Mark Foster Gage proposes a disruptive way of understanding architecture, by re-appreciating the objects derived from its practice. According to his theory, this drift on architecture appreciation, will tune the way in which architecture is perceived by the public, but also the way in which we classify it.
This project is feasible but also constitutes a theoretical statement on architecture practice. In this sense, Gage highlights the project’s tight bond with Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), a theory that belongs to one of the most discussed schools of thought during the current decade — speculative realism. Analysing this project within the OOO prism is vital to the understanding of what habits are undermining our ability to assess architecture according to Gage.
Mark Foster Gage Architects’ proposal for the new Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki is a 12,000 square meter experiment to be located in the city’s waterfront. A handmade design that is constructed only from recycled 3D models directly downloaded from the internet. All the figures displayed are intended to lose their meaning or symbolism and achieve their relevance just by their sole existence as a new architectural aesthetic. In words of David Ruy about the OOO, the theory that guides this project:
The proposal for the Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki is a declaration of intent, a manifesto. As architects, we are used to asking: “Where does this thing comes from? What do you want to communicate with this other thing?” However, our need for an explanation, has led us into appreciating buildings for their justifications rather than for their qualities as objects themselves. The conversation with Gage as well as other numerous articles and lectures from him and his partners found on the internet, give us a strange feeling of conceptual relief.
Carlos Romo-Melgar: Is there any intention behind the T shape of the proposal?
Mark Foster Gage: The overall shape of the building elevates the largest galleries — which is something most museum do not do. Typically there is a compromise between the size of a gallery and the view it is afforded. By moving the galleries up it allows for large scale exhibitions in a rather dramatic upper floor. A ballroom in the sky if you will — also great for fundraising which is just about as important as art to the contemporary museum.
CRM: How do you deal with exhibition space design with a proposal with a complex interior surfaces?
MFG: There are movable vertical partitions in the space, similar to those found in Louis Kahn’s Center for British Art at Yale University.
CRM: What rules guide the layout of the elements that appear on the building façade?
MFG: No rules. Just old fashioned “whatever looked best”.
CRM: So the question is, how has the design process been?
MFG: It was as random as can be done without having a randomized system. It’s done by hand, quickly, and just according to whatever seemed right. That is to say it was done intuitively, using what architects used to call talent I think…
CRM: The result seems to be an sculptural allegory that connects (somehow) with Rococo style’s overload of elements, but also with Pop culture (with Takashi Murakami, for example).
MFG: It has nothing to do with Rococo, or Baroque, or sculpture, or iconography. This makes people so uncomfortable, when I just say I designed it because I liked the way it looked and functioned. We’ve become so accustomed to giving reasons for every architectural move that we’ve trained the public to not even allow for pure design anymore. Instead, architects have tricked themselves into believing they’re a service industry that just solves problems and that can’t be a discipline that operates aesthetically. This is odd as most of the public could care less about our diagrams and judge architecture aesthetically; so this building was designed accordingly. It works, it’s programmed properly, there’s everything that is needed to have a functioning building but we don’t use those decisions as excuses to justify the project. It’s justified because the end result is, we think, pretty great.
CRM: What does your proposal say about contemporary museums? What are museums to you today?
MFG: We hope that our design says that museums today are unbearably conservative. Very close to my home in New York City the new Whitney Museum of American Art by Renzo Piano opened. Now, Renzo Piano is a great architect, one of the two responsible for the Pompidou in Paris (with Richard Rogers). The Pompidou is very forward thinking, whereas the Whitney could very easily be confused with a high end department store. This is the case with the MoMA as well. Museums are becoming precious white boxes and the only “architecture” is how they’re sunlit. If I want sunlight I’ll go outside; I want great institutions to have great architecture, and decent lighting doesn’t really cut it.
The existence of a proposal like the one of MFGA, is nothing but the architectural echo of a common narrative on contemporary media: fear. We’ve become afraid of making decisions (speculatively speaking, we could say that in favour of being able to make a larger number of projects at the same time and, as a consequence, disclaim our responsibility as architecture professionals). We have “optimized” the compromising act of designing a building, leaving decision-making to other trusted operators such as data, inputs or research studies.
One step forward in Gage’s career is the project of the tower that gives a response to the new super-talls in Midtown, Manhattan. This speculative project illustrates similarly his intentions for the discipline:
“You’ve said that the gargoyles and sculptural elements aren’t symbolic. Where did that imagery come from?
Recombining manually the 3D models found on the internet has been the technique used by MFGA to design the façade of Helsinki’s Guggenheim. This process has been named Kitbashing by Gage, a technique used in prop design and model making.
As Gage comments in his participation in INKTalks, “Cutting Edge Architecture”, nowadays we cannot classify architecture by styles. The range of tools and techniques and interdisciplinary working processes, in which he frames his own career, provide us a wide diversity of case studies on architecture working field. He proposes, in this same talk, an array of conditional “What if…?” questions about the present of architecture. Among others, “What if architecture recycled not only physical materials, but also virtual ones?” This started as a one-year research initiative lead by Gage at Yale University. The technique involved recycling pre-existing digital models to produce high-resolution formal compositions. The final 0.9 meters tall model was a single 3D printed one, produced by Materialise in Belgium.
