Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Barry Bergdoll, Curator

For the fourth instalment in the series, I talked with Barry Bergdoll, one of the world’s leading architectural scholars, and the Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Since taking his position at MoMA in 2007, Bergdoll has produced a series of exhibitions that re-examine and re-interpret the history of modern architecture. We talked about these shows, the challenges of curating in the digital age, the differences between education and curation, and the opportunities and responsibilities that come with representing architecture in one of the most popular and influential modern art institutions in the world.

In this interview series, we’re talking to people from various professions who interact with and react to architecture in some way. I’m very curious to talk to you as a curator because of the immense importance of the gallery as a arena for architecture, particularly modern architecture, and particular at the Museum of Modern Art. One aspect of your role as a curator that I want to discuss is the challenge of translating architecture for the gallery. When I interviewed Michael Rock earlier in this series, he talked about the frustration he felt when trying to express architectural ideas, particularly the experience of being in the building, in a two-dimensional format like a book or panel. So I’m curious about how you relate to that dilemma.

In a way, my last show “Home Delivery” was, I suppose, a multi-media approach to the age old problem that the only way you can display architecture is through full scale buildings. We did that in the exhibition, and then for the rest of it we were working with representations, and the more you can multiply the representations, the more ways that you can reveal aspects of the architecture that are more to do with the nature of making architecture than about the architecture itself.

In that exhibition, I set out to make an show that is about the process of architectural thinking and designing for one particular set of challenges, which is this recurrent theme of designing for industrial fabrication – whether it be old fashioned industrial fabrication, heavy industry, or whether it be digital industry. That was the theme of the show, but the challenge was also how to make a show in which you reveal to the public the actual process of thinking and making architecture. In that sense, I don’t think of some of the techniques that we explored in that exhibition as specific to its subject. I think that they’re applicable to making exhibitions about process rather than the end product. The reason that I was interested in doing that is because, to a certain extent, you really can’t exhibit architecture. You can only exhibit something about architecture.

Right, and your case the challenge is further complicated by the fact that you are an architecture curator operating in a modern art museum. Your audience is not necessarily knowledgeable about architecture, or even particularly interested in it, but still you have to find ways to create meaningful points of entry for them. Was the focus on process that you just described a way to do that?

It is true that the status of the objects that we are exhibiting in the architecture gallery are different from the status of the objects in any other gallery in a museum. Most of them have a dual status: in the best cases they are works of art in and of themselves – they’re beautiful architecture drawings, they’re beautiful renderings, they’re beautiful models… They might have complex histories, because they might be the products of collaboration. They are not as frequently masterworks; it’s not, you know, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which we can assume was more or less painted by Picasso.

To come back to your question, the pieces have to be so visually compelling in and of themselves that they’re going to lead the person to want to start thinking about process and to engage the minds and the imaginations of non-professional visitors, and assume that they might treat it in the same way that they might view Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and be so stunned by it as a visual experience that they stand in front of it for a while and part of their contemplation might be on the nature of the cubist construction of space. So [for architecture exhibitions] you need something that is equally intriguing and that, in a certain way, can carry other objects that might be more technical.

You need to set up the questions – not verbally, but through objects, and in that sense it is still like an exhibition, it’s got to be carried by that things that are on display. You can’t have a panel that asks a question that is extremely provocative and instructs the audience that this is the question to bring to the objects in the exhibition. You have to find some way that the actual design and content lead the visitor that way, through visual experience, visual experience that can be arrived out through many different ways. In that way, there is a fascinating parallelism to making architecture, because you can make a plan that says how people are going to move through the building, but you can’t actually dictate to them how to move; you can only give them cues, and you’ve got to be cognisant of the fact that there will be many other experiences of a building, just as there will be multiple experiences of an exhibition. So it has to work in the way that you intend it to work, and it has to work in many of the unintended ways in which it will be experienced.

Do you think there are ways to script and anticipate these unintended experiences or do you simply draw up your best case scenario and then study the unintended uses retroactively?

