Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Mark Wigley, Educator

For the ninth installment in the 2009 Domus interview series, I spoke with Mark Wigley, author, curator, and Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. Since coming to Columbia in 2004, Wigley has overseen a series of innovative programs that seek to stretch architecture beyond its traditional limits. We talked about Columbia’s history of educational experimentation, the emergence of a global networked intelligence, the role of love in architecture.

In this interview series we’re trying to get a sense of who the architect is by talking to the people closest to them. The hope that by filling in the area around the subject in great detail we can create something like a silhouette of a profession. I’ve been anxious to speak with you, because education is such an important part of understanding where architects come from.

It’s a very interesting concept, and it immediately begs the question: what is an architect? For me, it’s quite simple: an architect is someone who doesn’t know what a building is. That is to say, someone for whom a building is a set of questions, rather than a set of answers. Almost everybody knows what a building is, but the architect is someone for whom the building is filled with mystery.

What’s interesting then about the school is that you’re training a group of people and what holds them in common is that they don’t know what a building is. So, actually, in a school you can’t simply deliver a set of information about what architecture is and a set of professional procedures for accomplishing that. I like your concept of the silhouette: in a way, what you can do is deliver the silhouette of the big questions, the bid doubts. Interestingly, architects are not allowed to share that doubt in public. In fact, architects are called on to do quite the opposite, to produce images of certainty and security, stability, and so on. So that an odd assignment – you take the one group in society who sees objects as full of mystery and you ask them to invest those objects with the symbolism of certainty.

What that means is that there is a big difference between the public and the private in architecture. If you look inside an architect’s head, I think it’s pretty messy and yet the work they do is very clear. If you look inside an architect’s studio, it’s a mess, but when they present to the client it’s very clear. When you look inside an architectural school it’s pretty messy, but then you look at the publications and the website, and everything seems very clear. Publicly, architects are certain, sure, confident, precise; privately they really don’t know what they’re doing, how they’re doing, why, and so on. This is not to say that they’re ignorant. On the contrary, architects have been talking amongst themselves about what a building is for 3000 years in the west, 10,000 years in the non-west and so on.

It seems to me that a graduate degree in architecture has two sides: on one, you have to prepare the students to be professional architects and go out into the world and perform as such; on the other hand, there also seems to be a strong commitment, at places like Columbia at least, to encourage students to think about things that have less to do with the nuts and bolts of the architectural profession and more to do with the role of architecture and urbanism in society. I’m curious about how you approach the relationship between these two educational ambitions.

For education, it means we have to cultivate both sides of that: we have to allow the students to assume this sense of professional certainty in the world while not sacrificing the doubt. What’s interesting, of course, is that this is all about questions and I guess the philosophy here [at Columbia] is that the more you reinforce the questions, the more you get to the clarity. It means that you don’t look at architecture so directly. If what architects share is not knowing what a building is, strangely enough, all of the other disciplines around buildings become our natural allies, because they don’t have the same problem. In a certain way, we learn about what a building is from our professional colleagues. In the process, we become incredibly good at one thing and one thing alone – to combine forms of knowledge that don’t belong together.

I think that architects are not very popular, even in the countries in which architects are famous. I think architects are only hired because people genuinely do not know what to do. From as simple a thing as how to renovate your house after your children have gone to college to how to put a library in a big city. If you knew what to do, you wouldn’t hire an architect, you’d hire an engineer, you’d hire somebody important and you’d pay them. You hire an architect because the kinds of factors involved cannot be put in the same orbit – emotional, technical, aesthetic, legal… The architect becomes somebody who has a special skill, which is to think and combine forms of knowledge that don’t belong together and to shape some kind of organization that allows the complexity to keep going. They don’t resolve the problem; they allow a kind of ecology to continue. And that’s an amazing talent, but it’s a talent that requires you to be comfortable with doubt.

Being comfortable with doubt is probably a talent in itself.

