In Conversation with Mark Wigley

The noted architectural historian discusses design, tomorrow's infrastructure, and Buckminster Fuller.

At the end of June, Mark Wigley will step down after 10 years as dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University. Under his leadership, the school has built on its legacy of experimentation and expanded its global influence, notably with the Studio-X network, a collection of design laboratories and event spaces in Beijing, Mumbai, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, and New York, with smaller-scale operations in São Paulo and Tokyo.

Climate change, urban population booms, and radical technological innovations have prompted a great deal of self-examination and curricular adjustments in schools of architecture worldwide, and Wigley has addressed these issues deftly. On a recent morning, he sat with Surface in his airy office at Columbia to reflect on his decade-long deanship and his efforts to connect the school to global concerns and networks. He spoke about what was fundamental to the education of an architect and what will challenge graduates in the years to come.

An architectural historian and theorist, Wigley studied architecture at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1987. He began teaching at Columbia in early 2000, after 12 years at Princeton University. Early in his career, he was co-curator (with Philip Johnson) of the 1988 exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture” at the Museum of Modern Art, which featured work from an emerging vanguard of architects and firms. The lineup included Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, and Bernard Tschumi, the last of whom Wigley succeeded as GSAPP dean.

After stepping down from his post, Wigley plans to take a sabbatical and then return to Columbia as a faculty member. He is currently at work on a book about Buckminster Fuller and the technology of radio.

What are the most compelling reasons for someone to become an architect now?
I actually think that there’s never a compelling reason to be an architect. The decision is irrational, and that irrationality is an enormous and precious asset. Architecture is full of romantics who think that even relatively small changes to the built environment create the aspiration for a better society. It sounds hokey, but there is in every architect the thought that things could be better. This is a kind of professional optimism. And that leads to an expertise in entering situations in which the dynamics are unclear. Architects are only ever called into a situation when it’s impossible. If it’s possible, you invite somebody with a toolbox who can give answers. You call the architect in when it’s not clear what the question even is.

If architects have that sense of romance or outsize optimism about small gestures, they’re also obliged now to think about things that are much larger, beyond the scope of the one thing that they’re doing. Do you think this is a recent challenge?
I’m not sure. Because how did this game begin? It began with the thought—in the West anyway—that the proportion of a column could resonate with the invisible harmonies of the universe. So to encounter such a column would be to feel in your brain and in your body the vibrations of the cosmos. And so a column would be more beautiful than a tree. The thought was that architecture acts as a trigger, and it sets off a chain reaction. So if you imagine that even a little object could trigger a kind of cosmic chain reaction, you see your work, from the beginning, in this enormously expanded field.

I think now, in our daily lives, we constantly interact with very enormous scales. My cell phone not only positions me relative to the celestial geometry of some satellites around the earth, but I have unprecedented access to layer upon layer of big data and the ability to filter it. So even my micromovements are understood in terms of this enormous scale.

What does this enormity of access and scale mean for today’s architects?
So many of the skills that are really precious to the architect have to do with mixing forms of information that don’t belong together. That is the hallmark of the architect. It’s interesting that that’s also increasingly the hallmark of the youth of the planet. You have the first multidimensional social-media generation that operates at every moment in a planetary network. So I think for the first time there’s a possible synchronization between the irrational ambition of the architect and what could be understood to be the irrational optimism of this new generation. What I’ve seen over the last 10 years is the kind of dialogue between this new default capacity of the students and the hardcore experimental traditions of the school.

It often seems as if architecture is one of the last fields that’s, as you said, integrating things that don’t really belong together. And because other disciplines are so increasingly specialized, one wonders whether architects are behind the curve or if they’re on to something.
Buckminster Fuller used to argue that species go extinct when they specialize. And he thought architects were total idiots and spent his lifetime undoing all of their assumptions. And yet he thought the only ones who could save us, in this kind of messianic way, were architects, because they were what he called comprehensivists. It’s not like they combine these different forms of information into a single order. They instead create a kind of basket in which incompatible things can hang out; they enable complexity to survive. Families, for example, are weird, so family houses are weird: An architect may be called in to do a family house because the house is actually a nest for confusions and incompatibilities.

Which extends to cities as well.
Maybe this is just the optimism that I have, but I think the next 10 years are going to be very exciting, because we only have about 10 years to sort things out. By 2050 or so, 70 percent of the world will be living in cities and nobody has any idea what that means. So I think there is a phase coming up, a radical series of adjustments and reflections, and a build-up of a kind of military capacity to engage with this enormous question: What does it mean for us to live together? A city is just a word for that which lets us live together. How we are going to live together a few generations from now—super unclear. Have we built up the capacities to think about that? Not yet. But architects are very good with deadlines.

The relationship between architecture and urbanism is front and center at many schools of architecture at the moment. If 8 or 9 billion people will be living in cities by 2050, what kind of change does someone who’s training to be an architect now need to be prepared for?
It’s a good question, but I don’t really have an answer. Any architect who is offered the commission to redesign the planet would accept it. There isn’t the voice in the architect’s head that says, “No, that’s probably not my area.” Louis Kahn was asked by scientists at General Electric to do the interiors for spacecraft, and he said, “I think you have the wrong fellow. It amazes me whenever I flip a switch and a light comes on.” But then in the following weeks he did his first sketches. So I think you could ask something more like, “The complexity with which the architect is willing to dance—is this going up?” The answer is a pretty emphatic yes.

I’ll give you an example. People live in the space of radio waves. I mean everybody. Anybody with a cell phone is occupying the spaces of radio broadcasts of multiple kinds. So we live in the architecture of radio, which is infinitely more complex than any building. This is the architecture of the emergent generation. And yet in schools of architecture, we produce physical objects as if they would be the center of the universe—but they are almost counter objects. They’re a kind of memorial to an impossible dream of stability and security.

So radio space demands new kinds of architecture.
For most people, the first thing that wakes them up is their cell phone, which they are more or less sleeping with. They then touch the phone with a tenderness normally reserved for people they love, and it’s probably the last thing they look at before they sleep. So conscious life and cell phones and all the radio communication from that cell phone, all the data sets and friends—consciousness is now inseparable from that piece of technology. So let’s just imagine that the client for architecture, the person for whom we design, is inseparable from radio. Their consciousness is embedded in those technologies in a way that used to be thought of as science fiction. Doesn’t that mean that schools of architecture have to radically update their assumptions?

All Stories