I think there is a way to think about multiple experiences in a single space. I did that in “Home Delivery,” just to talk about my most recent effort. That show was designed so that it could be seen in multiple ways. That was the fundamental architectural problem: if you want something to be seen in a certain sequence, you need both an entrance and an exit, and once the entrance and the exit are in the same place, then you’re really out of luck. So, I designed an exhibition that could be viewed as a timeline, as an enormous U, or that viewers could ricochet off both sides of the U and find interesting and provocative juxtapositions. There were also more localized juxtapositions that were made against the grain of the chronology, and that was done on purpose. But that other people may have discovered things that I hadn’t even intended to be there has to have happened, because I must have given a hundred tours of that exhibition and almost every time I went in, there was some juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen before, hadn’t planned on, and that set me to thinking anew about the topic. But that I think is because in a thematic exhibition I like to work in such a way that the theme is a little bit of a hypothesis, rather than a didactic [declaration] “you will learn this,” so that it raises questions and opens up possibilities, particularly the possibility for relationships that are non-linear.

Let’s talk a bit more specifically about some of your shows. The first exhibition you did after coming to MoMA was “75 Years of Architecture at MoMA,” which presented selections from MoMA’s very large collection of architectural works. I can imagine that you might have had a few factors influencing your decisions, for one the enormous body of work which you have to choose from and somehow represent, but also MoMA’s reputation and historical influence as a patron of architecture and leader in architectural discussions in New York. What was the process of putting together this show like?

In that case, it was an historical show, but with two different histories that were overlaid on one another. One was the history of modernism, with the idea that in the architecture gallery we would have a small scale example of what is present upstairs in the painting gallery, where there is a history of modernism that unfolds in painting and sculpture. It’s a very canonic one, although that canon is not one that it tries to respond it; it’s one that it has historically created. That was my second historical line on top of the first: what is the relationship of the history of the department itself to that modernism? So there was a dual reading in the exhibition – the actual history of architecture and then the history of the department itself through its exhibition and collecting practices. It was a perfectly fine exhibition if you didn’t want to go to that second line, you didn’t need to go to that level of reading, but I like to create things that have multiple layers and are satisfying on whatever layer or layers you want to engage with.

But to get back to your specific question, how do you go about choosing, it’s a kind of give-and-take process. That was a show that I did in order to familiarize myself with the collection, because my only previous experience had been with a Mies show [Mies in Berlin], so I knew the huge holdings of Mies, but I didn’t know the rest of collection, which is quite different, since the Mies is an archive and the rest of the collection is very highly selected examples.

So I started to look at these highly selected examples, and began to think about what they would allow me to do, what stories they would allow me to tell, and what they will allow me to think about myself as an architectural historian and what will they allow me to think about with the public to open up the tradition of the avant-garde as something that is not only historically interesting, but also has questions that are of contemporary relevance and fascination.

So I began to develop four themes by looking at what some of the clusters and strong points were there. Once I’d formulated four questions or categories (I chose four for the dumbest reason in world, simply because there were four walls in the room, and so I thought that would lend itself to a clear structuring or four themes). Then, once those questions are formulated, you go back and start to look at drawings or models that might be interesting to think about in relationship to that theme. And that’s when it really becomes fun, because that is when, suddenly, a drawing that might mean one thing monographically – let’s say, in a Mies show – means something quite different when you put it in a different kind of configuration. Suddenly the collection becomes a little bit like an intellectual pack of cards, and you open up completely different questions and completely different territories depending on which four things you put into one group. And that is what’s so fun about the collection: you realize that the next time that you bring that drawing out, you’re going to bring it out in a completely different context, so you’re going to think about it differently and you’re going to invite people to come back to see it in a different way. That, at least when you’re working with architectural drawings, is not that dissimilar to the way that my painting colleagues upstairs are working with paintings as both individual works that stand on their own, but that take on additional meanings depending on the “hang,” the configuration of the gallery.

In terms of the second history you mentioned – the relationship between the architectural department of MoMA to the history of modernism itself – what conclusions did you come to through this exploration and shuffling of the collection?