I think the greatest professional asset of the architect is the ability to be comfortable with incompatibilities and complexities and uncertainties and, in that space, give some sense of organization. So, in a way, the greatest contribution a school like this one could pay to the profession is to maximize this comfort with the unknown and with mystery. Unlike other schools, we really go directly to the questions and try to stay with the questions. The end result is simultaneously maximizing the students’ professional ability, by allowing them to think in spaces that other people cannot think, while maximizing the experimental displacement of the profession. So here it’s not a matter of “We’d better give you professional skills and have you challenge the discipline and think of its future.” We think there are ways of challenging the profession that generate a new set of professional skills.

Students come from all over the world knowing that the future of architecture here is unclear and therefore their personal future is unclear. But because of that courage or naïveté or romance and the danger of being in a world that is uncertain, they develop great strength, which means that they immediately find positions in the professional world. Ironically, by abandoning professional hope they become professional leaders. That’s the paradox of the place.

That’s for the students, how does that sort of philosophy apply to the instructors and how they approach their role?

It means that the teachers here are more like students and the students have to be, not exactly like teachers, but more like research leaders. Basically, since neither the teachers nor the students know what the future is, nor even what the specifics of the problem that they’re working on are, they have to collaborate. The school works through parallel processing: you allow incredibly curious students to work with incredibly curious teachers, not knowing which of them is going to develop results that contaminate other teachers and other students. In a viral sort of way, the whole thing begins to function almost as a brain – it starts thinking about certain questions. But I would say that parallel processing is definitely our method.

What do you mean by parallel processing?

That means not just a program in architecture, but architecture, preservation, planning, real estate, urban design… all possible aspects of the built environment. Inside each program, parallel tracks; cross-over laboratories that link all the programs in promiscuous ways; big initiatives that link the school with other fields and other universities, and so on. Layer upon layer… This creates a kind of networked intelligence where literally the school operates as a kind of brain.

What is that brain thinking about?

So many things. It’s kind of like a human brain – many things at the same time.

What’s its main interest?

I think there is, again, a naïve or romantic view that small changes to the built environment lead to the possibility of a better society. There is a ridiculous optimism: these people who don’t know where they are going are unbelievably optimistic, and the brain is trying to think, “Well, what could we do so that optimism can lead to a better society?”

To say it another way: I think architects’ gift is to produce a hesitation in the rhythms of everyday life so that you see your world differently and, for a moment, even imagine living differently. Architects produce a hesitation in life that presents an invitation to think, an invitation that’s generally passed on. [Laughs] So the work of architects sits in the streets like the work of a very good writer might sit in a subway news stand. It’s there, you could take advantage of it, it’s inviting you to see things differently, but you might not. To craft this sort of invitation requires multi-dimensional thinking. Maybe that’s not a very interesting thing to say, but that’s the guts of it.

I think it’s very interesting, but, to return to something you said earlier… The point you made about the teacher and the student being equally curious and exploring things together I also find really interesting, because there was once a time when there was a very clear asymmetry in the relationship between the teacher and the student. Now, partly because of technology and partly because of the global orientation of schools like Columbia, the traditional teacher-pupil dynamic is changing. It’s interesting to think about how you can take advantage of that, rather viewing it as something that erodes the process of education.

I think that the extent to which any of us is operating within – and being defined by, in a positive sense – a multitude of networks creates new modes of thinking. Architecture is a way of thinking. It’s not a set of objects; it’s an attitude toward objects. It’s even the claim that objects have an attitude. The students here come from 65 countries, so they bring new forms, new questions, new techniques. The teachers are also highly global, but I think something else comes in… Every room that we’re in is filled with so many electronic interfaces that are more or less unconscious but are bringing information into a room or out of a room. So, if architecture is a way of thinking, then it’s super-charged right now.

