Thom Mayne at home: The Perot museum architect’s own house


Taut concrete skin / Structural glass / An escalator with nothing to hide / Everything kinetic / A roof that rocks and rolls / Thom Mayne has given us the most exciting building in Dallas / Plastic cuckoo clocks / His wife Blythe / His dog Isis / His socks, his shoes, his Pritzker prize / Showers you can see through / Columns that could roll / This is where he lives

by ROB BRINKLEY / produced and photographed by NAN COULTER

In the narrow master bedroom, above, photographs taken by architect Thom Mayne of he and wife Blythe Alison-Mayne, lounging in their room at the Villa d’Este hotel in Lake Como, Italy. Says Blythe: “One of the frames on the wall was doctored to have a photo of me in it, rather than the actual painting that was there. The image on the TV is really what was on the news show that day.” The photographs are hinged to swing open, revealing a television. Indeed, the foot of the bed contacts the wall, as does the head of the bed at the other end. The Maynes have to climb over the bed to traverse the room.


This is everything architect Thom Mayne knew of Dallas, prior to a little commission he received called the Perot Museum of Nature and Science:

Where to get a haircut.

Where to get a shoe shine.

And both of those were inside the airport.

About the only time the global frequent flyer — he’s a little busy, raising up buildings that knock down conventions — escaped Terminal C before the Perot project was to race to Fort Worth to see a little commission by another notion-busting architect: the Kimbell Museum, by the architect’s architect, Louis Kahn.

In a hall-like area on the first floor, above, Mayne created a circular void in the ceiling to allow light and air to flow between the two levels. The aluminum-sided staircase begins with three steel steps, then wood, then stone. At far right, a bathroom’s sandblasted glass walls stop shy of the ceiling. The large triptych on the back wall is a commission from LA-based Swedish artist Eva Ohman-Benjamin. “Thom didn’t give her much instruction,” says Blythe Mayne, “but did ask that she delineate a center point in the painting. He’s such an obsessive architect. She complied with his request and told us, upon delivery, that the center line was essentially a sphincter muscle; the mouth in the round shape on the tall woman in the very center of the painting. That’s how she felt about Thom’s ‘request.’ ”


Now Thom Mayne is ours — all ours. His sliced-up concrete cube of a science museum is a strange new visitor that feels as if it has lived here all along. It is monumental yet lighthearted, rooted but animated. Its fissures, flutters, compressions and volumes telegraph an impossible mix of futuristic and prehistoric — all while its one-acre rolling roofscape wiggles like a flying carpet made of rock shards and grass. Utterly sexy. Deeply satisfying. It is a five-level, 170-foot-high, 180,000-square-foot feat of undulating, stimulating joy.

Did it all spring from the little Erector Set he lives in, back home in California?

One could make the case. Mayne and his wife, Blythe Alison-Mayne, have lived in their 1,800-square-foot “prototype,” says Thom, since 1983. They got it for a “ridiculously low price,” says Blythe, complete with a tenant upstairs. There was nothing compelling about the place, a duplex in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. “We thought of it as a temporary solution that we would fix up a bit and eventually sell,” she says, “to move to something more suitable: more land, more privacy, better bones — or possibly a new house designed by Thom.” They kept the tenant and raised son No. 1 (he was two when they moved in) on the 900-square-foot first floor. When son No. 2 came along, the Maynes’ days as landlords had to end: They needed more space. They claimed the 900 square feet upstairs, too, and commenced “various and sundry remodels,” Blythe says. Don’t think new baseboards and granite countertops: This house has been fully transformed, from a gigantic, light-emitting circle punched upward through its layers to a glass-walled bathroom with just enough sandblasting to keep things decent. “Not too many doors anywhere, no interior locks anywhere,” Blythe says. “Our living style is very open.” Thom, who founded the edgy Morphosis architecture firm in 1972, loves “challenging this notion of what’s private space, what’s public space. We brought that to this house.” There is no going back. “We raised two boys to adulthood here. In this openness, they could breathe, talk, have light.” He laughs, recalling various family trips, having to check into hotels with their conventional rooms, conventional doors and conventional tubs and showers. “The boys thought that was weird. ‘Dad, it’s so dark! Everything’s pushed into corners!’”

A pair of cuckoo clocks, above, found in Paris. "Plastic, fake," Mayne says, laughing. They reminded him of an authentic one his mother had; he transformed these with white paint. "We love mixing high art with craft." At right, a work by Chicago photographer Dennis Manarchy, from Obsolete in Venice, California

The upending doesn’t stop at glass bathrooms and no doors. The dining space’s table is cantilevered, weighted at one end like a diving board, and it can glide to and fro. The columns it slides between are perched on steel wheels. (Support columns that seem to roll away? Why not?) One bathroom sink is a contraption of steel plates, under a foot-operated “faucet” that is actually a pipe emerging from the ceiling. (Go see the myriad overhead rain pipes that drip water into the Perot museum’s cistern. Were they borne from this one slim cylinder that dangles over the Maynes while they wash their hands?) Even the master bedroom is antithetical to anything conventional: It is tiny. It is so narrow that the Thom-designed bed fully spans the diminutive space, touching wall at its head and its foot. You can’t walk around the bed to get across the room: You have to climb over it.

Above: Barely a bath. The Maynes' living style is "very open," says Blythe, "not too many doors anywhere, no interior locks." Exhibit A: this bath, downstairs, with a sink Thom devised of metal plates. Water is summoned by foot pedals and flows from the overhead pipe, through the perforated panel that is the "countertop," then down the angled plate and into the shower drain.


It is this wildly free thinking that thrills, as much as Mayne’s brand-new nature and science museum does, 1,300 miles away. But the country’s coolest empty-nesters — their boys are now men, off on their own adventures — don’t sit primly around this little machine for living, like two Bauhaus snoots. They relish being in it, talking freely between the open spaces, tending to the tiny garden out back, tweaking the house when they want to and filling the place with mementoes, oddities, highly personal art and plenty of life — “like the Italians,” Thom surmises. “When we think we’re ready to move, we change the house, then we fall back in love with it.” Blythe likes seeing traces of all those changes as the house evolves. She should. The architect responsible for it seems to know what he’s doing. His profession’s top honor — the Pritzker Architecture Prize — dangles from around the neck of a sculpted head, tucked away in a little sliver of an office off the bedroom.

The communal dining space, above, with a dramatically cantilevered, 16-foot table weighted at one end only, much like a diving board. The table can slide back and forth between the two columns. The exterior wall also slides, opening the house to the outdoors. The concrete floor tiles throughout the first floor were laid during an early renovation of the house, and cost $1.25 each. “I was an artist then,” Mayne says. “We had no money.”



Share.Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail to someone
Loading Facebook Comments ...