Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mark Foster Gage

There's a new kid in town and he's got some choice words for those currently creating the world's tallest and most revered skyscrapers. While Mark Foster Gage's firm isn't entirely new to the scene - and having taught at Yale for over a decade, Gage isn't a novice when it comes to design theory - his visions are wildly refreshing, and his overwhelmingly positive press should have institutional architects shaking in their Eames Lounges. 

In fact, his study for Helsinki's Guggenheim prompted Arata Isozaki to call him "WEIRD," a truth Gage accepted with pride. 

Gage's designs are as otherworldly as anything you can expect to see in The Force Awakens, perhaps even beyond the visuals of Hollywood's greatest science fiction. While the most ambitious of his firm's designs are relegated to paper and 3D printed models, he's offering the world a vision into a future that design lovers have been craving ever since Frank Gehry balled up a piece of tinfoil and called it a museum.

His latest work, codenamed "The Khaleesi," which should be apparent to any Game of Thrones fan, challenges Manhattan's rapidly growing skyline, growth which painfully caters to the status quo. 

More than any other city in the Western World, the wealth of New York's new millennium has rendered its once eclectic cityscape of masonry and steel unrecognizable to its 20th Century past. In the face of rapid change and short attention spans, this global center is breeding skyscrapers - very tall skyscrapers - like overwatered kudzu. 

There's no question that Manhattan's sprawling skyline of blue glass, geometric silver shapes, and sheer height is impressive. But once the novelty of its renaissance has worn off, once you step back and objectively look at what New York City is visually becoming, its to-be skyline looks less like a diversified hub of capitalism and more like a mammoth university of the future. 

Its glass curtains are less about current architectural trends and more about the economics of architecture, a point Gage drives home in a recent interview. From New York's Bank of America Tower to the World Trade Center, Manhattan's architects have been playing fast and loose with shapes but ignoring texture, materials, and craft. 

That's where Mark Foster Gage comes in, and where the legitimacy of even the best Starchitects around the globe comes into question. Treating architecture as art first, art with purpose, Gage sets out to create the very best works, at least as he sees it, while ignoring economic (un)realities.

And why shouldn't he? In Manhattan of all places, why do architects cut corners when their audience is the 1%? Without delving into the political nightmare surrounding our country's polarized economy, we're reaching a threshold of decadence, one on par if not surpassing that of the Industrial Revolution, even the Roaring 20s. If these sky scraping towers are finding billionaire tenants, why are architects sparing any expense?

From mansions on the Main Line to Central Park's sky scraping condos, it's easy to wonder if anything built during our 21st Century's Gilded Age will ever make it into the architectural history books that isn't a lesson in boring design.

Mark Foster Gage's "The Khaleesi"

Call Gage Steampunk Gothic, Bladerunneresque, or the Grace Jones of the built environment, as an academic of architecture he is ironically unfettered with any academic analysis of his own work. And that's exactly what sets him apart from the heard, and exactly why we'll be hearing more from him. 

In his interview with The Creators Project, Gage refers to his "High Resolution Architecture" in a manner that deliberately dodges meaning in lieu of his audience's "right to develop their own narratives."

To the artistically academic, that might sound like a copout, like an excuse to throw a bunch of rambling elements together for visual porn. If Gage's work were simply for the sake of raw stimulation, that argument would have merit. But his work - random as it may be - is a cohesive and direct reaction to a plugged-in world's desperate need and latent want for textual stimulation.  

As Gage puts it, "in the world of the Tweet, people are forgetting how much richer things can be - that you can't put into 140 characters."

Using the materials and technology available to the new millennium, Gage attacks today's architecture the way pioneers like I.M. Pei used reinforced concrete to reinvent the embodiment of bureaucracy through Brutalism. Like the Neo-Deco post offices and train stations of the 1950s, our cityscapes have plateaued on a dull sense of familiarity, even when well designed, built, and outfitted. 

Architecture holds a unique place in the Art World, namely in that it's so utterly expensive to build a building, especially a big one. While painters, sculptors, and musicians need to constantly evolve to maintain their relevance, architects only need to design one great building, then wash, rinse, and repeat.

As groundbreaking as Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and the late Michael Graves initially were, they abandoned their art and corporatized. Even Norman + Foster's Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, being hailed by critics as Philadelphia's first "World Class" skyscraper, is uncomfortably similar to Foster's twenty year old Commerzbank in Frankfurt.

Incredibly critical of Manhattan's recent building craze, Gage's criticism doesn't come from a place of arrogance, even when he calls the Freedom Tower "easy." It comes from a place of frustration, a place from which all lovers of architecture - art - can sympathize. 

Gage's Khaleesi may look like a chaotic mess of industrial, patriotic, and even garish elements, but didn't America say the same of Willis G. Hale and William H. Decker in the 19th Century? Didn't Philadelphia decry its own City Hall upon its completion for those very same reasons? 

Change is controversial, and those who challenge our perceptions are the men and women who create new worlds. Gage's Khaleesi may never happen, and even if it does, it may simply stand as a testament to a future we never saw. But even on paper, The Khaleesi serves as stark opposition to towering infill and asks us to demand more from those who build our cities, even if it isn't safe. 

Gage is young. He's versed in technology and attuned to the wants of several generations with very little representation in the industry. Regardless of his own youth, those generations - the Xs, Ys, and Millennials - deserve a voice in the field, and Gage's exaggerated imagery is what we've been waiting to emerge from the silent fog of repetitive, uninspired design. 

We tire of musicians and celebrity chefs who refuse to evolve and innovate, but we give art's most ever-present artists a pass on mediocrity even though we have to look at their buildings every day. Gage is the Lady Gaga of architecture: frightening, bold, obnoxious. He manages to be rhetorically pedantic and stunningly visionary at the same time. In those regards he is the voice of an architectural generation, a revolution for those BuzzFeeding, Tweeting, and Instagramming their sharp snap for irony and whimsy. 

Those who are too bored to look up, or too afraid to appear impressed, to shock them may be the ultimate, architectural feat. And if Manhattan doesn't want Gage, he's welcome in Philadelphia, a city still enthralled by our own, great Frank Furness, our Camille Paglia who told us to "Look Up." We get you. And we're not afraid to look up.