Mark Wigley is a New Zealand-born architect, author, professor, and Dean Emeritus of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in New York City. He has authored The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt (1995); White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (2001); Buckminster Fuller Inc: Architecture in the Age of Radio (2015); Cutting Matta-Clark: The Anararchitecture Investigation (2018), and most recently he published Konrad Wachsmann’s Television: Post-Architectural Transmissions (2020). I wanted to speak to Wigley because I took two of his classes while attending GSAPP last school year, which were: Architecture Evolution and Extreme Design: The Anti-Architecture of Television. Wigley was essential in teaching me to see and think through architecture as a vehicle of questioning structure, embodiment, and performance. It’s all about being able to identify the systems that define our existence–whether they’re physical or conceptual. This interview was conducted in October-November 2020 via Zoom and email.
What is architectural theory?
Who knows? I mean architecture itself is a question, right? You could even say that architecture is what happens when buildings ask questions rather than answer them. Architecture is not just articulate building, building that talks, as in the most classic definition, but building as a question mark. What follows is that the architect is the only person in society who doesn’t know what a building is—seeing even the simplest structure as a bundle of enigmas. Everyone else has no doubt about buildings and even uses them to counter doubt. For architects, buildings are a medium for articulating thoughts—a thinking medium, a way of asking questions. For society, buildings are a way of answering questions.
More precisely, in most cultures, buildings are a way of shutting down or evading questions whereas it’s exactly the reverse for architects. This is why they are pretty screwed up. What they love about buildings is that they don’t know what they are, with the boundless wonderment of a child. Yet they’re asked to not only act as if they know but to make these objects represent certainty. So architectural theory—statements about what architecture could, should, or should not be—is always a kind of self-questioning. This takes at least two forms. One is the seemingly straightforward role of the “theorist” in the sense that maybe I’m a theorist, a serial questioner. The other is the “architect” as designer. If architects treat buildings as a way of asking questions, then all architects are theorists—theorizing, as it were, in the streets.
Combining these thoughts, architects turn the objects meant to answer or avoid questions into the very means of questioning. And it’s always a double questioning since the medium of questioning is itself already a question mark. This makes architecture a relentlessly philosophical activity. Representations of certainty paradoxically become the symptoms of doubt. Architectural theory, in all its various modes, is a kind of ongoing dance between certainty and doubt.
What did architecture mean in the 1980s to you and what does it mean now?
Well, if architecture is always a questioning, then the history of architecture is the history of a conversation. It is never one thing. Maybe in the eighties, which is often associated with the very word theory, there was the feeling that architecture was being invaded by theory, which is crazy since there were not more words or theoretical propositions. It’s just that many of the ideas were more easily portrayed as coming from an outside. There was a kind of xenophobic reaction against the influence of “French” theory, philosophy, comparative literature, anthropology, critical race theory, critical legal theory, post-colonial theory, feminism, the beginnings of trans discourse, and so on. They were all seen to be destabilizing others, foreigners to the supposedly innocent architectural object. It was a super pathological reaction since the formal tradition of architectural theory begins with Vitruvius insisting that architects are formed as such by learning from and synthesizing every other kind of knowledge. The discipline of architecture was launched as a certain way of digesting and transforming its outside.
For me, all that was going on in the eighties is that the questioning endemic to architecture was being foregrounded. The supposed inside of architecture as a discipline was never as separate from its apparent outsides as advertised. On the contrary, what is proper to architecture, what defines it as such, is a certain negotiation between the supposed inside and the supposed outside. Architecture, the very field identified with drawing lines between inside and outside, constructing senses of interior, can only do so by transgressing those very lines. This is just another way of saying that architecture is a confusion of answer and question.
In the eighties, this confusion was systematically tweaked in a particular way. When people say the eighties was the time of theory, they basically mean that some assumed certainties of architecture were destabilized. Looking back at that time, it’s amazing that it was such a small group of people who were doing that work of destabilization by mobilizing these supposedly illegal forms of migration from other fields. Nevertheless they were coded in journals, books and even newspapers as successful terrorists undoing the sacred certainties of architecture, along with the related institutions of education, scholarship, exhibition and publication. This sounds like an incredible compliment but I can tell you, since I was one of those people, it was a very small group, interesting for sure, but also uncertain in all the usual ways. The idea that somehow the future of the field could be changed by this small group of new friends that didn’t know each other before this happened and agreed on very little during it, is symptomatic. It already implies a great fragility of architecture. But also it relates to the fact that the transgressive character of the work was simply to peel away a few layers to allow some of the existing complications to become evident and be rigorously explored. The rigor of evidence, logic, and writing substantially increased in a kind of recalibration of the discourse. The supposed terrorists were soon guiding the incubation of new generations of scholars.
Looking back on it, the strong reaction—whether engaged and enthralled or dismissive—was more a testament to how nervously the idea that architecture doesn’t have a life or shouldn’t have a life had been defended in the late seventies and early eighties.
I am probably not the one to tell this story but the myth that the eighties were more theoretical was followed by the equally mythical view that the field was later less theoretical or even anti-theoretical. The hypocrisy of the anti-theory theory or so the called post-critical position quickly became obvious and one no longer hears such silly things yet there is still the fantasy that theory no longer has a hold on the field in the way it supposedly did in the eighties. But I think the quintessentially theoretical operation of questioning the limits of the field of architecture and the limits of architectural object never disappeared. It’s just that this is no longer coded as transgressive.
In a sense, the original nervous response in the eighties was correct. In fact, there was a kind of earthquake that rippled its way through the discipline. And you can see that in the kinds of words that are used today, the kinds of questions that are asked, who is considered to be a voice worth listening to and so on. There was an enormous shift. The proof of that shift is the subsequent generations of thinkers in architecture wanting to be reach further out and dig further in. The so called post-theory phase is actually the accomplishment and to some extent normalization of ever higher levels of scholarship. There has been a quantum leap in scholarship in architecture. The so-called post-theory moment in architecture is actually the moment in which theory has become uncontroversial. The presence of a self-critical, expansive, restless investigation is not just treasured but almost taken for granted.
Who is this group you’re referring to in the eighties?
Oh, it’s tiny. You think of Jennifer Bloomer, Beatriz Colomina, Catherine Ingraham, and Elizabeth Grosz. It was predominantly women, along with Michael Hays, myself and a few others. You know, you could get to seven or eight people and you’re done. It was not self-consciously formed into a group, but as it was shaped into a group by the resistance to it, shared experience of resistance.
You left Auckland. Did you go directly to Princeton to teach or did you come to New York first and then ended up in New Jersey?
I came to New York when I was still in the middle of my Ph.D. and fell in love with the city, felt welcome. After six months, Mike Austin, my teacher, called and said, if you don’t return and finish your Ph.D., we’re going to terminate you. He is not the terminating type but knew that I was already addicted to the kind of conversations one can have in New York. So I went back, finished the Ph.D. and promptly returned to New York to rejoin the conversation. No plans. To my complete amazement, I was offered a job at Princeton. I thought that they were so wrong, so mistaken, and would politely let me go after the first year. So during that year I was obnoxiously opinionated and argued about everything, the opposite of diplomatic. Of course, it turned out that’s exactly what Princeton likes, so I stayed for thirteen years. And it was an amazing place, a kind of paradise of ideas with non-boring colleagues like Beatriz Colomina, Tony Vidler, Alan Colquhoun, Georges Teyssot, Allesandra Ponte, and Liz Diller.
