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First and Mayne

An American Takes Architecture's Pritzker Prize

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page C01

Thom Mayne, whose architectural firm's work celebrates modernity and complexity in about equal measure, is the winner of the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize, often thought of as the profession's highest honor. He is the first American in 14 years to win the award.

Mayne learned of the award in January from a telephone call that reached him in a taxicab crossing the Triborough Bridge in New York. He was heading for Kennedy International Airport and a flight home to Los Angeles for his 61st-birthday party.

"I can't help but view [the Pritzker Prize] as a vindication of what I've tried to do," said Thom Mayne, the first American to win the award in 14 years. (Ric Francis -- AP)

In a telephone interview Friday, Mayne said he was initially struck "speechless" by the news -- which may have been just as well, because he also was asked to keep it secret until the official announcement today.

"It's a really serious reward and I take it with huge humility and honor," Mayne said. "My career has been so much outside the mainstream that I can't help but view it as a vindication of what I've tried to do."

Mayne noted that the award "comes at a lovely time in my life in terms of the kind of large-scale public work we are doing, the type of clients and institutions that are seeking us out."

Indeed, the size and prominence of the commissions for Mayne's firm, based in Santa Monica, Calif., and called Morphosis, have increased dramatically in the last decade, from private homes and restaurants in Los Angeles to public, educational and commercial buildings in the United States, Europe and Asia.

The federal government, for instance, through the General Services Administration's Design Excellence Program, has commissioned Mayne's firm for three important projects, including the Satellite Operation Facility of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now nearing completion in Suitland.

Two other federal buildings designed by Mayne and his team will open next year: a federal office building in San Francisco and the Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Ore. Also under construction are a student union building at the University of Cincinnati and a housing project in Madrid.

Morphosis won competitions to design the Olympic Village as part of New York City's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games and, most recently, a new state Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. Other important buildings include a district headquarters for the California transportation department and the Science Center School, both in Los Angeles, and an office tower in Seoul.

Because of its astonishing quality and originality, the Diamond Ranch High School, completed six years ago in Pomona, Calif., helped to bring Mayne's unusual talents to the world's attention.

Sheathed mostly in corrugated metal with dramatic, angular walls, the school seems almost to grow from its barren, hilly landscape. At the same time, with its bold shapes and alluring, useful spaces it declares its edgy, man-made presence.

Although there is not a single Mayne-Morphosis style, there are strong family resemblances among the buildings -- a certain explosive energy and angularity in plan and elevation, a demonstrable affection for exposed structure and metallic skins, a joy in posing and then solving complex formal and functional questions. If minimalism has an opposite, Mayne's work is its embodiment.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., and reared through age 10 in Gary, Ind., Mayne moved to California with his mother and younger brother in 1954. He received his architecture degree in 1968 from the University of Southern California and a master's degree in 1978 from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Greatly affected by the social upheavals of the 1960s, in 1972 Mayne, Ray Kappe and several like-minded colleagues formed the Southern California Institute of Architecture, an innovative school with an experimental, hands-on educational philosophy. That same year, with architect Michael Rotondi, Mayne founded Morphosis. (Rotondi later formed his own firm.)

Morphosis means, according to the citation of the Pritzker jury, "to be in formation." It seems an apt short description of Mayne's philosophy. One of the principal intentions of the firm's buildings, he once wrote, is "extending and conveying the euphoria of invention."

The prize and a $100,000 check will be formally presented May 31 in a fitting location -- the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park. The pavilion, which opened last year, was designed by Frank Gehry, the Los Angeles architect who was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1989.

In a statement Gehry, now a member of the eight-member Pritzker jury, said he was "thrilled that our new laureate hails from my part of the world. I've known him for a long time, watched him grow into a mature and, I like to say, 'authentic' architect. He continues to explore and search for new ways to make buildings usable and exciting."

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