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American Architect Thom Mayne Wins Pritzker Prize


The winner of this year's Pritzker Prize for architecture, Thom Mayne, is a self-described outsider, and his designs have expanded the boundaries of architecture.

The Pritzker Prize is sometimes called the Nobel of architecture, and Mr. Mayne is the first American to win it in 14 years. The selection jury cited the originality and diversity of his designs, from a regional office for the California department of transportation in Los Angeles to a U.S. government building in San Francisco. His international projects include the ASE Design Center in Taipei, Taiwan, and Sun Tower in Seoul, South Korea.

The 61-year-old architect says his designs push the boundaries. His firm in the beachside town of Santa Monica is called "Morphosis," derived from the Greek word for "form." It means "to be in formation."

Asked about his style, Mr. Mayne says he doesn't have one.

"My aim in architecture is to make every project as specific and as unique to the character of that project as possible," he said. "And so I start by asking a series of questions that have to do with the more idiosyncratic, the specific, the unique things that contribute to the nature of that project."

He first asks about the purpose of the building. Is it a public institution, such as a school or courthouse? Is it a place of business? Is it a residence? What is the relationship of the occupants to each other, and to the environment?

Because of his approach, he says, most of his works differ from each other, but have some common themes.

"Does it have some sort of a connective glue of certain stylistic preferences or formal preferences? Yes, it's interested in the unfinished, it's interested in the construction, it's interested in a certain relaxedness, about materials," explained Mr. Mayne.

Often, says Mr. Mayne, his designs challenge traditional ideas of building structure. The massive Caltrans District 7 building in downtown Los Angeles has a perforated metal covering that moves, as it adjusts to the sun's position. The "skin" of the building blocks the light at mid-day, but lets it enter earlier and later.

"Because the whole thing moves, actually as it opens up. And it's kind of startling, actually, because to see a hatchback, a blender, a toaster [moving], you're used to that. A building doesn't usually move. And it opens and closes, like a flower, actually," he added.

The design for a high school in the California city of Pomona features clusters of buildings with walls at irregular angles, along a central passageway on a terraced campus.

"We started by asking questions of how does architecture participate in education? Can we be part of that process? Can architecture contribute to that process? And it led us to a very different kind of idea," he said.

The idea, says Mr. Mayne, is that the building itself is part of the educational process.

The architect has his critics. One called the massive Caltrans building "Death Star." Mr. Mayne describes himself as a product of the rebellious 1960s, who is always working to change the status quo. But he notes the status quo in building design is inevitably changing, and says the pace of change is accelerating today.

Mr. Mayne's coming projects include the Olympic village being built in connection with New York City's 2012 Olympic bid. It keeps much of the area open as natural parkland. Another design, a nine-story building for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, will feature a central atrium with elevated bridges and walkways. He has recently been commissioned to design a new capitol building for the state of Alaska in the city of Juneau.

One member of the Pritzker award selection committee says Thom Mayne moves architecture into the 21st century, and that his work is never predictable, but invites the building's users to participate in the architect's inventiveness.