I think the key thing is—and I think this is true about this little “theory” group that I’m romanticizing about with you—is it’s a kind of bootstrap situation, since architectural theory was not yet institutionalized as theory. I don’t think any of us thought we would have a career. I mean, the whole idea of an intellectual career was ridiculous, even offensive, and still is. This was a deeply pathological collection of individuals that were just following their obsessions and thinking architecture differently, and then discovered that they were not alone. There was a much larger group that probably did have some kind of idea about an academic future and hated us. And somehow their contempt was really empowering because it focused everybody. At the very least it raised the question, is this a collective project or not? Is it a project? Is this thing a thing?
I can tell you in all honesty that I, “ended up in New Jersey,” as you said. Perhaps this was true for all of us. There is a naivety that’s crucial to this group. If you think of what it is to be a young person today, naïve is probably no longer an option.
So, you came to New York in ’87?
I first came to New York for half a year in ’85 or ’86 and then returned in ’87.
And then the “Deconstructivist” show happened at the Museum of Modern Art?
They happened at the same time. By the time I started to teach at Princeton, I was already working on the show at MoMA.
How did the offer to do the “Deconstructivist” show come about?
I was invited to a dinner at which a possible show at the Museum of Modern Art was being discussed. The dinner featured architects and curators sitting around a round table. It was a very clubby scene and was a boy’s club in every sense. And there I was, with my one suit I wore on all occasions. They were talking about an upcoming show and it sounded like an idiot show to me. They asked me what I thought about it and I said, it was a shitty idea.
They asked what it could be and the only thing I remember saying was that whatever the show was it should demonstrate that Frank Gehry was finished. Gehry was there of course and came up to me after and said that he really liked that “I put a gun to his head,” to use his language, but that I was wrong and he would prove it. I think at the back of his mind was that he was working on Bilbao [The Guggenheim Museum]. The point of my frustration with the potential show was that there had been some amazing architectural works over the past decade including—and especially—Gehry’s work on delaminating houses in Los Angeles. I thought the role of MoMA was to monumentalize things so that a younger generation could get on with new work. My argument was that MoMA should do a show to let everybody think about provocative work that had been done over the previous ten years precisely because it was finished already; which is why the catalogue insisted that this was not the future but the recent past. It was a historical exhibition.
I guess it was the same thing as would happen at Princeton. Being rude and opinionated was apparently somehow attractive. Welcome to New York. I was asked to do the show even if I didn’t go into the meeting to do a show and didn’t know what it would mean to do it. You didn’t ask me why I was there, but it had to do with the fact that I just finished my Ph.D. on deconstruction, not what architecture would be if influenced by deconstruction, but the exact reverse, the architecture that was required for Derrida to think the way he thought. So, I had written a Ph.D. that was not in the vein of, “Hey, here’s this amazing thing called deconstruction. And wouldn’t it be amazing to see what happens in architecture?” I had the exact opposite view. Deconstruction for me was a late sixties’ philosophical stance that implied, required, and initiated a very particular understanding of architecture. It depended on it just as philosophy has always depended on a certain image of architecture. So, I’m in that clubby room because I’m supposed to be smart about what might be the relationship between deconstruction and architecture, and the silly proposals I was hearing involved the use of the word deconstruction. Peter Eisenman had been one of the examiners of my Ph.D. and that’s why I was there. Then I found myself in the situation of possibly curating an exhibition that broke my own rule. In other words, there was suddenly the risk of falling into the trap of instrumentalizing deconstructive philosophy towards a particular end. Every curatorial decision was aimed to counter this, which means to counter every expectation about the show. It was an exciting but exhausting challenge with all of the nervousness of walking some kind of tightrope but the danger was largely repressed by naivety and the constant need to solve countless puzzles with continuous cut-throat decision-making that likely came across as arrogance. I still think that nothing beats making exhibitions.
My argument was, for what it’s worth, and stated as such very emphatically in the catalogue, is that this exhibited work was not what happens to architecture after deconstruction is, as it were, injected into it. Rather, if you are interested in deconstructive philosophy this is work that accentuates the aspects of architecture that would be of most interest to you. And it is not of interest because its special work but because it somehow foregrounds certain enigmas, certain questions that are endemic to architecture, to get back to how we began. So, my argument was that this staging of architecture presents us with particular questions. And these are exactly the kind of questions that are of interest to a philosopher. And more than that, they are philosophical questions. I’m still a card-carrying member of the architect’s union so I’m arguing that this is not applied philosophy, but is philosophical already. My point, and the main point of the Ph.D., was that architecture is never simply a metaphor for philosophy. So the challenge was how to make such non-straightforward arguments on the most public of stages.
The funny thing is that the show was much more successful than it should have been. And, by successful, I mean in the terms, in which it was set up. Everyone thought of MoMA is a place that incubates style. The ghost of the 1932 show of Hitchcock and Johnson [“Modern Architecture: International Exhibition”] loomed large. Since Johnson was again involved it was expected to be the return of the same thing, with me presumably in the Hitchcock role as scholar. No matter how many times you framed it as not a consumable style there’s the assumption that it was really. But I think the only person in the show who thought that way was Daniel Libeskind, and that this led to the production of so much uninteresting work by him because he kept reproducing what the show highlighted. With the notable exception of the brilliant Jewish Museum in Berlin, that led to the end of Libeskind as a contributor to the discourse whereas all the others had already moved on and understood perfectly that this show wasn’t a representation of them but an exploitation of a very limited dimension of their work to further a singular intellectual project. This too was declared repeatedly by the exhibition. Despite this, there was initially wave upon wave of stupidity. I learned a lot. It was a crash course in the hypocrisies of the field. I already had a very skeptical sense of architectural discourse but my cynicism was no match to the poverty of almost everything that was written, especially from the people that completely loved the show. But over time as the false scare of style quickly faded, the show has assumed exactly the role it aspired to and a certain shift in the concepts and even the language used to analyze architecture is palpable.
It is interesting that almost everyone in the show went on to do such extraordinary work. It’s hard to remember now but most of them had never even done a building before. But I don’t buy into the idea that they flourished because of the boost of such a high profile MoMA show. Rather it’s the other way around. They were selected because they had a particular edge, a way of cutting into the assumptions of the field. I think they are all pathologically driven self-designed creatures that would have done ground-breaking work with or without this polemical but ultimately documentary show.
You could say, for example, that the show was important for the career of Zaha Hadid, but I think it’s wrong. I think Hadid was, and will always be, a genius, in the classical sense of operating way beyond any perceived rules. The “Deconstructivist” show was, I think, just one more little step along Hadid’s way, and I think that’s true for almost all the people exhibited in it. I anyway didn’t care how successful they were or might be in the future. In fact, what interested me in the work was not able to be duplicated, not able to be commodified in a way that the critics had imagined, even by the designers. As I said, what really changed was the language, the kinds of conversation one was allowed to have about architecture.
Let’s talk about Philip Johnson. He arranged for Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe to leave Germany, during the rise of Nazi Germany, and come to the states. I was reading about his transition from architecture into journalism and reporting and then revisiting Germany in the 1930s in response to an invitation by the propaganda ministry and being mesmerized by the spectacle of the architectural forms of the Nazi programming and the development of that visual vocabulary. He was quoted that he, “was thrilled by the Nazi presence in Germany.” And that was long before the show in ’88 had taken place. How did you negotiate engaging in a partnership with him?
