Interview with Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley. Third Istanbul Design Biennial

Interview with Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley. Third Istanbul Design Biennial
[Istanbul] Turkey. 22.10.2016 > 20.11.2016
metalocus, JOSÉ JUAN BARBA
Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley. Photograph © Muhsin Akgun
I arrive in Istanbul at dawn. It is the first time I visit the city, traffic at 5 in the morning presents the streets and avenues totally empty, nothing to do with what they will look like a few hours later: an inferno difficult to control, for any driver. The hotel, which is in the new city area, is a tower from whose corridors the views of the old city are spectacular, even at this late time the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are illuminated, creating a magical skyline of the Bosphorus.

Night view Istanbul. Photograph © José Juan Barba/METALOCUS.

When traveling through Europe or America you always perceive, from the moment you first arrive to the hotel, the same feeling of silence. That does not happen here, as I quickly feel that I have reached a different place. When entering the room, a slightly open window makes the muezzin's call to pray from the nearby mosques perfectly clear to my hearing. A few hours later takes place the official opening of the Third Istanbul Design Biennial

The official presentation of the Third Istanbul Design Biennial is developed on a small podium on the top floor at Greek Primary School / Galata Rum Okulu, quickly followed by the presentation of its director, Deniz Ova, and of its curators, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley. It is a multitudinous presentation,followed by a tour throughout the entire exhibition. Normally, a regular visitor is only able to perceive a small percentage of the intentions and contents of an exhibition, but in this occasion the percentage notoriously increased thanks to the generosity of Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, which became luxury ciceros for the next two days.

A few hours later in a trialogue between the curators and Shumi Bose, Arjen Oosterman and myself, at the The Populist cafeteria from the cultural center Alt-Bomonti (Istanbul) we try to deepen into the thoughts behind the contents exposed, which had surprised everyone by the ambitious level of the biennial. It was actually not an interview, but more like a talk that went on for more than an hour, in which we questioned Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, who spoke with agility in an exchange of ideas that was carried out quite naturally and to which they seem to be accustomed. Although later, when asked if they had worked previously as curators, they answered.-

- (BC) Yeah, yeah, yeah. 
- (MW) Like serial killers, but never together. Ha ha ha.

Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley. Photograph © Mahmut Geylan.

The talk begins by searching and deepening in the ideas of this pair of curators, and increasing the knowledge of the contents exposed, as we had all been surprised by the level of ambition pursued by the Biennial.

Beatriz Colomina (BC) claims that this ambition is good and rapidly following this ping-pong game in which they will be answering the whole time, Mark Wigley (MW) comments: "Yeah, we are not afraid of ambition. It [the exhibition] is full of risks but we strongly feel, as you know, that the consequences of design that has gone viral is organizing a much contemporary life, and that life is not good […] The idea of the exhibition is to act as a kind of fuse for a conversation. We have often said that we would feel happy about the exhibition if we could see that four or five years later quite different ideas were being generated and you could see that there was a fuse back in this moment […]"

- (BC) It was historically interesting for us to look back at the moment when this idea of good design emerged in the face of an astonishing transformation in the way that people were living. It is the product of the industrial revolution that separates the place of living from the place of work and this entirely changes the cities, etc. We are now in an incredible transformation, once again, in the ways in which we live, socialize, communicate, make love, etc. of the same dimension, if not bigger. We are still working with an outdated concept of design that belongs to this industrial revolution when objects were precisely produced by machine, that were considered keys and then the idea of how to design objects worked for fifty or so years, or even longer. We think that this idea is no longer valid and that the idea that good design is not enough for our time. What good is this good, if good design is only good for a small group of people? 

- (MW) [good design] It has a very specific definition.

Globaïa, Welcome to the Anthropocene (video still). Photograph © José Juan Barba/METALOCUS.

One of the channels used in this Biennial is its online exhibition, although it is clear that the Biennial continues to use other classical paths that other exhibitions develop to attract attention to an idea. In fact, the Biennial is a clearly intellectual work that crystallizes using the tools of a popular exhibition. A presentation that also reflects a remarkable interrelationship between people, designers and industry. A set, ideas and exhibition that in turn redesign the concept of design.

- (MW) Absolutely. An amazing amount of deconstruction, which is so much needed to come to a new kind of understanding, which is fabulous […]

Design in 2  Seconds - Curatorial Intervention. Fotografía © José Juan Barba/METALOCUS.

