The Four Faces of Kirk Finkel
By Max Cohen (@cohenthewriter)
Not counting his physical face. Which is kind. And blue-eyed. And hugged tight by a well-shaven beard. His hair is neat. His teeth are Invisaline straight. His gaze is straight forward, and his greetings elongated:
“Heyyyyyyyyy Max,” he says to me, his pitch falling an octave from H to M but then lifting up to claim that X on an apex. Always the same bubbly tone of voice. And the same cadence, too.
This face, wincing kindly, is the one Kirk puts on every morning and wears throughout his days. He uses it at work and in conversation, and I presume he takes it to bed with him too. But though it might be the most recognizable of Kirk Finkel’s faces, it’s not the only one.
Men are made of multitudes, and because Kirk Finkel is man, he is many other things, as well. Speak to him for an hour, or know him for months, and his totalities begin to emerge. To know Kirk is to discover his many faces for yourself.
Come now, don’t be shy, none of them bite.
1. Kirk Finkel, the Futurist
There are only a handful of true Metaverse builders, and few, if any, have the vision Kirk does. As early as 2017, he was giving interviews, like this one for Bric TV, where he discusses the possibilities of a then-juvenile blockchain. Despite the old-world architecture career still clinging desperately to Kirk’s leg, we find him explaining with an adept’s poise how blockchain is “a much more democratized and open framework that people can collaborate on and build on. All this stuff is open-source inherently, so it allows people to kind of come together in a way that doesn’t have a bias…It’s purely about collaboration and making things.” Yes, in addition to building atop the blockchain, Kirk was also building it a proper value system.
And what was he actually building around that time? The infrastructure to accrue a token — on the site Steemit — using blog posts and articles, crowdsource funds, and ultimately erect a public works installation in Bedstuy, Brooklyn’s Herbert Von King Park. The project was called Steempark, and it was the “first public design project funded entirely through Cryptocurrency.” This was July 2017. One Bitcoin was worth about $2,500. Kirk was 28.
At the same time, he was giving lectures on the Blockchain at Columbia University, his alma mater. He was holding talks on “Blockchain Resiliency and Community Development” at The World Bank. He was leveraging that Steemit to concoct an architectural experiment, interweaving photos of participants’ home-towns with 3D-models, an exercise which soon evolved into a series of modular 3D-models and the blueprint for an early-Metaverse metropolis, BlockTown. All of this laid the foundation for what would become an entirely new, and revolutionary, kind of architectural discipline.
The Metaverse. The next arena for architecture. Where the common rules of construction need not apply. And a place Kirk long ago built himself a foothold.
It’s not just that he can rattle off the names of a dozen Metaverse worlds, it’s that he can rattle off the names of their founders, the requirements of their 3D-file types, their positive and negative attributes. Consider his description of the Metaverse platform Somnium Space, where he expresses how, “Inside Somnium, there’s a powerful emphasis on the natural world. Monumental buildings rise out of grassy hills, mountains and waterfronts. Virtual sunlight carries across the landscape, giving warmth to the architecture it passes over. At night, buildings glow. Giant artworks and neon shapes flicker in the distance like bug zappers…”
On top of everything else, Kirk can write like that.
It would take an essay of its own to discuss all the Metaverse Architecture projects Kirk has had an integral hand in. He’s created a gamified ecosystem for the farming of modular 3D-building blocks (FFORMS). He’s got a mind-bending Superrare page full of labyrinthine designs. He’s the resident architect at the Museum of Crypto Art (having concocted and constructed the actual museum itself). And he’s hand-designing the first set of M○C△ ROOMs, personalized exhibition spaces for the display of an individual’s crypto art collection, and perhaps the first example of truly interoperable Metaverse structures.
Kirk’s futurist face wears a furrowed brow. Because it’s thinking. Electrical impulses explode beneath the skin and emerge as barely-perceivable twitches. It’s Kirk hard at work, his fingers an extension of his mind, and the computer an extension of his fingers. It would take nothing less to create what Kirk creates: Escher-like mazes, castles built of curly-cue turrets and cubes, structures that don’t just make us ask “Where” and “Why?” but “How?”
Kirk and the Metaverse seem to be developing in lockstep. Here’s the Metaverse today: fully-formed and operational, but still in its infancy, only just beginning to speak. And Kirk, here he is: equipped with a half-decade’s experience working in Blockchain, head full of contacts and connections, ideas and the know-how to pull them off. From their inception points — very far away and at very different times — these two forces have been twisting through the universe in tandem. That they’ve arrived here, now, together, is a small miracle.