Again, I don’t have special wisdom here. When I was working with Johnson, I didn’t know that history of his intimacy with fascism. But if you look at the history, it’s a long one and like many such figures, like Le Corbusier, there’s a rediscovery every few decades, a deepening of the analysis and a revival of the anger which would make it seem impossible to forget, though it does get forgotten in a kind of frightening cycle.
In Johnson’s case, the evidence is not negotiable. This is not a flirtation or seduction, this is writing hateful tracts, aligning with specific figures, organizations and publications—self-positioning physically and intellectually in horrific situations. To my mind, the evidence doesn’t allow for a kind of argument that says something like, “confused,” “misled,” “opportunist,” or “temporary.” This is a deep alignment with inner core and the exterior reality of fascism. It’s an impossibility to detach the individual from the larger force. As with Le Corbusier, it requires a constant vigilant attention to the ways the most incriminating evidence is linked to the seemingly least incriminating symptoms—not in order to dismiss the figures in some kind of self-serving retroactive trial but in order to understand the complicities of our field better.
At the time I was doing the show, I didn’t know about it. The first alarm bell for me was Michael Sorkin’s piece in Spy magazine towards the end of 1988. On the other hand, I did think that I was working with a monster in the sense of the very well established figure of Johnson as the “godfather.”
Exactly! I was going to ask about that, because when this show took place in the late ’80s, he had produced so much work in the preceding decade. He was producing at a monumental scale very consistently.
Yet what I got to see more than anyone else could see, I think, is that Johnson didn’t have the power that he was credited with, or no longer had it. It was because he was credited with it that he had certain freedoms. In other words, he was more dependent on the architects that supposedly he was the godfather of than they were dependent him. So, he was a kind of manufactured father figure—driven by a kind of fragility.
Which you highlight in your relationship to him and in making the show, right? It seems like he needed you to help shift what the conversation was around architecture to where and what it needed to be and was becoming.
Right, so when I was working with him, my fears were not with the politics of the 1930s, but those of the 1980s precisely, and him being this avatar of control. What I observed was how much the Museum of Modern Art was uncomfortable with him and him with them, but there was this delicate situation because of his legacy in the institution and maybe the interest in his collection. Of course, he was the reason why the show was happening. He felt that the department of Architecture and Design had become entirely boring. And so, his idea was for a wake-up call. And of course they hated him for that. He was able to walk the halls of MoMA and organize a show that violated every precedent and protocol. Specifically, with how high you hang things; what’s the typeface; even what’s the color of the flowers in the garden during the opening. I particularly remember arguing for both red and blue flowers to avoid any clumsy coding and succeeding only after a special meeting to break precedent. Likewise, the battle to have a pixelated fax image on the cover, which I thought was crucial but sent a shiver down the institutional spine. For me, it was exhilarating because I always imagined that institutions were experts in the politics of design, but I so underestimated the sheer brilliance of MoMA’s self-consciousness about the meaning of every little design decision. I was very excited to fight with them about everything. And Johnson acted as the cover, enabling things to happen the way I wanted. He never interfered with my curatorial decisions. On the contrary, I was able to decide everything from the overall concepts to the most obsessive details. It was an undeserved generosity on his part—even if obviously I was rattling the cage for him. And I learned a lot from his efficiency of thought and eye. And that chicken and egg thing of thinking that if he believes you have something important to offer maybe you do have something, so you make something that wasn’t there before to as it were realize that belief. There was an acute awareness of the danger of being in the spider’s web, which was in turn inside the formidable web of the museum, but the challenge of surviving and finally escaping the two traps was energizing. Perhaps only if survival is on the line is an exhibition any good?
Anyway, what I noticed was this supposedly all-powerful person in his home institution, an institution that he had played a huge role in making, being kind of despised by that institution, feeling himself an older person looking for a kind of a swan song or whatever by rocking the boat one more time. So, I was attracted of course to the idea of shaking the foundations of normality. And the view from inside the museum, the sense of the place’s historical role, was unique. It really felt like an observation post on the field with information was coming in from all sides and something about to be broadcast out. There was a sense of responsibility to make a very precise polemic there. Every minute was charged.
If you ask me to look back on the situation—yes, I try to think what were the possible complicities on my part with the person, institution, and concepts of that time. But I also see other overlapping, non-straightforward questions and effects of that curatorial work.
This is the perfect setup, because I was going to ask what Johnson’s Glass House did for modern architecture?
The Glass House? I don’t know.
That’s why we go there again and again. One time, Beatriz [Colomina] and I visited the house with Bruno Reichlin who’s one of the most thoughtful readers of modern architecture. After we circled the house a hundred times, he said, “Every architect, once in their life produces a building that is better than them.” It was a brilliant observation. Every now and then you produce the perfect cappuccino. You can’t reproduce it. It’s better than you. It’s not really your cappuccino. It’s just sort of happened. The Glass House is an astounding house-landscape, regardless of what Johnson was trying to do, and the extent to which he drew so directly on his sources and rubbed our face in them by publishing a list of them and insisting on his lack of originality. There is a huge Oscar Wilde dimension to Johnson, especially in this insistence on his superficiality.
It’s a fantastic work. That’s a little bit different from what you said, like, what does it give to modern architecture? Because that implies that modern architecture is specific sort of a thing, right? Like a being that needs sustenance or whatever. One sign that the Glass House of Johnson is good is that we still haven’t figured out a good way to talk about it—but we all keep wanting to.
What about Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House? Why the Glass House and not Farnsworth?
I prefer the Glass House but I think most architects will rate the Farnsworth house higher, especially because the Glass House is so closely based on it. It’s one of the key sources. Mies is seen as a figure of absolute authenticity as an architect. If Johnson insists he’s superficial, Mies insists he has never been superficial in his life. People even think of Mies as a superficiality reduction machine. Yet the Glass House is in no simple sense superficial and Mies was actually obsessed with the sensuous surface, usually dissimulating the structure behind it.
So, one is an elegant thin chatty man, Johnson, saying I’m just superficial and this is my party house. And the other is a kind of thick set brooding representative of solidity speaking sparsely about the meaning of meaning. Of course, both stories are not true and both figures have a less than innocent relationship to the Third Reich. Those who rightly question Johnson and expand the question to consider how it taints everything he touched have to ask the same question of Mies.
This pair is interesting. Johnson was the champion of Mies in the USA, from the time of his own New York apartment designed by Mies and Lilly Reich in 1930. Mies leaves Germany in 1937 I think, disappointed and regretful of the lack of possibility there after fishing for it and will become the architect of the very image of postwar corporate identity that will ultimately become the facade of global capital. If we ask the question of politics, as we should, and the question of architecture and fascism as we should, then let’s keep the investigation going and resist any simple idea of the innocent architect.
My tendency is to go back, for example in the case of the 1988 exhibition, and ask what might be the forms of complicity or resistance involved in those particular concepts of architecture that were on display in the institution and the wider field, to reassess the politics of the show, but do so at the level of the specific claims being made about architecture.
In fact, there was only one claim being made by the show, which was about a certain undecidability between structure and ornament. The question would then be about the politics of this undecidability. I do think it temporarily renders figures like Johnson, the museum, and the wider discourse secondary. I think if you target the relation to fascism of Johnson, Mies, Le Corbusier etc. without similarly targeting of the work in its detail and discourse then there is an implied claim that people are political and architecture is not—the very thing that is at issue here. I would much rather make the analysis in parallel.
