- February 28, 2019
After two issues plumbing the depths of horror, we decided that it was time to shift genres. Of the two remaining modes of speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, only the latter has yet to be investigated seriously by the architectural community. What might the fantasy genre—which has produced films as bizarre as Highlander, novels as ornate as Black Leopold, Red Wolf and fans as nerdy as Andrew Economos Miller—have to say about architecture? Are fantasy and architecture so separate after all? We discovered that at the origins of modern fantasy in the nineteenth century, you see the convergence of fantasy and architecture, with two of the first fantasy authors, William Morris and John Ruskin, also being prominent architectural writers as well. As this moment of rising industry they argue for the re-enchantment of architecture while producing enchanted fictional realms themselves. Recently, we’ve noticed a re-convergence of the two practices: not only can the many skills we learn in school be applied (and much more remuneratively) towards the creation of worlds in films and video games, but some architecture schools are even beginning to offer programs catered to this end. So the question is, what does fantasy—
Mark Foster Gage: When you say “fantasy,” are you referring specifically to the high fantasy world of elves and dwarves?
MFG: That’s interesting because fantasy used to be what you called everything outside of your realm of reality, but now the term is so specific—it refers to this one world that so many authors have written in, which is in part Tolkien’s world. But for Tolkien the creation of this world was an academic project. He was a professor of languages, and in many ways The Lord of the Rings was an exploration of language using fiction as an alternative tool of study. And C.S. Lewis, who was a friend of Tolkien’s and part of the Inklings group out of Oxford, used his fantasy as a tool to further theological research. Their use of fiction was not only intended as a vehicle to escape the industrialized world, but it was also an alternative academic project.
P!: Coming out of Notre Dame and RAMSA, you are probably better trained than most people at Yale in a certain understanding of architecture as language. Do you see any connections between the explorations of language in fantasy and those that occur in classical or traditional architecture?
MFG: That’s an interesting thought. At Notre Dame I had to take two theology classes and two philosophy classes. For one of my philosophy classes I took Philosophy and Fantasy, which was about Tolkien and Carlos Castaneda. Instead of writing the final 20-page paper I did reconstructions in watercolor of places from The Lord of the Rings. The professor gave me an A+ and bought the drawings from me. So for my theology class I did the same trick: I made a reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Jerusalem and the professor bought it from me.
But outside of the context of high fantasy, architecture essentially started as a fantasy project. Architecture was always the thing in the village that was dedicated to things that you didn’t understand—the temple to Beelzebub or whatever it was. Societies spent all of this excess money on buildings dedicated to something that wasn’t part of their reality but that they sensed was somehow present. I would argue that most architecture up until the industrial revolution had intense fantastical overtones because most of the architecture was religious. So maybe the ideas surrounding architecture after the industrial revolution were more of a continuation of that tradition than a reinvention of the discipline. Maybe they emerged from something that people saw was missing—Ruskin identified a lack of mythos in English architecture that he knew to have existed because he had lived through the previous era, whereas today you wouldn’t know that architecture had any connection whatsoever to mythos because most Americans never see architecture, which is why we don’t value it. I’m from Nebraska where it’s all Walmart and Chili’s.
P!: Some architectures that are made today embrace the pursuit of mythos. One can look at your National Science and Innovation Center of Lithuania and imagine an entire narrative or world for it, more so than for a lot of contemporary architecture. Is there something to that? Is there another cannon of architecture that pursues that narrative, mythic realm more than others?
MFG: I don’t know if I ever had that idea. We were just using recursive fractals in that project, which I suppose is a mythology to some people. But there is another project in architecture that has an interest in using architecture as a speculative tool to image an alternate reality to the one we live in. That’s the tradition that even the Modernists were playing at. And I think that project has been largely suppressed in favor of an architecture that says you’re my client, this is where the sun is coming from, here’s the zoning envelope, I want to solve your problems, I’m all about service, I want to help you make more profit in your reality… Whereas, if you look at the history of architecture, it’s never the best example of a building type that’s remembered, it’s always the anomaly. Architecture history is a history of anomalies—anomalies that show us an alternative path. David Rue calls architecture the “background of our reality.” It shows you what a reality can really look like.
P!: The idea of background is important here. What is at stake in trying to put an alternative like that into the world? There’s a difference between actually planting these speculative realities into the built environment and keeping them in an area that is cordoned off as fiction.
MFG: It’s the same question with art. Why wouldn’t all artists just paint beautiful landscapes that everybody loves? Because art is the thing that always seeks to challenge whatever circumstance we are in. Art has been redefined over and over throughout the ages, but the one thing that is consistent is that it never stays the same. It’s always at the forefront of speculation. I like architecture because it has that quality, not because it’s a problem-solver.
P!: Does fantasy still have this power to show us an alternative reality? Or has the mainstreaming of fantasy—the rise of Marvel movies, the popularity of Game of Thrones—blunted its ability to present a truly other order?
MFG: Fantasy has lost its protective shell of nerdiness. No one is going to think less of you today if you watch Game of Thrones, but it used to be an underground nerd thing. It used to be more escapist. I had a shitty home-life as a kid so I read fantasy as pure escapism. When my parents were horrible to each other I would just lock myself in the minivan and read fantasy novels. I think that is a very common connection amongst people who used to read that stuff as kids.
P!: Do you think that influenced your decision to go into architecture at all? Your skill at going into these other worlds.
