Introducing a podcast about the new San Francisco Federal building by Morphosis, the narrator describes the common reaction as "excitement, fear, or utter confusion." Mayne attempts to address this volatility of symbols in the contemporary public realm by acknowledging that within "the multiplicity of our culture there's not going to be agreement." Ideally, then, the building is "value-laden in some way [...] looking for connective tissue [between the] things we agree that the building should be espousing and the values that the building should be exposing." But how?
When Blum suggests that "it's amazing to think of this as an analog to a dome of a capitol building or to the columns of the courthouse across the street," Mayne launches into a vague tehcno-centric defense of his building:
"It's the 21st century [laughs]... it represents opportunities in the way we think about architecture and the theoretical, the philisophical, the conceptual premises... We're using techniques and methodologies that allow us to do things we couldnt have done even 10 years ago."Later, however, he clarifies this position to be a rather pragmatic techno-fetish. In other words, Mayne is interested in exposing the public to the cutting edge, but he does not seem intent on stretching it:
I like it to provoke [when it hits the street]. Of course I'm interested in innovation and using technology. If there's an abruptness, or if it startles you... well that's all the better because this isn't about the future, it's already about the recent past and it's using current technology and it's real. it has no other choice."In this attitude there seems to be a latent acknowledgment that a trade like architecture which is used to dealing with archaic technology suddenly begins to look foreign and futuristic when present day building technology is brought into use. In an odd paradox when it comes to building technology, the everyday-today, which one would expect to have already soaked into our culture (and indeed has in other realms like consumer products), manages to appear as if it has been borrowed from the future. That "cutting edge" means something entirely different in terms of time-scale to the architect than it does to the electrical engineer or even the video game designer potentially bears on the notion of aesthetic populism.
Society is the filter for aesthetics in a brew called populism. That is, before a populist aesthetics can be developed, the raw materials of that aesthetic must work their way through the population itself, necessarily losing some properties and enriching others as the filtration occurs. The maturation of this brew is further complicated by the fact that the visual aesthetics of a society may be lead by one facet of culture (film and consumer products are certainly in the leading role right now) while other aspects of aesthetics mature at a much slower rate thus creating situations like the one that Mayne identifies above.
This further exposes the impoverished position of contemporary architecture in a society whose aesthetics are dictated by realms which conduct themselves on much shorter production cycles and with much higher relative budgets. Paging Mr. Banham... If a building were designed as consumer product, with the freedoms of custom components and specialized assemblies, would they be so jarring as to be unusable? Is there a value (beyond life safety) to the slowness of architecture's adaption of technology?
Mayne weighs in on this question offhandedly by proposing that his building is not the result of any specific innovation (and thus a single aesthetic time-scale), but rather the successful synthesis of known components. "[They were] trying to break down the balkanization of large institutional settings" by introducing social spaces and switching from a cubicle or private office model to the atelier style work space more familiar to architects. Both the urban and architectural components of the building are rather simple and well known on their own individual terms, but come to have a new meaning when synthesized into one structure.
Blum interviews Mayne about the San Francisco Federal Building