“An architect is a foreigner. A strange person. A person that thinks that buildings are alive. A child in disguise.” An interview with architect MARK WIGLEY.

JOACHIM BESSING: Did you ever experience a provocation from architecture, and of which kind was that?

MARK WIGLEY: More or less everyday. I think to be interested in architecture is to love buildings. And like any other form of love it means that you don’t really know this thing that you love. So it’s always a provocation. In other words: what I love is that buldings are a provocation. Always.

Could you remember the first time you were attracted to a piece of architecture, like when you were very young – please don’t worry though, I’m not trying to talk you into being an objectophile …

No, I had no idea! Since I was nine years old I wanted to become an architect. But I had no idea what that meant.

Were your parents involved in architecture?


So you just felt you wanted to create spaces?

Yes. There were zero ingredients for incubating an architect in my history. I grew up in a more or less small city with a hundred thousand people in the middle of an island.

“The architect is more than anybody else a public intellectual.”

Can you imagine why works of architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry receive that much attention over here in Europe? Whenever they build something the public response is massive, like to a provocation. They do not stop wondering about the shapes, the surfaces, the materials used – all in all about these so-called new forms.

These people that you are describing are very intelligent. The architect is more than anybody else a public intellectual. It’s not that the best architects are the ones that make the best buildings. The best architect is the one that makes us think again about buildings. You are describing a set of architects who don’t just make good buildings – they do that, sure, but they do something else which is more important: they make us re-conceive of what a building is. The real purpose of the architect in my opinion is to make you hesitate, so that for a moment or a minute or a weekend or your lifetime you see things differently. And this ability of a good architect to see the world differently can become an invitation to maybe live your life differently. Most of these invitations are turned down. But every now and then an architect can trigger a hesitation that does change many other things. The great gift of the architect is just this very delicate thing. A jab in the normal rhythm.

Over here, the arguments against the works of these architects are that their buildings do not fit into the traditional structures of our cities, that they are destructive. These opponents vote for a rather mildly reconstructive or at least conservative style – to regain the structure, look and feel of cities as they were before World War II. In a way they argue that any other style is unnatural. Would you say that there is any one natural architecture?

No no. Architecture is interesting because it’s unnatural! But you know nature is very strange. You know that. If architecture was natural, then it would be very strange – think about a cat! Surely a cat is natural. But a cat is a very crazy animal. If you really like nature a lot you should go to the African forests. Spend an evening. None of these people would say that they would like architecture to be natural. They don’t want to be naked. They don’t want to eat other people. They all have sets of rules for not being natural. In fact it is a political statement. You said it right: conservative. You mean exactly that moment where conservative means conservation. But there are many paradoxes here. Firstly, anybody who argues that we should always take the city back to its original older condition – this is a very stupid position. But anybody who says we should always change and make something new is also stupid. We are talking about a much more complicated relationship between what to change and what to keep. If you keep a building the same, paradoxically you have changed it. In the normal course of events, in changes in the environment, in the political, in the client, in the technologies of communication – everything changes and will change the building, too. So when you say, “Please, let’s not change the building,” you’re actually asking for a real major change. In fact you are asking to stop the building from living. Because you say, “It will not breathe, it will not evolve.” So when an architect says, “Please let’s take everything back fifty years,” what they are saying is, “I hate evolution. I hate change.” But if you do for example take a piece of the city back it’s a very strange thing to do. It can be very very beautiful. To walk down a street can then be like looking at a historical album of photographs. How strange is that! To go through, let’s say, Berlin in 1935. To walk down that street is the opposite of natural. It’s a most unnatural and therefore quite beautiful thing to do. You can actually walk through a simulation of 1935. What they are producing is an image of 1935. You can say that the people who want the city to go back to 1935 want to reduce architecture to pure image. But they are the ones that complain about famous architects and they complain that this is all about image. It’s a paradox! The idea of an image that never changes is very nice for some people. Other people like the idea of an image that changes so fast, it’s almost like a movie. When you talk about Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid you are speaking of people for whom the most interesting thing is the movie. The thing that moves. The thing that changes. When you talk about what you call the conservative architects, what they love is still photography. Nothing changes. No dust. No wind. No rain. No decay. What they are nostalgic for is a time that never existed. Of course they don’t want the technologies of 1935. You can be sure that none of the people who say let’s take the city back to 1935 want a toilet from 1935! What they’re really saying is: we love everything to change except architecture. What they’re saying is: It would be great if architecture were boring. It would be great if architecture were like an anesthetic – if it put you to sleep. And maybe they’re right, you know? Life is not so easy. And maybe it would be nice if architecture put you to sleep. Actually sleep is a very positive thing. If you don’t sleep, you die. Wouldn’t it be terrible if every part of the city forced us to stay awake? Because it would always be so interesting?

