The new Pritzker Prize winner.

The new Pritzker Prize winner.

The new Pritzker Prize winner.

What we build.
March 21 2005 3:01 PM

Thom Mayne

The "maverick" new Pritzker Prize winner.

Mayne's Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles (click on image to expand)
Mayne's Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles (click on image to expand)

This year's Pritzker Architecture Prize has been awarded to Thom Mayne, an American architect based in Santa Monica who runs a firm called Morphosis. Mayne is commonly referred to as a maverick. It's an odd choice of word, for architecture does not lend itself to rebellion. Buildings are simply too expensive and, well, too important, to entrust to revolutionaries. Even the most adventurous-looking design adheres closely to society's norms since it is obliged to follow zoning regulations and building codes. Structures must be solid, stairs must accommodate crowds in case of fire, bathrooms must be sufficient. A building's design may be described as "dangerous" or "thrilling," but the building inspector is there to ensure that any dangers or thrills are of the metaphorical—not actual—variety.

It is only at the aesthetic level that a building can be outside the pale. Edward Durell Stone riled people in the 1960s because his designs were dainty at a time when brutalism was in vogue. Louis Kahn's architecture, on the other hand, wasn't considered pretty enough. Frank Gehry, in his early days, challenged prevailing fashion by using such down-market materials as chain-link fencing and raw plywood. In other words, where architectural rebellion finds its chief outlet is in matters of taste.

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Thom Mayne's taste tends to the shocking; if he were a filmmaker, he would be Roger Corman. His buildings have jagged, fractured forms and haphazard compositions that make them look, at first glance, as if they were not quite finished—or were falling apart. This is a subterfuge, of course, since they are solidly built and carefully detailed, but their appearance leaves the distinct impression of chaos.

Shocking, too, is the trademark large lettering that adorns many of his designs. The effect is both commercial and arty, and recalls the buildings of Russian architects during the early days of the Revolution. Constructivism, as the style was called, attempted to evoke the sense of a world turned upside down, of a new order, and of unprecedented change. Change seems to appeal to Mayne—after all, his architectural firm is named Morphosis. In the sunny context of Southern California, sudden change makes one think of earthquakes rather than social upheavals, but the connotation seems weirdly apropos.

Mayne is 61, and he is just hitting his stride. He has recently built four large buildings for the U.S. government, including a satellite facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a federal courthouse in Eugene, Ore. He has also built internationally, and no doubt the Pritzker will bring further high-profile commissions. How fame will affect his architecture remains to be seen. Gehry, who was on this year's Pritzker jury, has shown that idiosyncratic architecture can have surprisingly wide appeal. Perhaps Mayne's brand of aesthetic rebellion will likewise enter the mainstream. There's no accounting for taste.

Witold Rybczynski is an architect, professor, and writer. From 2004–2010, he was Slate’s architecture critic. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.