Interview with architect and university professor Mark Foster Gage


Mark-Foster-GageKourosh Ziabari – Mark Foster Gage is the founding partner of Gage/Clemenceau Architects in New York City and a professor of architecture at the Yale School of Architecture. His work has been exhibited internationally at venues including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum in Berlin. Gage/Clemenceau Architects was recently selected as one of the architecture firms to represent the United States in the 2010 Beijing International Biennale.

Mr. Gage’s firm received an AIA New Practices citation in 2006 and was chosen as a finalist in the Museum of Modern Art/PS1 Young Architects Program in 2007. In 2008 he was selected as a winner of the New York Architectural League’s Young Architects Forum and was nominated for the inaugural Ordos Prize in Architecture.

Mark joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss his viewpoints regarding the interrelationship of architecture and culture, the status of architecture in the post-modern era, the role of media in furthering the objectives of transcendental architecture and the development of architecture in the 21st century.

Kourosh Ziabari: What’s in your view, the interrelationship between architecture and culture? In what ways does architecture reflect and signify the culture of a rural or urban community?

Mark Foster Gage: Architecture is responsible for our identity as a culture. When we mention a city like “Paris” for instance– it is usually the architecture of the city that we picture an associate with the name. Likewise, architecture is responsible for urban identity in times of war– when architecture, literally, becomes the targets on which we focus for destruction. So in that sense architecture not only houses our cultural institutions, but is itself, a cultural institution. This makes it even more important that the architecture must be carefully considered.

KZ: As we go forward in the post-modern era, we encounter the emergence of abstract models and stereotypes in various arts, especially visual arts such as painting, calligraphy and architecture as well. Are you among those thinkers who believe that the post-modern architecture, due to its distance from traditional and conventional architecture, lacks a reliable identity? In other words, are you among those who admire and appreciate the conventional models of architecture with conventional stereotypes such as steep roofs and wooden skins etc?

MFG: I think architecture is beyond that debate at the moment– given the astounding new technologies and materials available to us, I think that we are now in an era of innovation. Accordingly, steep roofs might be the best solution to a very contemporary problem- so we can certainly use them. I don’t believe we should use them however, only because people are familiar with them.

KZ: Do you think of architecture as a means of displaying and demonstrating political will? There are many countries in the world that seek a political and economic superiority by designing innovative and creative edifices including bridges, towers, auditoriums, cultural centers and museums to show their strength and developedness. They consider monumental buildings as sources of national pride and international dignity. What’s your viewpoint about this notion?

MFG: Absolutely, architecture is inherently political. It is the way institutions gain recognition today. In the past an art museum might have obtained notoriety for purchasing a particularly well known piece of art– if they are built today they are usually well known because of their architecture less so because of their contents. That is not to dismiss their institutional missions, only to recognize that the public is very interested in architecture and architects in our time, making the results of our discipline even more significant.

KZ: Do you see any significant difference between the style and modality of architectural works which are aimed at commercial purposes such as shopping centers with those which are designed for cultural purposes such as museums or congress halls?

MFG: I would say that a significant difference is that “cultural” projects tend to have institutions dedicated to them and their success– in cultural terms. One would not say a concert hall is “good” because it generates a lot of money– however, with a shopping center that might be a legitimate benchmark. It takes a particularly enlightened client to see the value of treating a shopping mall as a cultural project– not only an economic one. So while both projects can be economically productive and culturally relevant, it is typically the “cultural” institutions that benefit from higher architectural and cultural expectations.

KZ: We already know that the arts have undergone basic and radical changes in the 21st century compared with the 20th century. What are the major differences which have taken place in the architecture of the 21st century? What changes have taken place in the approaches, construction materials, styles and forms?

MFG: Too many changes to list exist as answers to this question. But for me the most significant factor in play is the introduction of the computer. We are simply capable of managing vastly more information than in past generations– which allows us unparalleled abilities to design new forms, with new materials that perform in stunning new ways. Of course, the best examples of this can be found on our website:

KZ: What features should an architectural work have in order to be called a complete, prestigious and successful work? What are the characteristics of a knowledgeable and conversant architect?

MFG: That naturally varies from project to project, but it takes an educated architect, fluent not only in contemporary design techniques, but armed with historical information as well. Any architect is capable of doing a “weird” or “interesting” building– but in order for it to have true cultural significance it must engage in a dialogue with the site, the time in which it was created, and the history of which it will be a part. Only a truly talented architect can manage to do all of these things simultaneously.

KZ: Is there any connection between architecture and nature? Should the architectural work be designed in compliance with the surrounding nature? Should the natural elements and conditions, such as adjacency to a river, mountain range or forest play a role in the overall style and fashion of the architectural work?

MFG: I’m personally, at the moment, not as interested in the physical context of a building as much as it’s cultural or historic context. I believe it is only bad and uninformed architects that use nature as a way to justify their work– for instance suggesting that because their are mountains nearby, that a building should look like a mountain. I think this is a juvenile attitude towards design– the use of natural metaphors– and altogether all too common in architecture unfortunately. It’s not a very sophisticated way to think about our work.

KZ: Would you please enumerate the most prominent architectural projects which you’ve designed and constructed in Gage/Clemenceau Architects? What are the main demands of your clients when they commission a project to you? What architectural styles and manners do they prefer to be incorporated in their buildings?

MFG: That is a difficult question– our work is prominent in different arenas and for different reasons. Our Estonian Academy of the Arts Design has received much publicity, as has our sculpture that we did for Times Square a few years ago. Our clients hire use because we are great designers, not because we necessarily fulfill any of their particular demands. A client with too many unreasonable demands, including the “style” of the building is probably not all that interested in producing a culturally significant piece of architecture. That is like you going to a restaurant and telling the chef exactly how to cook the food you see on the menu. Like the chef, the architect has expertise, and the most enlightened clients hire architects because of this– not because they will follow their every whim.

KZ: What’s the role of mass media in furthering the objectives of transcendental architecture? How can the media outlets contribute to the enhancement of architecture around the world?

MFG: Media has transformed architecture into a global phenomenon– it has made architecture incredibly important as a new form of urban fashion, and has placed it in a position to generate significant amounts of money as a destination for tourism. This is a fairly recent invention– the building as a celebrity. Although the economy is bad worldwide now, leaving little funding for “icons”, Architecture will certainly retain a more public face than it has in the past.

KZ: What’s your viewpoint regarding the diversity of architectural styles in various parts of the world? What do the architectural stereotypes of each country signify? What does this diversity show to you?

MFG: I think we are beyond “styles” in architecture– at least as a discussion. The best architecture is the result of talent and virtuosity, independent of other contextual or abstract ideas such as style or signification. Architecture matters because of what it is, not what it refers to. And so I think the debates of style have largely passed. Now, again, in this era of innovation, we judge works of architecture not by their particular “styles” but by their ability to capture the best qualities that we and our time have to offer. That is what we attempt to do at my office, Gage / Clemenceau Architects, and what I try to teach my students at the school of architecture at Yale.