Deconstructivism exhibition aimed “to rock the boat” says Mark Wigley

Mark Wigley

MoMA‘s seminal 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition didn’t set out to define an architectural style, says its curator Mark Wigley in this exclusive interview as part of our series revisiting deconstructivism.

Featuring architects Zaha HadidFrank GehryRem KoolhaasDaniel LibeskindPeter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi and Coop Himmelb(l)au, the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ended up defining an emerging style of architecture. But this was not its aim, says Wigley.

“I was pointing to certain things going on in their work that I thought might disrupt the discourse,” Wigley told Dezeen. “The main purpose of that show was to produce a disruption.”

“The museum was no longer provoking anything”

Wigley curated the exhibition alongside architect Philip Johnson, who established the museum’s architecture department in the 1930s and thought that the institution had lost its edge.

“Johnson was doing it because he felt the museum was no longer provoking anything,” he said.

“They were basically doing very boring shows in a very boring way. They were, in a way, professionalising boredom. For him, this was sort of a crime,” he continued.

“The museum hated Johnson at that point and didn’t want him to do the show, but they really wanted his collection. So it was a devil’s contract. Basically, he wanted to rock the boat.”

To provoke the architecture institution Wigley and Johnson chose to feature a group of experimental architects who had been reinvestigating avant-garde ideas developed in the 1920s, but had built very little.

“It was not really about style, but a kind of provocation”

According to Wigley, the show aimed to look back at the drawings, paintings and models that the group, who had become known as paper architects, had produced over the past decade.

“The argument was that this stuff that had gone on in the previous 10 years needed to be thought about,” explained Wigley. “It was not really about style, but a kind of provocation from which other stuff could come.”

Deconstructivist architecture exhibition at the MoMA
Mark Wigley (top) curated the seminal Deconstructivist Architecture at the MoMA (above)

Aiming to demonstrate the disruptive elements of their work, Wigley and Johnson took “a small fragment” of each architect’s work to be displayed in the exhibition. The majority of architects only had one project each included.

“I was pointing to certain things going on in their work that I thought might disrupt the discourse,” he said.

“None of them would ever have described their work in those terms. They wouldn’t even necessarily acknowledge that the things that were in the exhibition were kind of like a good image of their work – it was like a very narrow sampling.”

“It was not their thing, it was my thing”

Although the exhibition was called Deconstructivist Architecture, none of the seven architects featured consider themselves deconstructivists either then or now. Eisenman recently told Dezeen it is “a sham”, while Libeskind told us he “always felt slightly repulsed” by the deconstructivist label.

“It was not their thing, it was my thing,” said Wigley. “None of the people in the exhibition would acknowledge that they think in any way the same as what I’m saying that they’re doing.”

“So even if you thought there was such a thing [as deconstructivism], they would all say, no, that’s not me,” he continued.

Along with contributing to establishing the careers of the architects it featured, Wigley believes that the exhibition successfully changed the course of architectural history.

“The purpose of the show was to shake things,” said Wigley. “And it was very successful in that regard – I think it was surprisingly successful, that might just be either a sign that the show was on to something, or it could also be a sign of just how dull things were at that moment.”

Speaking to Dezeen as part of our series, Eisenman agreed with this sentiment, saying deconstructivism “killed off postmodernism”, which was one of the most popular styles at the time.

Read on for the edited transcript of the interview with Wigley:


Tom Ravenscroft: Can you start by you telling me what you considered to be deconstructivism back in 1988 and if your views have changed today?

Mark Wigley: For me, it was never an ism. I argued at the time that this was not something that was in the future, but in the past. So in the show at MoMA, the argument is that this is stuff that had gone on in the previous 10 years and that needed to be thought about. It was not really about style, but a kind of provocation from which other stuff could come.

So this was the claim that I made. Of course, at the time, everybody said, “well, that can’t be true, because MoMA makes styles, it’s a star-making machine”. The International Style show is the obvious example, which was again famously Philip Johnson working with somebody else.

That time it was [Henry-Russell] Hitchcock, the historian, and now it’s with Wigley. So it seemed like everybody just said, “okay, here we go again”. I kept saying, “No, no, no”. Not only is it not in the future, but none of the people in the exhibition would acknowledge that they think in any way, the same as what I’m saying that they’re doing. So even if you thought there was such a thing, they would all say, No, that’s not me.

Tom Ravenscroft: I have spoken to quite a few of them. And they have all said that.

Mark Wigley: Of course. They’re right, because they never were and it was not their thing, it was my thing. I was pointing to certain things going on in their work that I thought might disrupt the discourse. That was the main purpose of that show was to produce a disruption. Johnson was doing it because he felt the museum was no longer provoking anything. So they were basically doing very boring shows in a very boring way.

