Barry Bergdoll 'New York is starting to feel nostalgic'

MoMA architecture curator says "London is a much more dynamic place these days than New York"

When we launched the Phaidon Atlas with a big party at the Venice Architecture Biennale recently, we took the opportunity to ask some of our important guests a few questions on this year’s Rem Koolhaas-curated biennale and also the current state of architecture. 

We thought you might like to know what Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of art history in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and a curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York City had to say. We began by asking him about the biennale.

“The stakes are so high, right? Rem has actually given a serious manifesto not a kind of feel good, generic manifesto but a very challenging one and he gave it so early that people have to respond in one way or another. It’s the first one with a mandate to be coherent.”


The Israeli pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale
The Israeli pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale

When we spoke, Barry hadn’t as he put it “been to the fairgrounds yet” but was hopeful of what he would find when he did. 

“A lot of the curators and commissioners of the pavilions are really interesting people and I think it’s very interesting that Rem chose (the theme) fundamentals. “The first reaction to starchitecture was to look at social agendas, look at issues of program, look at environmental challenges – none of these things generate form. So suddenly you’re asked to admire architecture that achieves good results without being necessarily good architecture. 

“So what I’m looking for is an answer to how we digest all of the challenges of the return of architecture to environmental and social responsibility and still make phenomenal places and phenomena buildings? I think  the combination of fundamentals and absorbing modernity is already an interesting challenge. As always, when we die Rem is going to know ahead of us! He’s always kind of figured out the direction we should be going in the next couple of years.”


The French pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale
The French pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale

With proposals for over 230 new tall buildings to be built in London over the next decade, 80 per cent of them residential, the mainstream architectural debate in London has become confrontational, with some accusing the city’s mayor of ‘lining the pockets of developers while doing little to help alleviate London’s housing crisis’. We wondered if the debate had made it to New York and if so whether Bergdoll had any perspective to give. 

“The veracity of the debate is different – the fact that you can have a debate around the Gherkin, or Rem doing Rothschild Bank HQ.  But London is a much more dynamic place these days than New York. I think there’s more iconoclasm in general, and in architecture, plus, of course, if you want to get completely pragmatic, London has a global marketplace with all of its contradictions – so the effect of the last financial boom is so much more registered in central London than it is in the landscape of New York that New York is starting to feel like a very nostalgic city. We’re not debating the Shard - we might be debating condominiums on the waterfront.



The America pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale
The America pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale

“This may sound cynical but it’s true, London is the most direct place for the investment of money from Russia, from the Arab world," he continued. "It’s not only the world’s bank it’s the world’s real estate bank. The debate is maybe starting to happen in New York with these super tall buildings that have become the very, very late breaking controversy. But they’re not the same thing in London and New York as they are in Asia. They’re absolutely not a necessity. The only necessity is parking money. It’s funny you ask me this in Venice which is empty. Look at the Grand Canal on any night – they’re (the apartments) mostly all dark because nobody lives here! In New York and London there’s going to be a kind of Venice above the 20th floor!”


The British pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale
The British pavilion (detail) at the Venice Architecture Biennale

As we reported last week, Bergdoll was looking forward to not appearing on any panels while in Venice and instead was intending to visit some buildings by the 16th century architect Vincenzo Scamozzi, perhaps best known for inheriting several unfinished projects from Andrea Palladio at the time of his death in 1580 and for bringing them to completion.

“I continue to find architectural inspiration in what is here. Just walking past the extension of the Hotel Danieli and thinking, OK, that’s probably a building from the fifties and the fact that there was this moment in Venice where you could make a modernist intervention. That would probably be impossible today, outside of the port.”

We were talking to Barry Bergdoll at the launch of our online Phaidon Atlas. You can read a little about the party where we launched it here and learn about the online Atlas itself here.

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