From Haifa to NY, Technion to Maintain Cutting Edge - on Architectural Front as Well

Architect Thom Mayne talks about his vision for the Haifa Technion's new joint campus with Cornell University in New York's Roosevelt Island.

Keshet Rosenblum
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Keshet Rosenblum

Thom Mayne, the founder and principal architect of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis, has an odd memory from the last lecture he gave in Israel, a decade ago. The 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, who has designed dozens of famous and unconventional buildings, was surprised to find that his imaginative visions did not sweep the Isaeli public off its feet.

Speaking by telephone from his firm's New York offices, Mayne says the audience members "were very, very anti-design. They thought architecture should not have a voice and I was asking - would that be true in film? And writing? And painting? Poetry, music? Of course not. So what you're really saying is that architecture is not an art form, it's a construction. And now we have a disagreement whether architecture is an art form or not. And if it doesn't have a voice what does that mean? Do we have no idea who we are in our time, in our century?"

Mayne, 78, who was famously described, in a 2002 interview in Metropolis Magazine, as the "bad boy," an image that has stuck to him ever since, speaks quickly and with great emotion.

Tomorrow Mayne will deliver the Morley Blankstein Visiting Lecture in Architecture and Town Planning at Haifa's Technion Israel Institute of Technology. He will present the plan for the Cornell University new applied-sciences campus in New York, a partnership with the Technion whose final phase is targeted for completion in 2037.

The campus is expected to transform Roosevelt Island, a long, narrow island in the East River, between Manhattan and Queens, from a sleepy bedroom community into a vibrant high-tech incubator.

The headliner of the academic partnership is to be the option of earning what is in effect a joint master's degree from Cornell and the Technion. The program will emphasize a combined approach that pulls together science and business. The faculty will come from both institutions.

"It's a great site actually. It's a little bleak right now," says Mayne, "a great, interesting site for a campus. And you're between greenery and Manhattan - a fantastic view of the East Side with the United Nations."

The master plan for the campus was designed by the veteran New York architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It calls for eight buildings on the south of the island, some of which are slated to house private companies. The idea is to enable students to work for top tech companies while studying.

The campus is expected to be innovative in environmental terms as well: The roofs of the buildings are to feature photovoltaic arrays to convert solar energy into electricity, wells will harvest geothermal energy and there are plans to harness the flow of the East River for hydropower.

Mayne was chosen to design the first phase of the project, which is slated to begin in 2014 and be completed in 2017. It will include the main academic building, with just five classrooms, as well as offices, an executive training center with hotel facilities, a residential building for students, faculty and staff and about a quarter of an acre of open public space.

"We don't know what an academic institution would be in the information age," says Mayne, "and because of that you build in huge flexibility, and openness, and it seems to be matching where education is going today. It's moving from highly specific spaces that are more private and opaque into much more general spaces that are transparent."

The Roosevelt Island project is far from Mayne's first college try. His academic building at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York's East Village, which was dedicated in 2009, has been on the cover of nearly every architecture magazine. "Cooper Union is an example," says Mayne, of the combination of architecture and engineering. The college has schools of fine art, architecture and engineering. "It's their trademark," he continued. "To say that is one thing, for it to really happen be different because in fact engineers and artists and architects have quite different synaptic stuff going on. They think quite differently."

In the Cooper Union building the corridor, rather than serving a merely functional role, takes on an important connective role. It crosses the length and breadth of the building, opening onto cafes, offices and lounges.

The building's exterior is wrapped in an innovative perforated metal screen, the result of a decade of development by Mayne and Morphosis. The building's unique shape is in part a challenge to the school's older half, a 150-year-old heavy stone construction across the street.

The ideas he expressed at Cooper Union are finding their way into Mayne's plans for the new Cornell campus. "You want the expression of the intellectual creative capital, which is the essence of the place," he says, adding, "You want to move from person to person and it also breaks down hierarchies of students and faculties. And it's also very important - there's a political kind of aspect to it which breaks down the physical hierarchies."

Morphosis was founded in 1972 with the idea of bringing the discipline of research and together with the design of innovative buildings and urban environments. Today its more than 50 professionals design residential and public buildings as well as large urban planning projects. Among the distinctions it has earned are 25 awards for architectural innovation and more than 100 American Institute of Architects prizes.

For interpretative urbanism

The title of Mayne's Technion lecture tomorrow is "An Interpretative Urbanism," a term he uses to mean finding a bridge between history and the present while reinterpreting the role of the architect and the buildings they design. According to Mayne, his colleagues in the design community "somehow separate strong architecture that represent a voice and a language with architecture which is based on history, in a very literal sense. It looks like history. New buildings that look like old buildings - I have no interest in duplicating history. It's just not authentic."

Mayne's favorite word to describe how buildings respond to their environment is "hybrid," by which he means projects that borrows elements from their environment and combines them with new uses to reach their final meaning. Although Morphosis began addressing these issues in the early 1970s the real leap forward came with the introduction of computers, which made it possible to process much more data and to make big changes in an instant.

The firm's earliest projects, he says, used "materials and orthogonal language typology that was still a part of the neighborhood in the literal sense. When the computer came along, it was absolutely as if there were processes that were invented for our interest. Our work, instead of being about objects," Mayne says, is "about the relationships of things."

Moreover, he adds, the computer "allows us to vastly expand the language and the mechanical connection and reality of relationships between physical entities, and it does it in nanoseconds. It brings a huge ability to make those connections which used to be extremely tedious when done mechanically, by hand drawing. And you see an explosion of that, which includes more complex formal language that includes curves. Now you can make organic forms just as simply as you make a cube."

Politics and culture, says Mayne, are the greatest influences on his work. "I'm fascinated by conflict in a reality, by the complexity of our world as we deal with the relationships of what appear to be absolutely conflictual pieces of information. We live in a global community which is continually finding influences and its contaminating, or enriching each of the specific things of something that's hybridized. It's been going on through the beginning of time. And it's finding its way in architecture."

In a lecture Mayne, who is also a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Architecture and Urban Design, delivered a decade ago at Tel Aviv University he fiercely defended himself against the charge that his buildings are too focused on form and design.

"I have no interest in what is beautiful or not ... beauty by whose cultural standards? I'm interested in something that communicates intelligence, communicate ideas and hopefully increases inquisitiveness. Keeps you asking questions, something that you don't understand ... that you look at and haven't seen it before. It seems like it's my role as an artist to help somehow define what the nature of architecture was in my time. That's what I taught my entire life. My students, it's their job to define that and talk about the nature of how the world has changed."

Israeli architects, in contrast to their American counterparts, draw from more recent history, from the white, Modernist and restrained architecture here and not from Victorian stone buildings. Mayne, who encountered this approach at his previous lecture, finds that this self-effacing approach, which is opposed to "glorifying the ego" of the architect, is something disturbing in and of itself: "Architecture with no voice - it means a society with no voice," Mayne says, adding, "Everyone has ego. That's actually a nasty argument. It's coming as a very aggressive offensive argument as ego that's located within the architect is somehow differentiated from any other human being.

"If you knew more about technology would you change medicine? or biology or physics? If you look at the iPhone you're probably not going to get crazy about an iPhone and its looks because it represents modern thinking of how you can make our tools for communication. And it's not different. Those forms shift as we move to more advanced tools. Why do we make a curved form? Because we can make a curved form. We can make things that we couldn't make before and any human being would do the same. They will use the opportunity to make it - it's not radical. It's absolutely normative."

A rendering of the design for the Technion-Cornell campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island.Credit: Kilograph
Thom MayneCredit: Reiner Zettl