With a theoretical site on Mahattan’s 57th Street—the so-called Billionaires’ Row—New York–based Mark Foster Gage Architects (MFGA) was recently asked, “What is the next generation of luxury?”
The firm’s answer? To bring “higher resolution” to those projects by working at a range of textural scales, and his proposed theoretical tower has been making waves in design conversation around the city.
For instance, from far away, the building reads as a figure in the skyline, but up close, there is another level of detail that is not legible from far away. Even closer, the ornament has another level of “resolution” that makes it more visually interesting.
Gage told AN that the idea comes from a Leon Krier drawing where a man is looking at a column, and then zooms in to see a capital, and then zooms in even further to see an egg-and-dart pattern. The same man then looks at a Modernist building, which looks like a grid. When he zooms in he sees another grid, and then zooms in again to see another grid.
Gage wants to develop this concept for the 21st century, creating high- to super-high resolutions using a technique called “kitbashing,” or taking parts of readily available models and repurposing and reanimating them together as a new whole. Three-dimensional models from the internet become like new primitives for MFGA, where a new vocabulary emerges from a wealth of new shapes.
“Architecture, and especially abstraction, has become about picking out products,” Gage told AN. “If a building is going to be 102 stories, it should give more to the city than just a facade product.” He cites Rockefeller Center as a building that has multiple readings, from its iconic profile to the narrative relief sculptures on its walls.
The proposed tower on 57th Street does not have the overt political meaning that Rockefeller’s ornament does. Gage is adamant about not assigning symbolic meaning to his architecture. He would rather choose the figures for their formal qualities, and let people assign meaning. And people have certainly been assigning meaning.
“The comments are hilarious,” said Gage. Critics’ comments include everything from speculation that Bruce Wayne bought the penthouse, to musings about a 21st century Gothic, to comparisons to a temple to the Norse god Odin. Others likened it to Gaudi and Michelangelo.
A person going by the name Andres Duany on a University of Miami listserv had the quote of the day. “NO! Ornament must be handcrafted. We must and we will wrench the clock back two centuries!!! That will assure that is [sic] is good ornament. The good looking and durable is the guaranteed result of handcraft. The bad looking and soon-to-be-decrepit is the inevitable result of machine production. Plus returning to handcraft will employ oodles of workers in a satisfying way.”
However, aesthetics are slippery slope. Everyone has different opinions. What matters here is that while the forms are extreme, they carry with them a significant set of ideas about ornament in our time, and the importance of resisting the simplification of architecture into a monotonous skyline of dull boxes.
With a boom of residential construction producing a large percentage of high-profile architecture in New York and other cities, many of the most exciting projects are not experienced by the public as an actual building, but rather as an image, or a part of a landscape or skyline. In this regard, the contribution architects can make to the city remains mostly visual. Thus, aesthetic research remains important and timely.