Again, getting back to the eighties, this is what I understood so-called theory to be about: it was ultimately about the politics of architecture but approached through a different lens. It was all about authority, how authority is constructed and how binary thinking generates systems of violent subordination, systems that are violent before bodies and brains are wounded but are essential to that wounding. There was a generation at that time who thought that they were very political and thought they were on the left but simply couldn’t see the politics in post-structuralist work. It just simply wasn’t visible to them so they declared the work to be apolitical—which is an impossibility. So, they made a kind of double and somewhat contradictory claim, which is, “there are no politics here,” and, “you are damaging our field.” I think things have changed now precisely because the damage was done and we are three or four generations later when the work of younger scholars today is so fantastic, detailed, intricate, multilayered and engaged in multiple politics—there’s no longer a question as to the political nature of “theoretical” work. The language of transgression has given way to a language of urgencies.
I think it’s also possible for us to return to that exhibition and rethink it. I’m not saying I would protect it. Would I do it again? Would I do it differently? Who knows? It is now treated with such respect that I would be inclined to shake things up again.
I want to demystify the starchitect narrative. Johnson built the glass house for himself, right? Did Mies build Farnsworth for himself?
In a sense, but he never lived in his own stuff.
Is that something you think about?
Not really, very few architects live in their own work. Architecture in general has nothing to do with making people comfortable or happy. It’s actually very poor at that. Buildings that ask questions are usually not very good at keeping you dry and warm. So, architects tend not to risk living in their own work.
Architecture is not about the wellbeing of humans at all. And this is maybe the question that we should have begun with: if architecture is a question, and the question is about the human, architecture doesn’t simply house the human or reinforce the human. It remakes the human.
What Beatriz and I were trying to so with the Are We Human? Biennale in Istanbul in 2016 and our little yellow book on the same question was to ask: what if design is the most human thing of all? What if we are the designing species? What if design were about the human as a permanent question mark? If we generalize what was said about architecture before and say it now of design in general, the human is the species that treats itself as a question mark with every design both answering and reasking the question. In this view, design is driven by doubt. So, we must go back to a projects like Farnsworth or the Glass House and ask, in which ways are they provoking, extending, reinforcing, and transforming doubt?
To get back to the show, one of the organizing principles was Derrida’s Deconstruction, which was followed by Constructivism, and I read that some participants in the show acknowledged and preferred one concept over the other.
Right, as is indicated by the title, “Deconstructivist,” the show performs a kind of irresponsible mixing of the words constructivist and deconstruction, with a double intention. One is to actually take the work away from deconstruction—it’s a gesture of separation. You can see early on in the catalogue. I think the very first example given is, [Gordon] Matta-Clark’s Splitting. And that was a precise move to say, this is not deconstructivist, precisely because I think, as Yves Alain-Bois and others argue, and I agree entirely, there is an intimacy between Matta-Clark’s undoing and revealing of the structure of everyday houses and the philosophy of deconstruction. So, there was a distancing from deconstruction in the exhibition, almost to as it were to defend deconstruction from architects. But there’s also a distancing from the constructivists. None of the work participates in a social revolution to come. Nevertheless, the work of every single architect in that exhibition had explicitly been informed by some kind of a reflection on the work of the Russian Constructivists. For me, this is just so obvious and so literal in all of their work, even if each does it in a different way.
To put it too simplistically, with the achievement of actual social revolution, Constructivism went from being the very figure of revolutionary art to an unacceptably elite, detached and ultimately forbidden production. In a certain sense, a set of architects around the world belatedly picked up that experiment and tried to take it further. Of course, they did so under very different political conditions. So, there was never the argument that this work is political by virtue of the relationship to the Russian experiments. It was nevertheless an explicit recovery of specific parts of the experiment for reasons that were in their own way political. In my mind, there were ways in which this largely aesthetic experiment was of relevance to deconstructive philosophy. Hence the mish-mash label and like all labels, you know, the very thing that makes the label work is also what makes it annoying because people read too much into it or too little.
I think the side of the Constructivist reference was less controversial. Maybe one of the exhibited architects could say “I’m not really into the Russians.” But it is not true. I could easily show you that they were, totally. If they say, “I’m not interested in deconstruction,” I don’t care. It was never about which architects have read the philosophy of deconstruction, even if a few of them had very closely. It was about which architects are doing a kind of work that accentuates a certain structural condition which is of interest to a certain philosophical point of view. Deconstruction is a way of thinking structure. If structure is what stands up, a standing up and together, then deconstruction is the philosophical investigation of: What is it to stand up? And instead of saying structure stands on the ground, deconstruction shows that paradoxically it is actually the abyss, a lack of foundation that allows things to stand. The standing up of structure is by definition enigmatic. This is not to suggest a weakness of structure. On the contrary, it is to argue that the very strength and holding together of structure derives from what is traditionally excluded as a threat to stability.
Since architects are invited by society to not only to make things that stand, but make things that make standing visible, to represent structure when structure itself by definition doesn’t present itself, there is in everyday architectural practice, a super philosophical and somewhat miraculous and paradoxical gesture involving a play between what is seen that is by definition not structural and what is unseen. Some architects do a kind of meta-architectural work by foregrounding this play. This occurs as framing of a confusion or question as to what is structure and what is ornament, what is essential and what is added, a confusion that can only be staged in the supposedly inessential surface. I’m kind of quoting the exhibition catalog. It was never about things falling down or even looking like they’re going to fall down. On the contrary, it was about a kind of surprising standing up. It’s about constructing a kind of disturbance that something is standing and still stands in a way that provokes you to reflect on the nature of structure and the nature of standing–that’s the argument.
So, you did your Ph.D., that was one project. You did the “Deconstructivist” show at MoMA, that was another. Then your tenure as a professor at Princeton. And then, your time at Columbia University as the Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, could be read as like an architectural problem that you were concerned with, right?
Yeah, [laughter] that was a project.
Can you walk me through how you approached Columbia as an architectural problem and how you were able to build out the school’s programming and establish its reputation? One of the first things that you did was establish a partnership with the Canadian Centre for Architecture and put on the Gordon Matta-Clark show, establish a GSAPP publishing imprint, you helped establish the CCCP program that I’m in [the Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices], so I want you to outline your approach and the structure you used.
I do think taking care of the school is a project and it’s a doubly curatorial project in the sense of curating care. How do you care for architecture if architecture is a set of questions? Caring for architecture would be offering some sort of hospitality to questioning. Research universities are thought that way, places where things are questioned. Architecture has an uneasy relationship with universities because it is officially associated with answers, and thereby demoted as a “professional” school. A school of architecture in a research university should be a place in which architecture is questioned—aimed at a possible future profession rather than that of today. This means that both teachers and students don’t know what architecture is. I already said that is the normal position of architects, that’s why all architects are theorists, so a school is a super architectural space, a kind of asylum for doubt about architecture. The only difference is that the traditional architect secretly has huge doubts about what is architecture but publicly expresses its stability. The school has the advantage of being able to entertain only the doubts and questions and no obligation to perform the public display of confidence.
A school becomes a kind of place in which it’s possible to multiply the number of questions and the number of kinds of people asking those questions and, and the numbers of ways they ask those questions. So, for me, that was the responsibility. So people come to the school because they don’t know what architecture is, and they leave knowing even less.
