Combinatory Behavior: Thom Mayne With Charles Waldheim

Thom Mayne and Charles Waldheim talked about land art, Ralph Knowles, and what it’s like to work with landscape architects two weeks ago at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. 

“Since what Mr. Palomar means to do at this moment is simply see a wave—that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them—his gaze will dwell on the movement of the wave that strikes the shore until it can record aspects not previously perceived; as soon as he notices that the images are being repeated, he will know he has seen everything he wanted to see and he will be able to stop.”

−Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar, trans. William Weaver

Thom Mayne’s first professional experience after graduating college was at the office of architect Victor Gruen, a Viennese socialist famous for trying to improve the civic life of the American suburb and ended up inventing the shopping mall. It was here that Mayne learned the trouble of making buildings without meaningful connections to their site, and that it is these connections, not the monument itself that make the building. “Early on, I didn’t see a building as a singular thing,” Mayne says, “but as a complex series of things responding to the complexities of the site condition.”

Drawing on his new book Combinatory Urbanism: The Complex Behavior of Collective Form, Mayne traced the rich history of his design thinking in a lecture and talk with Charles Waldheim two weeks ago at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Combinatory urbanism, he offers in his book, is “an alternative method of urban production that designs flexible frameworks of relational systems within which activities, events, and programs can organically play themselves out.” Mayne, who recently turned 68, makes a case for architecture as the strategic organizer of the city, a role that has in recent years been increasingly delegated to landscape architects. “It’s hard to work [with James Corner] because we both want to do the same thing.”

He cites a formal beginning of his trajectory toward combinatory urbanism in the late eighties, with the design of his Sixth Street Residence, whose four facades offer distinct responses to the site yet together cohere. But the project that changed everything, he says, was the competition entry for the Vienna Expo ’95 in 1990. Here he started articulating a vision of architecture where building and ground—architecture and landscape—were understood as singular. “I’ve been working on that project for the last twenty years.”

Indeed, Mayne continues to voraciously explore the relationship between architecture and landscape. “What I’m looking for is both the absolute merging of the discipline of landscape and the discipline of architecture,” he says. It’s the behavior of the combination between the two disciplines, the world that exists between, that eludes him. As Waldheim notes, Mayne is careful throughout his lecture, as well as in his book, to stick to certain terms and to avoid others (urban planning in, urban design out, combinatory urbanism in, landscape urbanism, well, out), a strategy that he acknowledges serves his critical framework well. “I like the dichotomy of planning and architecture. I like the use of the differentiation to define a new middle ground.” By stressing terms, particularly architecture and urban planning, he’s able to pull tension, to create binaries. And it’s with this tension of systems that he’s able to “combine.”

“Ultimately we seek a new ground that inextricably links process and product: the former constantly structures and restructures the latter in a feedback loop that permits us to define ever more precisely the full range of people’s needs,” he writes. His is an architecture that gives form to urban force, a design that responds to the infinite complexities of the ever-changing flow of the city. “We can move across this [site] and there is no place that is the same,” he says with slides of Giant Interactive Group Corporate Headquarters, a 2006 Morphosis project, ticking behind him. “It’s like taking a walk through the forest.”­

To watch a video recording of the event, visit here.


Carolyn Deuschle is a Master in Landscape Architecture candidate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Her writing has appeared in Landscape Architecture, Once, and Design Observer. She was formerly an editor at Princeton Architectural Press.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Maggie Janik



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