Mark Foster Gage is the Most Prolific Architect of Buildings That Don't Exist

Blade Runner meets The Wizard of Oz in the New York architect's fantastical work.

"East River Valley" rendering (2018)

Get ready for fake architecture. Now that architects have the same tools as moviemakers and meme-posters to make anything look like anything else, buildings can seem more real in renderings than they do when they are actually built. At the same time, some structures are taking on shapes so weird and fantastical—such as the impossibly thin towers of Manhattan or the convoluted, gravity-defying curves of some museum buildings—that you are left to wonder whether they are, in fact, real. Pretty soon, we will be living in a mix of virtual and physical reality, if we aren’t already. How do we make sense of it? By telling good stories. And if the future of architecture is fairy tales, as some experts insist, then perhaps nobody tells better tales than experimental architect Mark Foster Gage.

Imagine teetering over the ledge of a Manhattan skyscraper with no rails to hold you back. Turn around and slowly realize how the entire tower consists of children’s toys, car parts, and even a dildo tucked away among the stack of stuff that has, as if through alchemy, turned into steel or chrome, or maybe even gold. Where you are standing is only one of the structures that the New York City designer has dreamed up—though never built—over the past few years. Another imagines the East River completely transformed into a field of verdant meadows behind fanciful dams. In real life, a client’s cottage in the English countryside recasts detritus as the building blocks of his bucolic vision of rural living.

"East River Valley" vertical parks, rendered views

If Gage is the magician of modern architecture, he is also its Wizard of Oz, tantalizing us with photo-realistic renderings of structures built from leftovers dipped in what looks like chrome. But don’t just get swept up in the fantasy—Gage takes his craft very seriously. A professor and assistant dean at Yale University, he is one of the foremost practitioners of Object-Oriented Ontology (Triple O, if you’re a tuned-in design student), a theory equally cryptic and of-the-moment. It gives him a basis to keep spinning his fantastical tales by means of conceptual buildings. Like many younger architects, Gage wants to “push the envelope of construction”; unlike most, he achieves that not through material experimentation, but by “showing what’s possible,” he says, “making images that seduce you into the future.” For Gage and the other Triple O-ers, real buildings are whatever they can convince you they are. And renderings are the end result. These are not preparations or ideas for buildings, but complete “shortcuts to the real world,” he says.

As he sees it, the proliferation of images is an opportunity: pull up any image or form imaginable on your computer, and watch it be transfigured into something else entirely before dropping it inside a rendering so realistic that you swear you saw your own reflection in the stainless steel kitchen appliances that somehow landed in the lobby of an imposing building. “I want to work not just with bricks, but with Pokémon, toasters, and whatever else is available,” he says. “We’ve moved way beyond pyramids and boxes as models.”

Gage’s buildings morph into monsters and cliffs that dissolve into smithereens, appearing as collections of all the bits and pieces the architect gathered to build up his designs. They blur the distinction between a single structure, its surroundings, and even the natural world. You’ve seen this sort of technique in the movies and maybe in Las Vegas or Disneyworld. Gage just wants to make something good out of all that fake reality: “I want to make a real reality out of the fiction that surrounds us.”

"West 57th Street Residential Tower" rendering, New York City, (2015)

To do this, Gage uses something called “Kitbashing”; the term describes the mashing up of bits and pieces borrowed and stolen from everywhere, a trusty technique for hipsters kluging together their own tools and clothes. Gage, meanwhile, dreams of castles in the sky. Does he want to actually build anything? “I spend a lot of time crafting images that make a building appear built instead of actually building it,” he says. “I really want to use technology to create something truly beautiful, and right now the only way to do that is through these super-realistic images.

They have a higher resolution than anything I could build now.” Gage’s message is clear: Reality is less real than we think, and these fairy tales can usher us into a primeval universe that elevates the ordinary into the extraordinary. “I want to awaken your curiosity and make you wonder: If my buildings seem real but aren’t, what about the one down the street?” he says. Start reading into your surroundings, Gage suggests, and enjoy the ride into a new kind of reality, for which his architecture sets the stage. Jump off the ledge of his hyper-realistic skyscraper, even if only in your mind (because you know it can’t be real), and fall in love with the idyllic alternative he has built for you.

Gage and the Triple O gang may be far away from making whatever we still think of as real buildings but, like great storytellers, moviemakers, and other weavers of tales and images, they give us something to dream of, something to aspire to, and something that tells us the deep truth that most of what we see around us today is just manipulated surfaces.

(Photos courtesy Mark Foster Gage Architects)

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