The conclusion was a little bit open-ended. What I was trying to do was to break down the received truth that there was a very straight and narrow line that MoMA had held to for at least the first forty or fifty years of [the architecture department’s] existence – from the foundation show, the so-called “International Style” show, up until the 1980s when post-modernism was beating its drums so strongly that even MoMA couldn’t ignore them. But when I actually looked back at the history of the department, which is something I’m working on as an ongoing project, and saw what was in the collection I found all sorts of evidence that MoMA had had a much more broad-ranging and exploratory approach to modernism than the reputation that had been set in motion in 1932 and repeated over and over again as a mantra – probably more frequently outside the museum than inside. So I was in a certain way trying to explode that myth, and the conclusion I reached in the process is really pretty straightforward: as always, history is much more complex than the operative myths.

Right, which I think also relates the exhibition on Mies van der Rohe that you did prior to coming to MoMA. The popular narrative that has come to define his work has also been greatly simplified over time.

Yeah, so I guess there is some consistency in the way I act as an historian. The Mies show [“Mies in Berlin”] that I did together with [former curator of architecture and design at MoMA] Terry Riley was a similar sort of operation: we said, well what if we don’t simply confine ourselves to the projects that Mies said over and over again were his most important? What if we put in everything that he did, what kinds of new conclusions can we draw Mies’s overall activity? In fact, much of what he rejected opened new windows into what he had retained. So, the result for me of doing that exhibition is that even some of the canonic works like the Tugendhat House or the Barcelona Pavilion I now experience very very differently compared to when I was doing it filtered through the very selected group that Mies and Philip Johnson had put forth over and over again as the master works. So Mies actually became a much more complex figure historically, and he became one with relevance to contemporary questions in ways that we had hardly expected when we started out.

Earlier you mentioned that part of presenting architecture to a lay audience relies on material that is so strong visually that people feel almost obligated to try to understand the thought process behind it. One of the difficulties for me in looking at more recent architectural representations from the computer age is that I don’t have the sense of personal involvement that I do when look at hand drawn material. An Autocad drawing or CG rendering seems much flatter and disposable to me than works from earlier times when a drawing had a personal signature – often literally. I wonder if you’ve encountered that problem when selecting material…

Well, as you were speaking, I’ve been hesitating whether I wanted to fully agree with you or try to disagree with you.

Disagree please.

[Laughs] Right. On the one hand, the means of representation has changed. So, it’s not pencil or chalk or mylar, etc. etc. And I do have a feeling often when I see AutoCAD projections that they seem, as images, interchangeable, whereas if you dropped ten drawings from the twentieth century on the table I could probably assign them a probable author on the basis of the actual means of representation, the style, as you say, the signature, the handwriting as it were. I could submit them to the same kind of analysis that a drawing curator would for master drawings. With cad it seems that you want to look through the means that are used – because it’s within the pallet of the computer program – and see what the spatial implications and design moves are. You almost want to look through the means of representation to the design itself to try to guess, well who must be doing that?

But I wonder if maybe we don’t have enough historical distance to see the handwriting with that more mechanical projection tool. One one level, I think it’s a paradigm shift; on another level I think it’s another means of representation. I don’t think my photographic colleagues would like it if I said, “How can you have individual style in photography, it’s all done with film and a camera?” We know that there are incredibly different photographic styles, so it might be that curators haven’t really caught up with the digital revolution to begin to see different types of style in that machine environment.

What other complications do you encounter as a result of this paradigm shift? We’ve been talking about the intellectual implications, but I’m sure there are more practical challenges created by the transfer to digital representation.

It’s a challenge on every level, down to the storage and preservation level. The original word for a curator was a “keeper.” We tend to think of a curator now as someone who arranges things in space, who makes arguments with objects, but the original notion of curating had to do with safe keeping. So, that’s a huge issue, and a lot of people are thinking about it, but there are no conclusions yet. But I think that there is an intermediary issue as well, because, in a sense, the whole process of designing is different in a computer environment than in a sketch environment. It’s a continuous set of moves, rather than a set of discreet steps. So, if you are in the position of the curator – a person who is outside wanting to record and represent this project in your curatorial narrative – the material almost becomes like a film, and you have consider where to freeze frame the material you’re collecting and exhibiting.

