Thom Mayne founded the firm Morphosis in 1972, and is recognized as one of the world’s leading architects. His past projects include the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles. Currently in development are the “Phare” Tower in Paris, and a new academic building for Cooper Union in New York. Mayne was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize in Architecture in 2005.
J E N N Y O K U N – F R AG M E N T
T h o m M a y n e
SOME YEARS AGO Jenny Okun showed me her photograph of Morphosis’s 2-4-6-8 House that contained within it elements revealing a clear kinship with our conceptual interests. At the level of a working methodology, there was a parallel interest in the overlaying or obfuscation of
the differences between plan, section, and elevation that sought to reveal the essence of the project through simultaneous exposure of normally discrete perspectives. Okun’s work seeks to illuminate the essential, dynamic, and visceral qualities of the architecture, and in so
doing she challenges the conventions of photographic representation.
Okun uses photography as her tool to simultaneously deconstruct and reconstruct the original, layering the fragments, as in Cubist painting, to create a new compositional whole. In discussing the influence of Cubism on early modernist architecture, theorist Robin Evans explores this dual reading by explaining that “when the totality of the simultaneously presented image is emphasized, Cubism appears to strive for wholeness; yet when the inherent dislocation of parts is emphasized, Cubism reveals fragmentation.”
The images Okun creates bring to mind another body of photographs influenced by Cubist ideas. As in David Hockney’s Polaroid collages, her fragmented photos seek to bring the viewer closer to the physiological act of seeing—to create an experience akin to the phenomenon of
sight itself. The human eye is incessantly darting, focusing and immediately re-focusing as it changes its perspectival position. As in Hockney’s work, there is a layering, not only of fragments, but also of time. One is made aware of the distance between segments as registered
through shadow and through shifts in the camera’s perspective. Comprehension of architecture requires scanning while moving in order to absorb multiple perspectives over time that will crystallize into a cohesive mental map of the space. In stark contrast to the representation
of architecture provided by normative photographic techniques, Okun’s work captures the space that can normally be understood only through movement. Hers is a multivalent, contemporary conception of space, one that challenges the timelessness rooted in the nineteenth-century
notion of reality such as that of an Ansel Adams. Casting aside the singular perspectival composition, which would require multiple photographs to allow for an understanding of space, Okun chooses instead to use movement and complex layerings to develop the narrative
within a single image.
As an architect uses bricks and mortar, Okun uses the finished architecture as her raw material. The resulting images are her artistic work yet they retain the fundamental DNA of the architect’s project, brilliantly elucidating the character and essence of the three-dimensional
work via carefully orchestrated perceptual fragments. Her process is recursive, using nested applications of parallel idea structures in photography and in architecture — whereby one medium builds up a new coherency in another—while it clearly navigates a territory completely separate and wholly its own.