Game of Ornaments

December 5, 2011

Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Jürgen Mayer H., founder and principal of the cross-disciplinary studio J. Mayer H. Architects.


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Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain. © J. MAYER H.

In architecture, it is possible to follow particularly formed traditions and use widely known methods of design and construction and still create something new. Yet I think it is much more rewarding to try to define your own personal vision, to strive to find an individual hand and voice.

German architect Jürgen Mayer H. literally invented his own method of creating architectural compositions, one based on ornaments. We see them in our everyday lives, in the data protection patterns found within secure confidential mail envelopes or on checks and receipts in places hiding sensitive information.

Jürgen Mayer founded his company J. Mayer H. Architects in 1996 in Berlin. His projects have shown in numerous well-known museums and festivals including the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco, Netherlands Architecture Institute, Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, and the Venice Biennale. Designed by his bureau of 15 architects, projects are scattered around the world and include office, university, and residential complexes in Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Poland and Spain.

Projects of Jürgen Mayer and especially his interiors recall the work of Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler (1896-1965), who strived to create unifying spatial systems in which walls, floor, ceiling, furniture, as well as art pieces and other decorative objects would form a particular continuous and even “endless” space of the total harmony and interconnection.

A recent project, Metropol Parasol, was constructed over Plaza de la Encarnacion in the heart of Seville, Spain. A recreational complex, it’s reminiscent of a group of giant mushrooms, where in their shade lies a park, a concert arena and, inside of their “legs” and “hats,” are bars and restaurants, all interconnected by panoramic terraces that allow beautiful perspectives of the historical city center.

I caught up with Jürgen for breakfast at a stylish café in Park Slope, Brooklyn on the same day the architect lectured at Yale University. Of course, I could not refuse the pleasure of showing Jürgen a receipt, from my purchase in a furniture store, with a pattern that roughly evoked Chinese characters. The architect responded with curiosity and even asked if he could keep it. I tucked away the “rare” receipt as we began to talk.

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Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain. © J. MAYER H.

VB: Your work is related to your obsession with data protection patterns. How did this fascination begin and why do you find it so interesting?

JMH: It all began around 1995 when I did the “Housewarming” exhibition in Chicago. It was an installation with temperature-sensitive materials. There were surfaces painted with a thermochromic carbon-based pigment that fades as the temperature rises and brightens as it cools. The idea was about making visible what is typically not visible and exposing private information to the public. While working on this exhibit, I discovered that data protection patterns could be used as metaphor in architecture in such border situations that deal with something private behind and public in front, or neutral versus personalized. I used this special paper for creating the gallery guest book, so when people wrote on this ink-sensitive paper, they could not see what they were writing, but when you touch it the pattern disappears and it reveals the writing. This special paper is developed by NASA.

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Guest book, Housewarming exhibition, Chicago, USA, 1995. © J. MAYER H.

VB: Protection or security patterns are meant to conceal information. Are the patterns used in your projects also intended to conceal something?

JMH: We use these patterns in all possible scales and explore them in a variety of projects–from art installations to urban complexes. These patterns envelop and contain spaces and highlight ambivalent border situations between inside and outside.

VB: Could you describe the process of translating these patterns into architecture?

JMH: Every time, the process varies. Sometimes we may get inspired by a fragment of a particular pattern and it may be very directly used as an element in our project. We often play with patterns and develop them into different spatial possibilities. For us, patterns are metaphors that inspire us to do something that is not always visible at first.

VB: Would you ever use the same pattern twice?

JMH: We do have some favorite patterns and yes, we have done this. Patterns come in all kinds of variations: numbers, letters, graphics, cross hatchings, company logos, camouflage patterns… Data protection patterns have become our main source of inspiration. We are interested in surfaces and their material and sculptural potential. The more we work with these patterns, the more elaborate and generous we become.

VB: You are an expert on security patterns, right?

JMH: I did research on this topic and it seems that these patterns sometimes hide their own history. But the oldest such security pattern I came across was developed in 1913 in a printing house in Berlin based on Hebrew characters. My assumption is that the need for security patterns came with the invention of carbon paper. While writing invoice originals and receipts at the same time, certain information has to be blocked out. Therefore you need these strategic patterns to obscure sensitive data.

VB: How does your work address a particular site or context?

