Architect and Yale University School of Architecture professor Mark Foster Gage discusses the recent collection of writings he edited that explore contemporary architecture and beauty, Aesthetic Theory: Essential Texts for Architecture and Design (W. W. Norton, October 2011).
Designers & Books: What prompted to you write this book?
Mark Foster Gage: For the past two decades, architecture has been more intertwined with theory, particularly critical theory, than ever before in its history. Missing from this engagement, however, is virtually any coverage of aesthetics. This book is intended to provide a parallel body of theory that is better suited to guide the new forms of architectural practice we see emerging today. From new technologies to new materials, the truth is that we can now produce architectural forms that previously have never been possible—and thinking through these directions in aesthetic terms seemed, to me, a promising site of inquiry to address theoretically.
Aesthetic Theory: Essential Texts for Architecture and Design, 2011 (W. W. Norton)
D&B: In your introduction you write, “The curricula of architecture and design schools reveal little, if any, evidence of courses that address the subject of aesthetics.” To the layman, this might come as something of a surprise—if not a shock. Can you explain how this situation came to be—and your assessment of the consequences?
MFG: Since the rise of modernism, if not the Enlightenment, more emphasis has been given in design to concepts, which are abstract, instead of focusing on actual sensory and visual information. That means architects have become very intelligent and cunning in our conceptual descriptions of why are designs are the way they are. As this has happened, I believe, our ability to design, formally, has degenerated—and the resulting impact is evidenced in our cities. Some of our most celebrated architectural projects are celebrated for reasons that have nothing to do with the building itself—rather, they represent a bird or some other conceptual idea. My book is aimed at challenging the dominant practice of only justifying our work conceptually, in abstract terms. I perhaps am old-fashioned in believing that a building can still be beautiful and iconic, in architectural terms, without having to refer to birds, or mountains, or post-structuralist theory, or genetics, or whatever the flavor of the day is. Architects need to start to design our buildings in the same way that they are judged by the public—that is to say visually and aesthetically.
D&B: You also write, “To be blunt, design, particularly in architecture, seems to be losing value.” Would it be fair to say that you see this happening, at least partially, because the architecture profession has “surrendered the willingness to engage in the aesthetic discussions through which our projects are almost entirely judged by the public of users”?
MFG: Yes, absolutely. If a chef starts to make super-conceptual food that sounds amazing and advanced, but tastes like crap, you may get a few critics who write about how great it is, but nobody is going to go to that restaurant. To extend the metaphor—people today are no longer dining in the restaurant of architecture; our food is no longer tasty. It’s not a surprise, as in our schools we’re teaching thinking over designing—not that thinking is bad, only that it isn’t always translatable into actual form.
D&B: You indicate that your choice of organizing the included texts in chronological order was done “to introduce readers to ideas as they developed through history and were adopted and altered by subsequent figures.” Did this decision lead to any unanticipated insights or revelations to you?
MFG: It did, actually. I started to see recurring themes—for instance Susan Sontag literally says, most likely without knowing it, what Conrad Fiedler had said nearly a century before. I don’t think it’s any sort of copying; rather, it seems to me that there are good ideas that will emerge in any culture from time to time, and many of these ideas, as I hope I have shown, are aesthetic.
D&B: As the editor of the book, are there one or two of the included texts that you personally found to be particularly relevant or moving?
MFG: I love the texts by Conrad Fiedler and Geoffrey Scott. They’re so unapologetically opinionated in favor of form—it’s very refreshing to see writing that is so forceful and believable, so clear and jargon free. So many texts from our history, particularly our recent history, are indecipherable in their theoretical and conceptual density. This is, of course, a common academic tactic, as called out in books like Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokol. I have included writings that I believe are clear and have important points to make—things that their authors believe, and that make sense in the context of architecture. My book is not intended to be intimidating or off-putting by virtue of its theoretical content. I think all mothers and fathers should read it to their children—I’d bet in a few generations our architecture and cities would be much better.
D&B: You are a practicing architect. Can you say something about your how you address the concept of aesthetics in your architecture and design practice?
MFG: Liberace was once asked, “How do you play piano with all of those rings on your fingers?” He replied, “Very well, thank you.” It’s the same kind of question, to which I'd answer, I think much of the work in my office is stunningly beautiful. This isn’t an insignificant fact and I know it to be the result of an extraordinary amount of effort. Designing something over and over again until you get the best possible result is a cultural act in and of itself that contains a good dose of optimism.
D&B: Is there any sort of specific outcome or result that you would like to see come about from the publication of your book?
MFG: That it begin to introduce a new strain of discussion into the various theory and design seminars and studios that are operating out there on what I consider outdated assumptions of conceptualism over design virtuosity.
D&B: Are you working on a new book?
MFG: Yes. It's tentatively titled Theories of the Spatial Unknown and it’s about architecture, transmedia design practices, and new genres of space emerging from our ongoing technological evolution.