Thom Mayne

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Thom Mayne is a Pritzker Prize winning architect with a taste for Texas blues, New Orleans funk, intelligent storytellers and, to top it all off, Prince. Music has had a huge influence on his work and his company Morphosis has had a huge influence on the world, with offices in LA, NYC and Paris. He’s currently working on the Phare Tower in Paris, which will be one of the largest skyscrapers in France, and was recently commissioned to design Emerson College’s West Coast campus.


1.) Dr. John - Right Place, Wrong Time
2.) John Lurie (as Marvin Pontiac) - Runnin' Round
3.) Stevie Ray Vaughn - Texas Flood
4.) Laurie Anderson - From the Air
5.) Prince - Musicology


Tom Schnabel: This is Tom Schnabel from KCRW and I’m here today with Pritzker Prize winning architect Thom Mayne, whose works include the San Francisco Federal Building, the Wayne L. Morris United States Court House and the Phare Tower in Paris, France, as well of course as the CalTrans building here in Los Angeles. We’re here to talk about the music that has inspired him over the years.

Thom Mayne: This going to be fun.

Tom Schnabel: Can you remember the music you were listening to, any particularly wonderful moment something happened and you got the answer for a building or structure, whatever, do you remember the piece of music?

Thom Mayne: The first one. “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Dr. John. And it was late at night from New Mexico through Texas, three in the morning, cup of coffee next to me it’s Dr. John. And it completely embeds in me driving along in a huge Cadillac.

Song: Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”

Thom Mayne: I grew up in the late 60s, early 70s. It was a huge sexual energy that was being explored in music. Music was an explosion, it was an invention.

Tom Schnabel: You were a rebel architect with a chip on your shoulder. Did that figure into the rebel music you were listening to or the rock ‘n roll or anything?

Thom Mayne: No, where’d you come up with that one? I wasn’t a rebel. I was just an architect who liked to think and do what I wanted to do. I don’t know if I was a rebel or not. Actually, I was quite passive in terms of a ‘60’s guy. I was watching it. I wasn’t a marcher. I wasn’t an angry young man. If I was angry, I was angry about something else, it wasn’t about that.

Tom Schnabel: That was the great Dr. John, the New Orleans based musician with “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Your second song is by Marvin Pontiac. There’s a story behind this album.

Thom Mayne: I don’t know if here a record still exists or not. I was headphones on just exploring music and I hit this album and it was clearly really odd and goofy, and full of a kind of sense of humor and this stuff like children’s songs in it and just really weird stuff. It had a liner on it and he chose a picture of himself, but all the pictures are blurred and he has a story that he couldn’t be photographed, it would take his spirit away. So I’m listening to it and I’m asking people who it is, but nobody knows who it is.

I come back to Hear Music and they looked at me just dumbfounded going ‘where have you been?, this is John Lurie.’ I didn’t know John Lurie, I’d never heard of John Lurie. And I picked up his 2-disc set in his Berlin Concert series and realized that I was an instant John Lurie fan. For me he was immediately kind of the Frank Zappa of Jazz and he likes to play and push limits. Definitely a bad boy, a very funny one. Like Zappa, it can turn into pure noise and he’s aware of it. I found afterwards that jazz people hate him because he’s not reverent in a way that jazz is very kind of like classical music in a way it’s a little stiffer.

Song: Runnin' Round - John Lurie (as Marvin Pontiac)

Tom Schnabel: The song is called “Running Round” by Marvin Pontiac. We’re talking today with Thom Mayne about songs and music that turns him on. I’m Tom Schnabel. Do you have music going on in the office? You have offices here, you have an office in Shanghai, I believe…

Thom Mayne: We have one in NY and we have one in Paris. We have people in Shanghai.

Tom Schnabel: Is music usually on in the office?

Thom Mayne: It is, but you know it’s become much more difficult. In the old days, 15 years ago when we all drew, it was more acceptable. With computer environment and a more complicated environment, everybody’s got their own headphones. In fact the joke is, you come in - well you’ve got headphones on now - I walk in the morning and say hello, nobody even turns around – it’s like they’re all kind of tuned in.

Tom Schnabel: Tell us about your third choice. And that is “Texas Flood”, the first record by Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Thom Mayne: Of course, he’s amazing, who would you compare him to, it would be Hendrix maybe as a guitar player, maybe. They did an amazing eulogy when he died. Albert King talked about him as the only black guitarist in a white skin. There’s a riff very early on this, absolutely startling. And if you’ve seen him play, he goes to this place and you watch him, it just makes you tingle all over. Besides it’s the pure beauty of the guitar as an instrument and it played as a blues instrument. It reminds you what it is to be human, it’s just so insanely moving.

Song: Steve Ray Vaughn’s “Texas Flood”

Tom Schnabel: You know Thom, when I taught music at SCI-ARC, people would say what are you doing teaching music at an architecture school. Is there a connection?

Thom Mayne: Absolutely, I was speaking at the Cooper Union a year ago, with Phillip Glass, discussing parallels having to do with rhythm and I was showing drawings of works that had to do with complicated, multiple rhythms. There’s actually times when I was drawing, closing my eyes, when I have a sketch book where I was moving my hand rhythmically and shaping it and literally trying to shape drawings that were coming directly from various types of music.

Tom Schnabel: Moving from Stevie Ray Vaughn and this great blues music, which I think everybody would listen to and say, man, this is really great, this really feels good. There are a lot of people who would listen to Laurie Anderson and say just what is this all about.

Thom Mayne: Stevie Ray Vaughn -- visceral, pure emotional kind of content. Laurie --big brain, incredibly intelligent, very, very funny, a kind of a black irony and I’ve listened to everything she’s done. This is of course, “Big Science.”

Song: Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science”

Tom Schnabel: Well she’s a social anthropologist isn’t she?

Thom Mayne: She’s looking at the world and she’s speaking about it in her interesting brain and how she processes things and it’s going to be vastly political. A critique involved in who we are. She’s essentially a very modern storyteller. She kind of invented something.

Tom Schnabel: So let’s move to our number 5 song. This is Prince and something from “Musicology.”

Thom Mayne: I was asked by a guy named Lebbeus Woods, a very, very good architect in New York. He was taking a group of us to Sarajevo to restart this school. I showed up on a C-130 that does this corkscrew landing and all that kind of stuff and we go in an armored carrier to start the school. And I had like 30 students for a week. And, when they party, you don’t move at night. You go to somebody’s house and you party and you go ‘til dawn. And I was still young enough where I could do this stuff and so we’re dancing all night and the only thing they listened to was Prince.

Song: Prince’s Musicology

Thom Mayne: This particular piece of music is like great dance music. If you’re not moving, playing this, you probably shouldn’t be listening to music.

Tom Schnabel: We’ve listened to Thom Mayne’s five tracks. We finished with “Musicology.” Thom Mayne, we’re out of time. I want to thank you so much for joining us on KCRW today.

Thom Mayne: Been a pleasure. Loved it.





Tom Schnabel