This school, for example, was founded on Avery Library, which is the reference library of the field. It’s a quiet, well-controlled space in which all that is important in theory ends up. Upstairs is pure madness. Students are multitasking at a level never seen before. They’re carnivorous; no increase in density of any kind seems to effect them, they just swallow it. But, nevertheless, what they’re trying to do is send a message down to the library, they’re trying to send a crazy project out into the world that will eventually get into the library. So what they look for in a teacher is not even a guide – because that implies that the guide has already climbed the mountain or been across the forest – but sort of a fellow traveler with unique forms of wisdom. Despite the fact that they’re in this hyper-networked digital environment, even post-digital environment, they’re also working on instinct. They need a figure who has travelled many times, but not on the same path, because part of what they want to do is talk about the nature of the path.

The really great teachers feel the same way. This school was founded by a guy called William Ware, and he was the first person to put architecture into the university. He argued that, despite the 3000 years of classical architecture history, the field is still an unexplored territory, and therefore students and teachers have to explore it together, make maps, and those maps will become text books. And so he set the school up as a research organism.

He had another really interesting insight: he said that most architects don’t talk to each other. They may have their offices in the same building, but they don’t talk to each other. One way that they could communicate is for apprentices to come out of the studio, come to the school, swap information, and then go back. He presented the school, strangely, as a way for architects to talk to each other through the exchange of information. He set up a research culture based not on teachers telling students what the truth of the field is, but on networking existing architectural intelligence, and he made that existing intelligence in studios around the world feed into the school. Avery Library was born out of that, and so you could say that Avery Library is an artifact generated by networking 19th century architectural offices. That’s not such a different model from today.

No, that seems like an extremely contemporary idea.

Right, so the guy basically had the idea that, by allowing information to concentrate and be recorded and compared in a university, a discipline would take shape. I think that the same model is still relevant. This school used to outsource its thinking to other schools, which would then, after another five years, outsource it to the profession. That makes no sense at a moment in which all of the major experiments are happening in China, for example. If more than 50 percent of the world’s buildings are being built in China and China is one of the world’s great urban laboratories – socially, politically, aesthetically, you name it – then that is where your focus should be.

Really, at this school, we’re not interested in other schools. We are trying to learn about the experiments in China. But it’s the same thing: whereas when this school was founded in the 19th century, it networked together the extraordinary intelligence of architecture offices around the United States, now, in a way, the mission is to try to create intellectual networks and friendships through whole regions that are evolving and experimenting.

In other words, the intelligence of our field is now in China. It’s in Latin America. It’s in Africa. It’s in the Middle East. It’s not in New York. Not because we’re not intelligent in New York, it’s because the real intelligence of architecture is now being thought by a global network not of architects or even of cities, but of quite large continental areas. This is why we have Studio X in Beijing, for example: not because we have some special gift to bring, quite the opposite. We have a kind of stupidity.

Architecture is being thought of in completely new ways and this could, for example, generate a whole new kind of library, just as Avery was generated by 19th century knowledge. It certainly will develop whole new forms of professionalism, whole new forms of publications, and so on. The thing is that none of us know the consequences of that. But if you’re not thinking about the future in and with China then you’re not thinking about the future. That’s not just because China is so large and its ambitions so great, it’s that its intelligence is so high. There’s really the evolution of a whole new form of intelligence. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, but if you’re interested in thinking, you have to listen and learn and participate in the great experiments in China. And I feel the same way about these other places.

This again relates to your silhouette: one cannot quite say what’s happening to architecture in this moment, but you can be absolutely certain that we are participating in one of the big mental accelerations in our field. And these are accelerations that can do just fine without schools of architecture. We are not essential to this evolution, and I think just to be a witness is a pretty good position too. Maybe that’s the position that interests me most – to be like the friend at the party, not necessarily invited but somebody that’s happy to be there and to learn and to think. It’s a very long answer to your question, but when the experiments of China, and the experiments of Latin America, the Middle East, the old Russia, Africa, and so on, become collaborative between regions – and this could be at the micro level, individual things, or the big level – I’m very optimistic about the ignorance reduction that could take place. As Cedric Price once said, the mission is reduce the level of stupidity.

