Thom Mayne, who has been called the bad boy and angry young man of Los Angeles architecture, is the winner of this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the profession's highest honor. Mayne, 61, is the first American to win the prize in 14 years.
"I've been such an outsider my whole life," he said in a telephone interview from his office at Morphosis, his firm in Santa Monica, California. "It's just kind of startling."
Given his reputation as a maverick, Mayne's selection as this year's Pritzker laureate would seem to signal his induction into the establishment. That shift would seem to have begun with his selection for three US government projects now rising under the General Services Administration's program to promote "design excellence" in architecture: a glass federal office building in San Francisco that eliminates corner offices in favor of a democratic space, with city views for 90 percent of the workstations; a federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, that elevates the courtrooms above a glass plinth; and a satellite facility, crowned with 16 antennas and partly submerged in the landscape, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outside Washington.
But Mayne said he saw the prize as a recognition of his iconoclastic approach -- and as a mandate to keep agitating.
"I see this as a validation for architecture in general," he said, "and for me to push even harder."
To be sure, in its citation the Pritzker jury acknowledged Mayne's countercultural roots, calling him "a product of the turbulent 60s who has carried that rebellious attitude and fervent desire for change into his practice, the fruits of which are only now becoming visible in a group of large-scale projects."
Among those is his recent Caltrans District 7 building, a headquarters of the California Transportation Department in downtown Los Angeles. The hulking 1.2-million-square-foot building has cantilevered upper floors and a mechanized perforated skin that adjusts to the light throughout the day, becoming as transparent as glass at dusk.
Like the name of his firm, Morphosis, with its suggested embrace of constant change, Mayne's signature style has been difficult to pin down over the years.
Yet recurring elements run through many Mayne buildings, like blocky jutting shapes, glass and metal, double skins, shifting degrees of light, curvilinear walls and elevators that skip stops.
In New York Mayne has designed a nine-story art and engineering building for Cooper Union in Manhattan and an Olympic Village in Hunters Point, Queens -- a mixed-use waterfront development that is scheduled to go up whether or not the games come to New York in 2012. Reviewing the Cooper Union design, Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for The New York Times, praised Mayne for his social optimism and "enthusiasm for the congestion and dynamism on which cities thrive."
Mayne described his style as idiosyncratic.
"The multiplicity of ideas is what I'm interested in," he said. "The hybrid in our society -- where there is no singular idea of what is beautiful."
The Pritzker jury acknowledged this eclectic quality in its citation. "Mayne's approach toward architecture and his philosophy is not derived from European modernism, Asian influences or even from American precedents of the last century," it says. "He has sought throughout his career to create an original architecture, one that is truly representative of the unique, somewhat rootless culture of Southern California, especially the architecturally rich city of Los Angeles."