They were in a way professionalising boredom. And for him, this was sort of a crime. The museum hated Johnson at that point and didn’t want him to do the show, but they really wanted his collection. So it was a devil’s contract. Basically, he wanted to rock the boat.

He chose that kid from New Zealand who obviously was not going to play by anybody’s rules to shake things up. The purpose of the show was to shake things and it was very successful in that regard. I think it was surprisingly successful, that might just be either a sign that the show was on to something, or it could also be a sign of just how dull things were at that moment.

Tom Ravenscroft: So the aim was to shake up the postmodern versus neo modernism discussion that was happening all the time?

Mark Wigley: Yes. Who in the end, really cared about the difference between somebody who’s making kind of abstract references to modern architecture and somebody that’s making abstract references to Greek temples. It just didn’t really matter.

The so-called post-modernists were just trying to occupy all of the available market share. These days that battle would be fought on Instagram. At that point, it was being fought in galleries, selling drawings, exhibitions and schools. It was profoundly uninteresting to my generation.

So there was also an adolescent dimension to the show, which is just to say, look, time for something different. But the thing that was going to be different was not what was in the show.

I really insisted that Gehry’s own house, which was kind of like the paradigm project and had been done 10 years earlier [was in the show]. He had already screwed that house up. I mean, it was no longer as amazing as it used to be. He couldn’t stop himself. I was kind of full of admiration for Gehry and remain so today. It was really about saying, let’s acknowledge this crazy project of his and also the way of thinking involved in that, and let’s actually celebrate it in the very heart of the institutional memory of the field, which is MoMA.

My theory was that if we did, then there would be more space for the next generation to do other stuff. The next generation would include the people in the show – they also could unleash some stuff. My argument would be that the actually the show strangely did unlock the very people who were inside it. They all went on to do, you know, to become very known. But to do very different things, almost none of them did anything resembling what was in the exhibition.

Tom Ravenscroft: So the aim wasn’t to define the moment, it was just to be provocative by featuring seven young-ish architects who were disruptors?

Mark Wigley: Now they are looked on as sort of heavyweights. But they were highly experimental, all of them in different ways. It was not even clear if we should call them architects. Even Gehry, who might be the most architect of them. Really, his house was a kind of homage to the artists.

So the thought was that there was interesting stuff going on in architecture, but it is not the stuff that we’re talking about. And what’s most interesting about it is some of the values of that experimental work, like sharpness, estrangement, instability, and so on, these are more like terms that we get from the art world or even from the history of historical avant-garde.

Tom Ravenscroft: By terming them deconstructivists and having the show at the MoMA, do you think you labelled them as a style?

Mark Wigley: Of course, I was flirting with the question of style. So the exact argument made about why those seven, why certain projects, or even certain photographs, or certain models of certain projects, by certain architects, you know, really was not even that they were in the show, but a small fragment of their work.

So none of them would ever have described their work in those terms. They wouldn’t even necessarily acknowledge that the things that were in the exhibition were a good image of their work. It was like a very narrow sampling. Like a kind of medical sample of their work, identifying a kind of disease and saying, this work is infected with something.

Now, what is it infected with a kind of confusion, obstruction on ornament, right? That was it. So actually, it was not only flirting with style but actually flirting with ornament in another way.

So you’re right, when you say, even if you said it wasn’t a style, that is a style factory. So you know shits gonna happen as a result of the exhibition. And I was never afraid of that. It was not like, well, style is a bad thing.

Of course, there was the hope that all sorts of stuff would bounce out of the show, but that none of it would be so easily predicted by the show itself, there’ll be a kind of multiplication.

Tom Ravenscroft: Do you think people have struggled to identify what deconstructivism is?

Mark Wigley: What if there’s a group of architects that, in a certain moment of time, highlight the strangeness of even the most ordinary building, and then you celebrate that, at MoMA, in order to allow for strangeness to be one of the things that are valued in architecture.

And I think this is the biggest contribution of the exhibition was to change the language with which we think about architecture. There’s really a kind of before and after, in terms of the kinds of words that are acceptable a building that will make you uneasy.

But of course, the label deconstructivist was quite stupid, on the one hand, because it does exactly what you’re saying. It sounds like the name of a thing, like a singular thing.

Even if I’m telling you, the thing that it names is not singular. Still, it does sound good. Because you’ve got these two things sitting in there deconstruction and constructivists. There are two words hidden inside it. And none of the people in the exhibition maybe with the exception of [Peter] Eisenman and [Bernard] Tschumi had any interest in deconstruction.

But the constructivists, all of them despite operating in such different ways, were all really fishing around in the archives of the Russian avant-garde for a kind of formal language.