[Laughter] Or with a huge amount of not obviously deployable knowledge. And why exhibitions, books etc.? Because they mobilize questions on the outside. If the typical architecture of the architect is doubt on the inside and confidence on the outside, the architecture of a non-boring school is doubt on both the inside and outside.
What did you bring to Columbia?
I became the caretaker of a school that was already very exciting. Bernard Tschumi had transformed a school that was intensely boring, boredom was its thing. No one can believe this anymore but this is what it was. Bernard brought from London a kind of genetic logic of experimentation from the Architectural Association, not by accident, the place the Zaha [Hadid] and Rem [Koolhaas] went to as one of the great venues for questioning.
All I did is just put steroids into the whole thing. So, it was more of everything. The theory was overdose, right? The idea was to overdose architecture as a kind of experiment. Like what is the limit? And what I discovered was there was no limit. The students, faculty, staff and university itself were able to operate the whole school–I don’t drive, this is a horrible analogy–but we were able to operate in ever higher gears.
So, there was more of everything, and everything moved faster. And soon the question was what kind of cross contaminations could occur outside New York. For me, it was very important for the school to have alter egos all over the world, the Studio-X network of laboratory spaces in Mumbai, Beijing, Amman, Johannesburg, and Rio de Janeiro which were at any one time doing more interesting things than what was happening in New York. The school was being threatened by its own experiments in a kind of expanded field. A net of inposts rather than outposts. This was a kind of enormous experiment, but just following the basic responsibility to help everyone do what they wanted to do, even, if not especially, the things they don’t yet know that they wanted to do. I thought the whole school should be based on the simple responsibility of teachers to support the ideas that students haven’t had yet. I even wrote this up at the beginning as a manifesto for the school.
It was permanently hectic and I basically put my research and writing on hold but I did a couple of things that were more selfish to stay alive mentally, like the Cedric Price Fun Palace and Matta-Clark Anarchitecture exhibitions as part of a “living archive” series with the CCA [Canadian Centre for Architecture] that you mentioned. I suppose that one of the reasons I had pushed Matta-Clark away from the Deconstructivist show was to keep Matta-Clark, as it were, for another day. And after doing the ten year stint as Dean I have returned again and again to Matta-Clark, doing a book on Anarchitecture then another exhibition at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai last year along with another book. I doubt that the fascination with this figure will ever finish for me.
I’m permanently interested in anti-architectural figures like Matta-Clark and Price. In fact, they both called themselves anti-architects. I continue to collect such figures, or be collected by them. I’m fascinated with them because they actually represent the very ambitions of the architect as questioners; that’s the paradox. They are unrepressants or anti-repressants, magnifying the questions and thereby putting the field itself on the line. A lot of my research has concerned those who are engaged in an anti- or post- architectural practice, like the book on Buckminster Fuller and radio, and the latest one that just came out in the little Critical Spatial Practice series of Sternberg Press last week, entitled Konrad Wachsmann’s Television: Post-architectural Transmissions. I somehow became a serial monographer of counter figures in the attempt to make a kind of portrait of the field that they counter. In each case, it involves obsessive forensic work in the archives to trace the way architecture has questioned itself. In fact, this historical and conceptual work is ongoing pursuit of the very same philosophical questions with which I began back in New Zealand. It’s probably all one project in the end. To have half an idea is already a lot.
Looking back at those things that you did at the school, could you have projected the life that they now have?
I was just trying to facilitate experiments on the principle of trying to never say no. To just test the thought that any good idea, if it’s half good, can easily become three quarters good at least if we just to try to get it right. Also, there’s the assumption of failure, right? Like if you say yes to everything, certain things are not going to work. But some of the ones that you thought were going to fail are going to work great and ones that you thought were going to work well don’t, so there there’s an advantage to saying yes to most things.
Most schools of architecture mobilize enormous amounts of resources in terms of time and brainpower. But the resources are usually channeled into a limited set of directions and these channels have conclusions built into them; with notions of how one should start and how one should end. Most schools are trying to resist discoveries to magnify confidence in the status quo. So, the mission at GSAPP was simply to multiply the number of channels and opportunities for error.
The CCCP program is an example of this. It multiplies the channels not simply because it’s another program, but because the very definition of the program is for people who don’t know where they’re going next. Every other program in the school has a hypothetical before and after. This one has no hypothetical after, or the purpose of the program to generate alternative afters. In a certain sense, almost as a rule, you could say, every school should have in it a program whose possible outcome is another kind of school. Schools need to host units whose likely outcome is a threat to the entire wellbeing of the rest of the school. Not just in the important sense of needing to be self-critical, but to resist the temptation to be boring and fall asleep at the wheel. This is why I think the world of architectural theory is very strong these days because the number of channels is so wide and the forms of expertise and the depth of the research keeps increasing. Each line of research potentially challenges the others, keeping everything on its toes. Now you’re talking about a multi-dimensional kind of carpet that’s being woven and continuously rewoven. Architectural scholarship is getting less boring by the second.
I think one could even should return to any question that was raised in the eighties and ask it again. It’s not about being new, but about rethinking, reworking, reconsidering.
On the notion of failure and experiments. I wanted to ask about Volume Magazine, which you started with Rem Koolhaas and Ole Bouman, and was a collaboration between Archis (Amsterdam) and OMA (Rotterdam) and C-Lab at Columbia University. It’s an experimental thinktank focusing on the process of spatial and cultural reflexivity, and as a note it’s created and founded in collaboration with the Institute of Failure, “for the instruction and theory of failure (as opposed to success).” I think of the most architectural and theoretical interventions as being those that failed or were never physically conceived. It brought to mind Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Slow House. My question for you would be: Why is failure an important concept for the field of architecture?
These are two very different projects. Volume magazine, which continues to this day , was exactly in the spirit of multiplying the channels and it was an experiment with what does it mean for a school, a magazine, and an office to triangulate and to decenter editorial control and to decenter subject matter. Amazing work was produced there and although Ole, Rem, and I wrote a lot of stuff for the publication we were subordinate figures to the real project. We were enablers—something like that, but not influencers. This is true by the way of all this multiplication of channels within the school. I may have been the midwife but the real amazing work was done by others. The school is a community of 1000 non-boring people and continues to be.
The Institute of Failure is a whole different thing because in fact, Brett Steele and I invented this idea that there had been an Institute of Failure, but it was a complete fabrication. We invented a story of an Institute devoted to failure that failed. And we had public conversations about it. And we even produced documentary evidence of the existence of this thing, which never existed. I can hear from the tone of your question that its reality continues, right?
So, it is exactly what you say that the unbuilt or the unfinished, or the never done lives a kind of ghost life. The idea was to produce to produce the ghost of a failed institute of failure. It produced an amazingly interesting set of reactions. Many people expressed disappointment not to have been a part of it and wanted to be part of its future. It emerged as a jazz improvisation out of conversations that Brett and I were having each year, when either of us was in London or New York. Because there was this idea that the Architectural Association and Columbia’s GSAPP were sort of sister institutions and the idea was to keep an eye on the Atlantic [Ocean] under the label NYLON.
If you think of design studios, students are invited to imagine hypothetical spatial organizations in response to hypothetical questions. Perhaps by the end of the semester teachers and students have come to some kind of agreement about what is the question and what would constitute a response. The whole point is a certain kind of irresponsibility as an ethical call since the responsibility of normative decisions is intimately linked to multiple forms of structural violence. So, the apparent irresponsibility of design studios is not about making a dream world but trying to wake up precisely.
