Mayne gets sensuous in New York

    I am shocked this week in New York by how much I like the ways that Thom Mayne/Morphosis's new building reflects the light and fits the context.




    A lot of great architecture reminds you of something you know, even if you're not quite sure what, and it creates something new. Think of New York's Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright. That's what this building for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art does. You'll find it bursting with energy and movement on Third Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets. It'll hold art studios and rooms for the engineering school. The central glass, as expressive as on a Louis Sullivan bank, will allow you to peer in and see students milling about, busy-bees in a hive.


    Is that


    Japanese calligraphy in the shadows of the facade?

    Or is it supposed to be


    Cape Cod? Or


    The Nike Swoosh? We know how Mayne likes signage and symbols and billboards on his buildings; and how architecture is commodity, and a jet-set starchitect is hired partly for branding, much the same as Nike brands itself worldwide. Of course Mayne's is a one-off, making it "high art."

    The other day he told me, "people think I just drew a "swoosh," but of course I didn't. The exterior opening signals to you what the space inside will be like. Inside you see that the ceiling and the space of the grand staircase relate to the opening you saw from the outside."



    Looking back into history, is this a building as a walking machine, like Le Corbusier, and an Archigram dream?

    Archigram, Walking City, Ron Herron, 1964

    Remember, the context for "Walking City" was a world ruined in the wake of a nuclear war. Is Mayne describing our post 9-11 times in New York?

    If so, he offers great hope. This is the most optimistic building I've seen from him.



    The most moving of Thom Mayne's works. Is it a walking elephant? Or a

    Albrecht Dürer, 1515

    rhino? Nice how the Rhino has its own "swoosh" between its eyes.



    Modern architecture, despite rebelling against ornamentation, looks for new ways to ornament. Mayne's gap serves as ornament. Its void, or nothingness, fulfills that function. As for example Frank Stella puts a painting on a wall, and then his painting becomes sculpture and then thicker and more three-dimensional in reality and perception, it becomes architecture; and as Brancusi's metal objects reflect and define a space around them and become architectural, so Mayne fuses sculpture - as ornament - into this architecture. Not only in the sense that the building's form is sculpted, but more importantly by "hanging" "a piece" of negative space on and even in, his facade. He's doing the opposite of the sculptors who hang their work on a wall, he's burrowing his sculpture into the wall. It's also like land art, something carved into the earth, made vertical, and brought into architecture and an architectural representation of the universe that this facade represents. The famous Spiral Jetty, for example, periodically makes a solid manifest. This gash makes a negative form and space manifest. Which makes us understand the nature of "there-ness."


    Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth at Tate Modern, London 2007

    People involved in preserving old architecture sometimes say they ought to leave a few pieces out. Something missing shows the passage of time. Mayne adds gravitas - false or real, successful or not - to his building with the gap. At the same time, it's optimistic. Like a crack in a fortified castle. Civilization, enlightenment, starting to emerge. As Leonard Cohen sings "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

    The concave curved metal Mayne uses here reflect the light in more interesting ways than the vertical panels we used to see from him. They soften the work. The concrete and metal may still be raw, but the whole is more refined than his earlier projects, and assembled less crudely.

    The horizontal metal screens on the facade will open and close to alter the light coming into the building. Students can operate some as they wish, giving the street too a lively, always-changing facade.

    Pentagram worked with Mayne on the signage, always a key feature of his projects. This one features somewhat small for Mayne lettering that looks right when you look straight at it, but particularly the cut out bottom halves of the letters distort when you look at it from an angle.



    Funny that Santa Monica-based Thom Mayne found it appropriate to be industrial and hard-edged in colorful, curving, sensuous L.A. - as at his Caltrans Headquarters - and in a gritty part of New York he goes soft. Cooper Union casts a feminine feel, like his lacy "Phare Tower" in Paris, also made to glisten, like nylon leggings. Since when has a New York streetscape felt so Parisian?


    Mayne picked up the Empire style across the street to create a satisfying symmetry which does not mirror the old. Yet his slant recalls the Mansard roof.


    His varying tones


    make the modern wall porous, like the older building's solids and voids. With a surfeit of steel and glass projects in New York, this one stands out.

    Did I say feminine? Yes. Mayne's curtain wall hangs like a skirt over those concrete legs.


    That, the curved metal reflecting light, the movement, and the corner of this project


    recall Frank Gehry and Gehry's "Fred and Ginger" corner in Prague.

    But ultimately, it's the reflection of the light that animates the exterior. Mayne's perforated metal sheets and hard forms dissolve in ways that Gehry's don't, in that way they call attention to themselves but don't, whereas Gehry's always do.



    In the post 9-11 world, Mayne's Cooper Union building is a collector for manna from heaven. It filters the manna down and lightly sprinkles it on you when you stand in front of it gazing at its glimmer; or perhaps in an undoing of the way the powder and ash spread throughout the boroughs on 9-11, this manna is meant to flow out onto the entire city.

    This behemoth disappears into ethereal beauty, a slide that connects the heavens with our heads, our eyes, our bodies, our legs and the earth we walk on. The students and designers who will work inside will feel the inspiration.

    This "Moby Dick" of a building sears itself into your memory and will create obsessions, as obsessed as Mayne himself is. The manna will also fall on you in the great like-the-inside-of-the-great-whale stairway.


    Morphosis describe this glass-enclosed nine-story building as a "vertical piazza."

    The soaring central atrium

    renderings by Morphosis


    gives views out through the oddly shaped glass in the facade onto Cooper Union's 1859 fortress-like Foundation Building across Third Avenue and Astor Place. Mayne placed his entrance right across Peter Cooper Park, facing the entrance to the older building.

    He's provided much glass and transparency, including the ground floor lobby walls which are glass; but inside you'll find the dark corners and hidden spaces that Mayne usually provides, especially for youth and students.

    With all the discussion in New York and elsewhere, of how fortress-like our public buildings would have to be, Mayne gives a civilizing answer. This work projects strength, but the glassy ground floor remains open and accessible. It is a fortress, because the institution is strong, but the walls - its separation from the city and the world - are porous, confident and inviting.





    Here's my take on another recent Thom Mayne/Morphosis academic building- the Cahill Center at Caltech. Also here. All my Mayne here.

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