Another feature of the digital shift that I imagine must be influential is the extent to which information and imagery can be spread. Because people consume information differently and travel more frequently over shorter periods than they did when MoMA’s architecture department first started in the 1930s, I wonder if the potential value of an exhibition has changed. Particularly I wonder if the idea of a revelatory must-see exhibition has changed since one often no longer needs to be physically present to observe the material.

Oh absolutely. At the moment I’m teaching a history of the department for an art history seminar at Columbia [University], and we just looked at the early shows again, and I told my students that it’s very important for me to dramatize for you the sense of the novelty of simply acquiring black and white photographs of these far flung buildings, and being able to put them together in one room. In 1932, besides that fact that it was in the heart of the Depression, if you look at the magazines that most of the architects got, just seeing these images was not something that they would encounter easily. This is eighty years ago when this department was founded and it was essentially going to be an information resource for architects and for the general public. As you said, now you can do that yourself on the internet in about ten minutes. Images proliferate and everything is immediately accessible as representation.

I think it has less to do with the ability to travel than with the density and the immediacy with which an enormous amount of visual information is available at very high quality through the Net. That’s yet another context that pushes me in my urge that, whether it be process or something else, the curator has a different responsibility towards architecture in the 21st century, and particularly a curator in my position, which, as you said at the very beginning, is a distinctive position because I am not a curator for architects; I’m a curator in one of the world’s most visited art museums. I have a general audience, and when I go to meetings of various architecture curators, it’s actually a small minority of us who work in highly visible public venues. Most people are working in something that’s related to a school or to a center for architecture that derives most of its audience from either design students or design professionals, so an already very well informed audience.

People in New York don’t wander into the Center for Architecture by chance, but people wander into the architecture galleries at the Museum of Modern Art who were not intending to look at architecture. They’re here to look at something else, and you grab their attention and suddenly they’re looking at architecture. That puts our department in a small group, and the responsibility there is not to show them objects that they could also see on the Net if they wanted to go surfing, but it is to engage them in some way that, hopefully, will lead them, when they go back out onto the street, to look at the next building that they confront a bit differently than they did on their way in. They’ll have a heightened awareness and heightened experience of architecture, on any level, from aesthetic appreciation to a more critical engagement with architectural decisions that are being made around them.

What role do exhibition catalogs play in that effort?

Because we deal so much in representation, there’s less of a misfit between the catalogue and the show. If you go to see a Picasso show, the catalogue has photographs of Picasso paintings, but if we’re dealing with digital files, whether we’re blowing them up to put them on a wall or whether we’re having them in a catalogue, there’s a more fluid passage between book and exhibition. (Not that I would ever want to conceive an exhibition that would be accused of being a book on a wall, which so many are.) But I do agree with the cliche: the book is important as a permanent record of the exhibition and for its further diffusion. Three quarters of a million people visited Home Delivery, but its incalculable how many people will consult the book. So it’s part of the ongoing life of the exhibition. I think one of the most amazing things about the 1932 “International Style” show, which is one of the most famous shows in the history of modern architecture, is that if you actually look at the statistics, the number of people who visited that show during the six weeks that it was open was pretty miniscule. But the publications that came out of that show have been in continuous print for most of the 78 years since then and are among the most influential publications that there are, and something of their influence has to do with the fact that they are connected with a famous exhibition, so there’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between the two.

Let’s shift to some of your other shows. First, the “Lost Vanguard” exhibition of Soviet avant-garde architecture. To me, what’s really interesting about that show is how clearly it presents architecture as the reflection of the spirit of a time, and I think it does this both by assembling so many ideologically compatible projects, but also by presenting them in a consistent way. Most of the buildings are represented by contemporary photographs, and I’m curious how that curatorial decision was made.

