Public and Private

Dupli.Casa - A house near Ludwigsburg, Germany

J. Mayer H. Discusses The Relics And References That Inspire His Built Environments

In its 13 years, J. Mayer H. Architects can already count among their creations a scallop-edged science museum, office buildings with arthropod windows, a house that seems bent on melting into its surroundings, heat-sensitive sheets and furniture, and even a tattoo.

Jürgen Mayer H.’s recent work is a remake of Seville’s Plaza de la Encarnación, an undulating canopy anchored by large latticed mushrooms. Metropol Parasol, as the project is named, recasts the plaza as an urban center and circulation point, the giant fungi providing a home for a market, museum, and elevated park. A handsome commission for Mayer H. and his namesake firm.

Mayer H. was educated at the University of Stuttgart, The Cooper Union and Princeton University, and he has taught at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. He finds that the European approach to training architects is more “reality-based,” while the US approach is more conceptual. It seems that Mayer H. has certainly benefited from this latter focus, as many of his buildings take an idea, critique, or even an entire domino effect of references as a starting point for reinterpretations of three-dimensional space.

Tell me about Metropol Parasol.
Metropol Parasol should be done by next May. We’re working on the wood construction. The lower parts are in the finishing stages. We’re covering the plaza with granite stone and then putting in the facades for the market. The whole structure is quite a challenge from the engineering and construction perspective. Also, with both this project and Steckelhörn 11 in Hamburg, it is interesting to see how our contemporary designs communicate with a historic environment. Prior projects were more solitary in the sense that they are placed in kind of a field of anonymous buildings.

How do you balance teaching with designing?
At my firm we have a good, efficient dynamic now: our teams and projects overlap, so information flows among projects, which is helpful and seems to works well for us. Teaching means that I can do more research, and I can have students research cultural phenomena. You can really see how the findings are relevant to architecture and how architecture becomes a comment on our every day culture. I think it is quite a fruitful balance.

Rendering for Metropol Parasol, a redevelopment of the Plaza de la Encarnacion, Seville, Spain

Let’s talk about some themes in your work. Why heat sensitive furniture and interiors? Is this a reflection on how we interact with space and objects?
That project started with my thesis in Princeton in ’94. It actually started with a meditation on boredom and its effect on architecture. I came across text by Walter Benjamin that equates boredom to weather. Boredom is kind of a productive force in our society because it almost challenges us to entertain ourselves; to keep ourselves curious. In a sense, we need it to keep going as a culture. People now have extra time because they work less, so I was looking at these theories as sort of an entry point to an examination of how culture changed, and how our idea of comfort changed in relation to architecture, which is often seen as a shield from the environment—as a protection from the elements. So I looked into ways in which the climate and atmosphere could infiltrate the built environment. I came across this heat sensitive paint and I was interested in how the body, in relationship to our architectural context, could develop a different relationship.

Henry Urbach, the curator of your SF MOMA exhibit, described the exhibit as an “information mist.” I think that is an apt description of how we live now. In some regards, we are constantly ‘misted’ with data, much of it hopelessly arbitrary. Does this idea influence how you design spaces?
This reference makes me think of the dining hall, Mensa Moltke, that visually evokes an artificial forest. Does its structure refer to nature, to a skeletal structure, to a building as a typology, to the anthropology of a dining hall? Its exact aesthetic reference is slippery. It is about blurring boundaries. Also, the “information mist” refers to the data protection patterns. Sometimes we take them as a starting point: a 2-D pattern that blows up and changes scale that we interpret three-dimensionally. We use it as a found object and interpret this 2-D object to create a building.

Interior of Moltke Canteen, a new canteen for the colleges of Karlsruhe, Germany.

I’m interested in how you think contemporary architecture is responding to or shaped by technology—both in practice and in design.
I remember we did the lounge for the World Architectural Conference in Berlin in 2001, and it was the first time that we sent our computer files to the carpenter directly. It seems so simple now, but wow…what a different way of dealing with the production process. And of course when the software changes, it changes how you can represent your thinking, and as a result, how you think. It changes the way you think about possibilities. Materials change, the way we communicate about logistics—how we are organized and how things get produced—that all changes. Maybe we are just seeing the beginning of a whole new understanding of how architecture is produced and also lived in.

Do you believe that, as software and computers evolve, the human hand will move out of the design process and become unnecessary?
I don’t know if that is possible. The computer helps us design more complex forms, and it may be easier to auto produce them, but the work now goes into converting the files from one software type to another. It’s not less work…it’s just that the work is somewhere else. Right now software is not interconnected one-to-one. There will always be translation problems.

Exhibition, “Sustainability“ Wolfsburg, Germany

Any examples that come to mind?
As for Metropol Parasol, this structure could not have been built ten years ago because it is so difficult to calculate the structural consequences. It is the computer that can do something new, which in turn challenges what the materials industry produces. They develop the material according to what these new forms and shapes require. It is a whole network of “accomplices” that move you forward.

Your furniture and interiors often mirror your architectural designs. For example, there are the lines in Danfoss Universe and in the chairs in your soft mosaic collection. How does your approach to furniture design differ from your approach to architecture?
When I look back, I see two different approaches when we do design and smaller scale installations. Usually we start with a material and look at the potential or the discoveries we can do with the material. When we look at the glass mosaic series, what we did was explore new potential from different materials—we explored making glass mosaic elastic and soft, rather than cold and sturdy. So the furniture design kind of starts from the material side and architecture is actually the other way around. We look at it as an overall atmosphere or an all-inclusive environment, and then search for the right materials and the right construction methods. In a way, it’s always about trying to push the limits of what we know. I also think, with architecture, it is good to keep oneself open in regard to what the material will be and how it’s built. That forces us to be super innovative in the research and to be really focused about how to realize these forms—that is also how we develop new techniques of construction.

What type of space or object would you most like to design that you have not designed yet?
I’m not really focused on stuff like that, though it would be nice to do a high rise, or actually even a sewage plant. I actually like to do things that are not considered “designed”—like a memorial would be too loaded already. I like to discover qualities and potential that are usually not expected.

– Joscelin Cooper