Likewise, schools need to think about which kinds of irresponsibility relative to the norms of their institution create or release other forms of questioning. A skeptical view would say any gesture within an institution is bound to be absorbed and thereby tamed by that institution. Just as there is the view that any gesture inside the white walls of a museum can only be self-infantilizing and consumed by the institution, the market, global capital etc. But there can be another view that says that there are forms of behavior and actions within museums that ultimately have the capacity to rethink or even displace the institution. Now, if you take the former view, which sounds correct as institutional critique 101, why would you ever walk into a museum? According to that view, any passage into a museum is a passage into a propaganda machine for the latest disguise of capitalism. So, according to that view, the one place you should never go is to a museum, because you yourself will be commodified just as efficiently as the artworks because the museum is actually much more focused on you as the viewer than it is with the art objects. The one thing museums know is who are the people that enter. According to the first view, you should never walk in, but the people who have that view walk in all the time to tell you about the horror that’s going on inside. I think we all sustain these two contradictory views, inevitable domestication and possible subversion, and it’s the relationship between them that needs to be rethought.
The very point of the institution is extraction, right? So, art museums are clearly aligned with a global extractive economy. There is no innocence there and no possible innocent passage of art or individuals or ideas into that space. At the same time, we seem to preserve the thought of counter-extractive actions and responsibilities that have political agency. And just to finish this speech: most people would maybe agree that walking into the space of the museum is undoubtedly to walk into the space of an extractive machine aligned with an extractive economy in which the visitor is a bio-political commodity being actively modified. But shouldn’t we say the same of the streets outside the museum? It’s not that the machine starts when you walk in the door. The whole environment of streets, the houses, the internet, and so on, is extractive, so adopting an activist position against extraction is already to believe that it is possible to resist from the inside. So the thought of resisting from inside an institution, even as privileged a site as Columbia University or MoMA is not as immediately contradictory, naïve or implausible as it might seem. This is not to underestimate the formidable extractive forces or naively romanticize resistance but to preserve the category of internal activism.
What is the relationship between architecture and clothing? In White Walls, Designer Dresses (1995) you state that the argument of clothing as architecture was formed in the nineteenth century, but I think it’s really important to distill what your intention was then and how it bleeds into the current cultural apparatus? It immediately made me think of Michael Asher, Andrea Fraser, and Daniel Buren and the whole conceptual art movement and institutional critique writ large.
Well in my fantasy life, the White Walls book is a continuation of the thinking about deconstruction. I see deconstruction as a way of thinking structure. The millennial debate about architecture is about the relationship of structure and ornament where ornament is by definition unnecessary, and so the question becomes what is the necessary role of the unnecessary? It’s a way of going into the history of architecture and looking at the way the specific question of ornament and structure is played out, and specifically the white wall. The white wall is freighted with so much around questions of race, sexuality, hygiene, institutional framing, blackness, and whiteness of course—a whole host of default settings and their associated violence. You could say that nothing is less empty than the white wall yet the white wall officially represents emptiness. I’m attracted to the white wall like a moth to the flame.
What that book did was to deliberately put to one side the question of race, the gallery and hygiene after referring to all three for their obviousness. The idea was to say, let’s not take the white wall at its most obvious, and most obviously political, but identify the logic underpinning these structural associations. I wanted to zoom in on the white wall that had become the default setting for everyday life and to look again at the seemingly avant-garde gesture of the ’20s when buildings announced that they were naked. More precisely, to look at what it means to wear a set of clothes that say “naked.” Like the white tank top that you’re wearing today. Which is to say, “I’m wearing something but what I am wearing is nothing.” The announcement of doing nothing or making nothing when in fact it’s doing everything through a huge labor and presides over almost every form of violence you can think of.
Architecture is defined by its sensuous linguistic surface. It’s organized by, around and through the sensuous surface. The meaning of a building is to be found in its fabric, texture, color, and smell. Gottfried Semper, who portrayed architecture in these terms as a form of clothing in the mid-nineteenth century, said that hairdressers knew more about architecture than architects because, as anyone that’s every tried to do a haircut knows, hair is more complex in geometry and sensuality than any building. Which reminds me of when Salvador Dali was asked about the future of architecture, and said he didn’t know what it would be, except he knew it would be hairy.
For Semper, architecture is a sensuous effect of ornament and the only role of structure is the subordinate one of holding ornament up, which makes the modern architect’s famous removal of ornament a contradiction in terms. The White Walls book simply explores this contradiction by tracing the ongoing legacy of Semper’s thinking in the twentieth century. Modern architects were never simply rejecting ornament but recalibrating it. They were in fact obsessed with ornament, style, and fashion to master the no-look look. A coat of white paint is exactly that, it’s a coat that you can wear like any other coat and it’s a complex coat because it has to deny its own materiality. It has to present itself as being pre-political and also in a certain way pre-human and not just pre-historic but pre-time. White Walls is a long book that patiently thinks through what it means to inhabit a white building. It is never simply about looking at a white surface but about wearing it. In the end, it is not the building that wears the white coat but the inhabitant, a mythical newly whitened but supposedly trans-historical subject.
White Walls isn’t about uncovering some secret archive. It was exactly the opposite, saying, well, let’s just reread the dominant texts of modern architecture and read them closely for evidence of a specific argument about clothing. You could say it was just an experiment in rereading canonic historical texts and considering the implications.
I’m reading this review of the book from ’97, which came out two years after the book release, and it says,
“To explain how the modern movement came to be associated with whiteness, Wigley teases out the many connotations white bore for polemicists of the avant-garde. Color was sexual; white intellectual. Color was feminine; white masculine. Colors changed; white seemed permanent. Ornament was frivolous and rarely all white. White focused the eye on the “true” composition of a building, its volumes, rather than keeping the eye on the surface. White seemed hygienic. For Le Corbusier, white bespoke ocean liners and therefore represented modern industrial culture; but it also connoted the vernacular dwellings he had sketched on his “voyage d’orient,” and thus represented tradition.”
To ground this sentiment in contemporary times and think through culture, the internet, memes, Instagram, and technology writ large, anything that is colored, or of color or blackness, is an aesthetic, a mask or ornament that can only ever be of an ascent and can’t be the fully embodied thing.
I agree. If you take the question again, it inevitably turns to the most conspicuous things referred to but moved to the background: notably race, hygiene and the gallery wall. In fact, I have worked on these urgent topics in other contexts in what has become a whole series of texts on white surfaces, including the latest one for e-flux that explores the intersection of all three. The way you asked the question reminds me of how I had zoomed in the question of sexuality at the time, foregrounding the gendering role of the white surface. I guess all this work is about the mechanism of the white as a kind of device of othering that is revealing, defining, constructing, constraining, and maiming others. The White Walls book insisted on the self-denied but highly active sensuality of white…
White is marked as non-sensual in order to reveal everything else as sensual, as when exposing the feminine and color per se, defining the other as sensual and therefore disorderly, requiring discipline. White walls as the instrument of control. What I tried to do was insist on the sensuality of the white itself, the lethal sexiness of the white.
Yeah, I think there’s a misconception around blackness and queerness and these movements and theories that are hyper-aestheticized that aren’t actually fetish. White is fetish and these things that are othered are more vague sensualities than anything. Being othered means to be assigned this vague sensuality, specifically with black men being eroticized and with women as more mammy figures. They’re assigned this vague specificity that’s devoid of any meaning, yet whiteness still holds space for it to then define and then evacuates and empties out this meaning depending upon what the conditions call for and how they shift.
