Professor Barry Bergdoll is the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. He was also previously chief curator of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Bergdoll continues to work on MoMA projects on a part-time basis. He recently visited Australia to take part in the Utzon lecture at UNSW’s Faculty of Built Environment where he spoke about the key role MoMA has played in housing reform and social planning in the United States, and how the museum has raised awareness of the effects of climate change on urban environments.
Architecture & Design spoke to Bergdoll about how his academic background has influenced his approach to architecture, how museums can be a catalyst for change and his work at MOMA.
Your perspective of architecture comes from a very academic background. How do you think that has influenced what you think about architecture?
I would say that first and foremost I am an historian. My inclinations and training in academia go hand-in-hand here: I can't see any configuration, whether it be a building, an urban situation, a landscape or a set of relations between people, without wondering how did it come to be that way?
This is such an immediate instinct for me that I think also of the present historically. It is this that makes me rather impatient with all untested claims of novelty. Clearly, architects and designers are seeking original expression and often things are celebrated for their path-breaking opening up of new solutions and new possibilities.
Without losing any of the excitement of those claims, I like to think about the longer history from which those changes emerge.
You believe that art museums can be power catalysts for change. How so?
Art museums have perhaps never been more popular places to visit. Even in an age when images are readily available in very high quality on the internet, people are still attracted to seeing authentic works of art in physical settings and to seeing them with other people.
Sometimes, as in the case of the museum of modern art in New York, the Pompidou in Paris or the Gallery of New South Wales, which I visited during the popular portrait prize exhibition, the presence of crowds of people is also gratifying to many people.
Pace Walter Benjamin, the display of works of art, still has a hugely auratic presence. That auratic attraction makes the museum a place with amazing potential not only to venerate art of the past, but to expose people to new ideas, new challenges and new questions.
For an architecture curator it means that one can exhibit not only what has been done, but to try to redraw the boundaries of what could be done. This is what I tried to do, for instance, by bringing many different disciplines together to model possible resiliency models for New York in the face of rising sea levels in the project 'rising currents' of 2010, which I spoke about in the Utzon lecture at the University of New South Wales.
Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio's New Urban Ground transforms Lower Manhattan with an infrastructural ecology. Courtesy Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio. Source: moma.org
Can you give an example of how a museum has been a catalyst for change?
The exhibition on rising currents. This garnered so much attention from the public as well as from elected officials that our goal was in part met: namely to demonstrate that design thinking needs to be at the outset of taking on an issue, a problem and a situation, rather than simply the aestheticising team brought in once other expertises have set policy or a plan.
After we showed powerful images of a city made more resilient to face the challenges of sea level rise and more frequent storm surges in the project ‘rising currents’ of 2010 we found municipal and now federal government turning to designers as part of task forces in a way that had not been so in the past.
Few of those who took part in the workshops and projects of rising currents were specialists. Many have gone on to play important roles in thinking about this issue now in official channels. Not the least is the engineer Guy Nordensen who was asked by the Obama administration to model coastal resilience along major sites on the east coast with large groups of interdisciplinary design teams, a direct result of people's interest and admiration for what we catalysed with 'rising currents'.
Justin Davidson has said you "helped museum visitors understand not only what architecture is but also what it could be". Do you think it's easy or hard for the public to understand this?
I don't think it is completely obvious how to demystify architecture and get the public to understand key issues. The problem is that the most persuasive way, as architects entering competitions and developers have known for centuries, is through compelling images. These can fire people's imagination.
The challenge is how do you use images to capture people's attention and begin to engage them with what is at stake in architectural practice and yet not reduce architecture to pretty pictures? This is the hard work of the curator – to create something that is so enticing the public doesn't immediately turn away as so often with difficult architectural technical drawings. Instead, they can go beyond the image to the aspects of a projected architecture that are experiential and which will make a difference in the lives of individuals, of cities, of our society.
How to show a future architecture that is accessible, opens minds to entering the debate, rather than simply delights as an image of futuristic thinking and is left at that? There are many techniques. Some are matters of personal curatorial preference, others are developed in relationship to specific projects or to specific challenges.
What does architecture mean to you?
Architecture means the organisation of space to solve both practical problems and to create an environment that enhances our lives through our senses, through the types of social relations that are facilitated and through aesthetic pleasure.
What do you think your greatest achievement at MOMA has been?
Building the collection for others to work with from the acquisition of major design works like the Frankfurt kitchen of the 1920s to a unite D'habitation kitchen of 1947, to the addition of the Frank Lloyd Wright archive next to that of Mies van derRrohe. To now, with the addition of significant bodies of mid-century Latin American work previously missing.
Equally, I am proud of exhibitions that have engaged new publics and professionals at the same time, from ‘home delivery’ with its full-scale houses to the workshop series that began with rising currents.
Aside from your involvement in architecture, what would be your dream job?
My dream job is always sharing knowledge and thoughts. I have done this in curating and I continue to do it in university level teaching. I’ve been lucky that my dream job's what I have already chosen.
However, I suppose if I were to add one other possible venture it would be to be an architectural critic with a wide and broad public audience, or perhaps simply to be a tour guide, since I love getting people to look at what is around them and thus develop their own desires to be critical users and admirers of buildings, cities and landscapes.