“Anybody who argues that we should always take the city back to its original older condition – this is a very stupid position. But anybody who says we should always change and make something new is also stupid.”

But as far as I understand they argue from a perspective of craftsmanship. They claim a certain repertoire of forms and designs that have been proven since Vitruvius and this has to do with certain proportions, certain materials and so on. And they warn that if you plan to do it in another way, trying to introduce new forms for example, it will not turn out as good architecture at all.

The history of classical architecture, which is a history of the search for this kind of perfect organization that works so well that it doesn’t need to be changed, is actually a history of debate and confusion forever. For example, the Parthenon is the very image of the classical tradition. When people speak of the beauty of classical architecture they use the Parthenon as an image for this beauty. And this is meant to represent the beauty of the classical tradition. A tradition in which each decision is based on the unchanging laws of the cosmos. But the Parthenon breaks every rule in the classical tradition. The columns have the wrong proportion, the wrong structure – everything is wrong. And if you look at the history, nobody ever agreed upon what the rules are. So when an architect says, “There was a time when everything was fixed and known,” it’s a fantasy. And isn’t it the same fantasy that every parent has when they try to tell their children that the children are really crazy? Then they remember a time when everything was slower. And the food tasted so much better.

And we could play for hours with just a piece of string.
And the vegetables were really correct. There was not all of this media.

Life then was perfect. And these same children, who are always listening to the iPod and working on the blog and frustrating their parents so much, they too will in twenty years say to their children, “There was a time, when we just had the iPod and we were real people.” This is just what old people say to young people. So your question could now be translated: should the ideal figure of an architect be more like a parent – or like a child?

What would you say?

If it were like a parent, it would already know all the answers to everything. And be ageing. And be more or less fixed. If it’s a young person it’s not fixed yet. It has an unknown future. It is playing, not working. It is experimenting. It is maybe making mistakes. It is not knowing the answers. It is perhaps not knowing even the questions. The architects that you are describing that are controversial in changing the fabric of the European city are like children. The architects who protest are trying to be like parents. Why, why would we want our architecture to be almost dead? Why?

Maybe because we are afraid of other living things, or of any other thing that evolves, hence human beings?

Isn’t that unnatural? Isn’t that a fear of nature?

“The people who make the argument that the city must be returned to its condition of 1935 are the people that hate nature. And they hate people.”

So do we as human beings consider ourselves unnatural?

Let’s think about it! We always think that architecture expresses the life and culture and ambitions of the people living in it, right? Like your private house somehow makes a representation to the outside world of who you are. This is seen by architects to be positive. That a house reflects the quality of the people who live in it. But if inside a house two people have a fight, would it be good for the building to show that fight to the outside world, too? The answer is no! Nobody wants that. So actually we want our architecture to represent us but not to represent the real us: confused, anxious, desiring, ambitious, stressable, tired, sleeping. Sometimes boring, sometimes awake. We don’t want our architecture like any of these things that make people interesting. So again: we really want our architecture unnaturally fixed. The people who make the argument that the city must be returned to its condition of 1935 are the people that hate nature. And they hate people. Because it’s people that made World War II. World War II was completely natural. It was the violence of the real animal that we are. So when you are afraid of this and you want to return to this point before the war, so that you can forget the war, so that you can forget the crimes of your own country – what you want is your architecture to be blind, boring and unnatural. You want an architecture that doesn’t even know that there is war. Which means it is dead already. And that’s what they say: they are looking for an architecture with no memory. They say we need to recover the memory … But what they mean is: we need to recover an image of a time before war. Even if you listen to the language they will describe the more experimental architects that they hate as invading the city. They use the picture of an invasion.

