Architect Thom Mayne on Environmental Design

March 22, 2015
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In the last decade, as environmental issues moved higher into the mainstream consciousness, sustainability has come to encompass all things green and eco-friendly. Sustainability is everywhere these days: you’re just as likely to find environmentally conscious furniture at IKEA as you are to catch a talk show host discussing green issues on TV or flip through an entire glossy magazine devoted to the subject. Sustainable architecture has shed its unfortunate reputation as a fad or passing trend.

In Europe, tight guidelines have made environmental architecture an everyday reality with new generations of architects, in countries like the Netherlands and Germany especially, expanding the definition of sustainable design beyond solar panels and grass roofs. Though the U.S. federal government has yet to establish universal efficiency standards for its buildings, Thom Mayne, founder and president of Morphosis, a Los Angeles-based architecture firm, is optimistic about the future of environmental architecture. “Clients need to be enlightened in terms of the reality of their buildings,” says Mayne, who in 2005 became the first American in 14 years to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered to be the profession’s highest honor. “The efficiency, the political and the ethical notion of how they want to be represented seems to be increasing right now, especially with people like Al Gore making sustainability more popular. It seems to be a time when there’s a larger public knowledge that these are important issues.”

Mayne recalls the late 1960s Whole Earth Catalog, which had a satellite image of the Earth as seen from space. “It was one of the first times that you could literally see yourself as a globe and the whole world just shrank immediately,” he says. “It was hugely important. And this seems to be the continuity of that photograph, in some ways, as we continue to understand how small we are, how interconnected we are.”

A building’s environmental impact, both economically and globally, can no longer be ignored. “Just like in the automobile industry, architecture is about design and performance,” says Mayne. The Morphosis office, clearly labeled a high design firm, has in recent years shocked the industry with the creation of some of the most innovative energy efficient buildings. Not just a collection of technologies, Mayne points out that truly successful green design “is a process of creating places that restore our connection to nature, and enhance our productivity and well being.”

Perhaps Morphosis’ most distinguished project, and one that perfectly illustrates the firm’s accomplishments in sustainable design, is the San Francisco General Services Building. Completed in 2006, the building is the first high-rise in the U.S. to forego air conditioning in favor of a natural ventilation system. It also eliminates corner offices and instead provides city views for 90 percent of the workstations, features operable exterior sun-shades, high performance glazing, and thermal mass from an exposed concrete frame. Through the use of more environmentally friendly building materials and creative construction strategies, Morphosis proves that it is possible to be as innovative at a performance level as at a design level.

“From the beginning we talked to the client about three issues,” says Mayne. “Its urban environment, which is so much part of San Francisco; the culture of the workplace and rethinking and reinventing what that is; and energy management. And those three things were the major criteria that led us to the building.” For that project, Morphosis recently won the first international Zumtobel Group Award, which recognizes outstanding sustainable and humanitarian solutions in contemporary architecture and engineering. Upon acceptance, Mayne donated the award funds to Global Green USA, a national leader in championing green building and green designs as smart solutions to some of the world’s most serious environmental problems. “It was really clear to me that this was something very much made possible by my client and a consortium of designers and engineers,” Mayne says. “And it seemed to make total sense to pass it on to Global Green, which does nothing more than promote all the ideas that we’re talking about.”

As Mayne sees it, green architecture deals with multiple issues. Energy is one of them but that does not mean you have to give up anything else—particularly innovative architecture. Morphosis’ design for the California Transportation Department (Caltrans) headquarters in downtown L.A. is another great example of arriving at green architecture by dealing with multiple issues. The massive building, which was inaugurated in 2004, features cantilevered upper floors and a mechanized exterior envelope that adjusts to the light throughout the day. If you walk by Caltrans just as the sun hits the building you’ll witness the screens closing to shade the interior.

“Definitely people stop and scratch their heads,” says Mayne. “In automobiles, certain mechanical objects move and of course you’re used to it. But no one had ever seen a whole building move like this before. It kind of forces people to really rethink what buildings are, and that the skins are really metabolistic. They operate like plants, like a flower that opens and closes in response to the sun. This is something that I was already interested in school when I was 20 years old. And it took 30 years to come back to that in terms of the kind of work I am doing. It also represents the growth of an architecture office from small projects where these issues just aren’t kind of relevant to large projects where all of a sudden the performance of a project becomes more dominant.”

The Caltrans went on to receive a LEED Silver rating, the nationally accepted standard for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. But when Mayne looks at his past work and to the future, he says it’s not just about being green. What most interests him is the multiplicity of ideas, “the hybrid in our society, where there is no singular idea of what is beautiful.”

Morphosis. Flickr Photo by Raban Haaijk.

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