Morphosis intrigued by challenge of cityscape

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005

In the late-1990s, the University of Toronto asked Santa Monica architect Thom Mayne to design a graduate student housing complex in the middle of a complex cityscape.

The job required a solution that merged the university with the surrounding neighborhoods. The design, a four-building block with a beam-and-glass entry gate hanging over Harbord Street, was wrought with controversy.

"There was a law that said you can't build over the street in Toronto," Mayne said. "I pulled out my slides from traveling, mostly from Amsterdam, and said, 'What are you talking about?' You're constantly going through arches, pieces of buildings, plazas. This has been done for centuries."

The law was amended, and Mayne won out -a prime example of design triumphing over politics. Once again Mayne, the lead designer for Santa-Monica-based Morphosis Architects, is tackling a project similar to Toronto's: How do you make a coherent design on a staggered hill between downtown, the waterfront and the West Willoughby neighborhood?

"(The capitol) wants to be hidden, on top of the hill," Mayne said. "It wants to be connected with the city, down low. For architects, some of the most interesting work comes out of conflictual information, where not everything is lined up."

Anchorage architect Mike Mense is working with Morphosis on the capitol design.

"Given that this is Alaska and the Pacific Ocean is out there, we need to have a really strong relationship between the capital and the water," Mense said. "And someday Egan (Drive) is going to be a freeway, so that's something we have to anticipate and figure out."

"The other thing that's really a challenge is that most of Juneau is wooden building on the (Willoughby) side - one-, two-, three-story buildings," he said. "On the other side of Telephone Hill, there's two-story stuff. The capitol is going be much more of an impactful building than Sealaska, and Sealaska is a pretty big deal."

Mayne was the "darling of architecture's in-crowd," according to the design magazine Metropolis, for his daring and eccentric designs on paper in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Over the last five years, he's been routinely honored for carrying that over into large public projects. His design for the California Department of Transportation's District 7 headquarters in Los Angeles was one of the best in 2004.

Mayne and Mense believe Juneau needs a design strong enough to evoke an instant opinion.

"To succeed, we need a great building," Mense said. "We need a Maya Lin, a Vietnam Veteran's Memorial."

Whether that means a 21st-century design or a classic capitol, with dome and pillars, will be part of the debate over the next six weeks. One thing they know for sure is that the new building must be designed for distance delivery - connecting legislators with constituents in Fairbanks, Bethel and Wasilla through video-conferencing.

"There's been a fairly standard form of legislative houses and senates, and it's about a democracy that is 200 years old," Mense said. "But there's an evolution in democracy which is somewhat more egalitarian, somewhat less top-downish."

"A gross example: You have the speaker, you have the members of the representatives and you have the people in the gallery," he said. "The people get to look at the backs of the representatives, and all the representatives are like students of the speaker. I'm going to do my best to rearrange those relationships so they're more appropriate to how we think about government today. So people in the gallery don't feel like a leftover."

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