Fate is the only sufficient term for such a convergence.
2.Kirk Finkel, the Fatalist
The very first thing I asked Kirk for this piece was how he got into architecture, and the next thing I asked was whether he believed in free will.
“Good question. I think for my own sanity I would say outwardly yes, but inwardly I question that a lot, obviously. I don’t know if that’s an answer, I feel like there’s a version of me that’s doing the other path somewhere else in the fabric of spacetime.”
Somewhere Else in the Fabric of Spacetime: A man walks solitary through a world which he has turned away from, so as to avoid his destiny. Every day he suppresses his call to creation. Every day he stills the heart which beats for art. And yet, it’s a version of him, this nega-Kirk, and so he remains hyper-observant and thoughtful, methodical both in speech and action. Maybe this version has opted not for crew-cut but for a mangled mess of unkempt hair. Maybe this version has denied his ingrained gifts and gone to work with his hands instead of his mind, the grit of that lifestyle staining his fingernails. This Kirk could care less about connection. This Kirk left friends far behind.
Thank heavens it’s the former Kirk we have here, one who chose to accept all that fate unfurled for him.
“I was always into art. I was always into art and I lived in Philadelphia, a city that has a ton of history of art and architecture, and I was pretty much surrounded by it… I think that sort of dug into me from an early age,” he told me. Later, when asked about his earliest memory, Kirk said “I remember drawing and painting like a crazy person in Kindergarten…that being my way of being comfortable. I was a pretty shy kid. I think I’m still pretty shy. And I think that was a way for me to find myself a bit, was painting.”
Though you can trace an artistic through-line all throughout Kirk’s life, you can feel the nega-Kirk waiting just around every corner, one that a tiny tweak in time might have set loose.
“A lot in my career so far has been reacting, and I think a lot of that started because I entered the job market after 2008 and…there was a lot of fear at that time about jobs in general…I remember everyone in my class had expected to have a paid internship….All of them were cut. Everything. And all the architecture firms were cutting their staff in half. So all the people we just saw graduate and were our mentors lost their jobs.”
There. Perhaps that’s the moment. The divergent path. Because if Kirk had entered the job market two years earlier, he might have been established in an old-world architectural practice by the time the market imploded, becoming either jaded by the whole thing or too embedded to leave it. Or if he had entered it two years later, after things had recovered some, he might never have left the traditional architecture industry. He might never have had cause.
But the uncertainty “ultimately made me a better designer because I could adapt to a lot of situations, and it made me feel more comfortable kind of hopping on a different path if one presented itself, and I feel like it has been kind of a wild ride.”
Wild: Those years would take him arould the world, to “to Mumbai and then to a very small community called Ragpur in 2012,” and to “Kisumu in Kenya…along the edge of Lake Victoria.” It brought him into the Earth Institute at Columbia, a place devoted to researching sustainable development, and it brought him to Berlin, “where my art career started…That was kind of the first time I was doing this seriously,” and it ultimately brought him here, to the Bleeding Edge of design and technology, upon which he’s been dancing for quite some time.
Perhaps we’re all shaped by fate just as Kirk is. Perhaps it partners the same way with all of us. I can look at my own life, for instance, and point to here, here, and, here where the entire fabric of my future would have shifted if I’d just done things a little differently. And maybe my own path was always to bring me where I am now, chronicling those who build the future. It’s all partnerships: fate and us humans; builders and those who record what they build. Web3, the Bleeding Edge, it all grows out of relationships, connections, friendships. And Kirk was primed for friendship from the start.
3. Kirk Finkel, the Friend
“When you design in the Metaverse, it’s a public space…It’s basically a meeting place, or a place where you can voice your opinion or share something or communicate with a broader audience, and that’s a public square.”
If anything, this seems to be the central motivation behind all of Kirk’s design: connection. Between ideas. Between projects. Between people. And one of “the core reasons I love [Metaverse architecture] is that it’s accessible. You can create an environment or installation or building or artwork, invite people to it, and you have to face them in this virtual space, and you have to be there to talk about it.” Whether we look at his early Metaverse work with BlockTown, or what he “was doing in Mumbai and Kenya…campus planning and public art installation plazas in different parts of the world,” or his work now with M○C△, Kirk’s goal is to bring people together, whether to a single public space, or to one in the Metaverse.
“…Seeing people use an environment for something, towards something, accomplishing a goal that impacts real life, I think that would be my dream.”
