Barry Bergdoll, the Museum of Modern Art's Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design, is stepping down at MoMA. As reported in late July, he is leaving the top slot at the museum to take on a more active role at Columbia University. Bergdoll has taken a six-and-a-half-year leave of absence to head MoMA's architecture and design program. In an interview with ARCHITECT, he talks about MoMA going forward and what his time there has taught him about architecture.
What were your favorite exhibitions to mount at MoMA?
They're all so different—it's kind of like saying which is your favorite child. I guess "Rising Currents" was the most extraordinary, in a way. Such a completely new format. I suppose it was the most sustained of my ideas, that exhibition does not just mean things on a wall but a process. There was public participation in the lead up with a study, and we created an open studio situation, school, and public events space all at once—bursting the boundaries of what exhibition is.
In an email, you announced that you were returning to Columbia University, where you will be serving as the Meyer Schapiro chair of art history and archaeology (modern architectural history), an endowed chair. It almost sounded as though your number had been called up. Did you know that Columbia would be asking you to return?
It was a leave of absence. There was always going to be an end date. It was extended a number of times. I was becoming more and more ensconced at the school, actually, but the day always seemed far off. So when it finally arrived, it seemed like, "Oh my god." It was a huge honor that they elected me to this prestigious chair.
Will your new responsibilities change your work for Columbia?
I don't think it will change my work in the school. I think my work will be changed by my work at the museum. It's a phenomenal experience to take back to the classroom and the students—nearly seven years here [at MoMA].
What changed during your six-and-a-half years at MoMA?
I arrived at a very strange moment, it turned out. It felt like the world fell apart right when I arrived. We're in a new normal, and it's not the same as the normal when I was in discussions [to join the museum] in 2006. By the time we opened "Home Delivery," my first show, in 2008—when that show opened, Lehman Brothers had collapsed, and architects were being laid off left, right, and center.
How did you approach your tenure as chief architecture curator?
My first major decision was that my first exhibition was not going to be a monograph of an individual. I was following the problem, the process and vitality of the task of architecture. I felt it was a critique of the phenomenon of the star architect, without being a critique of the starchitects themselves, most of whom are phenomenally talented. But what the public did with starchitecture was crippling. All the money, all the attention, put in a small set of hands. This anti-monograph idea came from that. Inevitably, museums are—since the founding of the architecture department at MoMA, 81 years ago—museums have identified and promoted singular architects. That's a very positive thing. On the other hand, there's a celebrity culture that's deeply problematic.
Is that phenomenon still a problem?
Now I see problems in the new emerging culture. The pendulum has almost swung too far. There's a real tendency to embrace spontaneous processes, a notion that every intervention is an act of architecture. I wasn't against the notion of the architect—on the contrary, I am a defender of what the architect is. Not a person to be in awe of, but a way of thinking that can tackle problems. Not a luxury but a necessity. One of the biggest misconceptions about architecture is that policy is made in one place, and architects make what it looks like afterward. "Home Delivery," to an extent, and "Rising Currents" showed that architecture is a way of thinking—a way of making policy. Design thinking is a kind of expertise. The baby that must not be thrown out with the bathwater is expertise.
What was your role in MoMA's early decision to raze the former American Folk Art Museum—before the museum reconsidered?
I didn't have a major role in that process in the beginning. That curators are involved with the real-estate decisions—how do people imagine that? Some people thought that it was a smoke screen to say it was an administrative decision, not a curatorial one.
I was very involved with discussions on the selection of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and we're talking about a whole range of possibilities. At least through the fall, I will be part of those discussions—at least until a successor is named. I have a slightly dual role, in that I helped with the selection, but I'm also—it's key in this transition—that the architecture and design department be a voice at the table, so that the work we do is reflected in the expanded museum.
Which will be a reconceptualization of the museum as a whole—in a sense, designating one building as a site for one department goes in the face of what a museum in the 21st century should look like.