So it makes perfect sense to me that there was the exhaustion of the postmodern debate, and there was a reaching back to a laboratory moment in architectural history – still unresolved experiments from the early 20th century.

So in a way, there’s this sort of unfinished experiment, which a group of figures really obsessed with constructivism. Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas were trying to get to Moscow whenever they could, and so on and so on. So, there was for me the interesting thing that modern architecture that was being subjected to this analysis, like something very particular was being played with.

Tom Ravenscroft: Where did the term deconstructivist come from, I think Joseph Giovanni seems to have invented it?

Mark Wigley: Yeah. I think he’s not alone. When I did that show, I had just sort of run away from New Zealand. So I was like the most naive person imaginable. But also pretty kind of cutthroat.

I think no level of cynicism about architectural discourse could account for everything that I saw during that time. Hundreds of people think that they invented the exhibition.

In a way, the term is so obvious that it was always there. A gazillion people think that they really invented the show, or they had done a show that had three out of the seven therefore they did it first.

My attitude was to say great, there’s nothing new in the show. It’s just a group of seven. The amount of lies told at that time was really spectacular. So a lot of these people were saying I invented this and I invented that, but I sort of knew that they didn’t.

I was present at a lot of the discussions in which people represented. So I just saw levels of bullshit that were so spectacular they were like floral arrangements – they would blossom daily. So that was all very informative for me. So for example if Joseph thinks that he invented the term, I think that’s terrific.

As I claimed at the time it was a historical show representing a certain way of thinking, what I pointed to was that with the work it was the quality that mattered.

As far as I know, I never met anyone that was doing that. So in other words, I knew what was different. But I didn’t really care. I still don’t care.

Really it requires many, many exhibitions in many contexts to contribute to something. Maybe you have a better theory of disruption than I, but probably disruption doesn’t just happen. It’s kind of the result of all sorts of forces. Like earthquakes, they don’t just happen.

So all sorts of forces were are at work in architectural discourse, that allowed for that particular group of people to carry out a certain series of experiments, but also allowed for them not to be taken sufficiently seriously to build anything. So in other words, there’s understood to be a difference between that kind of experiment and what architecture can be.

And what happens in 88 is a change of decision that basically and suddenly says now that can be built, and not only can be built, but should be built. And actually, we’d all benefit from that. So basically, there’s a switch in the idea of what’s buildable and what’s not, what’s valuable and what’s not. But what built up to that moment. You know, we’d have to do a 20/30 year history.

Tom Ravenscroft: But what the MoMA exhibition did was kind of authenticated it?

Mark Wigley: In my own defense – what was in the exhibition was not what anyone else would have chosen. In other words, it’s certainly not what the architects themselves would have chosen.

So if you look at Joseph and let’s include another 100 critics, let’s say who might be involved in the pre-earthquake phase.

Almost all of them are seeing their work as a kind of endorsement of the narratives of the architects themselves. So maybe there’s a label, but then you basically buy into the stories that the designers tell. In this case, not one of the architects like the story, right, they’re really happy to be an exhibition and happy to have their work seen from a different angle.

But they all have their own angles. So even before the exhibition openings, they’re saying, Well, we’re really not proud of this, but we’re happy to be involved in this. This is an interesting guy. And this is an interesting set of ideas. And they’re all genuinely happy at the thing itself – suddenly seeing that even seeing their own work in a different way.

It was more like a forensic analysis of the way in which deconstruction might be understood in architecture. And no one was talking in those terms. And I’m not even saying that they should.

So there was all sorts of stuff going on in the exhibition that had not happened before. It was not the inevitable result of all those forces.

Tom Ravenscroft: What made the exhibition different?

Mark Wigley: I don’t I really don’t understand why anybody would ever make an exhibition that was not a provocation. There are a gazillion exhibitions of architecture every year and there are institutions devoted to making those and archives and so on.

But almost all exhibitions – 99 per cent of them – are a form of advertising. I’m just trying to say the whole point of that show was just to rock the boat.

I would say most exhibitions are so dull. You could, you could have your teeth worked on while watching and most exhibitions. I mean, they really like anesthetics. They treat you like a child and you’re walked like a zombie through a series of partial objects.

And so the key thing there was to find the place that you would least likely to encounter an experimental exhibition and see what would happen. Now the skeptics would say, you can’t do it. You can’t experiment from inside that kind of corporate powerhouse of glamour. It’s just not possible. I think the shows show that actually you can and that still to this day annoys people.

Deconstructivism series logo
Illustration by Jack Bedford

Deconstructivism is one of the 20th century’s most influential architecture movements. Our series profiles the buildings and work of its leading proponents –  Eisenman, Koolhaas, Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind, Tschumi and Prix.

Read our deconstructivism series ›

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