He puts on a very humanist air, Kirk does, but perhaps that’s to be expected from someone who was raised in the City of Brotherly Love. Founded by William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia is the linguistic marriage between two words of Greek root, love (phileo) and brother (adelphos). Penn sought to found a city that emphasized religious tolerance, he himself having undergone persecution for his Quaker beliefs, Quakerism being a Christian sect separate from the Protestant Orthodoxy dominant at the time.
Quakerism “…the way I was taught it growing up, was never really about God in a weird way, but more about you have to have respect for the people around you and the community you’re a part of.” Despite half-Jewish parentage, Kirk was raised Quaker himself. Grinning, he said “It’s kind of like a little bit of a hippie religion.”
For most people, Quakerism is a religion confined to textbooks if one has any familiarity with it at all. But every hometown has its ultra-regional quirks, and in Philadelphia, Quakerism thrives. “A lot of the schools in Philadelphia are Quaker schools, and we call them Friend schools. I think it’s hilarious that ‘friend’ has become a thing in crypto because I’ve been a Friend for a long time! And now all you guys are friends!”
Everything starts to come together at this point, the so-called “hippie religion” and its aptly-titled schools — which allowed a young child to delve headfirst into an art addiction — and the nature of the hometown itself and what that communicated about art and architecture, and the years of studious thought about what it means to create structures that people exist in, and how “it’s a little bit silly sometimes to have this incredibly influential building or artwork that the reality is we only see it through Google Images.”
Kirk travels the world, gets a sense of what it’s like from the vantage of four different continents. Returns home with his head full of people, of places, of so many different publics and all their specificities. He feels the pang to create “an environment that is honestly immersive in a way I can’t really define yet,” and sets about creating it.
Kirk envisions “a space where you can have a protest… where you can create art rather than just showcase it. I think that would be my hope, that these environments, it’s not just a static thing that then hosts something you visit once and you leave…But if it’s a true public space where you can go, like Union Square or Barclays Center and have a protest or something, that has real world implications, I think that’s something that can enhance everything.”
But, of course, that world doesn’t exist yet. It’s still in development, so to speak. A set of files sequestered onto plots of Metaverse land, awaiting the pipe-dreams of builders and the participation of the public. The Metaverse, as of yet undefined.
A place undefined, and one of its principle architects, purposefully untitled.
“In the summer of 2020, I reopened my old BlockTown files and began collaging parts together for fun. I found myself making and rendering buildings again. It started as a kind of escapist archi-therapy at the height of a pandemic…My briefly immaculate desktop became littered with “untitled” study models of ethereal buildings. The magic of blockchain called out once again and “untitled, xyz” was born.”
It’s the name he uses professionally, the one that characterizes his Metaverse career, and what he’s most commonly known by. “Literally the default file name of a 3D-file is ‘untitled’; and the default starting point in a 3D app is an XYZ-axis.” In this way, Kirk positions himself as perpetually at the beginning of something. He is himself the jumping off point, the blank canvas upon which whims and wishes may be blueprinted, built, and brought to life.
If Kirk’s other faces wear an expression, this one is purposefully blank, more a dark hole where Kirk’s face would fit. He was “hoping to reject some of the ego stuff of the old world and kind of pick a name to let the work be the focus more so than the man.”
And so it’s Kirk whom we know, but it’s “untitled,xyz” whose name adorns buildings and Metaverse city blocks, who erects structures, and collaborates, and creates. And though the Metaverse may one day be littered with Kirk’s fingerprints and public spaces and public works, it will be “untitled,xyz” on plaques and the tongues of its denizens. That is, if Kirk allows himself even that little bit of aggrandizement.
It’s equally likely that there will be no trace of him in this place, his name reduced to a whisper on the lips of those-who-know, his buildings become freestanding structures without a founder, as if surviving from an older era, remnants of an ancient greatness borne from anonymity.
Perhaps it’s Kirk’s wish that time eat him and all his faces and leave only the bones of what he built. Who knows how architecture will age in the Metaverse? Perhaps everything will be torn down at a point, replaced with the newnesses of the time. Perhaps Old Quarters will be sequestered away and turned into tourist traps, as they are in certain European cities. Or perhaps the great romance poet Percy Bysshe Shelley will have proved doubly prescient when he wrote in his poem “Ozymandias”:
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — ’Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (1818)
Only there won’t be a name on the plaque at all. Only a pedestal, only two vast and trunkless legs of stone. Only the lone and level sands stretching far away. Kirk Finkel no more. Only what he’s built left behind. No more William Penn, only a City of Brotherly Love in a state bearing his name.
What a lovely, egoless legacy to leave.