If I can just roll back a little bit – and stop me if I get off track and don’t return your specific question – I’d like to give a little background. In my mind, the “Lost Vanguard” exhibition was a stand alone exhibition, but it was also the fifth wall of “75 Years of Architecture at MoMA,” because one of the themes of that exhibition was: what are the key aspects of modernism that the Museum of Modern Art’s foundation show (the “International Style” show) wasn’t able to accommodate? And one was the complete lack of attention to Soviet architecture, which was one of the most vibrant fields of experimentation in that architectural avant-garde in the 1920s. One of the reasons I wanted to do that show almost immediately was to say that if we’re going to reopen the history of modernism, this is a very big field that needs to be integrated. But of course it wasn’t done through architectural drawings or any of the objects that comprised the 75 Years of Architecture exhibition; it was done primarily through Richard Pare’s extraordinary photographs that had been taken over the last fifteen years. So there was another dimension, because every photograph was simultaneously a record of a building that came from these Utopian experiments and this atmosphere that you mention in the 1920s when, despite enormous material needs of the early Soviet Union – really I think the poverty and confusion and the disorder are almost unimaginable – nonetheless there was a Utopian spirit of building the new, and complete social reorganization, and so on and so forth. But then, on the other side, these were photographs of the buildings in decay, and they spoke in a rather melancholic poetry about a dream that had either gone sour or been neglected – and the neglect on the part of Western scholars could be equated with the neglect within today’s Russia to deal with this heroic past.

There were a complex set of things going on in that exhibition. On one hand, it was a documentation of a lost chapter of Soviet modernism. One another, it was a kind of poetic exercise about the irretrievability of the avant-garde. Then, in the way a lot of people read it, it was an unexpected statement of the Museum of Modern Art for the need for historic preservation for modern buildings.

Last, let’s talk a little bit about “Home Delivery,” your exhibition on pre-fabricated architecture. I wonder if it’s possible to identify in a way similar to what was done for the Lost Vanguard show an impression of the spirit of the pre-fab golden age, which I guess could be defined as mid 20th century. Is it possible to define a set of attitudes that propelled Western pre-fabrication design, as you were for Soviet Utopian design?

Well, I think there was a spirit. One of my own critiques of the show was that I perhaps presented too much of the optimism that surrounded the launch of each of these pre-fabricated prototypes, and so the history of pre-fabrication, which many people say is a history of failures, wasn’t presented with its dark sides. It was very much a history of the optimism, this idea of “hope springs eternal” that seems to accompany the history of pre-fabrication. Partly, the idea of showing the whole thing was, as we’re in this moment once again, to look back and see previous episodes and by accumulating that history suggest that we shouldn’t so naively inflate a new bubble of enthusiasm for pre-fabrication or accept this idea of digital fabrication as the panacea of a future architecture without taking into account the rather checkered history of pre-fabrication. But, it was a very upbeat show. It was not a show that underscored the fact that so many of these things didn’t take off. It was more presented as saying that they have lessons but they also have untapped potential.

It’s interesting that you see a parallelism with “Lost Vanguard,” because I guess there were some elements of nostalgia and the impossibility of retrieval that were in both, but I hadn’t seen that myself until you pointed it out.

To me, it’s completely understandable that there would be an emphasis on the innovative or inspirational aspects of any movement. But do you think there needs to be a certain sort of space for mediocrity in an exhibition?

Well, that was big question for me, because if you wanted to talk statistically I would imagine that hands down the Soviet panel system was the most successful and now the most reviled pre-fabrication experiment – although I don’t even think you can call it an experiment, because it became an absolute industry that rebuilt large parts of eastern and central Europe, the Soviet Union all the way to Asia, and was even exported to Cuba. We treated that in very little detail. It had to be there, it was fascinating, but I didn’t want to do a whole critique of it as it got put into play – and much of that was mediocre.

It’s a question of not only how do you deal with architecture in an art museum if you want to deal with the larger context, but also how do you deal with social context, social history? How do you address the historical context in an exhibition in an art museum where the norm is masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece on the wall? You wouldn’t expect to find a painter exhibited in the painting and sculpture galleries that the museum did not think was an extremely accomplished painter whose work merited a place in the history of art as it is collected and narrated by the Museum of Modern Art. On the other hand, there were many things included in the Home Delivery show that were there for the history of technology or the history of invention, but were quite unresolved architectural forms. I think it’s interesting that you ask this question, because I was really surprised that there was very little discussion on the fact that [post World War II pre-fabricated housing model] the Lustron House is completely uninspiring architecture. What is it doing in the Museum of Modern Art? I thought it was a rather provocative gesture to put a Lustron House in MoMA, and there was a real mixing of high and low throughout the exhibition, but there was very little commentary on that, surprisingly, in the reception of the show.

