When you first hear the premise behind much of Berlin-based architect Jürgen Mayer’s work, it seems like a joke. Most of it, explains the text to his eponymous show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), comes from an investigation of data protection patterns: those sets of numbers, shapes, letters, or symbols used on the insides of pay slips and IRS envelopes to hide the information inside. The patterns, writes SFMOMA’s architecture and design curator Henry Urbach, “recapitulate important properties of architectural surfaces—such as the way boundaries control movement and visibility across space—while providing a contemporary language of ornament.”
It’s no joke. This “language of ornament,” inspired by what appears to be a random exploration, has led to some of the most intriguing formal designs in the world. Clients in Europe have embraced the conceptual practice of his firm, J. Mayer H., and built or are building over 35 of his projects, which move the already tenuous line between fine art and architecture that much closer to the side of art.
At first look, the presentation of his work seems equally ridiculous. Three huge, white, abstract plaster sculptures that slightly resemble dogs sit among a crisscross of floor and ceiling graphics, projected images of Mayer's work, and video clips of these protection patterns, all accompanied by buzzing, race-car-like noises. As you linger, the impact of the work seems to grow in significance.
The most obvious connection comes from the videos of the work itself, beamed from openings in the sculptural installations that, it turns out, are themselves giant versions of the data patterns. The slideshows capture misshapen architectural forms such as the fractured, off-kilter Court of Justice in Hasselt, Belgium; the mushroom-like Metro Parasol in Seville, Spain; and the web-like Mensa Moltke, a student canteen at the Karlsruhe University in Karlsruhe, Germany. Images of some of his sculptures, like his wavy green blob called beat.wave for the Pulse art show in Miami, are difficult to distinguish from the architecture.
Shots of the buildings and sculptures are mingled with images of the data protection patterns, also projected and warped, on small TVs built into the sculptures and drawn on the floor and ceiling. If you listen carefully, the abstract patterns inform the hectic sounds around you. Every part of the show is made up of these patterns, which infuse and overwhelm the senses.
They also make the point that this formal investigation, while perhaps random, has the capacity to create and warp just about anything. Mayer is a master at studying and manipulating pure form and pattern, and the potential outgrowths of this investigation seem endless. They produce designs made possible with today’s sophisticated building and computer technologies. With the help of engineering firms like Arup, which contributed to several of his structures, they also showcase the fantastic structures that this combination can create. In Mayer’s architecture, this investigation of data patterns epitomizes a desire for new, integrated ornament, and crystallizes in built form the chaos of our times.
The show, like most architecture exhibitions, is hemmed in by the limitations of trying to capture an art best experienced in person. But its array of media provides ample inspiration to begin thinking about the possibilities of Mayer’s work. If this degree of thought can go into a building’s envelope, imagine how Mayer’s talent could transform buildings as integrated systems, or conceive of whole urban environments.