Thom Mayne Lecture at CMU

What did you all think of the Thom Mayne lecture last night?

He had some valuable insights into all aspects of our profession and the architecture education system.   I hope it provokes discussion, and not blind acceptance, complacency, resignation, or denial.   His ideas on an architecture of complex systems and idiosyncratic notes was intriguing.

The theory of a design “growing” (thus the reference to the biological paradigm) or being generated through a process based on pre-scripted (prescriptive?) parameters, with an outcome unknown at the beginning, is noteworthy.  But I think there are many possible variations on this idea: truly good design has always embodied aspects of this idea.  It’s only novices or amateurs that preconceive of an idea and then just execute it.  But the method, process, and techniques through which one arrives at conclusions are numerous and very subjective: difficult to learn, define, or teach categorically.  He did not talk much about that ultimately subjective part of his process: which parameters to foreground, or how to chose between the many variations that a computer can generate.

What did you think about his views of the profession and its future?   Are you all willing to work only as a small part of a giant team?  Are you as pessimistic as he?

How about the issue of scale and complexity?  Will “architecture” be limited to these kinds of mega-projects only?  What do we make of the arguments by someone like Jane Jacobs who argued that (1960s) megastructures are by definition inhuman.  Anything designed by one person, or even one large team of sophisticated thinkers, is bound to be monolithic and determinative.  What about the proverbial “kitchen addition” and the more humble “buildings” (as opposed to “architecture”) that makes up the majority of our built environment?   Will those be generated using the same paradigms?  Are they even part of Mayne’s definition of architecture?

How about what Mayne said about the role of drawing in architecture?  It’s fun to think that Mayne was at one time most famous for the amazing drawings he produced, and now he is rejecting it entirely.  What should be the role of drawing at CMU or in architecture education?  Can we learn all there is to know about architecture through the keyboard?  How does one build up to, or become educated to generate the kind of sophisticated modeling Mayne showed us?

Certainly his projects can’t be “drawn in the conventional sense.  Are the visual images he showed us always so different?  Should all architecture be merely the 3D digital output of scripts and parameters?  Silvetti’s article “The Muses are Not Amused: Pandemonium in the House of Architecture” warned about these kind of auto-generated substitutes for good design skills.  What is the role of personal expression and individual creative gestures?  Should architecture really be like a “tricked out BMW,” as Mayne claimed?

What about the role of craft, construction, and the resistance of materials?  Is all architecture to be merely “fabrication” of a-priori digital data?  Can “making” be so objective that we can leave it to computers?

Mayne, ever intent on rattling the establishment and the academy, has been saying these things for years.  See his ultimatum “Change or Perish” to the AIA from 2005.

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