Mark Wigley – academic and architectural theorist, born in New Zealand and former professor and Dean of Columbia GSAPP, New York City, has authored a plethora of books on architectural theory and deconstructivism, some of which are ‘The Architecture of Deconstruction (1993), ‘White Walls: Designer Dresses’ (1995), ‘Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design’ (2016), and ‘Konrad Wachsmann’s Television: Post-Architectural Transmissions’ (2021). Mark Wigley has curated several exhibits from the Deconstructivist Architecture in the Museum of Modern Art (1988) to co-curating the Istanbul Biennial (2016) with Beatriz Colomina.
This article is a part of a series exploring the works of Mark Wigley in the field of architecture and design.
1. Are We Human?
Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina co-authored ‘Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design’ (2016), and subsequently co-curated the Istanbul Biennial the same year, with the conceptual framework of the year’s programme under the name ‘Are We Human? The Design of the Species 2 seconds, 2 days, 2 years, 200 years, 200,000 years’ which sought to engage in discussions among design communities regarding the evolution of humans over the course of human existence and its relation to design.
The biennial attracted 250 participants consisting of architects, designers, scientists, making it an interdisciplinary discourse about the inexplicable role of design in human life as we know it, where Wigley and Colomina propelled the discourse with the following questions:
- Design is always design of the human
- The Human is the designing animal
- Our species is completely suspended in endless layers of design
- Design radically expands human capability
- Design routinely constructs radical inequalities
- Design is even the design of neglect
- “Good Design” is an anesthetic
- Design without anesthetic asks urgent questions about our humanity
Over 70 projects were presented at the biennial and numerous cities from across the globe sent in video submissions to the open call for the posed questions, which constituted a portion of the exhibit. The curated projects were presented in four “clouds” of Designing the Body, Designing the Planet, Designing Life and Designing Time.
“Design is what makes the human. It is the basis of social life, from the very first artefacts to the exponential expansion of human capability,” Wigely and Colomina state. The exhibit was a dialectical analysis of the place of humans in the world. Being hosted in Istanbul, where during the time there was a surge in intake of refugees from Syria in Turkey, which intuitively could be considered a microcosm of what the ‘Are We Human?’ discourse was trying to explore.
Wigley and Colomina argue that happenings like war, poverty etc are the downfalls of systems in place gone bad, or rather as the neglected remains of design of systems that while helping some, destroys others. This is evident in the professions of design and architecture being inequitable; design rarely considers and includes the needs of marginalized communities while making built environments and material objects.
The ambitious exhibit contemplated the history of humanity and its evolution in relation to designs that facilitated it, from the physical objects that cavemen created to the confines of the social media we virtually exist within. Wigley says design dictates most of human life on Earth; “design” is attached to everything we create now because design is assumed to be inherently good.
In an interview with Marikka Trotter for Sci-Arc about the book ‘Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design’, Wigley talks about the current zeitgeist, in how we tend to design and redesign things and in turn, ourselves perpetually, and ultimately fall victims to the very same, creating the Anthropocentric world we live in. And since these are systemic issues, figuring out isolated factors that cause them is difficult. “We argue that while architecture says that it is always about the human and that it cares about people, it is profoundly uninterested in the human,” says Mark Wigley.
Or as the architectural critic Kate Wagner says it in absolute candour, “Architecture in an inequitable society will always be inequitable”, design is not inclusive in the setting of a world in socio-political and economic turmoil, and concurrently does not mean that design is the solution to every systemic problem that exists.
2. Deconstructivist Architecture
The exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City curated by Mark Wigley alongside Philip Johnson who had an affiliation with the Museum in question, showcased projects of a panel of renowned architects which included Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau and Bernard Tschumi.
The Deconstructivist Architecture exhibit was about exploring the philosophies of post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida, in understanding fragmentation of the skin of the building and warped forms which are characteristic of the deconstructivist movement, prevalent among the works of the seven architects in the panel. In exhibiting projects by vanguard practitioners, the curators shoved the profession of architecture into elitist and profit-driven, with the devising of the term “starchitects” or celebrity architects which is still in use.
Philip Johnson, known for his connection with fascist ideologies and documented ties with Nazism and anti-semitic views is recently being called out by artists for his racist views and institutions like MoMA to remove his name from the spaces and exhibits. Mark Wigley wrote a piece on Philip Johnson when he passed away in 2005, and also on Zaha Hadid following her death in 2016.
3. Sick Architecture: Chronic Whiteness
Mark Wigley’s book ‘White Walls: Designer Dresses’ has been cited as a compelling work on race and architecture. With the onset of the COVID pandemic, concurrent with a surge in disturbing news about police brutality and racism, Chronic Whiteness is a piece written by Mark Wigley on whiteness; how the colour white often has the connotation of “pure”, “clean” to it; on how the colour white has been a metaphysical contributing factor in policing users in residences, hospitals, schools, whitewashed offices.
The article opens with a statement by Le Corbusier on how ”Whitewash is extremely moral”. The French architect’s plans of Ville Radieuse or Radiant City, where he wanted to replace the “blackness” of the skyscrapers of Manhattan with ”white cathedrals” outled how his philosophy for the utopian scheme was deeply rooted in racial segregation. (Wilson, 1996)
Mark Wigley goes on to give a comprehensive list of how white plaster has been used since time immemorial, how white is synonymous with material hygiene, how it is easier to locate dirt, etc on white surfaces. There are several overlaps of the term “whiteness” with the colour white in the meandering article and how the usage of the colour instigates order upon the users. Ultimately it is a commentary on how architecture as a profession is deeply rooted in racism and continues to remain exclusionary.