Mark Wigley quotes Tacitus and goes through the classics to demonstrate that, actually, the perception of the contemporary is the same: - "There are not two thousand years between us, in that sense, there is no evolution". The strangeness towards the new is always a constant. 

The talk moves to the idea of the "human" concept, and wether if we are human or not. The idea of post-humans in the antropocene era even shows up and Wigley quickly points out that:

- (MW) I suppose that we hardly ever use the word "post-human" as you probably know.

Wigley explains that the idea of "cyborg" is more interesting to him […], the game of a sort of cybernetic fantasy, to which Colomina answers:

- (BC) It is part of the show, of course, but it is not its center. It is part of the reality we live. Robotisation is here and is going to change dramatically the way in which we work, we function, our cities… Human labour takes also very much part of our discussions. Trump is saying that he is bringing all this manufacturing gears into the United States, […] In Switzerland they have this vote for universal income, or how in California, in Palo Alto, a small community, they are doing this experiment, of giving people living ways of 2000$ a month to see what happens when people do not have to work for months. This is part of who we are, because it is engrained in the idea that you work for your money so you consume.

Is it more about how we live together, about how are we going to survive?

homo cellular - Curatorial Intervention. Fotografía © José Juan Barba/METALOCUS.

Beatriz emphasizes how architecture has for long been developed in terms of concepts such as leisure and how that is affecting the way in which architecture is designed, built and our cities are created.

Wigley speaks of giving a polyphonic response, so the conversation stems to the moral implications of all these changes, including the fact that many works from the exposition imply a moral stand. So how to negotiate with moralization or how to have a moral position? And what is their particular position in that aspect?

- (MW)  think what we do say very clearly is that there has to be a response. This is a moment for design to evaluate its ethical responsibilities and we insist on it again and again and again. But we do not say is that would be the appropriate one.

- (BC) Ruha Benjamin, who is teaching African American Studies at Princeton, is part of this group of people that sometimes are in discussions in the United States, in Washington, over the ethics of genetic, and she says that it is disappointing that lawmakers, politicians, scientists… but humanity is never invited, and she is in there, […] We are being excluded from a whole lot of questions.

¿And their particular vision?

- (BC) Because there are multiple positions, and the ultimate position is always the position of the participant, so it is impossible, or not even desirable that it would be our moral and ethical position imposed on everybody. There is a multiplicity of voices, and, in fact, in this moment of history, there is a lot of uncertainty […] we respect the views of others in the same way that in a conference you respect the views of others but you don't invite a jerk or a fascist. 

Opening in  Greek Primary School / Galata Rum Okulu. Photograph © José Juan Barba/METALOCUS.

The conversation drifts for a moment in drifts about the ethics, good and the implications produced by designers in their work, although the conversation quickly got back on track. What are we talking about when we talk about design? Since in Spanish, German and Italian architecture and design are different things, how has that been treated in the sample?

- (BC) Yeah, because "design" is an English therm precisely. […] It is a totally British word that came out of a very particular situation and continues to be an Anglosaxon idea.
[…] Now, politicians talk about design, Schools of Business, places like Columbia University, they have design departments. I remember that on Harvard, the Head of the School - Peter Rowe -, was upset that it was started to be confusion in the University. Because, on one hand, there is the Graduate School of Design, and on the other hand, in the School of Business, now they have departments of Design, which confuses the students when they google "design harvard" and they arrive to the Design department of the Business School. But this is part of our world, everything is designed in the most powerful companies in the world. As they base their success in design. Politicians, even companies that don't have anything to do with design, they have Chief designers, or Design Officers. Design is applied to everything.

- (MW) First, is it a concept that has a specifically British meaning? And, indeed, it is absolutely British. We need to understand the history of the word: the moment it was invented, why it was invented - out of jealousy to Prussia and France -, in the early decades of the 19th century. The English were very confused, they were de industrial power, but they didn't have the ability to shape the objects the way the French and the Germans were doing. They made an effort to try to understand the idea. "What is it with these Europeans?"

- (BC) So before we know, the situation reverses. 

- (MW) It came out from jealousy, which is always a very strong motivational force, and actually the English never felt like they had succeeded in the 19th century.

Objects of Daydreaming. Photograph © Sahir Ugur Eren.

- (BC) It comes from the same root as the Spanish "diseño". 