I love what you’re saying. If you think of the white as highly sexualized then this sexuality has a lot to do with domination and the forbidden but routine pleasure-pain of being dominated. The whole point of this argument is not simply to demonize the white as a killer, though it is a killer, no question. It is murderous. White is always stained with blood even if you rarely see it. But the argument is more complex because part of the seduction of the white is the illicit sense of pleasure in being watched by the white wall, because that is what the white wall does: it looks. The discourse of authority begins with a sexualized discourse of self-control, even of self-maiming used as a kind of license for maiming others. As Le Corbusier puts it, the white wall watches and controls by producing a sense of shame—the usual religious ploy. It disciplines by producing a sense of the dirtiness, sexuality, otherness, and complications of you, the sense that you don’t fit. It’s a system of classification that reveals-constructs one as a misfit. It is the production of a generalized sense of misfit that feeds the violence. The complication here is that the violent effect of the white wall does not come from it simply dividing white and color. It is not that the white surface offers “white” people a reassuring mirror. On the contrary, it mobilizes a homicidal unease. Or to say it another way, no skin is white enough. The brutal logic of whiteness as privilege is all about shadings.
I’d have to read the White Walls book again but my sense is that the main goal of the argument about clothing was to resist the idea of the binary and to do so in a non-binary way. The white is a machine for generating binaries but that doesn’t mean that that mechanism, or the way analyzing it, itself binary. Indeed, the logic of deconstruction—just to keep this conversation in the mode of personal recollection, which itself needs to be analyzed—is to argue that binaries are by definition incubated by pre-binary forces that do not follow the laws they incubate. The whole point of the book was to try to come up with a non-binary account of this binary incubating mechanism. It was never about coming away from the analysis saying that white is bad, and color is good. It’s more like the second phase of the Malevich squares when a white square is placed on a white square. The point was to treat white in its own terms as sensuous color, and perhaps even apply its own disciplinary violence onto itself. To revisit that is, the ambiguity that white can be the presence of all colors.
…or the absence of color.
Yeah, this ambiguity is at the heart of its power.
It’s white wall as structure and form and the absence of programming.
Recently, I have tried to think more about the non-whiteness of white and the sense of the white surface itself as having been extracted from those who invented it and were rendered by it as “people of color.” The context is around thirty years of super strong scholarly work on blackness in architecture, focusing on the last 401 years of slavery, which has steadily gained revelatory force but only recently a wider audience in response to the shared trauma marked by the Black Lives Matter call. I don’t trust the belated response because it has the feel of white guilt, the protocols of religion again where the privileged say “we’ve done wrong, we must become better people!” For me, these expressions of self-shame have always preceded and even mobilized lynching and it’s not convincing. What is convincing is the thirty years of ongoing scholarship by colleagues and there is now an opportunity for that research to substantially reframe the discourse and produce new forms of collegiality and new forms of transgressive research and practice.
On the question of the scholarly work of institutional critique I have to say that ultimately it’s not that good on the whiteness in the gallery walls. It is a bit too self-satisfied and lacks the edge in comparison to the other urgent work on whiteness that has been going on a long time now in parallel with critical race theory. Within the art history world, there’s the sense that the white cube has been addressed but I don’t think it has. Perhaps Brian O’Doherty’s original work was so elegant that it still acts as a cover for sloppy work on the gallery frame. It’s time for a shake-up. But now I sound like a referee there are already far too many referees.
Who is Marshall McLuhan?
In the 1960s McLuhan channeled an argument from the end of the nineteenth century that the “human species was prosthetically expanding and extending itself into a new being with technology.” The human species is human inasmuch as it has steadily externalized all its organs and brain. McLuhan knew the theory well because he was originally a literary scholar studying those novelists who wrote about it. It was voiced by writers like Samuel Butler who was both influenced by Darwin and arguing against him. McLuhan revived the argument in the age of television to say that the human species was already an organism bigger than the planet, having externalized its brain into a global communications network. I think of Marshall McLuhan as a joint, an architectural joint between the late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first century. He allows us to get back to the original debate about the fact that the age of industrialization was one in which humans were being treated like machines and machines were being treated as humans. Workers were only valuable inasmuch as they could mechanize their movements to keep machines alive and machines were now living creatures. This was not a theoretical, philosophical or historical debate but a public debate in newspapers about the question “are we human?”
Right, I was watching the The Medium is the Message conference video earlier, where he says, “The definition of and Latin root of reading means to guess. The act of reading is being in the practice of rapid guessing.” And so those who are in the practice of reading are able to make very quick decisions because they are conditioned to engage with decision making in a way that doesn’t paralyze them. And he says that the literary is the objective and the television [at the time] is the subjective.
His general pitch is that electronics bring us back to the tribal, back to Africa. He has this idea that the further we reach out in electrical terms we return to what he calls the jungle drums of Africa. The question then becomes, “Where does television sit?” Is it a time machine that returns us to an earlier state or a kind of Afrofuturism? There is a becoming-black dimension of his argument. He was socially conservative person, super-catholic, anti-birth control, and very strict. Hard to see him as a liberating force but more like a loudspeaker–a piece of equipment that’s attached to an old argument about prosthetics, a signal that has been broadcast since the late nineteenth century. The quote that you read about reading has a binary logic, as in the distinction between literature and television, so it begs to be countered. What’s interesting is more the non-binary capacity of television be both the medium of the day and the medium through which the global electronic community is forged before the internet. For McLuhan, technologies never simply sit in a particular time.
But you say that this is true of the invention of the book in the seventeenth century, right? The book was the internet before the internet in that it revolutionized learning and took the process of teaching that was abstract before and made it where everyone could engage with the same material conditions. Then, we had television as the supposed internet of the time, and now we’re in a period of the internet as the internet or a technology that we still have yet to understand. And now social media is the internet. So, if the medium is the message then what is the message of today?
I think the most important insight of McLuhan is that the environment you live in is precisely what you cannot see. You can only see environment when it becomes outmoded. We only ever see in a rearview mirror. We cannot look forward or even at the present. If you ask me, where are we or where are we going to go next? I have no idea. But McLuhan does say that each new medium makes the previous medium visible as medium. In a certain sense, the internet makes television, which used to be our environment, visible. McLuhan argues that the role of the artist is to produce anti-environments, so that at least for a moment the environment becomes visible. Even if the environment is by definition that which you can’t see you can destabilize perception in such a way that it is momentarily visible. The artist tweaks time.
Which means that today, for example, in the world of the so-called internet there would have to be an anti-internet or post-internet or de-internet strategy that would expose the internet for what it is. In this sense, Edward Snowden might be an artist. The release of data was literally a kind of artwork and he has subsequently been positioned as a theorist or even philosopher. It might sound too literal because he exposed the secrets of the internet, but he also exposed the viewing capacity of the internet, maybe nobody cared about which specific secret was revealed. What they cared about was the secret of how many secrets there were.
McLuhan speaks of forms of behavior that would be artworks by virtue of being anti-environmental. Since we already associate architects with the production of environments, this seems to be a call for anti-architecture. If architecture is going to participate in the making visible of environment rather than the manufacturing of a kind of invisibility, this would require anti-architectural strategies to be cultivated within architecture. With the [Konrad] Wachsmann book, I’m trying to argue that this is exactly what’s going on; that he is undoing architecture. Wachsmann is an architect that uses all of the tricks of architecture to undo architecture in the name of television.