Or landing spacecrafts.

Spaceships, foreigners, and so on. What they try to do is construct an image of a natural world invaded by nasty foreign elements. These are exactly the arguments that Germany once used: we must remove, we must kill the foreigner inside. We must be natural! We must go back to the soil.

Like we were meant to be.

Any architect today who says in public that we must go back to a natural order, that we must remove these foreign forms, is already starting to operate as a criminal. This is obvious and not an interpretation. It does not mean that each and every building of these architects is fantastic. The whole point of architecture is to be a subject of debate, of discussion. Many buildings that initially reacted to really negatively by the local community have become the most loved ones. Think of the Sydney opera house – the opera house was rejected by Australia. The architect was fired. Jørn Utzorn was sent back to Scandinavia. Everybody was angry. A government was voted out, because they were so angry about this building. A building so expensive. And now you cannot think about Australia without thinking of the Sydney opera house. It’s almost like Australia is a piece of land that comes out from underneath the Sydney opera house. And so what happens is that this foreigner, this Scandinavian architect with his architecture that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t have anything Australian about it, produced a building that makes Australia feel more Australian that it was before. And the Sydney opera house was the model for Frank Gehry in Bilbao, for Rem Koolhaas’ embassy building in Berlin or the Casa de Musica – another spaceship, clearly beautiful! Maybe we only ever learn something when some form we think of as foreign provokes us – and we resist. But sometimes, many times, in the middle of the resistance, we end up loving this thing that has provoked us. This is what an architect is: an architect is a foreigner. A strange person. A person that thinks that buildings are alive.

“Architecture always comes from somewhere else. It’s always a strange life form.”

When you think of A Space Odyssey, the movie, in the initial scene there is this black monolith falling from the skies amongst the ape-men – is this the mission of the architect, to drop some strange object amongst us that we do not know exactly what do think about? Like a homeopathic injection?

Architecture always comes from somewhere else. It’s always a strange life form. So I guess the answer is yes. But this is even true when you give the client almost exactly what they were asking for – but with a small twist. A more modest architect making what at first seems to be a very quiet modification.

Like a baroque twist?

Exactly. This little twist turns the whole project into a stranger. When a client says to an architect, “Please make a great design,” what they are saying is, “Please change the way I see my world.” A good architect is not an architect who gives the client exactly what he was asking for. He gives more than he was asked for. He changes the idea of what one can ask for. Whether it’s a radical experimentation like the ones we are talking about or a quiet modification of the neighborhood structure, in both cases it is always something of an alien creature. But you know aliens are really really necessary for survival!

I would like return to what you said before about the architect that is childlike. Children in a way are aliens. They do not see behind things. They take it for granted that the world is as they perceive it. They develop their ideas in a way that I would like to call “content baroque”. They take ideas and concepts from different sources and conceptions and blend it into a weird world that is half- fantasy, half- super realistic – which is really attractive for grown-ups. Would you see the future of architecture and the city developing into structures that are more or less like that? For example a university for architecture and fashion design that is merging into the city hall and at its fringes there are boutiques where fashion is exhibited and sold?

Isn’t that how the city already is today?

Not now. At least not the cities that I know …

Sure it is. It’s just that you are not looking. The urban fabric – if we can say that, which is already a word of fashion – this textile that is covering the world now when we have for the first time more people living inside cities than outside them, and all the cities are interconnected, every local point has also a global connection – distinctions between programmatic spaces are completely confusing and the people who occupy the spaces of their city are also occupying at the very same moment many other spaces through systems of communication and visualization. If you now describe the children’s world as one of content baroque, actually this world is the world that we live in. But we are trained to always be adults. To not play, to not see this. And in the middle of that the architect then is like a child. If you look into an architect’s studio it is a space of children playing and exploring possible futures.