CRM: Why do you choose to use this specific iconography for the proposal? What are you responding to with the Helsinki proposal?
MFG: There is no specific iconography in this proposal; it’s made of randomly download 3D models that are combined without regard to their form or meaning. It’s more important that they are in the project as opposed to why they are in the project. This emerges from some writing I’ve been doing regarding the philosophical position of OOO, which values objects for themselves as opposed to their relationships with other things.
CRM: Is there any kind of list of the 3D models showcased in Helsinki proposal?
MFG: It’s quite random, I don’t actually know. Many people from my office worked on the project and that information wasn’t tracked.
The Kitbashing research continued with the life-sized materialisation of one part of the digital model made by the students. It was made by robotic stone carvers in Tuscany, on a solid marble block. This project, Disheveled Geometries, was a series of research seminars with Yale graduate students that produced a series of solid marble architectural prototypes studying with master Italian robotic stone carvers.
CRM: What would be the construction process for the building?
MFG: In both my New York office and at Yale where I’m the assistant dean we’ve been experimenting with CNC milling of marble surfaces. It’s actually quite easy, we have a number of completed prototypes. It’s a marble building, like the JP Morgan Library in New York, nearly mortarless. Expensive, yes, but worth it when it lasts a few centuries… yes.
It’s just stacked stone with a trabeated steel floor structure — a construction technique that’s over a century old. It’s easy, beautiful, and it lasts. Cities need to invest in architecture again and realize that it’s about identity. Do you want to be identified as a cheap mediocre city? Build a cheap mediocre museum. A city is more often than not judged by its institutions and their buildings. Nobody would visit Paris if it looked like Dallas, or Rome if it looked like Atlanta.
Object Oriented Ontology
The proposal for Helsinki upholds the importance of design in architecture practice. Its intentions are tightly related to Mark Foster Gage’s interpretation of the Object Oriented Ontology theory, a term coined by Graham Harman within the philosophical context of speculative realism, for which he was the pioneer. The core proposal of this theory is that objects have been underestimated in philosophy in favour of more radical positions that undermine objects considering them just a visible crust of a deeper underlying reality — the object as the addition of smaller elemental parts — or that overmine objects seeing them as a folk reality, since there is not an actual object beyond its qualities and relations.
OOO positions itself against what is generally called “the correlationist error”, heritage of the Kantian school of thought, in which human beings are privileged within ontology. Instead, OOO aims to move towards a democracy of objects.6
In the same direction, Gage draws a parallel with architecture practice, by linking these undermining/overmining lines of thought with the commonly named “research architecture”, a trend in architecture theory that is a drift from previous post-structural models.
In Mark Foster Gage’s application of OOO, undermining comes from the need of justifying architectural projects by their secondary features. In other words, to validate a project (or to assess its quality) by its functions rather than its whole existence (derived from some kind of talent, experience or professionalism).
Overmining occurs when the value of an architectural object vanishes in favour of its higher-order relations. For instance, its connectivity, its correct response to urban zoning, its participation in a wider system, or the reduction of the architectural object to a simplistic metaphor (buildings that remind us of a bird shape, buildings that come from a specific gesture, among others). Overmining is also important considering the architect-as-object side, that is to say, the validation of the architect for its role within society, avoiding its projectual competence:
MFGA’s proposal for the new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki, compared with other radical proposals that appeared in other historic moments, is not trying to establish a single line of action, but a thought-provoking one. In other words, it does not define a specific style or trend in architecture, but liberates architectural practice from bad habits. On the other hand, the proposal seeks to reconnect the architect and its public, letting the latter freely interpret the meaning and intentions behind the building, allowing the construction of alternative narratives.
The most remarkable feature of this project is the empowerment of a weird type of architecture that opposes simplification. According to OOO thoughts, the knowledge of an object is never exhausted by the understanding of its parts, relations with context or our perception of such object. In other words, the architectural object has features that exceed the relation of the architect within its project.
In conclusion, the proposal throws light on a standardised environment, drifting quantitative complexity towards qualitative complexity. This fact opens the door to a new time in which the architectural object is once again appreciated, and in this way, in the future, it may constitute what our identity was in this present moment.
1 — Mark Foster Gage, “Project Mayhem” in Fulcrum, Issue 17.
2 & 8 — Mark Foster Gage, “Killing Simplicity: Object Oriented Ontology in Architecture,” in Log, Issue 33, 2015.
3 & 9 — David Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects” in Theodore Spyropoulos (Ed.), Adaptive Ecologies. AA Publications. June, 2013.
4 & 7 — Mark Foster Gage, “In Defense of Design” in Log, Issue 16, 2009.
5 — Press-kit for New York’s West 57TH Street tower. MFG Architects website.
6 — Levi R. Bryant. Democracy of objects. Open Humanities Press, 2011.