MFG: Yeah, who knows. I’ve never been interested in the world as it is—I’ve always been interested in the world as it could be. So I get really depressed, especially now, when I look around. Fantasy is the only tool left to completely remove yourself. Science fiction is just an advancement of our current reality—it usually takes place within that reality, or the near future of that reality—but fantasy is like okay, this system is fucked so I’m going to spend some time somewhere else.
P!: Is that one of the potential powers of realizing architecture, the ability to transform this fantasy that you’ve constructed in your head into a building? Typically you retreat into fantasy, but if you walk into a building you enter someone else’s fantasy and have another world offered to you.
MFG: I live for that. That’s why I became an architect. I love walking into a space that’s not an engineered, neoliberal capitalist space. When I go traveling I’m always spending half my time in churches even though I’m not religious. Or I strive to go see the latest building by whoever that offers a significant alternative to the status quo because I want to physically occupy something that is outside of a predictable outcome of what architecture can be. That’s why it’s such a blessing to be on Yale’s campus—we live in a world of alternate architecture realities. But if you go to Gateway Community College down the way and it’s all eight-foot tall suspended ceilings with cubicles, how can you be inspired to be creative in an environment like that? I’d rather be in a very challenging building that I hate than a building that I don’t notice, which kind of describes Rudolph Hall.
P!: You make architecture that I assume you would like to have built and does put forward other possible realities, but for whatever reasons exists as images. You present a possible reality while still being apart from our reality. How does that complicate these relationships that we’ve been talking about?
MFG: I honestly have no interest in architecture as representation—I’m far more interested in the physicality of it. I use photorealistic imagery because that’s as close to getting built as you can without building. That’s very different from the trend today that is invested in turning architecture into a discourse on representation. That’s somewhere we’ve been before, but it’s easy, non-threatening. I think it’s a little cynical to say that nothing is being built these days so architecture should return to being a discourse of drawing which emphasises its two-dimensionality, its planar reproduction, its ability to be photographed. That’s a project that I’m just not interested in.
P!: Another aspect of your work is the use of ornament. In contrast to the stream-lined glass surfaces of sci-fi, idiosyncratic ornamentation has always seemed to us to be, very loosely, the province of fantasy. Does hyper-detailed ornamentation go hand-in-hand with the hyper-detailed prose style you find in high fantasy (where the author tells you about every animal species in the forest, the coarseness of the hero’s clothing, how many castars he has in his pocket, etc)?
MFG: I was in a younger digital generation that spent a decade doing smooth surfaces. But once Zaha won the Pritzker and started doing all of those smooth surfaces, it could no longer be any of our project. So we all shifted gears and started looking at philosophy, which led me to Object Oriented Ontology, which led me to think about collections of objects, which led me to think about resolution in architecture. The opposite of doing a smooth, continuous surface is doing one that is comprised of separate parts that have no relation to one another. It was a philosophical exercise rendered through architecture—our Helsinki project specifically—and it has since been refined into other languages, like with Lithuania and some projects that we’re doing now. But at the end of the day, quantity or detail of resolution in architecture isn’t anything new, it just seems new because no one is doing it. Really it’s just putting another tool back into the toolkit and asking what contemporary technologies can do with that tool, as opposed to what Bob does with the reuse existing ornamental languages.
P!: But you are using this tactic of design to create a language with no precedent in earlier architectures. Is there something fantastical in this decision to forego classical references and instead craft your own, completely novel language?
MFG: Maybe. Have you seen that movie Role Models with Paul Rudd?
P!: When they LARP wearing KISS getups?
MFG: The kid, what’s his name…
P!: Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
MFG: Paul Rudd asks him, Why do you like this? And he says something really sad: I like doing it because I don’t have to be me. Fantasy provides a world in which he can be someone else because here, in this world, everyone is so mean to him. I always thought that was a powerful line. Like I exist in this fantasy world because the other world is too horrible. And that’s maybe why fantasy has a taboo around it, because it gives power to people who, let’s say, have trouble in social situations and are looking for an escape.
P!: One of our guides to fantasy has been Ursula Le Guin, and what she says is related to this idea of creating your own world: “in fantasy,” she argues, “there is nothing but the writer’s vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events… The only voice that speaks is the creator’s voice.” So in fantasy, you don’t only create an alternate world, you create a world that’s modeled entirely on yourself.
MFG: Maybe that’s why fantasy is appealing to younger kids these days. Think of Harry Potter—which is essentially Tolkien’s world for all intents and purposes, with wizards and dragons—which is the most successful book series ever. Maybe there is an aspect to that that suggests that it’s difficult to find individuality now. Everyone is so self-similar—we all dress in the same clothes, buy the same products, have the same problems. So having a reality in which you feel special… Harry Potter is special not because he had to do anything, he just ended being a very special magic boy. People want to feel that. It feels good to feel special.
I used to be a total nut for the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony. There’s probably twenty of them. The premise is that everyone born in this world of Xanth gets a special power. There’s this main character named Bink, and his power is that no magic can affect him. Some people can be invisible or whatever. But there is this one girl that has this totally shitty power—she can change red apples into green apples. But it goes along with what you said—you imagine what your power would be when you’re reading this. That whole series of books not only makes you feel special, but everyone in the book has a special talent, even though some of them suck. Everyone in the world has there own little special thing that nobody knows about. That is, of course, the state of the world.