Mark GAGE speaks on the innate facility with technology of present-day students, so-called “Twitter” architecture, the crumbling of disciplinary boundaries into “super-disciplinarity,” and much more.
*Image by and courtesy Greg GUNDERSON, Yale School of Architecture. Mark GAGE, instructor.
images, clockwise from top left: Greg GUNDERSON (top left and right); Andrew Smith RASMUSSEN; Amina BLACKSHER. All work from Yale School of Architecture. Mark GAGE, instructor.
suckerPUNCH: What positive and negative baggage do you see current students bringing to the table?
Mark GAGE: It’s always risky to make sweeping generalizations about generations, as the only verifiable truth between generations is that they never, ever understand each other. But from my perspective, at Yale and in my practice, students today come prepackaged with an innate facility with technology. This wasn’t the case only 10 years ago. I think we’re seeing the first generation of students that, being born in the late ’80s and early ’90s, matured in tandem with the digital. For them, there isn’t a divide. For them, learning software isn’t a semester-long course, it’s an afternoon on YouTube. Finally. This is incredibly liberating for the profession of architecture, because we can move beyond an infatuation with new tools and into infatuations with larger-scale ideas.
The negative side of this equation is relying on this innate relationship with the digital to the point of blindness. I can’t tell you how many times in my office someone needed to cut a piece of cardboard in half and, instead of reaching for an X-Acto blade, spent 20 minutes in Illustrator setting up a laser cutter file. While the trade-off still works in favor of the genetically digital students, there is some frustration in a loss of other skills. Once in a while I have to introduce an intern to the concept of a book—I describe it as a bunch of iPads stitched together and bound. They usually get it.
sP: How do you see students’ relationship to technology and its present speed in terms of transferring information?
MG: It’s a related but separate question than the above. Every generation in human history has valorized the production and composition, and storage of information. I believe we’re now seeing the first generation that will be defined by its ability to edit rather than produce information. Information is largely a subtractive process today (How do I whittle down what information I have on-screen to get to what is useful?) instead of additive (How do I produce new information through extrapolation of known data?).
Social media offers another issue—one of connectivity without content. Everything can be instantaneous, but the compromise is that, in a world of ubiquitous and instant information, it’s impossible to involve headier concepts and topics. It’s hard to deal in a currency of vastness, gravitas, emotional depth, or anything of complexity in 140 characters. It’s not an unexpected Faustian bargain—you can either have a fast horse or a strong and heavy horse, a fast car or a strong and heavy car. So, today we have fast communication at the expense of weightier conversations. The pendulum swings. Only 15 years ago architects were deeply invested in French post-structuralism. Now the world seems to be championing architects—say, for instance, the OMA spin-off generation—who to some degree infantilize architecture by reducing it to a series of slides with dumbed-down diagrammed arrows. . . . “Sun bright. Sunbeam comes from Sun to Earth. Building designed to shade from sunbeam. Building design done.” To me, that’s 140-character “Twitter” architecture. It’s a phase we’ll be out of shortly.
sP: What about its relationship to the disappearance of the lag time in technique and design between contemporary practitioners and students?
MG: This may seem like a counterintuitive answer, but I find students today more conservative than those of a decade ago. Today nothing can really be “new,” as everything is “new” and lost in a mass of continually refreshing newness. I think 10 years ago it was still possible to discern newness against the slower background radiation of design. Time lag is really a way of describing how quickly newness flies around though design disciplines. In the absence of identifiable newness, time lag is visibly indistinguishable from the instant—there’s no referent for either. Information-sponsored relativity spurs the simultaneous creation of thousands of instant avant-gardes that continually evaporate. How one navigates or becomes relevant in this world is through collectives, not individuals (as collectives force one to come to some sort of newness, freezing consensus).
sP: What do you see as the role of theory, precedent, and history in architecture education today? Are there any strange or interesting precedents you see students or professors putting into the mix lately?
MG: I was born and bred on an architecture of precedents, not one of data. Architecture recently has been more greatly influenced by a seeming influence of data—which is, of course, more often than not a farce. So, today you see an arrow that indicates a 68-degree slant from the sun to the ground—and therefore said building needs to include that same 68-degree slant. We used to do such asinine things to convince clients to go with what we wanted them to allow us to do. But something curious happened: architects forgot this was a sleight-of-hand and we convinced ourselves it was real. Can you imagine a generation of birthday party magicians who forgot that what they were doing were tricks and started to believe they were actually magical beings? This is what has happened in architecture. We’re forgetting our sleight-of-hand—our diagrams and arrows—used to be done to secretly push forward a greater idea. Now they are the idea.
Next-generation designers that I have seen are abandoning this magic-diagram-fairy-dust in favor of a return to precedents, but not necessarily of only buildings. In my office we look at everything from automotive styling to cake decorating in order to figure out how to do things. Cable TV and the Internet are enabling new forms of precedents to emerge—not all entirely architectural. I was just up at the Yayoi Kusama show at the Whitney [Museum of American Art] and stopped by Eli Zabar’s E.A.T. café. There was a lemon meringue cake there that had about eight inches of figurative meringue before you hit the flat cake. It was a better illustration of poché than architecture has seen in two centuries. I took a picture to show my students, which I’m hoping will lead to a discussion of a revised frothy, foamy language of poché that has porous and breathable implications for a reinvention of the term. That kind of thing doesn’t emerge from looking at historic buildings, but one needs to know what the historic term poché refers to for the whole concept to be useful.
sP: What do you see as the role of contamination, from both outside disciplines and popular culture, within your teaching?
MG: Right now I’m putting together a book using different terms from contamination. Contamination assumes one area is being infected with something from another. I see architecture dissolving into a larger field of design these days. In that sense, its more “super-disciplinarity” than contamination—I use the prefix super- because the concept is above the concept of disciplines, whereas transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary indicate there are still distinct disciplines. I think that’s becoming less and less true—boundaries are crumbling and we are, like electrons, becoming more smudges than distinct, homogenous areas of study.
sP: Are there any weaknesses or tendencies at schools today that you would like to see shift, or anything you hope comes into focus in the near future?
MG: I think the university, in the best possible scenario, becomes an incubator for innovations and unforeseen collaborations that spin off into amazing learning opportunities for students. I think it’s less productive to think of the university as a receptacle of old, established information that students come and pay $50,000 a year to dip their head into for several years. You can get that latter model online through new media outlets like Coursera. It’s easy to watch lectures online, but that experience, of being a student and of being part of the actual creating and testing of ideas, is something you can’t get on iTunes or YouTube. You need to be in the physical presence of a creative act; you need to be exposed to the energies of innovation and the academic environments where ideas cross-pollinate and flourish. Otherwise, in Platonic terms, you’re seeing the shadow of the thing and not the thing itself. Come to the light, Carol Anne. . . .