PRINT November 2008


Morphosis, Phare Tower (detail), 2007, Paris. Rendering.

I HEARD R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER SPEAK at UCLA years ago, when I was in my early twenties. It was hilarious, a nonstop non sequitur that started at eight o’clock at night, and—although I left at around three—lasted until five or six in the morning, when Fuller and the dozen or so remaining students went out for breakfast. I guess that was standard fare.

Fuller did everything wrong. But he made that work for him. A total autodidact, he was both an inventor and a tinkerer in a very American sense. This combination gave him an uncanny ability to anticipate so much, including the complete rethinking of design using modern technology. He was, for instance, able to apply the efficient logic of car making to the industry of house construction, rejecting the arcane use of building codes in favor of specialization and mass production. Similarly, when Fuller invented the term ephemeralization—the idea of minimal material with maximum performance—he arrived at something that seemed related to Mies’s aesthetic, and yet he took it beyond the sphere of architecture.

Fuller was clearly steeped in the modern project—the optimization of technology as a central unifying goal—and he subsequently possessed an outrageous optimism and an absolutely utopian vision. Yet in this way, he also seems somewhat naive to us today. Coming from the post-Vietnam era, for example, I’m much more pessimistic. My notion of technology is no longer wed to the same kind of visionary optimism. I’m extremely interested in challenging the idea of technological optimization as an architectural goal in and of itself: Technology, in fact, has to be strategically modulated, not merely venerated.

But when it comes to the history of ideas, it doesn’t matter what position you take. You can’t have certain conversations without the prior formations of the idea. And the fact is that one of Fuller’s primary concepts—an ecological framework demanded by what he called “Universe”—changed the entire culture of investigation: Fuller didn’t see architecture or design separately; he didn’t think that our world could be approached in terms of singular, monolithic ideas, but only by integrating vastly different systems of knowledge. His notion of a “Spaceship Earth” has actually turned into a very serious, meaningful project; it has become one of the major issues today, and rightly so. The whole conversation has now been forever shifted toward broader, integrative methodologies.

At Morphosis, we have similarly been rethinking design in a strategic or tactical way—as a macro-problem. The discussion is no longer about the articulation of an object of art, or the formal manifestation of, say, a water bottle. Rather, it’s about looking at that bottle within macro terms: First you see it as a drinking vessel; then you take into account that there are actually nearly forty billion of them discarded a year in the United States alone. And if you learn that each bottle is used only once, you’ll become interested in entropy. You’ll be looking at the degradation of that bottle over time, at the scale of the remaining square miles of these things, and on and on. All of a sudden, the evaluative criteria of looking at this object in aesthetic terms alone is completely overturned. The aesthetic terms are instead a function of broader macroscopic realities—the interaction of that simple object with a much more complex relationship to the whole.

For me, as Morphosis’s practice and projects have increased in scale, they have presented new types of problems. The relationship between a given work’s status as a cultural artifact and very particular notions of urban, ecological, political, and social interaction and connectivity has become more overt. Many of these values were actually implicit in our projects from the beginning; I’ve long been interested in the attack on traditional construction practices, and in looking to dematerialize architecture into programming. But only recently have computational systems allowed us to deal with very complex systems and large amounts of information—so that we can work integratively on projects like the San Francisco Federal Building (2007) where computational modeling was instrumental in minimizing the building’s energy consumption; or the plan for the Phare Tower for Paris’s La Défense district, where digital processes allow us to literally differentiate the design based on the specificity of its surrounding climate, orientation, and environment. Fuller would have completely understood the need for the more sophisticated tools that allow us to think out our problems, because he was a person who did that in his mind. He saw problems from a multidimensional viewpoint. And that’s what we are aiming to do—harness technology not for its own sake, but to assimilate information, natural forces, and complex systems.

—As told to Michelle Kuo

Thom Mayne is a Los Angeles–based architect and founding principal of Morphosis.