Do you think that that’s because of the strength of MoMA’s aura? The reputation of the institution dignifies all the objects it presents and people sort of assume, this is something that should be taken very seriously since MoMA is exhibiting it?

That might be part of the explanation. Partly, I think we were very successful in creating an extraordinary spectacle through the role of film, creating a very dense space, an overall sensory overload in the show. This is what made it so popular, even with children and families. I was thrilled that they were spending an hour and a half and really engaging with the topic. I think all of that overroad thinking about the heterogeneous nature of the material that was in there. Even the design of the show, since it was so much about process and movement, took the question of “Is the judgement here one of architectural quality?” off the table. But, if you think about it, that is a provocative aspect of the show. It was probably the first MoMA show in decades that showed things without putting a stamp of approval and saying, you can come here and be told that these are historically and contemporaneously the most accomplished buildings. It wasn’t a list of things you should admire.

The last thing I want to ask is about your parallel roles beside curator. I know that you’re also a writer and, as you mentioned earlier, an educator. What different means of expression and observation does each provide you and how does it effect your relationship with architecture?

I think there’s an incredible synergy to all three. There are certain things that are specific to each one. As an educator, for instance, you’ve got responsibility for individual people. The students at the university are individual people, so it’s very different from curating for the public of a museum, many of whom you’ll never meet or even see, or writing where you have no idea who is reading you. So there is this distinction between working for a collective unknown and training students. Education is not just about handing over information; it’s actually about mentoring and coaching individual people, and that I see as, in large part, a very different activity, although I’m a professor at Columbia, which is a research university, and part of my job is to do my own research and diffuse it, so the publications are in a certain sense a part of that world.

There are very different sorts of questions that I would take up in a scholarly article compared to an exhibition, and I feel very blessed in that I have an entire spectrum of outlets: I can take on rather arcane historical topics in publications in my scholarly life and then I can take the exact same themes and try to work on them in a way that they take on a public dimension in the Museum of Modern Art. And this makes me incredibly lucky, because through the Museum of Modern Art I have an enormous audience for what I think is important and responsible to try to attract attention and interest toward. As you said before, there is this sort of aura that MoMA has acquired for itself over its history and that really raises the stakes and the attention level. As a curator its an incredible gift, but also a responsibility.

Speaking of responsibility, I want to ask you something about New York and MoMA’s role as a citizen in that city. Considering that the city is now undergoing a financial crisis, one that is in part a result of a real estate bubble and the excessive construction of condos and luxury hotels, do you have any sense of how all this new empty space might be used? Basically my naive hope would be that cheaper spaces might become available for New York’s artists and performers, many of whom were simply priced out of the city in the past decade or so. Do you think that’s realistic and what role could MoMA place in facilitating that?

Well, I think for sure we’re going to see a return to the ’70s, where those sorts of spaces will be more available, and I think people’s relationship to time is going to change, if this crisis has a longish duration, which is looking increasingly likely. I came to New York in ’70s, so in a way I’m maybe a little less scared of it, because I don’t think that was such as terrible time. But I do think, as you seem to be hinting, that we’re going to see an enormous shift in the geography and topography of where art is happening in the city. It might start to come back more toward the center and take advantage of some of these areas that have become depressed on the financial market. Artists may begin to move in opportunistically and take back what’s been lost.

I also think that the question is a very lively one for me, because I’m thinking about, how do we respond to this? There’s always a give and take in my position between responding to what’s happening out there and showcasing what’s happening, and actually trying to got slightly ahead of the ball and act as an agent in trying to make it happen. Actually the meeting that I’m about to join is about setting up some kind of a workshop about infrastructure in the city and, in a way, to take advantage of this downturn to set up some workshops where new ideas would come out; rather than waiting to show ideas that have already developed, to actually be a commissioner of those ideas.

Originally published in Domus China 32 (May 2009) ; republished in Who is Architecture? (Timezone 8, 2010)
Photo by Eileen Barroso, courtesy of Columbia University