Forty years ago, a scrappy outsider called Thom Mayne established Morphosis as a practice committed to experimentation, and helped found the Southern California Institute of Architecture as a radical alternative to traditional architectural education. He was 28, a child of that rebellious era, propelled by a fierce passion to rethink architecture and find new forms of expression. From the first, Mayne was uncompromising, preferring to pursue an idea to its limits on paper than forfeit its integrity to get it built. In that regard, nothing has changed. He has been awarded the Pritzker and a hundred other honors for work of growing scale and complexity. In the past decade he has won the trust of universities, school boards, big corporations, and government agencies. Age and success have made him less aggressive, but no less determined to hold his ground. “I’m willing to give up a project for the sake of pursuing it in a conceptual way,” he says. “On several recent projects I’ve parted ways [from a client] with no sense of loss.” At an age when other architects are peaking or considering retirement, Mayne is as energetic and restless as ever. An interviewer’s question about a specific building may provoke an extended riff on the potential of architecture or a book on theory in a dozen different disciplines. Like a grizzled sea captain scanning the horizon for land, he’s always moving forward. “I still haven’t got to the projects I want to do, embracing the urban scale,” he says. “I’ve been castigated for fetishizing elements and making buildings more complicated than they needed to be and I always thought that was unfair. In the natural world we don’t criticize organisms for being too complex. Why can’t some things be intensified? This country is terrified of freedom [and] needs to be shaken up.” Morphosis is constantly shaking things up, in the US and abroad, but its new studio is an oasis of serenity. Located in Culver City, a former blue collar district of LA that’s fast becoming a hub of art galleries, exemplary restaurants, and progressive firms, it occupies the shell of a former auto body shop. A fretted metal fence and sliding gate are laser cut with a stylized text. It provides an account of chimpanzees learning new tricks, and how that relates to human behavior. Most visitors assume it’s an abstract pattern. Solar panels canopy a parking area, making the building energy-neutral. Polycarbonate screens and plantings enclose an Italianate garden, with pepper trees, an expanse of pebbles, and a barbecue. It doubles as an alfresco retreat for staff, and an outdoor meeting space, linked to the conference room through glass sliders. The double-height studio is bathed in natural light from ceiling lanterns that also ventilate hot air. Stairs lead up to a mezzanine of offices to the right; bicycles are concealed behind a screen wall on the opposite side. Lining this white void are models of past and future projects, and a series of wall reliefs, mostly 60 cm square. Fabricated in the glass-screened model shop beside the entry, they are conceived as three-dimensional drawings that explore how complex forms can be generated from a few basic parameters. A collaborative venture of Mayne and one of his students from Cornell, they are a fusion of art and architecture, autonomous expression and research for buildings and urban structures. Some are flat with small openings, others are eroded or densely layered. “This project is about formation - the zone between willfulness and chance behavior,” says Mayne. “These wall pieces allow me to go off to another place in my brain and explore forms independent of purpose - a freer environment that is essential for research.” Like the panels, every Morphosis building has its own distinct form and character, while exploring recurring ideas. Mayne defines those as collision, distortion, interrogation, and incompletion. They can be experienced on a sensory level as thoughtful responses to context. A campus for the Giant pharmaceutical corporation of China was inspired by the plan of Hadrian’s Villa (as was Richard Meier’s Getty Center), weaving buildings into a landscape and creating pedestrian routes that foster social interaction among the users. Giant generates a sense of place on the outskirts of Shanghai. The Perot Museum of Nature and Science, now nearing completion, performs a similar role on the edge of downtown Dallas. It complements the Arts District axis on the opposite side of a freeway, consolidating activities that were scattered among three older buildings, and revitalizing a dead urban zone. The budget was tight and the footprint had to be kept small to allow for a future addition. Morphosis designed a concrete cube raised on pilotis that seems to float above an elevated landscape. Poured concrete (“non-precious and incredibly cheap”) and molded forms were used to create a bold relief on the base and ripples in the blind walls of the cube, suggesting a stratified rock emerging from the flat site. The podium contains auditoria and an education department, with a skylit children’s museum extending beyond. Visitors enter from surface parking, through a grove of trees, to a corner of the cube, which is cut away to light a lofty atrium. Escalators link three levels of exhibits, with offices above, and one of these escalators pops out from the façade as a viewing platform looking out to the city and down to the rocks and native grasses atop the podium. The spaces, scaled to an audience of 8-13 year olds, are constantly alternating between darkened exhibit areas, voids, and vistas. The Tour Phare, which may break ground by the end of the year, should forge a connection to the center of Paris. It’s located in La Defense, a high-rise complex of office towers, 7 km from the historic core. Sandwiched between the monstrous Grande Arche (the nadir of Mitterand’s grands projets) and the arched concrete roof of the Prouve-Nervi C.N.I.T. conference center, the Phare rises 300 m, putting its feathered tip eye-to-eye with the upper gallery of the Eiffel Tower. Like that beloved feat of engineering, Morphosis’s gracefully bowed structure should achieve iconic status and be featured in models and postcards. Mayne professes not to care, and is proudest of the fact that he can now create large commercial buildings with the same attention to form and detail as he once lavished on houses. A bifurcated base straddles the subway station, drawing commuters up into a soaring atrium. A rectilinear glass tower merges into the bowed volume, which is wrapped with diagonal panels of stainless steel mesh. The vertiginous circulation and perforated skin grow organically out of earlier buildings, notably the Morphosis addition to Cooper Union in New York (The Plan 038, November 2009). With these ambitious structures and the planning projects described in “Combinatory Urbanism: the Complex Behavior of Collective Form” (Stray Dog Café, 2011), Mayne has realized his vision of an oeuvre that is cerebral and sensual, lucid and complex.