Thom Mayne co-founded Morphosis in Los Angles almost a half century ago, and he is still an enfant terrible, challenging conventions and creating architecture of dazzling complexity. During those years, the firm has gone from niche to global, designing corporate headquarters
and campus landmarks on five continents. This is their sixth monograph to be published by Rizzoli: a 700-page survey of 28 structures, half of which have been completed or are under construction.
Fractured facades, porous walls, and interlocking geometries are Morphosis’ signature but—in contrast to several other avant-garde firms—this is not form for form’s sake. Most clients settle for predictable containers, whatever the program; Morphosis appeals to the few who have the courage to stand out from the crowd with buildings that capture the spirit and purpose of their users. In New York, Cooper Union has nurtured talent and hosted memorable speeches since 1859 in a landmark building; the 41 Cooper Square addition propels it into the new century, with an angled façade that expresses the bold innovations of art and engineering students. Its lightness and permeability play off the classic formality of the original block, and the dizzying ascent of the main staircase is like stepping into a kaleidoscope. It’s an inspiring environment for learning.
The Bloomberg Building that anchors the new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island is a model of sustainability and open, light-filled spaces that promote social intercourse and the exchange of ideas. It launches a bold venture at the heart of the city and embraces the landscape and the skyline on either side of the East River. Morphosis brought some of the same iconoclastic fervor to Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine, a restaurant in Hudson Yards that celebrates the larger-than-life personality of its owner, Knicks star turned style icon. His flamboyant wardrobe is abstracted in laminated metal shards that canopy the dining area and absorb some of its clamor.
Morphosis got its start in LA with the obsessively detailed 2-4-6-8 studio building in Venice and several cutting-edge restaurants. Since then, they’ve completed the west-coast satellite of Boston’s Emerson College, a cut-away block that opens up to planted terraces and rejuvenates a drab stretch of Sunset Boulevard. And they’ve roused the California Institute of Technology from its slumbers in an ersatz Spanish Colonial campus, with the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics—a building that is as cutting-edge as the research it houses.
The cover image of this monograph shows two dancers suspended on wires from the façade of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. This gravity-defying performance plays off the striated concrete walls of the museum and anticipates the discoveries to be made within its walls. Further afield, the high-speed rail station in Vigo, Spain, looks as though it is traveling as fast as the trains, while the ground-hugging headquarters of the Giant Group in Shanghai is a fusion of architecture and landscape.
Every page of this book brings a provocative image or plan that challenges our preconceptions—evidence that Morphosis remains as uncompromising as when it began. And Mayne has made a stand on principle, refusing to build in Saudi Arabia for as long as that country employs its wealth to export violence and bigotry. How then to explain the as-yet unrealized design for the 7132 luxury hotel near the Swiss village of Vals, best-known for Peter Zumthor’s magical spa. A pencil-thin glass shaft like those that have disfigured mid-Manhattan and aimed at the same super-rich cabal rises from pristine Alpine scenery: a narcissistic folly that has nothing in common with the rest of Morphosis’s oeuvre. Hopefully, the Swiss authorities will reject it, but one has to wonder what the architects were thinking when they proposed it.
Morphosis Buildings and Projects: 2004-2018. Thom Mayne (Rizzoli New York, $115)
Author: Michael Webb
Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.