Making models …

People that think that buildings are alive – like children do. And then when they present their projects to the client they pretend to be an adult. So an architect is a child in disguise. Which is why architects never retire. Why they still design at the age of 95. They still are in their own mind children. But they must present to the outside world a façade with no fantasy, no craziness, no content baroque. And you describe a group of architects who are very happy with a world without any twists. And another group that are very happy to speak of a world only with twists. The child knows that architecture is alive. That it’s haunted. Full of crazy qualities. The architect also knows that. And he is trying to teach adults that buildings are alive. Some people agree and they hire the very best architect in the world. Most people think that buildings are dead and should be dead. Dull. 99.9% of the built environment is like a huge anesthetic.

I would therefore like to shift back to the US, to a field that I would like to call more or less ironically “useless architecture”: monuments. Can you explain how the plans to build on ground zero were developed?

New York City had it very very hard; they had to find the most mediocre solution. They have searched the whole world to find architects and proposals that were mediocre enough. And finally now it would seem that they have been able to find the most boring proposals of all. It’s been kind of the opposite of Cinderella, where you go looking for the beautiful person that is hidden somewhere and should fit your shoe. This was going and searching the world for the least beautiful, but that must also not be ugly, because this could be interesting, too. It had to be just absolutely boring. This has been their mission. The whole point with Ground Zero is, in the name of memory, to produce an organization that is so forgettable that you forget even the reason for the memory in the first place. One end of the isle of Manhattan has become an incubator for the most advanced transforms in mediocrity.

Why is that? The whole world was watching the events of 9/11. Why not literally drop a black monolith instead?

Of course you have to know that New York is a really beautiful city. But it’s not beautiful because architects have built beautiful buildings here. It’s a beautiful city because ugly people have for hundreds of years been incredibly selfish and greedy. The skyscraper is the maximum of greed. It extracts from a square site a maximum amount of money – it’s like a stack of money itself. The beauty of the city is driven by greed. And then in the middle of this forest of skyscrapers is this extraordinarily powerful, cosmopolitan and non-predictable exchange.

It’s a wrong idea to make a competition to find the best architect for that. This is not a New York approach. New York has killed all the great architects in history. So everybody said that we should make something to remember this terrible event. But what made this event so terrible is that it’s still not possible to believe it. From a technical point of view, even mechanical engineers cannot believe that these two buildings came down.

You can watch it over and over again.

You don’t have the capacity to understand that the white dust cloud that you see is made up of people and buildings as a fine powder. You simply have a way of possibly understanding that what you are looking at in the air, hanging in the space where the building has fallen, is still the building – and still the people who are inside that building. Nobody wants to remember this. The people want to remember something of the tragedy. But not the real tragedy itself. And also not the fact that it still remains for almost all of us impossible. So as an act of commission, it could have been one of the greatest commissions of history. How could we make an architecture that in some ways connects to this global conception of an impossible event? Statistically, three thousand people are not a lot of people. Many many more have now died in the name of the event and are not memorialized.

But the most public event in history, documented from every angle, is impossible to understand. We would need our very best architects to imagine the right reaction to this. But such a perfectly resistant city would in this one moment not allow the full intellectual force of the our best architects to be operating. What is going to happen is the opposite. We are just looking for some very very bad design.

Who is we?


No, who is deciding what to build there?

Your are asking a tricky question. I think the real decision is made by all of us. I do not think there’s a deep desire to remember what happened. What really happened. We all would rather something mediocre happen. No one would say that. Everybody will say, “Something beautiful, please!” Something subtle. Something complex. Something that speaks of the human spirit. Something that speaks of freedom. Something that speaks of mutual respect. But deep down everybody would rather have an anesthetic. For that, the architecture has to make very sure not to be interesting. Which takes us back to your first point: the main purpose and number one criteria for the redesign of Ground Zero is to remove any source of provocation.

  • Interview: JOACHIM BESSING