Wigley applies his teaching qualities and explains the process of reversion, how at the turn of the century the French and Germans were jealous of the British design tradition, particularly William Morris, "who explicitly engaged with industrialization", meaning that "it was mainly about the shock, the extraordinary shock of the industrialization, the machine, on the human body, on the economy, this great fear of the British and how they sort of survived. So this is the case, the reason of this design, the British word "design" has been successful, because it carries this promise of inoculation, of denial, of defense, of survival in a very strange world."

That debate seems to be the driving force behind the whole exhibition. And Wigley reaffirms "what we need to do is to redesign design, which is kind of a collaborative project". Colomina adds "To redefine design and to redefine the human too."

"Venice demonstrates me that the Biennial of Venice is no longer an instrument to escape the trade show panorama." Mark Wigley

The exhibition is different from other biennials, Venice and Aravena appear in the conversation. However, here there is a serious and agile approach on the need to discuss different ethical or moral positions without undermining the need to advance in a pragmatic debate, or without turning the Biennale into a trade show. There are designers at the Biennial, but it is not its most relevant aspect, it is not about presenting  or exposing products, because what is at stake, what could be a more interesting and complex topic, is the underlying question of what can be designed at this time.

- (MW) […] knowing that almost every school of architecture has many people believing that they are the only representatives of the human being, but the figures that are drawn are, you know, almost universally, young, fast-moving, 20, 30-year olds on skateboards. […] And they think: "humans are so, so, lucky to have my design, what else could they need? Just being beside my design makes them sort of superhuman." You could argue that architecture talks always about the human, but is profoundly disinterested in humans.

[…] The real human of modern design is a kind of advertise, a kind of ghostly figure.

This last claim has come up after a reference to a small book with yellow cover published on the occasion of the Biennial. The book shows how the small figures that appear in the projects of protomodern architects such as Walter Gropious, Tony Garnier, Lissitsky or Mies van deer Rohe, look like ghostly figures, alienated from their surroundings, without developing the identity of the person.

After this historical or archaeological review of the contemporaneity, arises the need to know how all of this affects our contemporary reality and what synergies want to be activated with the exhibition.

Studio-X. The Designer Designed by the Humans. Photograph © Sahir Ugur Eren.

Beatriz comments in an interesting and long dissertation how the ideas of the Biennial have been being developed in an internal debate which has its roots in Princeton and Columbia, about what design is.

- (BC) We are architects, not historians. And then the question is, what is the scene actually? […]  The thinking of complex problems… This is very much part of the way we work today, which is not like the way they used to, with this heroic sense of Gropius of “oh, this is the answer”. I don’t know what the answer is, and the more we share information, the more we ask questions.

Beatriz Colomina marks her interest in formulating questions and setting a Biennial of open questions to the multiplicity of issues that the visitors can come up with, instead of deliberately determining a closed project.

Mark Wigley defends how after being invited to the Istanbul Design Biennial, the need to intervene in and to redefine the concept of desing was born, setting their questioning after design had turned viral. A need of revision, of "reeducating ourselves", which doesn't imply an abdication nor forbids a reckoning of the existence of previous models and heroes. We need to rethink the narratives on industrial design such as Nicholas Pevsner's path through the Bauhaus and into the world.

How to cope with the process of exhibiting many types of difficulties?, because many of the projects at the exhibition have a very complex work behind them. ¿How to show that experience?

- (BC) I have only exhibited research in my life. I find exhibitions really fascinating as they are always collaborative, because they involve many different people. They all have this in common. 

- (MW) We wrote the manifesto and we presented it. We started to contact to a series of people saying “would you be happy to respond?”. We told them that there would not be a territory, it’s not like “here is your spot”, you know? Actually, the whole principle here is a series of overlapping clouds, so, we are not going to tell you where in the exhibition you would be, because we don’t know. We want you to tell us what ideas you are working on and what medium you would think that would be the best. We will listen to that and see if we can design for you a place and mechanism. Knowing that your works will overlap with others and that the limits of your work will not be clear, and even your authorship may be somewhat not clear, sometimes.

You have three audiences: you have a general public to get to. If you are not communicating to the visitor, you are a really sophisticated design person but you can’t allow them to appreciate, learn, or enjoy your thing, you are an idiot. The second group you need to communicate to is this sort of local design community, with all their different disciplines. Because the different versions of design are record labels, material culture, all range of designs. And you have to keep in mind that you have another audience, which tends to be a much more international audience of people who theorize and think about your work: researchers, academics, scholars, critics. And it’s a difficult assignment, but you should design an installation that hits the three groups.
- (BC) That ambition is better accomplished with the whole exhibition than it is which every individual work. And I think that the exhibition is a little bit like that: you  should be able in the entire exhibition to address an audience of little kids and an audience of people that may not have any idea of the debate, as well as an audience of architecture students, an international audience.

Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley meticulously describe the different layers and lectures that any visitor can make, from easy interpretations that can be found in the kind reception experienced in William Forsythe’s work, passing later through the most popular figure of the exhibition: the glass man of Istanbul (some locals might remember that the last time it was seen there by the public was in 1938), which shows the international advances made at the country in certain fields. Other examples of this reality are the automatons and the Islamic robots which can be seen at the exhibition. The most ambitious visitors can enjoy the most complex and scholar lectures, such as the archive study, the global maps or the consequences of the Antropocene.

The Transparent Man. Photograph © Poyraz Tutuncu

The debate on whether the Biennial should connect industry and the production of ideas was not forgotten, as the Biennial's promoter Bülent Eczacıbaşı intended in his first two editions without having achieved this with the approaches used on those occasions. It was not possible to influence the market and local production, remaining disconnected from the ideas discussed at the Biennial. The debate is complex and Mark Wigley explains it by situating the three-way discussion: between politicians, industrialists and designers, adding the specificity of conditions in Turkey. 

- (MW) The only way you can really embrace industry in these conversations is to, first of all, knowing their role, understanding the relationship between design and history. Then, when you can do that, your friends and other industries can recognize themselves in the history of Turkey. They have been told that they should be more international by producing more well designed objects, what we should therefore do is to provide for the industrial community a kind of archive in which they could see themselves, in the same ways that the visitors see themselves. How do you make an image that allows an industrialist care about design? […] It was very emotional to hear for us to hear Bülent’s reaction to the exhibition, because he really appreciated it.

- (BC) I have heard from his peers, sponsors… and in this very moment I’m receiving messages, e-mails from industrialists that have contributed to the Biennale, and they say that they are so proud of the way we have elevated the discussion.

Mark and Beatriz emphasize in the questioning if whether the success of some companies comes from a big volume of production sold without any added value in emergent markets or if they do it increasing their investments in their designs and therefore uprising the level of the market they want to get to.

- (BC) It’s a bit like the discussions in London 200 years ago. Why would I do all this effort to eliminate or create ornaments so that it is more expensive?

It  is obvious that the main business schools include design in their products, and how they apply this experience in their successful cases, such as Steve Jobs’, produced with and heir of the created at the Bauhaus. The curators look proud when hearing the reactions of some institutions, as, for example, the Museum of Modern Art, who had never cared about the Design Biennial, as they had never attended the exhibition. However, this changed in this edition, since just the day before the interview, they had visited the Greek School and had commented to Bülent: “Oh my God, this is another level of a biennial”.
If something remains in the mind of all the visitors is that this Biennial has done something very important for design and architecture, rising the discussion about what people expect to happen.
I have to admit that having being sceptic before knowing the result of the Biennial, after visiting it, knowing it and speaking with its curators, I have felt really surprised, because it had been a long time since I hadn’t perceived in this type of events a positive and stimulating revulsive as it happened here.
If you have time to visit Istanbul (it’s a shame that the Biennial lasts for a short period of time), you can find the nourishing we all need to create in the exciting and interesting crossing of ideas, proposals and analysis shown, thanks to its curators and participants, at the Third Design Biennial of Istanbul.

Estambul, Turquía.
22 de Octubre al 20 de Noviembre de 2016
Presentation of the Istambul Design Biennal 2016. Photography © José Juan Barba/METALOCUS.


Beatriz Colomina is an internationally renowned architectural historian and theorist who has written extensively on questions of architecture and media. Ms. Colomina has taught in the School since 1988, and is the Founding Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University, a graduate program that promotes the interdisciplinary study of forms of culture that came to more


Mark Antony Wigley is a New Zealand-born architect, author, and (since 2004 until 2014) Dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, New York, USA.

In 2005, Wigley founded Volume Magazine together with Rem Koolhaas and Ole Bouman. A collaborative project by Archis ( more


José Juan Barba (1964) graduated from ETSA Madrid in 1991. Special Mention in the National Finishing University Education Awards 1991. PhD in Architecture ETSAM, 2004. He founded his professional practice in Madrid in 1992 (, he is architecture critic and editor-in–chief of METALOCUS more