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February 12, 2009

Last week I sat down over an Anchor Steam with Jurgen Mayer H. of the Berlin-based architecture firm J. Mayer H. at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's cafe. In the first part of my interview, posted yesterday, Mayer and I talked about the new show up at SFMoMA featuring the first ten years of his firm's work, "Patterns of Speculation," running through July 7. In the second part of our talk we moved outward from the exhibit, which is well worth your time, to bigger questions of inspiration and a chance to take stock of what we can expect from J. Mayer H. in the next couple years. Here's part two of our conversation:

What is your firm working on now?

We are designing a pen for the small company Lamy and we have a new group of apartments going up in Berlin soon. We’re also finishing up a crazy apartment for a couple who live in San Francisco and Berlin. It’s a crazy apartment in Berlin with no white surfaces it all. It’s very colorful.

What do you want to design that you haven’t yet?

Oh, we manage to get all sorts of interesting things. I prefer to be surprised. I mean, I’ve never done a hospital or a hotel or a train station, but I’d be happy to do a sewage system if it had some point of design interest. I’m always trying to discover the unusual, the new, the hidden qualities of things that have been done before. We don’t specialize in a certain typology; we specialize in being special. Ha, I like that sentence! I’ll have to remember that.

The Stadthaus Scharnhauser Park was one of J. Mayer H.'s early buildings.

What’s exciting you right now, outside of architecture? In music or literature?

Conlon Nancarrow is a composer I love right now. He was a contemporary of John Cage, an American who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the 30s. After he got back to the US he moved to Mexico. He was not happy with the level of musicians that he met down there, so he started to compose for player piano. Lots of little pieces, short pieces that can be only played on the player piano because either they’re too fast or too complex for a human to play. It’s essentially pre-computer music. That’s totally exciting to me.

And in architecture or design? Do you have a favorite designer right now? Is someone totally overrated?

I always hate this question.

Because you get into trouble when you answer it?

No, because usually I like two or three things by one architect. So when I say “I love him” it means that I love it all. Which is rarely true.

You know who I do like, though. I like Konstantin Gricic. I think he’s pushing technology and new forms of aesthetics. He’s exploring new ground.

The Kaiser Wilhem Memorial Church in Berlin, one of Mayer's favorite buildings.

One of my favorite buildings is in Berlin. It’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church by Egon Eiermann from the 1950s. The old church was only left as a ruin after the war, but Eiermann added a hexagonal tower here and another building there. Now the church complex is like a coffee table set. One building is the coffee, one is the sugar. They are a family of objects that all relate to each other. I think about that place a lot when I design.

Tell me about the name of your firm, J. Mayer H. You’re Jürgen Mayer, so where does the H come from?

I have a friend who once joked that any name sounds more elegant with an H. in it. But that’s only half of it. Americans may not realize it, but my name, Jürgen Mayer, is totally generic in Germany. It’s like John Smith. Plus, when I was starting out, there were already two other people in the arts with the name Jürgen Mayer, so it would have been totally confusing.

So my middle name actually starts with an H, it’s Hermann. For a while I thought about rotating all the names, so that one day the firm is called Hermann Mayer Jürgen, then the next it’s Mayer Jürgen Hermann, but that’s a mess too. Really I was just trying not to be confused with the other Jürgen Mayers. There’s not much strategy to it, though now I occasionally get all these compliments for branding, which seems strange to me.

ADA1 is an office building in Hamburg J. Mayer H. completed in 2007.

Anything else you want to tell me? Scores to settle with grade school classmates who aren’t as successful?

You know, I don’t really trust it. Being successful, I mean. For so long we struggled, not just to make money, but to figure out what to do artistically. So now that we are having so much less trouble finding accomplices, finding clients and partners who know that architecture is a journey, I almost don’t believe it. I get overwhelmed by all the attention that we’ve gotten, which makes me think that I’ve got to be especially careful. We try to take our work very seriously. We stick to our agenda and keep trying to push things forward.

Now my fear in the current economy is that clients are going to become more conservative, that they’ll pull everything in and only do what’s safe. When the truth is that now is the time that we must really make something special.

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