4. Architectural Theory: Evolution in Artificial Intelligence
In a conversation with transdisciplinary researcher Stuart Mason Dambrot for Critical Thought about architectural education in 2012, Mark Wigley talks about how “Architecture is a form of collaborative intelligence”, contrary to how it is often believed to be a solitary entity, it requires the collaborative effort of labour to produce buildings. Wigley says “We live in an age in which your strength is not what you have, keep, hold but what you share. We live in a parallel processing open-sourcing environment.” He speaks of an “Architectural community that’s based on sharing”.
The speed of evolution of societies is constantly increasing; cities themselves are collaborative and “the first form of social media”, since they are about connectivity. In the age of open-sourcing, universities and schools that teach architecture are essentially microcosms of cities, in terms of an interdisciplinary approach to questioning and understanding cities as forms of not merely architecture and construction, but as a synergy between philosophy, sociology, law, etc. (Wigley, 2012)
5. Manifesto Fever
[Online]. Available at: https://www.arch.columbia.edu/books/reader/16-after-the-manifesto [Accessed 13 April 2021].
The book ‘After the Manifesto: Writing, Architecture, and Media in a New Century’ (2014) edited by Craig Buckley questions the relevance of manifestos in this era of architecture, and contains eleven authors’ works, one of which is ‘Manifesto Fever’ by Mark Wigley. “A manifesto is typically a text defined by conviction, urgency, and immediacy, seeking to push the domain of words as close as possible to the domain of deeds.” (Buckley, 2014)
In the first chapter of the book, Craig Buckley addresses the controversies surrounding manifestos. Buckley talks about how manifestos have revolutionized practices and how they hold transformative power for future zeitgeists. How some manifestos are associated with sociological issues like misogyny, fascism and racism. Buckley puts forth questions such as “How, if at all, do these conflicting legacies bear on the manifesto’s contemporary resurgence? To what extent has the genre reformulated itself, adopting different qualities and addressing other purposes today? Can the manifestos of the twenty-first century still be recognized using the terms of the past?” (Buckley, 2014)
Buckley further cites examples such as Marx and Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto’ (1848) as revolutionizing class and feminist struggles. Historically, in the trajectory of architecture, manifestos have led to the propagation of avant-garde practitioners and vice versa. Buckley goes on to talk about how manifestos, anthologies of architectural theories have led to discourses within design and architectural communities.
In a similar light, in ‘Manifesto Fever’, Mark Wigley talks about manifestos as change-inducing polemical documents that are “thrown into and against our world”, as a means to challenge the status quo. (Wigley, 2014) He cites ‘Five Points of a New Architecture’ by Le Corbusier as an obvious manifesto of the modern era, and not merely the textual points involved but also the cover of the manifesto which contained the photograph of the exhibit of the Maisons de la Weissenhof-Siedlung where the “five points” appear, as a form of the manifesto.
Wigley talks about the abundance of manifestos now. The New Urbanist manifesto is an example of the postmodernist era. Wigley cites examples of Archigram, Superstudio, Archizoom magazines as being “organized around manifestos”, that there has been an insurgence of manifesto culture, especially after the advent of technology with farther outreach than ever, where manifestos have lost their gravity in the brevity of the attention economy.
Columbia GSAPP. (2014). Mark Wigley – Columbia GSAPP. [online] Available at: https://www.arch.columbia.edu/faculty/33-mark-wigley [Accessed 10 Apr. 2021].
Wikipedia. (2020). Mark Wigley. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Wigley [Accessed 10 Apr. 2021].
Archinect. (n.d.). “Are we human?” Curators Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley announce concept for 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial. [online] Available at: https://archinect.com/news/article/142365287/are-we-human-curators-beatriz-colomina-and-mark-wigley-announce-concept-for-2016-istanbul-design-biennial [Accessed 10 Apr. 2021].
The Architect’s Newspaper. (2016). The 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial asks “Are We Human?” [online] Available at: https://www.archpaper.com/2016/11/2016-istanbul-biennial-are-we-human/#:~:text=Far%20from%20a%20trade%20show [Accessed 10 Apr. 2021].
www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Are We Human? Interview with Mark Wigley. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43lDV6_jJd8 [Accessed 11 Apr. 2021].
Wagner, K. (2019). Reckoning With the Man Who Sold Architecture to the Masses. [online] www.thenation.com. Available at: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/philip-johnson-man-in-the-glass-house-mark-lamster-review/. [Accessed 11 Apr. 2021].
www.e-flux.com. (n.d.). Chronic Whiteness. [online] Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/sick-architecture/360099/chronic-whiteness/. [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
Wilson, M. (1996). Black Bodies/White Cities: Le Corbusier in Harlem. ANY: Architecture New York, [online] (16), pp.35–39. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41796597 [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Mark Wigley | Architectural Theory: A Room by Any Other Name? [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqgEAHLwmj0 [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].
Columbia GSAPP. (n.d.). After The Manifesto. [online] Available at: https://www.arch.columbia.edu/books/reader/16-after-the-manifesto#reader-anchor-10 [Accessed 13 Apr. 2021].
Wigley, M. (2014). Manifesto Fever. In: C. Buckley, ed., After The Manifesto. [online] Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, pp.153–171. Available at: http://criticaltheoryindex.org/assets/ManifestoFever—Wigley-Mark.pdf [Accessed 13 Apr. 2021].