STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Rebel. Bad boy. Audacious. A maverick. These are not words used to describe the lead of the new TV reality show. These are editors describing a 63-year-old Los Angeles architect who may soon become an international star with the tower he's designing in Paris.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found Thom Mayne in L.A.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Even though Thom Mayne's talk races like a Ferrari, he is an SUV kind of guy steering toward downtown L.A. and the building he designed for Caltrans, the California transportation department. Caltrans rules this freeway city - they make the roads, maintain them. Mayne's headquarters building looks from some angles like a dull gray, metal cigar box. Fifteen hundred people work inside, many quite happily.

Mr. THOM MAYNE (Designer, Phare Tower): Hello, I'm Thom Mayne, the architect.

STAMBERG: The what?

Mr. MAYNE: We just called in for a parking space.

Unidentified Man: Okay. What's your name, sir?

Mr. MAYNE: Thom Mayne.

Unidentified Man: You're the guy who built this building.

Mr. MAYNE: Yes.

Unidentified Man: Designed this building. I know, I know. Before you…

Mr. MAYNE: Are you still going to talk to me?

Unidentified Man: Okay

Mr. MAYNE: All right (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: The big horizontal gray building has solar voltaic walls that make energy from sunlight. To catch the light, Mayne installed random horizontal metal bumps and awnings that raise and lower like eyelashes when the sun hits. So the Caltrans building is in motion just like the freeways. It uses light as a building material.

Mr. MAYNE: It becomes the surface of the building, and it not only is a building material but is dynamic. It's changing and it represents the kind of life in the city.

Unidentified Man: And the automobile, of course.

Mr. MAYNE: That's what this place is about, right? Service of the automobile.

STAMBERG: And artwork, long horizontal bars of neon, mostly red, race along the sides of the building. This looks to me like a lot of red brake lights on cars.

Mr. MAYNE: Exactly. And they're completely moving. If you just stand here over the day you're going to see continuous random patterns.

STAMBERG: Heading west now to his office, Thom Mayne says the important public architecture that's been popping up in Los Angeles in recent years - Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, Richard Meier's Getty Museum - are signs that his town is growing up.

Mr. MAYNE: I moved here as a young boy at 10 years old in 1954 and lived in the so-called suburbs at Whittier, and they used to be orange groves and avocado groves. This is a city that's really developed from post World War II. So it's a 50-year-old city if you think about it. That's 16.5 million people, right?

So it's an enormously large village, really. And I think what we're talking about is a maturing, is the beginning of a city that understands the requirements for civic architecture that embodies and represents its status globally.

STAMBERG: Yeah, wow. I like that.

Unidentified Woman: You name it.

STAMBERG: At Morphosis, Thom Mayne's Santa Monica office, the young staff is designing a structure for a city whose most beautiful, romantic and beloved heart was built centuries ago. They're doing a glass office tower for Paris -the tallest structure to go up there since the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Mayne's 68-storey landmark will loom over an area called La Defense - a big, bleak, faceless business complex on the outskirts of town. And you're doing it in one of the coldest, meanest, most awful spaces maybe in the world but certainly in Paris because it's outside is that gorgeous, old city. So what you have to think about doing that?

Mr. MAYNE: Well, it starts very much connected to the critique or the implicit critique you're giving, right? You're not…

STAMBERG: There is nothing implicit about that because it's…

Mr. MAYNE: I guess it wasn't…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYNE: I don't have quite the same sense you do. Clearly, there's a problematic with the nature of the scale and in the vast plain. I was there as a storm took place and I was making the joke of, like, that I needed sticky shoes because, literally, I was being swept off a plaza. And I'm a fairly big guy, I'm literally hanging on to my dear life.

STAMBERG: The new tower may give people something better to hang on to. The lines of Thom Mayne's tower are soft, sensuous. It torques like a torso twisting a little bit. It could humanize the most inhuman space and harmonize with the old Paris, spread out in a distance. Mr. Mayne is not one bit intimidated by creating a modern icon for this iconic city.

Mr. MAYNE: In Paris there has to be a presence. History becomes the most interesting when it's compared to the present. I mean there's a whole group of people that want to build new buildings that look like old buildings.

And it's ridiculous, right? It would be like riding a horse and buggy and somehow cherishing a horse and buddy. I think what's so lovely for me to work in that city is that we have an opportunity to use all of the devices available to us that, in fact, give meaning to the centuries of history of this 2,000-year-old city.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Thom Mayne, the audacious rebel, does not talk about responsibility or being daunted by the Paris project. He doesn't speak of beauty, either. When asked what's beautiful, Mayne mentions Miles Davis and uses words like startling, compelling, energizing, new. So when told that his softly sexy Paris Tower is beautiful, the architect gets, well, nervous.

Mr. MAYNE: It felt fantastic (unintelligible). You know, this is the spookiest things about this project for me, is that we are not known for doing buildings that people like. Some people think they're fabulous and they think they're really interesting.

Other people think they're absolutely horrifying, and they say it. And there doesn't seem to be anybody in the middle ground. This thing, it's been so weird. We got such great press - everybody seems to like it - that it's actually scaring me. I'm, like, going have I lost it. I'm worried that we've tripped up somewhere.

STAMBERG: Thom Mayne's Tower is called the Phare, French for the lighthouse. A tower of light for the city of light. It's scheduled to be finished in 2012.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: He may not be known, as he said, for doing buildings that people like. But two years ago, in 2005, Thom Mayne won architecture's most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize. You can see pictures of his design from the Paris Tower and images of the Los Angeles Caltrans building by going to our Web site npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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