I agree, but I also think it’s somewhat tricky, because often the people who are operating in these places, in the Middle East or in China, are not thinking about what is going on there in the same way. Even if you are claiming the position of a silent observer, just by the fact that you are observing and you are implicitly declaring the importance of observation, you become a participant. So you can never really say that you are “just listening” because simply the fact that you are there…

Changes the conversation. I really like the way you put it. In each of these locations, there is something like a controlled society. China can be seen that way, Russia can be seen that way, but also Latin America and America can be seen that way. You can see in each of these situations that it’s actually highly controlled, highly regulated. There’s a lot of planning going on, there’s a lot of expertise. And there are a lot of effects that look like they are unintended – like, say, unemployment in the United States – which are in fact planned. So deciding which elements of a situation were part of the plan or represent a problem with the plan or were simply unplanned is really hard to know. But in all of those situations in which there is the attempt at control, a kind of acupuncture approach can produce enormous transformation.

What do you mean by “acupuncture”?

Incredibly small things, including listening, can produce effects and I feel that, at one level, students can more easily find the point. Maybe I have an inflated confidence in youth, but I see again and again the ability of students to go into very complex new situations and locate points of great sensitivity and make a relatively small gesture that’s transformative. I think that’s a really interesting counter-model to sheer unimaginable scale of global interactions. And everybody always says, of course, “the global is the local” and on and on, but it really can come down to something small. Could whole experiments in China change on the basis of a single conversation? Of course. In fact, it’s much more likely to than anything else. Sometimes that conversation is between one famous person and another, but not always.

You say that Columbia is not that interested in other universities. Is that also true outside of America? Is that the case when you go to China, for instance, because universities in China have a very different approach to education from the one you’re describing.

We’re sort of friends with every university, and we recognize kindred spirits in each place. In every university there are interesting people and interesting programs, interesting events, and so on. But the whole culture is not organized around those interesting things. Maybe the Architectural Association in London is the only school that one can think of in which the whole school is organized as a laboratory. We are close friends with them, and, for example, when we’re in China we are filled with admiration for the architecture schools in China and for the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and we would like work with all of those. But deep down they also have their own special intelligence and special projects that they are working on. We would like to collaborate, but ultimately we’re working in a different space.

Every time that we are in a different location, we immediately become students of the other university. So if I’m in Beijing I’m learning from Tsinghua and Beida. I’m learning. They simply talk to us and educate us, and we’re interested in listening. They like to listen to us too, but that’s not the main event. We share interests, but in trying to think through the way that intelligence is sliding across the global landscape, we find more natural partners in industry, in business, in government, in NGOs, in technological systems themselves. Those are our natural allies. That’s what I mean when I say we’re not interested. If somebody’s making concrete, we’re really interested in all of the issues that they are facing, and we are on the same page with somebody who has to think about concrete in a global sense – where it’s going, why, etc. We could not be more excited than to listen to that.

If somebody is running a fantastic school of architecture we have lots in common, but it’s not the same, maybe because education is not a global industry. There are more than a million architecture students in the world. So it’s a city. Everybody knows what’s going on in every part of that city, but the city’s behavior is conservative in the sense that most of the city is trying to make sure that nothing is happening too much. Whereas if you go to industry – and maybe it’s just the harshness and speed of the business world – you have to think about what global intelligence means. Mayors of cities are also very interesting from that point of view: they have to do their local city stuff but they have to integrate it into a bigger picture. If you’re running a school of architecture you don’t have to think about that.

To give you a simple example: I think the future of the university is going to be very much about data visualization. The real architectural university of the future will be trying to answer the question, “How do you visualize data?” I think that’s an architectural question.

It’s also an architectural expertise.

Right. Now try to find a university that thinks that that’s its future. You can’t. So if you’re fascinated by universities, which I am, and you really want to talk about the future of the university, you’re much more likely to go to parts of the art world, parts of the information world, parts of the economic world, parts of the NGO world, parts of the military world. You’ll go to a different place. We are more of that view. We’re probably incompetent, we’re amateur, we’re small, agile. We’re good company, because we’re irrelevant. Nobody every thinks that a school of architecture can effect anything, and we’re therefore welcomed to many, many tables and feel honored to be there.