JMH: The main context is our body of work developed in the last fourteen years. The other context is the site. We look around to find something interesting and specific that could be abstracted and explored. Scale is a very important concept to me. I often change the scale of various elements found on site. Such practice introduces an interesting and strange quality and makes people look twice to see something in unrecognizable forms. So in a way, I see my projects as certain lenses through which surrounding context is looked to see something new with a fresh eye. Design process is messy and intuitive. There is no one strategy. Sometimes the context leads and other times ideas come from outside sources, such as patterns.

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Sarpi Border Checkpoint. © Ucha Tsotseria.

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Sarpi Border Checkpoint. © Jesko Malkolm Johnsson-Zahn.

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New Airport Building in Mestia, Georgia. © J. MAYER H.

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New Airport Building in Mestia, Georgia. © J. MAYER H.

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New Airport Building in Mestia, Georgia. © J. MAYER H.

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New Airport Building in Mestia, Georgia. © J. MAYER H.

VB: In your interiors, you tend to blur distinctions between floor, walls, and ceiling, as well as between architecture, art, and the viewer, producing continuous, endless spaces. Could you talk about the intention of these spaces?

JMH: We don’t distinguish different disciplines. We have interest in nature, technology, communication, and how the human body relates to space. Also, working with different clients leads to different discourses and feedback that also produces a certain context that makes our work different from project to project. In terms of the continuation of surfaces, we are interested in developing all inclusive environments and in speculation of what space could be rather than what it is in itself. The architecture of Frederick Kiesler is a big inspiration. What I try to achieve in my work is to use it as a medium to create spaces that go beyond programmatic needs and leave open areas for potential invention of program. The intention is to allow and to invent potential for what we cannot even predict or know. I want architecture itself to lead us to potential discoveries. And already after our spaces are created, it is the people who could discover certain potential of which even the architect himself might be unaware.

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In Heat, HUA Gallery, New York, 2005. © J. MAYER H.

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Exhibition Level Green – The Concept of Sustainability, Volkswagen Group Forum, Autostadt, Wolfsburg, 2009. © Uwe Walter.

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Exhibition Level Green – The Concept of Sustainability, Volkswagen Group Forum, Autostadt, Wolfsburg, 2009. © Uwe Walter.

VB: Another of your preoccupations is the use of thermosensitive materials that are often incorporated into your gallery installations. Why is this act of documenting traces of body presence important?

JMH: To me, this has to do with dealing with issues such as private versus public and highlighting our understanding of everyday life. Today this concept goes beyond gallery space. We have our private conversations on mobile phones, but we can always be traced and surveyed. The relation of what is private and public, what is exposed and concealed, is changing with new technology and new social forms. In my exhibitions I make people more conscience of these conditions.

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Temperature Sensitive Object, Archilab, Orléans, France, 2001. Courtesy Galerie Magnus Müller, Berlin. © J. Mayer H.

VB: Let’s talk about your education. You studied at the University of Stuttgart, then went to Cooper Union here in New York, went back to Stuttgart to graduate and finally, did your Master’s at Princeton. What roles did these different schools play in your architectural discoveries?

JMH: I had a very solid engineering-based education in Germany, which was aimed at producing good practicing architects. But I knew something was missing because I didn’t have a clear idea about how to develop my own thought or an architectural language. Cooper Union was very painful for me in the beginning because, instead of dealing with a real site or a program, I could be given text of Noah’s Ark from the Bible and be asked to develop a project. This was very strange and confusing. But then I understood that nothing could be taken directly. You have to argue about everything and prove why it works for you and relate everything to your own ideas. Basically, they force you to think about why you want to do architecture. So in Germany I learned how and here I learned why. At Princeton it was also very conceptual. Architecture was used as a critique and discourse to make commentaries on contemporary life and culture.

VB: Is it important for you to develop a distinct style?

JMH: It is more important to develop an attitude and a particular thinking. And if thinking is different and distinct, then the visual language of architecture should be different.

VB: One of the terms describing your architecture is an elastic space. How else would you define it?

JMH: Architecture is a catalyst which is not a background to an everyday life, but something that provokes you to rethink spatial conditions. I always ask myself, how do we live? How do we occupy our spaces? I am looking for architecture that would foresee changes, or better yet, allow inventive social changes to take place.

After the interview, I sent Jürgen a color copy of the receipt with the pattern that attracted his interest. I have no doubt that very soon somewhere in Shanghai or Tbilisi there will appear a building whose forms will evoke the pattern on my receipt. Impatiently, I am waiting for that moment to come.