When SFMOMA gave J. Mayer H. a show, the Berlin-based studio couldn’t have been expected to do anything tame. No framed drawings, no models here. After all, this is the firm that designed a Danish science museum in the shape of a hot rod flame, and stretched out an old German house like silly putty to make a new one. The buildings wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dr. Seuss book. So when J. Mayer H. designs a museum show—Patterns of Speculation: J. Mayer H., curated by Henry Urbach and up now through July 7—this is what you get: a web of thick stripes crawling over the ceiling and floor, video screens on leaning columns showing loops of the studio’s work, and in the background, a low, rumbling drone.

The inspiration was data protection patterns, those designs on the inside of security envelopes, and the soundtrack is one of those patterns, digitized and translated into audio. The show wraps you in data—an “information mist,” Jürgen Mayer H., the firm’s principal, calls it.

This is his first solo museum show, but the central conceit isn’t new. That mist—part high-tech wizardry, part gee-whiz playtime—hovers over all his work. Visitors to Stadt.House, a town hall in Stuttgart, walk through a computer-animated waterfall to get inside, and in 2005 they could leave their mark on Urbach’s New York gallery, which Mayer covered in heat-sensitive paint. Forget about a building’s “users.” To Mayer, they’re participants, acting with—or subject to—the architecture. From his office in Berlin, Mayer explained how he brought that idea to SFMOMA.


William Bostwick: Where did the idea for the show come from?

Jürgen Mayer H.: When Henry became curator [at SFMOMA], he talked to me. That was about two-and-a-half years ago. It was very informal, just going back and forth about the concept—how do you display architecture in a museum, and what new ways of displaying architecture can we use? We wanted an environment, an atmosphere, not just models and drawings in front of you.

WB: What’s wrong with models and drawings?

JMH: You remain an observer, and the sense of scale that’s so important with architecture is missing. You need imagination to see it. It’s like if you’re a composer, you can hear the notes you’re reading, but if you’re not trained as an architect, it would be hard to understand.

WB: So what did you do instead? What does your show look like?

JMH: We didn’t want just another white cube. There’s a super-graphic—a pattern enlarged to fill the space—and it’s continued on the floor and walls. So you’re enveloped in the structure. And it reaches out with fingers into the neighboring rooms. We broke the boundaries of a limited space. The space changes. The projections pulsate, and there’s a soundtrack in the background.

WB: What does it sound like?

JMH: Like lions sitting in the corners, talking to each other. Very deep, bubbling, like rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

WB: Is the show a version of your architecture? What does it say about your work?

JMH: Well, there’s a certain idea about atmosphere—sound, smell, surfaces, media, different levels of information. And it’s important that you experience something. The show is about the different possibilities of how to experience space. It was very important that we made the show on a one-to-one scale. There are projections on the ceiling, on the walls. You can lean against one wall and look up, or stand back and see something else. You think about distances—how far back you need to go to focus on something—and how to translate that to larger buildings.

WB: Is architecture art?

JMH: That’s a question of reception, of the environment it’s presented in. But I’m not really interested in disciplines. Only when I’m asked these questions do I think about it. Personally, I don’t really care.