How do those sorts of interactions then feedback into the development of new approaches to architecture or education?

We’re exploring a series of different strategies now. For example, we’ve just started something called the Columbia Building Intelligence Project – C-Bip – and basically that’s based on the idea of targeting the greatest stupidities in the building industry and developing an entirely different pedagogical model for addressing them.

Instead of twelve students in a studio, thirty-six students will gather together in a room with three teachers and three professionals from outside of architecture to explore for three months an issue that a whole series of experts have identified as a key area for exploration. Basically, the idea is to take the stupidity of the building industry – and one can’t find a slower, lower industry – and really take it on as an area of thought and effort. The students involved in that will do it in their second year, and they will become part of a major university research project into new possible forms of intelligence in building. That’s a new pedagogical curriculum.

The laboratories in which students can escape the confines of their own program is another one: we added an extra year so that students could stay and work on extended research projects. Basically, through these sorts of efforts the school gets turned inside out: normally, the heart of an architecture school is the studios. They are very fragile, and to pull those right out of the heavily fortified school and place them around the world in places of great vulnerability demonstrates a new pedagogical model. Each of these is a theoretical act that creates a new possible way of teaching. But it’s only the teachers and the students who will mobilize those techniques.

How many of these sorts of experiments are going on currently?

I would say we’re doing five or six experiments in new modes of education in architecture. I can offer you no assurances as to which of them will pay off. The history of the school is that some of them will become default settings. And when they are default settings, they will be of zero interest to us.

A school of architecture that’s not on the ground in Latin America, with a one hundred year timeframe, is a stupid school. This school is about to do that, so it’s still stupid. [Laughs] But I don’t think there is an architecture school in the world that operates in more countries in Latin America than we do, is involved with more governments in Latin America, etc. etc. But we would be maximum 40 percent intelligent in Latin America. If we could get to 60 percent intelligent, potentially, we’d have something to offer. So we’ll try and get to 60 percent. The same for Africa, and so on. I think that a new form of architectural education is being tested here. It could be a huge mistake, and the core architectural techniques, the studio system, I think is very very powerful, so let’s see if we’re screwing it up or not.

It is powerful, but in a way out of sync.

I think it’s a totally inadequate model: architectural education as it has developed over the last hundred years is not even incompetent, it’s entirely blind to the very reasons that we were attracted to architecture in the first place. It is, in its own terms, massively incompetent and, as recent leadership of a number of countries around the world demonstrates, massive incompetence is a kind of normative lifestyle. But, maybe, there are ways of thinking of education for the next hundred years that are as romantic and urgent as the very reasons we became interested in architecture in the first place. I guess that’s my mission – to create an educational environment that matches the extraordinary love of the built environment that drew us to the field in the first place.

I really like that idea, especially because architecture has such an intensely love-draining, passion-draining component. There is so much drudgery that it really requires an heroic effort to maintain that initial enthusiasm that motivates a student.

It’s almost masochism. Love is a difficult thing to match, but it’s the currency. To love something is to not know what it is, but to not want to be away from it. To want to be with something for reasons that you don’t know. So to say that architects love buildings or love the built environment or love the organization of culture means they love it and that precisely means they don’t know what it is. A school of architecture has to nurture that love, which means not answer the quesion “What is a building?”, “What is a city?”, etc., but instead to really refine the question and nurture this love. That love becomes intelligence, because if what you love is what you don’t know, you develop around that an unbelievably delicate intelligence that is capable of mobility, agility, and complexity. I’m very chauvinistic about that: I put the architect’s brain right up there. So we’ve got to keep up the architect’s brain, and in a collaborative network society that means that a whole school has to have the characteristics of a brain, since the brain is the paradigm of networked intelligence.

Originally published in Domus China 38 (Octboer 2009); republished in Who is Architecture? (Timezone 8, 2010)

Photo courtesy of Columbia University.