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.
Mark Wigley in his office at Columbia University in New York.
Which extends to cities as well.
Maybe this is just the optimism that I have, but I think the next to 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?
People in tech often speak of the catalyzing effect of disruptive technologies. Everyone's looking for the next disruption as a way to jump-start a new paradigm. It seems that architects are constantly looking for that, too, and one of your initiatives is the Studio-X project, which has opened channels for new ideas in cities all over the world. What's your vision for this?
I like very much your image of opening a channel. I think that's very accurate. Universities are not evolving as quickly as cities, so if the school of architecture is the part of the university devoted to cities, we have to start a phase of rapid evolution or transformation.
The great invention of the research university is the laboratory. In a space isolated from the world, you test crazy thoughts that might turn out to be of great relevance, refine them, and then move them into the world. Today, cities are considerably more crazy than any laboratory. The real laboratories are cities themselves. So I strongly feel that schools of architecture need to turn themselves inside out. We take our most precious spaces--our laboratories, which for architects are studio spaces--and place them, as you said, as open channels in the landscape. They're more like input than output stations. They allow for more collaborative, wide-ranging conversation.
There's a lot of interest in the innovation economy throughout the world and in the way ideas work, move, grow, and transform--these disruptive influences that you're talking about. So I think an incubation culture will actually move into the university, and there will be an opportunity inside its walls to do extraordinary hardcore work in a kind of pre-startup phase, but very directly linked to the vibrancy that's outside.
Are there specific examples where these links to the world outside are fundamentally changing what happens in the school back in New York?
Almost every program inside this school is collaborating on a project in the Rio das Pedras favela in Rio. There were 93 people from the school--teachers and students--in Rio last week, working on this extraordinarily complex situation. With them were also people from the School of Public Health and the School of Engineering, and people from local NGOs. A really massive team is trying to think through a very complicated set of issues. So what strikes me about that story is that this wouldn't happen back here in New York. Weirdly enough, you kind of have to get out of your house to see the people you're living with.
I think that Studio-X is by definition an experiment that will evolve. So it's inevitable that this place invents and tests prototypes, alternative models for knowledge creation and production. It mystifies me that schools of architecture don't experiment with their own modalities. It's a kind of nervousness in a field that wants its education to be normalized, as if this would make the field more credible. But what if what is most credible about architecture is its absurd, irrational dream? If that's the case, the more we normalize education, the more we normalize the figure of the architect, and the less relevant that figure is to society.
You've expressed some ambivalence toward the emergence of the "smart city" concept, which is the somewhat fuzzy idea of using information and communication technologies to make cities more efficient and sustainable.
The smart city is not a smart idea. It's basically a business model used by companies who can persuade mayors to use their software platforms and treat their entire cities as corporations, which can be managed through metrics. That's not very smart in the end, since there is only one outcome, which is the profit of those particular companies. They depend on the success of the particular platforms used. Information companies now are like what traffic engineers used to be in the past. Are IBM, Siemens, and other companies genuinely interested in the new potentials and political consequences of living together? No.
So I think the term "smart city" needs to be shot. Words like "sustainability" have absolutely no meaning. To be non-stupid with energy--I think that's kind of a minimum condition. Saying you're into sustainability is like a school of architecture being proud of having computers. It's a word without ambition--to sustain, not to elevate. It's inherently kind of pessimistic, bureaucratic. The question is how to take advantage of the radical optimism of the architect in a way that has real impacts on global life. I think the scene is being set for that. I see all the little signs of it, and I'm really excited to see how that plays out.
Then why step down as dean now, after 10 years? Don't you want to hang out for the next 10?
It was a 10-year project. I wrote a manifesto for what a school could be, and I made that school. If I really believe in what I've done, I should step away from it. An experimental school should experiment with deans and have another idea, another fresh take, another layer. And I don't like when people hang around too long in any situation.
A lot can change in 10 years. In 2004, what did you envision you would be looking at in 2014, and what do you see now after 10 years of working on the future?
The future is something that's made. The future isn't just sitting there waiting for us to arrive. So what I imagined back then was not a particular trajectory.
You could think of it in urban terms. Cities magnify connectivity. They produce a hyper version of every small thing. The main mission of the school over the last 10 years was to maximize the connectivity of all the different elements of this place. If you maximize what's already there, you end up with something that's 10 times the capacity of what you started with. I was the great beneficiary of Bernard Tschumi's deanship, in which he took the school toward the idea of an experimental laboratory. I would insist it's the same place on steroids. But the world we five in is on steroids, too. This school's ability to think, produce, and communicate is astonishing. But all that's in the context of a world that is also in exponential mode and has been that way for some time.
Do you have any words of wisdom for your successor?
The main piece of advice would be not to listen to me. This is an astonishingly absurd moment for somebody who wants to be an architect. It defies explanation. It's a kind of all-or-nothing choice and once it's done, it's done. You become the victim of your leap. How do you have a school make the same leap? I think this is so crucial. There is the expectation that the school be like any of the students inside it: It's uncertain, kind of courageous, super urban, and it's about to jump. I have no idea which way it will jump. If it jumps in the direction that I point to, then it's not jumping at all. That's just same old, same old.
PORTRAIT BY ROB KULISEK