Rooted in 1960s, he's an architect for the ages

The 1960s probably qualify as one of the more turbulent times in American history, but Thom Mayne, whose coming of age coincided with that unsettling decade, says he's glad he grew up when he did.

"It left you with a desire and interest in dreaming and believing you could interact with the world, and make it a more interesting, more habitable, more humane place," says Mr. Mayne, a California-based architect. This week he was named the winner of the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor in his field.

The only American to win the prize in 14 years, Mayne says that '60s ideal - embraced by the Peace Corps generation and forged amid the "flower child" revolution - still inspires his designs for buildings and homes. "I guess I am naive enough to still believe that this is possible," he said during an interview at his firm in Santa Monica.

Part idealist, part maverick, Mayne says he was stunned to learn he had won the award, having long considered himself to be an outsider. He learned the news via cellphone, while being whisked by a New York cabbie over the Triborough Bridge en route to the airport. "I was speechless at the news," he recalls. "I was in shock. I sat there pinching myself."

It proved to be an extraordinary day. Arriving in Santa Monica, he learned his firm had won the design competition for a new capitol building for Alaska, to be built in Juneau. It was also his birthday.

Southern Californians have had the most opportunity to brush up against his work - most recently the Caltrans District 7 headquarters and the Science Education Resource Center/ Science Center School, both finished last year in Los Angeles.

Mayne cites the Diamond Ranch High School, completed in 2000 in nearby Pomona, as a project that first gave him the freedom to give his ideas full form. "It was where the social and artistic act came together," he says of the school, where southern California's topography is inherent in the design. The space features a sidewalk, or "canyon," that snakes between two tight rows of fragmented forms that evoke shifting geologic plates. This sidewalk, more urban than suburban, becomes a throughway that is intended to encourage interaction among students and staff. "I had a program I could actually work with," says Mayne. "Some of my small projects didn't allow me this freedom.

Over his career, Mayne has received 54 awards from the American Institute of Architects, 25 Progressive Architecture Awards, and many international commendations.

"Thom Mayne is 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," Bill Lacy, Pritzker Prize executive director, said in a statement, quoting from the jury citation. Works in progress include a federal office building in San Francisco, a US courthouse in Eugene, Ore., and a satellite facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Suitland, Md. His firm, Morphosis, also won the design contest for the 2012 Olympic Village for New York, which will be built even if the Big Apple does not prevail in its bid to host the Games.

Abroad, he has designed the Hypo Alpe-Adria Center in Klagenfurt, Austria; a retail/office building in Seoul; and buildings in the Netherlands and Taiwan.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., in 1944, he grew up in Gary, Ind., and then, when his parents divorced, the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier. His mother, an accomplished pianist, instilled in him and his brother "an urban culture ... filled with classical music and great art," he says. He graduated from the University of Southern California and, later, earned a master's degree from Harvard. He now teaches at UCLA.

Fresh out of college, he and his friends in 1972 started an unorthodox school of architecture, called the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). It offered a radical alternative to conventional instruction.

When he founded Morphosis, he picked a name that means "to be in formation," an apt home for the 40 designers and architects who work to promote the idea of architecture as a collective act.

Mayne will be awarded the Pritzker medallion - and a check for $100,000 - on May 31 in Chicago. The annual prize was established in 1979 by the Pritzker family, who own the Hyatt hotel chain, to honor a living architect who produces "consistent and significant contributions to humanity."

As for that dream of the '60s - that anyone could help make the world a "more habitable, more humane place" - Mayne has spent years trying to apply it to architecture. "Architecture participates in not only style and look, but enhancing a life," he says. "It requires an interest that wants you to ask more questions, and the more questions you ask, the more time you spend - and the more time you spend, the more interesting places you'll discover.

"The '60s promoted thinking about opportunities, focusing on achieving them. Today we seem to be in a retracting period - more are thinking about what they can't do than what they can. I think I came along at just the right time."

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