdoing it some ways, but it was something interesting to me. He represented a figure that really fought for architecture outside of the complacency of the profession. And, early on through my connection with the academic world and the practicing world, I became friends with Michael Sorkin, who just passed away, and was an incredibly unusual character, and Lebbeus Woods, Raimund Abraham, people that were informing me as a very young, I’m in my late twenties and early thirties. They were influencing me and all having to do with the outsider kind of position. Of course, LA at the time was, you could say, the center of that in the artistic community. I’m living in Venice basically living with that whole art scene, and of course with that comes influences of culture. It is the 70’s and we are all part of that, and it is all kind of expanding, an openness. Going back to the outsider position, we are wearing that as a badge… This could be a huge, kind of, shift from that autonomy to the demands of connectivity that come with more complex work and work at a larger scale that has much broader performance requirements. So, I think that the whole notion that uniqueness came from allowing myself to do the research that was leading me to an architecture that had to do with my own set of interests. There was no question that there was a provocation provoking the status quo…” 

There are architecture catch phrases attached to certain architects throughout history, like ‘Form follows function” or Kahn asking a brick what it wants to be. If you were to describe your work and the work of Morphosis in such a phrase what would that be? (7:15)

“My project has been developing over four decades and it connects aesthetics and the subjective world, and science and the performance world. There could always be a discussion of the relationship between those two. This could be a left-right brain function conversation. Clearly in the early stages of the work in the 70’s, and particularly the 80’s, I’m interested in developing a language and I’m involved much more involved in the subjective aspect of the work. As the scale of the work increases radically over the decades, starting in the 90’s and definitely in the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is now expanding to what people would understand as architecture as a social art form. It’s radically expanding in terms of performance at every level, but the interests from the beginning have been interested in complexity and an architecture that comes out of multiple forces. It has been interested in contradiction and the use of the contingent, found information. Its interest in the ambiguity, the idiosyncratic, and the specific, incomplete and looking for new organizational types that then have to do with these conditions which I see as characteristics of the time that we live in… It is ‘both and,’ and not ‘either or,’ in that I have been interested in provocation and conservation, both. Projects all have aspects of provoking or innovating new conditions, and also have parts of connectivity and integration and conservation of found conditions. I would say that it is fundamental to the nature of the work that you’re looking at. With that came very different organizational types which I don’t think too many people could name. We got caught up in the decom because the reading of the work is fragment, but it was never really interested in fragment, it interested in the incomplete. It was interested in multiple systems and interested in a very dynamic understanding of the nature of how these complex organizations came about through multiple organizational types. What it really does is challenges the classical ‘part whole’ idea looking for a very different kind of notion of the relation of ‘part whole’ where the part becomes much more autonomous in a much larger role. It goes way back if you look at the Blade’s House. It’s already talking about that… I’ve been interested in a work that imparts somewhat intuitive, and incredibly subjective and private, but on the other sense, it is methodological. It’s the methodological part that people understand…”

What were the early days of founding Morphosis? What were the projects you were working on and how did you get the firm to where it is today? (14:25)

“Again, I think it is very connected to the 70’s. I look back and it could possibly happen. I only spent two years working, and it didn’t work for me. I worked for the redevelopment agency of Pasadena doing planning work and then I worked Victor Gruen for a year and a half. Then I was recruited to Cal Poly by Jim Stafford who became my partner. I’m teaching a year at Cal Poly and all of us were let go, and this idea came up of starting a school. Which in itself was completely bazar, but we started the school. Then Jim and I started Morphosis and right after that, Michael was the first graduating class, and he and Michael Brickler joined us and the four of us worked for another year or two as Morphosis. There was no work. We were doing everything, furniture design. graphics, etc… There was a radicle school, that my son went to, called Sequoia, and we did a competition and we won a PA award that got us started at that level. But it was just about ideas. It was completely idealistic. It ended up that Mike an I stuck it out. Jim and I kind of separated. It’s hard to talk about it. It’s not that we separated, it was just very lax. We just worked together, came up with the name Morphosis as a broad idea absolutely influenced by Peter Cook and Ronny Herron of Archigram and by Superstudio and what was going on at that time. I remember looking at the thesaurus and coming up with the name. It was just pure kind of idea, no reality whatsoever to this. Teaching at that time took a huge amount of my time for the first year was involved with SCI-Arc and teaching. There was a complete connection between the academic world at SCI-Arc and the studio back and forth. It wasn’t until the 80’s, the very end of the 70’s, that we started getting our first little houses, and it was Venice projects. What is really happening is that we are starting to develop the first foundation in terms of the ideas in that period of time. I would’ve said in that eight years is about the formation and is about the beginning of defining who we are going to become as architects. It’s going to start with the fragment, and it’s going to start with the kind of location of architecture in aesthetic terms, and clearly the aesthetics are going to be, the conceptual, is going to be the focus because the work is no longer is required. The scale of the work doesn’t demand the kind of performance of the later work that takes place. So, we are being defined as formal architects precisely for that reason… It can’t be understated that I’m working with an unusual context of characters that are definitely influencing, or having to do with my own development as a young architect… We are all very much connected. There is a similarity in the broadest sense of our projects having to do with innovation and provocation. They are all looking for a very vibrant, very dynamic architecture…”

Morphosis has been leading the industry with the use of technology. How do you see that impacting the future of the architecture profession and what new technologies is Morphosis using? (29:00)

“I anticipate as we are starting to work with generative models that are digital. I am realizing that I can get, somewhat, infinite possibilities that replace my own hand drawing or my own ability to make diverse organizational ideas or beginning architectural concepts… I’ve done twenty-seven different three-dimensional paintings. I have put those now into the scripting world and I can show now a hundred variations of each of those. So, 2700 variations of paintings that are substantially different. I guess it is frightening if you are worried about keeping the maximum of people employed at that level, but it’s the reality of where we are going to go. There are going to be less and less people needed for the pure technical mechanical stuff. We are working on a project now where we go from concept to building. No design development, no working drawings, no shop drawings. It goes from a 3D model to construction, and the models are made digital by one person running three or four machines. What you need is the top end thinkers that are putting it together and you’re getting less and less mechanics, what used to be called draftsmen. The large group of people that made up the profession of architecture weren’t designers anyway. There was always three or four even in a big firm, but the people that put together the documents. That is going to change radically. I’m fascinated by it because it is going to make architecture move at the speed that connects to the rest of the world. They can be digging the foundation in two to three weeks and we are right behind it but my people are in the construction trailer tailoring the 3D model to the building… As a teacher, I have to say, our schools, I think, are behind right now that we are dealing in a very old paradigm. If we are really interested in the nature of where the profession is going and its relationship to the various technological advances then we absolutely need to deal with this. It absolutely should be a priority… I think what is happening in architecture when I look at my office, I have now scripters, I’ve got technical people that speak the world of math and you’re talking to people like they are out of Cal Tech and I can barely understand what they are talking about. They are completely operating in a different language. You have technical people at all different levels and environmental people etc, and it becomes much more specialized…” 

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Cite: Design:ED. "Thom Mayne Reflects on the Founding of Morphosis " 03 May 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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