While Morphosis’s body of finished work remained relatively modest until the turn of the millennium, “modest” has never been an adjective attached to Mayne himself. “There’s a huge misunderstanding or abuse of the word ‘ego’ in architecture,” he says, “which is really disgusting. There’s a group of people who will challenge you as egotistical, and I’m like, ‘How could you possibly be an architect, starting with your earliest conversations, and you’re not even going to get there until you’re 50, without having an immense ego?’ It’s absurd.”
“Ego,” Mayne continues. “What is ego? There has to be some kind of strength or confidence or blindness. Otherwise you don’t care, you don’t keep waking up and going to work, and keep working your ass off until midnight, seven days a week, for f****** 30 years.”
While he never invested a dime of his own money on a Morphosis project, Edward Feiner will almost certainly be regarded as the pivotal patron of Mayne’s career. As chief architect of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) from 1995 to 2005, Feiner, FAIA, headed up the agency’s Design Excellence Program, which for the first time engaged architects who had accomplished far more in the way of innovation than in square footage. The three massive Morphosis projects developed during Feiner’s GSA tenure are perhaps the three most counterintuitive landmarks ever green-lit by the federal government. At least in their early stages, they all caused some friction.
As a dominant designer of postmodern landmarks, Mayne has been facing unintended consequences he rarely had to deal with as a theorist. Employees of the San Francisco federal building haven’t just been grumbling about the air quality; they’ve also bristled at the elevator system that only stops on every third floor, and a cafeteria situated in an outdoor plaza—elements Mayne conceived to ensure compulsory exercise on the job. According to the Morphosis website, 41 Cooper Square “aspires to manifest the character, culture, and vibrancy of both the 150-year-old institution and of the city in which it was founded.” Nevertheless, the building itself may have actually helped alter Cooper Union’s character and culture forever. Until May of this year, all students there were accorded full scholarships. Borrowing the $166 million cost of Mayne’s vision against the land it owns beneath the Chrysler Building, Cooper Union sunk itself deeper into the financial abyss that has forced the institution to charge tuition for the first time in its history, despite student protests.
And then there are the critics—the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Hawthorne the most damning among them. “It is a thoroughly cynical piece of work,” Hawthorne wrote earlier this year in his review of the Perot Museum. “A building that uses a frenzy of architectural forms to endorse the idea that architecture, in the end, is mere decoration.”