written by:
February 11, 2009

Last week I took a walk through the new exhibit “Patterns of Speculation” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with Jürgen Mayer H., principle and founder of the Berlin-based architecture firm J. Mayer H. An open room filled with 10 screens mounted within organic blocks springing out of the floor, and three large projections showing the firms’ work, “Patterns of Speculation” runs through July 7 and is Mayer’s first solo show, but not his first work to appear at SFMoMA. As we talked, Mayer explained his fascination with data protection codes, where he sees his work moving and what the support of SFMoMA has meant to him.

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We finished our conversation over a beer in the museum café before Mayer raced off to sign copies of J. Mayer H., the new monograph on his firm’s work published by Hatje Cantz and co-edited by architecture and design curator Henry Urbach. Here’s what else he had to say:

Tell me about “Patterns of Speculation” and how it came to be.

“Patterns of Speculation” came about due to my interest in data protection patterns, of which I’ve collected over 300 in the last 14 years. Data protection patterns are those patterns you see on the insides of envelopes, pay stubs, on invoices and they seek to protect certain data from sight. I think they’re a really interesting strategy for controlling who sees what.  I love these patterns as contemporary ornaments meant to protect data. Soon they won’t be necessary though, as information goes digital.

To me they’re like a text without meaning. A primordial soup. A language before language. One that doesn’t try to mean anything, one that only tries to hide meaning. In my little obsession I managed to trace the earliest of these patterns to a German printer, actually, who started making them in 1913.

As an architect, I’m concerned with facades and the structures behind them and how they interact with public and private space. That was the jumping off point for both this exhibition and the book.

Why have this exhibition now, simply because the monograph is out?

This is actually a perfect time to have Patterns of Speculation because it’s a kind of 10-year anniversary for the office. December of last year was our 10 year anniversary, so this, our first solo show, and the book are a nice way to remember our first years. The curator Henry Urbach has been following us the whole way and we’ve had work in the SF MoMA before, so this is a great place to do this current show.

A standard security envelope with a data protection pattern on the interior.

There is a William Gibson book called
Pattern Recognition and your show is called “Patterns of Speculation.” Were you thinking of Gibson as you put this together?

No, I wasn’t. I’ve read some of Gibson’s early writings but I don’t know this one. I’ll have to pick it up for the plane ride home. But you make an interesting point, because I think that this exhibition has a certain science fiction element to it, like so much of Gibson’s work.

I’m very interested in the architecture that was left over from the 70s, and in some of that you see this kind of optimism in what can be done, and what technology can allow us to do. Post-modernism was very interested in looking to the past to validate itself, but now I think we have this forward-looking moment again, this optimism that I think we had in the 70s.

Our time allows us to look forward again and project current technologies, forms, and concepts into the future. The notion that we have a positive future is very central to my work, and I think that a lot of science fiction has that same idea.

The exhibition "Lie" at the Henry Urbach Architecture Gallery featured temperature-sensitive sheets with a data protection pattern print.

In addition to patterns, which adorn many of your buildings, you seem to love surfaces in general. Tell me about your work that records the surface temperature of the people using it.

I really like sensorial aspects of buildings, so for my pieces "Housewarming" or "Heat Seat" [a chair that registers and shows the heat stamp of the sitter] and "Lie" [bed sheets that register the heat of the sleeper by changing color] I wanted to show a temperature landscape of the body. Of course, how the materials react have to do with how hot the person is, but what I like is that the surface of this material takes a record of a person, and then slowly it fades away.

"In Heat" was an installation at the Henry Urbach Architecture Gallery in 2005-2006 that featured surfaces that took heat impressions from visitors.

Why did you start with temperature? Are you also interested in a person’s weight  or moisture, or health? What about a material that could register if you have a cough?

Temperature is in some ways the easiest, or the most direct way to take biometric information from someone, but we could do other things with other materials. You could make a chair that takes a person’s heart rate, like those monitors at the gym. Or you could use humidity or even make pheromone recordings.

Click here for Part II of my interview with Jürgen Mayer H..

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