After 14 years, Terence Riley has resigned as chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. We look at his legacy and at the historic significance of the MoMA curator position.
Terence Riley is the last in a succession of chief architecture curators at MoMA anointed by Philip Johnson, and the first to have broken away from Johnson’s stranglehold on the ideas, movements, and talents that the museum would promote.
When Riley arrived at MoMA, he was a fresh, 37-year-old architect who had worked briefly at Marcel Breuer & Associates and James Stewart Polshek & Partners before starting his own partnership with his Columbia classmate John Keenen, in 1984. Riley is looking forward to returning fulltime to his practice, K/R, when he leaves MoMA in March. It was his status, as a practitioner, that he feels won him Johnson’s approval. When he was hired by MoMA, he had only three curatorial credits, having directed the Columbia University Architecture Gallery from 1989 to 1991. At MoMA, he oversaw more than a dozen exhibitions, large and small, and introduced talents like Herzog & de Meuron, Kazuyo Sejima, Van Berkel & Bos, and many others to a broader public. And as one of his lasting legacies, he shepherded the museum through its recent expansion.
He took a few moments to chat with us about his time at MoMA.
What was the MoMA like when you arrived?
I was fortunate enough to come to the MoMA in 1991. I would say I was more fortunate than my predecessors, Stuart Wrede and Arthur Drexler in his last years as curator, who were at MoMA when postmodernism had an edge and so clearly, in architecture, stood in contradistinction to what MoMA had been about. Institutionally, during that period, it was very hard for MoMA to contribute or lead in any sense. I graduated from Columbia in 1982, at the height of postmodernism. Certainly by the late 1980s, with Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette and Rem Koolhaas’ winning entry in the ZKM competition, one sensed a renewed adhesion to the spirit of the age,, to borrow a phrase from Tony Vidler. I was lucky to be able give shape or coherence to that moment, that renewed vigor.
Did you have a personal objective when you started at MoMA?
I was unhappy with the caricature of modern architecture that had been promoted by Charles Jencks, Tom Wolfe, and others, and going further back, the self-censored modernism that figures like Sigfried Gideon promoteddthey emphasized only the machine metaphor. They were so anxious to find the solution, the style. Johnson was part of that.
The shows I curated at Columbia, on Paul Nelson  and Iacov Chernikov , showed other types of modernism. And the purpose of my International Style show  was to demonstrate the reductivism of the original show, which was done at the cost of a lot of other routes to modernism. Johnson came to see the Nelson show, even though he told me he thought he was a bad architect. He said to me, So, you want to be a museum man, eh?? I instinctually said, No, I’m an architect.. I believe that was, unthinkingly, the correct answer.
How has the role of an architecture and design curator changed since you started at MoMA?
Museums are more accepting of architecture and design. Today, so many institutions are using architecture to leverage their position in the worlddhow can they not be interested in the power of and interest in architecture? Architecture has also benefitted from the unbelievable number of shelter magazines out there. I hate to say it but magazines like Wallpaper and Surface do drive people to us. We try to invite a broad audience into the museum, because it’s good for the profession and for the academy.
In the titles of all of my showssLight Construction , The Un-Private House , Tall Buildings ]the word architecturee never appears. A bookseller once told me that if you put architecturee in a book’s title, they put it in the architecture section and the general public thinks it’s a specialty they won’t understand. I wanted to make sure that people were getting the right signals, that these were exhibitions they could be interested in. Only the next show, On-Site: New Architecture in Spain [which opens in February], has architecturee in its title, because I couldn’t think of how else to name it.
Much of the criticism directed at architecture exhibitions seems to focus on the way architecture is displayed in a museum setting.
Architecture exhibitions will always be about simulacra or media. But I don’t think any new media ever replaces old media; it just redefines how you use them. In The Un-Private House there were photographs, drawings, models, as well as 3D animations and interactive tables. I’ve tried not to be ideological about media. As an architect, of course, I feel that nothing tells you more than a modellit gives you a god’s eye view, an understanding [of a building] as an object. Unlike video animations, models allow people to use their own body and eyes to absorb a project at their own pace. You need a judicious mix of media and judicious mix of messages.
Do curators have an obligation to respond to or reflect what’s going on in architecture?
I like when a show mirrors or has a close relationship to what’s going onnand obviously the edge of that should be where is it going to go. It’s a case of keeping the rudder in the water and an eye on the wind. My shows have tended to have a mix of built works and unbuilt works, which has left space for people to criticize meeto say that I’m not into theory, that I’ve never done a show like Deconstructivist Architecture , which was all drawing and models and no built works. But I think buildings can be intellectual and embody ideas. Having built works alongside unbuilt works legitimizes the latter, especially among the general public, which can quite easily dismiss the unbuilt, for the wrong reasons.
What kind of person do you think will succeed you?
I think for various reasons a practitioner’s background is importanttsomeone who sees architecture as something that’s built rather than as forms to be interpreted. Most architects, by virtue of their education, are historians of a kind. I don’t know what it is in architectural education that makes architects think they can do anythinggbuilding, theater design, teaching, writing, curating.
If I was to say anything to my successor, I would say that part of being successful in this job is getting used to having your pants pulled down and being spanked in public. It can be really humiliating. But you have to blow it off. At the end of the day, you’re in a dialogue. Not everyone sees things the same way.