I would venture to say that nobody working in architecture today makes images that are more beautiful or bases his designs on a stronger conceptual stance than Mark Foster Gage. Unfortunately, he might take that as an insult. That is because Gage claims to want to rescue architecture from both its obsession on research and concepts, as well as on its reliance on the production of pretty pictures. In one of the essays he has collected, together with the projects he has produced over the last decade of practice, in the scrumptious new monograph, Mark Foster Gage: Projects and Provocations, that Rizzoli has just printed, he rails against what he calls the “existing pseudo-military-industrial complex of ‘research architecture’ ” (“In Defense of Design,” page 97), which he claims:
[L]egitimizes everything from the sincere, though simplistic, architectural solutions that purport actually to solve ethnic or social disparity, to the aforementioned study of local zoning codes that is turned directly into a building. “Research architecture” as a form of practice liberates designers from the need to design, allowing “design” to be accomplished without the punishable evidence of the architect’s, or even human, will—and it can easily be heavily fortified with a regiment of diagrams, arrows, and icons, all masquerading as evidence of “pure,” and therefore impenetrable, research.
At the same time, in “The Monograph on the Hill” (page 12), he admits that:
[M]y office spends an inordinate amount of time trying to make things look real before they actually are, or in spite of them never actually being. While this constitutes a form of representation—it is the genre of representation that comes closest to actual realism, thus most commonly referred to as “photo-realism.” It is a type of representation with the ambition to look as if it were a photo taken of an existing reality. It is also a form of representation that wishes it did not have to exist.
So, what does Gage want his architecture to achieve with those images? In another essay, “Faster Than Language: Architectural Form and the Subjugation of Concepts” (page 38), he claims that: “Instead of a top-down catholic interpretation of architectural meaning by a critical elite, architectural experience now exists as unfiltered reception through deep affect,” which he then identified as “emotional sympathy, aesthetic enticement and ecstatic moments of pre-conceptual clarity that are perceived by the viewer.” The way to achieve that, he says in “Deus Ex Machina: From Semiology to the Elegance of Aesthetics” (page 198), is by trying to achieve an “elegance” that comes from a manipulation of the latest computer and communication techniques: “The supple surfaces, flowing vectors, and allusions to movement enabled through topological and animate modeling techniques point clearly to a novel sensuousness of form, an eroticism of plasticity awaiting some future critical encounter.”
This elegance is a hybrid, not created from a “monoculture” of one or another rendering technique or software, and goes beyond using a formal system or grid and collage to engage in a kind of “kitbashing” (putting parts of different models sets together to make a hybrid) that produces continually mutating (at least, dare I say it, conceptually) and monstrous objects.
It is important for Gage that the buildings have these qualities because he is a strong believer in what has come to be called Speculative Realism or Object-Oriented Ontology (Triple O, in student-speak). For Gage, that means a recognition that we understand or are even aware of an object, including a building, only when we don’t use it or when it breaks down, for otherwise it is just a tool we employ and thus dissolves into our application of it. This also means that the building coheres only in terms of aesthetics, which is to say, when we look at it and subject it to a form of judgment—otherwise, it falls apart into its materials, spaces, forms, and uses.
Out of such principles and methods then comes a work that is to the classic period of blob-itecture that first heralded the advent of computer-aided design in architecture as the high Gothic cathedrals of the late Middle Ages were to the Cistercian monasteries—soaring, defying gravity, and composed of multiple parts and motifs that repeat and build up in scale before exploding into finials and eroded openings. Structures such as his proposed high-rise for West 57th Street in New York, a house for the English Countryside, and his proposal for a concert hall in Kaunas, Lithuania, are so luscious and intricate in their forms that they lure you into an endlessly stacked and layered world where you look for ever more detail and rhythms.
My favorite of all his designs are those which are a kind of research and development, such as the proposal to dam up the East River to create an agricultural preserve between Brooklyn and Manhattan, complete with intake towers and other bits of infrastructure that evoke the WPA era when America made great architecture. I am also intrigued by the images of his recent lab at SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles) on “Geothermal Futures,” which include an exploded diagram that seems to be both a giant machine and the whole Earth, as well as more objects that are somewhere between geological formations and human decoration.
As a whole, this works evokes sets for science fiction films, on which Gage no doubt grew up (although they are among the few sources he does not cite), while in the details you can find everything from Mayan motifs to children’s toys, human arms, and dildoes. It is a strange world indeed, and an elegant one, that succeeds in disquieting and delighting exactly because it so strangely familiar. Art Deco and Gothic echoes haunt buildings that appear to be made of the latest plastics, in a way that makes you see Jazz Age panache coming together with the glamour of contemporary popular culture. If I can find an appropriate analogy, it’s not in architecture, but in the aesthetics of Lady Gaga—for whom we should not be surprised that Gage designed a costume in 2011.
What makes it all work is Gage’s skill as a designer. He was trained as a classicist at the University of Notre Dame, and he includes his undergraduate thesis project about Ellis Island at the beginning of the book. That handful of drawings shows his ability to control a system of elements and make them appear with the elegance that is proper to classicism—although, even here, there are already quirks present in the scale and Corinthian nature of his columns and capitals and the elongations of some of the proportions. His floor plans are marvels of resolution, reminding me of the virtuoso ability in that field that allowed Robert Venturi and James Stirling to adventure into unknown fields of architectural imagination—fields that turned out, of course, to also be strangely familiar.
In the end, Gage claims (in “Deus Ex Machina”) that his “sensuousness of form, an eroticism of plasticity,” and his “ability to curate mutation,” “heralds the production of a new and entirely contemporary species of intelligence—one not beholden to historical models of signification, but one liberated and enabled by the ability to produce, control, and understand a crucial aspect of the judgment and consumption of an architecture of irrefutable contemporaneity.” Even more, “architecture is mutating from being a discipline of building toward one that is not only responsible for building but also defining how we perceive our collective reality” (in “Etiologies of Beauty,” page 196).
These are big claims, and I am not sure that this coffee-table-book-sized presentation of Gage’s work proves them. I am also not sure that seeing his work constructed—beyond the loft renovations and store interiors that already exist—will make the case, as the completed building will, by the architect’s own definition, become just another tool. What we need to see is how such elegance makes the kind of fundamental social and cultural changes Mark Foster Gage and the other adherents of Triple O claim it will produce.