A global convergence of values?

Thom Mayne


American, principal of Morphosis Architects,
Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate 2005
Statement at the Waldzell Meeting 2005



“You have to understand that no matter what you believe, if it is based on faith, it’s fiction. It’s an invention, it’s in your brain.’


The future is here. We just have not found it yet. The issues today are all about the present. The future is something much more about trajectory, about some idea as to where we are going. But realistically, we have absolutely no idea where we are going. It is impossible in a world of unknowability and complexity. The future, in my estimation, is, therefore, completely irrelevant. What matters is the present, what we do in the present and what we understand about the present. And what we do not understand: We do not understand how we operate politically, culturally, biologically, ecologically.


The title of this conference is all about the future and meaning. So we should start the discussion with the question, meaning to whom? For example, when you are just barely surviving, do you really have the time to worry about meaning? Recently I was reading a fascinating article in The New York Times about the changing demographics and economics of New York City. The difference between the poorest person in New York and the richest person is now two cents to one dollar. That is about equal to Namibia. There are huge changes going on in the United States right now in terms of the further differentiation of wealth, the further differentiation of opportunities.


Meaning is a function of privilege. Meaning comes when you are in a place where you have the privilege of controlling your life; meaning comes when you can afford to ask those types of existential questions. Meaning comes when you have resources, some sort of wealth and comfort.


When you are investigating any kind of problem, you have to ask simple questions. Architecture starts with questions. The first one I would ask about our topic today is: Are you sure we need meaning?


Today, any discussion of meaning has to be contextualized; it is going to be personal, individual, and private. Today, meaning is highly politicized. And of course it is immensely coopted by capitalist enterprise. Another factor that affects meaning today is lifestyle-changes in how you look, changes of location, changes of behavior.

If you want to talk about meaning and the future, we have to establish some kind of premise about what the problem is. And we have to ask what we are talking about when we try to discuss our different ideas about meaning. We should start with the nature of the human character, the Homo sapiens, ‘us’ differentiated from the rest of the animal species. A little bit arrogant I have to say.


We are much, much closer to the rest of the species than we recognize. Arrogance is not doing us any good in terms of how we behave. We received this potential, this cognitive ability. We have the ability to place things within abstractions, we have the ability to define ourselves. This capability has produced a kind of knowledge of who we are and why we are, and it seems also in some ways to lead us to ask questions in terms of meaning.


A part of that rationality is a dilemma. Because the same intelligence that allows us to ask questions about the meaning of life also understands the simple dilemma of life: life ends. Because of this, we fabricate stories, narratives, fables, various fictions to deal with the terror of death, to allow us to exist. But that is not the end, because the institutions that are here to help us with these things, in fact become part of the problem. All religions, as they become institutions, focus on the preservation of their narrative, their story, as the basis of their institution.

This is for me the center of discussion. You have to understand that no matter what you believe, if it is based on faith, it is fiction. It is an invention, it is in your brain. Does that mean it is not reality? Of course not. It is absolutely real, you live by it. James Turrell has said there is no metaphysics, there is only physics. Unfortunately, we live by metaphysics. We are living in a world that is approaching 7 billion people; it is increasingly global, increasingly complex and unknowable. The important thing for us to understand is that all of us live by fictions. They operate as provisional ideas; they are fluent, they are flexible, they are changeable. In that sense, I would say that our systems of meaning are much closer to science and the way the sciences operate: They are theories.


I come from a very religious Protestant family. I went to church everyday starting when I was just three years old. But when I was eleven, I was kicked out for asking certain kinds of questions. They were very basic questions.


Did God make me and my brain? The answer was yes.
Is God really all-forgiving? Yes.
Do I go to hell if I do not believe in God? Yes. Tommy, no more, please!
But if God made my brain and this brain does not believe in God and he is all- forgiVing, why do I go to hell? Tommy, get out of here!


Today if there is something important taking place in the realm of meaning and values, then it is the aligning of these notions to the nature of the reality of the world in biological terms, in real terms. What would be most interesting is if we were to find a global convergence of values, a convergence that has to do with sustaining us ecologically, sustaining us biologically, sustaining the physical reality of the world.

As to the future, and the implications of all this to the ‘Architects of the Future’, I would say this: Believe in your initial instincts, because when you are young, you have less knowledge, but you have certain instincts. The world of art is somewhat subjective, and somewhat complicated and somewhat isolated from society. Something very deep comes out of knowing yourself. So you have to believe in yourself completely and follow your instincts because you have nothing else. There is no choice.



Thorn Mayne was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1944. He received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Southern California in 1968 and his Master of Architecture from Harvard University in 1978. In the early seventies, he co-founded the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and currently holds a tenured faculty position at the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture. Morphosis, the Santa Monica, California based architecture studio that Mayne founded in 1972, has grown to more than forty architects and designers, with projects built worldwide.


The jury of the Pritzker Prize – the ‘Nobel Prize of Architecture’ – emphasized that, with his buildings, Mayne leaves behind traditional forms and materials, and goes beyond the boundaries of modern and Postmodernist architecture. Mayne’s work ranges from designs for watches and teapots, to large-scale civic buildings, innovative academic buildings, and urban design and planning schemes.


Morphosis has built in the United States and abroad, in such locations as Austria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Spain. In Klagenfurt (Carinthia), Morphosis designed the headquarters of the group Hypobank, the significant Hypo-Alpe-Adria-Center. Current major projects include the winning entry for the New York 2012 Olympic Village Competition, a Federal Office building in San Francisco, as well as a social housing project in Madrid.