Right, in the book you say, “It is not about the addition of television to architecture, it is about the undoing of architecture by television, including the undoing of the space in which television appears” (22) So my question for you would be, what does television conceal?
Ah good question, I have no idea. At the end of the book, just to give it away, for Wachsmann, television is simply the name of the future. Television is not a specific technology, it’s not a TV set. He’s saying that television is the hospitality to a future that will be shocking. It’s a technology of vision, tele-vision, it’s precisely a visualization device whose focus it is to make possible an invisible unseen future.
For this to happen, architecture itself becomes invisible. He dematerializes and dissolves architecture. He’s not wearing a red shirt and he doesn’t carry any dynamite. Indeed, he seems to be a control freak, in a super German control freak way, yet he guides architecture step-by-step minutely, precisely and ultimately to its demise. That’s the kamikaze mission.
What you’re saying reminds of the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. When you’re describing the television as a portal it makes me think of film and when I think of films and televisions it makes me think of sets. And what do sets symbolize? Sets are places and things that represent and are idealized forms. So, what happens when you’re representing this thing that exists and the representation of the thing becomes so idealized that by the time you are able to experience the actual thing it isn’t what you knew or thought you understand the experience to be. So, you can’t engage with it because it isn’t the thing that it represents.
Exactly. The basic idea of the architect is someone that draws lines that construct a distinction between inside and outside and then put breaks in the line so you can go from the inside to the outside. Architects draw lines then offer ways of crossing them, right? Imagine then that the line that you want to cross is between architecture and another world. It sounds like science fiction, a portal to another world, a place in which place is left behind. Yet this is this the classical role of the architect. Think of the Greek temple as a physical object that supposedly vibrates with the harmonies of the universe and therefore allows you leave the world behind to experience the trans-historical truths of the universe. Other examples would be a movie theater, church, lecture hall, or a university. You go to the university in order to not be in the university but to be in the space of ideas. This idea of creating a place that enables you to leave places behind, to go to some unknown other place, is actually built into the mission of the architect and yet when we teach and think architecture we act as though we go from A-to-B in the same space. [Konrad] Wachsmann is an expert on how to join things together but he refines the joints that hold architecture together so perfectly that ultimately architecture dissolves and disappears so that whatever else can take place does. He thinks of this self-effacement and erasure of architecture as a political responsibility. It is the possibility of architecture being political, yet he never addresses specific politics. He focuses on a future politics or the political necessity of an unseen, undesigned future.
It’s funny that you mention the university not as a place to embody but a space of and for ideas because I’ve been thinking about this for the last 8 months or so, navigating the pandemic and having to grapple with what my priorities are beyond the institution. I realized that for me being at Columbia [University] wasn’t about the physical campus but about being able to engage in a specific school of thought and being accountable to a community for the scholarship and research that plagues my mind and then producing it. I don’t miss being on campus because the way I’ve always engaged going to school was about the conversation and departing from the place I was in and traversing in uncharted territories and in a way, though I miss being in close quarters with my cohort, I think the campus became a barrier and noise for the type of scholarship I was trying to produce. Now that I’m at home and communicating through Zoom, it has allowed me to get to the source of all of the things that matter to me and silence the noise. I wanted to enter a portal and not be trapped in some ideated space.
Yes, totally. The original idea of the university in the tenth century was a place in the world that was placeless. This is the very definition of the university. It is the space of ideas around a teacher, ideas that are not of the physical world. To stay with this theme, take what we’re doing now, with you and I on this Zoom call. Television was first displayed in 1926 and was theorized immediately by architects in 1927, specifically by Buckminster Fuller in the States and Ivan Leonidov in Russia. Their idea is exactly what we are doing now with interactive communities and education systems sustained by two-way TV. They thought every building would become a school and every school would become a TV station. So, let’s reverse engineer it. Is there anything happening in the current situation that’s not described in 1927? I don’t think so. Thinking in a McLuhan way, Zoom makes visible the almost one hundred years old idea of television which has defined the real space we live in, carrying out all the architectural fantasies about space, security, memory, representation, and so on supposedly provided by buildings but actually provided by electronics. But the only thing we can be sure of, following McLuhan again, is that the real world we’re living in today isn’t Zoom or the internet. What anti-architectural figures like Wachsmann, Buckminster Fuller, Cedric Price and others did was to try dematerialize the slow, heavy, and fixed forms of architecture to provide some form of hospitality to a by definition unexpected future. We are likely living in it but unable to see it because we only have rearview mirrors.
I think there is a relationship between these historical anti-architectural projects and the contemporary political moment of trying to undo structural racism. There is an architecture to the specific protocols of violence imposed on specific bodies, in specific ways, at specific times. Visible architecture is utterly complicit with these protocols and resistance to anti-blackness is necessarily anti-architectural. But there is also a need to counter the violence of unseen architectures. Once again there is the need to open up a kind of portal to the world that we live in rather than the world that we see and think we know.
Right, well to go back to McLuhan, one of his touchstones is that he says, that the power in media and the manipulation of populations through the media which ultimately aspire and are effective of universalizing peace. And at the time he says, that it makes people think that war is unthinkable, and he touches on violence as self-expression. His point about violence is that isn’t about the embodied act but more on the importance about the violence of an opinion, not as collective thinking but violence as the discourse, the dance of conversation. In this talk, he lands at this idea that without an audience it’s just a rehearsal. Which makes me think of the early days of the coronavirus when we saw it moving through and across the rest of the world and the eerie nature and presence that it had. I remember a friend showing me various game shows or talk shows where the person was there, but the audience was absent and the imagined audience was tuning in–it was so dystopic.
McLuhan also talks about the rearview mirror which you mentioned and the rearview mirror being symbolic of nostalgia and it made me think of how nostalgia shapes and is a driving factor of racism. I’ve been thinking about what it means to editorialize Blackness and how it’s a nostalgia for what we were allegedly denied and the opportunities that we missed out on. I think nostalgia has plagued us because we never feel like we’re living in the future because we are consumed with a nostalgia for what never was and could have been. I’m more concerned with what it means to be alive today and thinking critically about these frameworks and not calling upon the past to delegate how I get to exist in the (present) future.
Of course, I don’t have a specific answer to the question, but architecture as a field, for example, is intimately connected to ideas about optimism—a better future accelerated by even minor adjustments to the built environment. It’s generally presented as a form of optimism even by those who condemn architecture for its complicity. I think it might be more interesting to align architecture with pessimism, and specifically Afro-pessimism. If I understand it right, Afro-pessimism wouldn’t allow for nostalgia because there’s never a moment before the violence of dehumanization or the relentlessly cruel conversion of subjects into objects—property suspended permanently at the edge of death or over the edge of death.
This more millennial view offers a very direct challenge to architecture, not only because architecture is so much more violent than has yet to be acknowledged, even within critical race theory in architecture. I suspect the full whiteness of architecture has yet to be fully acknowledged and articulated where words like “complicity” are no longer adequate to the depth of the problem. The question is more about the racialization built into the very concept of architecture in the first place. This calls for a much longer historical perspective and conceptual interrogation of the entanglement of whiteness, architecture, and slavery. Maybe it is a fantasy or a wish but I see the work of very different colleagues in different fields heading in this direction and the immanent intersection of their work is explosive and urgent.