MODEL MORPHOSIS : One Firm's Visionary Approach to Architecture That Reflects Our World

Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

The last time architect Thom Mayne made a public appearance in Orange County, he wasn't a terribly popular guy.

Back in 1988, Mayne was on the jury that handed out annual awards to members of the county chapter of the American Assn. of Architects. Rather than flattering his county colleagues assembled for the awards dinner, he took the opportunity to castigate them for their routine, "off the shelf" design solutions.

Not one project submitted to the contest, he complained, showed the kind of visionary ideas that we should expect from the younger generation of architects.

Mayne should know. He is co-owner (with Michael Rotondi) of Morphosis, a Santa Monica architecture firm that has showered Southern California with visionary--some would say downright peculiar--ideas, mostly for private homes and such trendy Los Angeles and Venice restaurants as Angeli Caffe and 72 Market Street.

In Orange County, the Morphosis approach can be seen at Club Postnuclear in Laguna Beach and--beginning Friday through June 9--in "Morphosis: Making Architecture," at the Laguna Art Museum. The exhibit will showcase models and drawings for buildings and furniture designed by the firm, as well as mixed-media prints and other nontraditional architectural documents.

During the past 16 years, the firm has raked in a long list of awards (12 from the magazine Progressive Architecture) and has shown its designs at such respected institutions as the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.

In January, Morphosis was selected as one of six finalists to design a new building and sculpture garden for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

"The exhibition is not so much about architecture per se, " museum director and exhibit curator Charles Desmarais says, "but more about the workings of the minds of a pair of artists who work in the area of architecture."

What fascinates the art and design world is the way Mayne and Rotondi think about the business of architecture. They respond to a fragmented, pluralistic world by devising buildings that are openly a part of that world yet also sharply critical of it. Morphosis architecture at its best demands active mental participation by the people who enter and use it, in a way similar to the effort involved in understanding much contemporary art.

Using simple, ordinary materials (such as rusting steel and corrugated sheet metal), the architects devise elaborate abstract "strategies"--such as systems of spacing between ceiling supports or the positioning of interior walls--that do not reveal themselves to the casual eye.

Instead of trying to create a calm and harmonious relationship of parts in their buildings, Mayne and Rotondi infuse into their work a rush of seemingly unrelated stimuli--similar to the disconnected snatches of activity that a pedestrian encounters on a city street.

Morphosis' use of rhythmic repetition, disconnected elements and a playful mix-and-match approach has also been likened to such pop trends as rap music, rapid-fire images on MTV and the fashion for wearing undergarments as street clothes.

Even in designing a private home--traditionally a place of comfort and retreat from the hurly-burly of the world--the architects may set out (as they wrote about a residence in Venice, Calif.) "to evoke disquieting states of mind" and "present ideas of decay, tension, risk, balance."

Models and drawings are unusually important to Mayne and Rotondi, serving not only as basic tools of the design process but also as the basis of new ideas dreamed up after a specific commission is completed. The name of the firm-- morphosis means "the developmental formation of an organism"--comes from this constantly evolving approach.

The success of the exhibit will depend in large part on how well the museum can interpret Morphosis' designs, which (like much postmodern architecture) tend to be written about in eccentric, self-consciously literary ways.

Let's hope the show will also put Morphosis' work in context, so that the viewer can understand what historical models influenced it, how it was shaped by the Southern California environment and why it is so special and unique to our time.

What: "Morphosis: Making Architecture."

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through June 9.

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: The museum is at the corner of Cliff Drive and Coast Highway, just up the coast from the intersection of Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road.

Wherewithal: General admission $2, seniors and students $1, children under 12 free.

Where to call: (714) 494-8971.

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