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‘My intention was never to be an architect’: Elizabeth Diller's role in the contemporary creative landscape

Absorbing and elaborating creativity from a wide array of artistic endeavours is, winner of the Jane Drew Prize 2019, Elizabeth Diller’s forte

Designing an artificial cloud, translating migration statistics into a spinning data visualisation or creating elaborate stage sets for a video projected onto the moving facade of a building are uncommon activities for any architect, even today as the definition of architecture is becoming increasingly capacious. Elizabeth Diller, founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and the 2019 recipient of the Jane Drew Prize, exemplifies much of what is most exciting and robust in the field today. Over the course of four decades, her studio has designed widely publicised parks, museums, exhibitions and university buildings, yet also produced public housing, an opera, visual art installations, dance performances and interactive media. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (2006), Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School in Manhattan (2009) and the Broad in Los Angeles (2015) reveal admirable skill at responding to complex programmes with supple design solutions. As critic Joseph Giovannini noted about this last, it ‘used a few deft moves to make its box something more – lifting the corners, indenting the wormhole, and creating a facade of gridded panels that stretch and deform according to light and position. The box doesn’t look or behave like one’.

Diller collaborates closely with her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, with whom she founded the studio Diller + Scofidio in 1981, known today as Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), after Charles Renfro became partner in 2004, with Benjamin Gilmartin joining the partnership in 2015. Many practices are run by couples, yet the intense dialogue and sometimes heated arguments that comprise the working method of Diller Scofidio + Renfro permeate everything the studio creates and endow it with a conceptual rigour seldom encountered in the domain of architectural media and art projects.

‘A performance, a book, a web project, an installation in a museum, a curatorial project for a museum, or even a bricks-and-mortar building project of a museum are all, effectively, experiments in space making’

Knowing what they do not know has proven a signal strength of the pair and led them to find the expert collaborators – statisticians, composers, landscape designers, writers, cinematographers, acousticians, poets and technologists – through which DS+R have been able to flourish, expand and develop architecture that often emerges as a self-initiated and financed investigation. Diller observes, ‘Our commitment to independent work has never changed. It’s just a part of our research, which is applied to all projects independent of scale, medium, permanence, location, or whether there is a client or not. A performance, a book, a web project, an installation in a museum, a curatorial project for a museum, or even a bricks-and-mortar building project of a museum are all, effectively, experiments in space making.’

Arts spaces are a specialty of the studio, and it is doubtful that many architects today are better informed about contemporary creativity than Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Their ravenous appetite for film, performance, dance and a wide range of high and low cultural forms appears in their work, with collaborating architect Rockwell Group, on The Shed (2019) a flexible art and performance space at the northern terminus of the Manhattan High Line. Next to this, DS+R designed a high-rise apartment tower for a developer to provide The Shed with more space.

Web 01. rotary notary photo by j. vezuzzo

Web 01. rotary notary photo by j. vezuzzo

Source: J. Vezuzzo

The Rotary notary and His Hot Plate set design, inspired by Duchamp’s The Large Glass, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1987

The improbable story of how the architects began their career in a live/work East Village loft, spent years without building anything, and eventually won major competitions, becomes less improbable when one understands their commitment to the arts as the armature of their practice.

Decades realising installations and performances, and designing exhibitions and museums, have endowed Diller Scofidio + Renfro with a permanent and unshakeable belief that artistic expression represents the best opportunity to attain a world in which they would wish to live. The politics in, and of, their architecture follows from a desire to foster the openness, tolerance, innovation, generosity and collaboration on which both creativity and democracy depend. Art provides the best available model for public life.

Diller studied art at the Cooper Union in New York, where Scofidio was one of her teachers; she also studied with John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman and Raimund Abraham. ‘I had a desire to make films, ultimately. I took an architecture class just for amusement. It was called “Architectonics”, and I had no idea what it meant. It just sounded cool.’

Web 05. indigestion  photography by don lee

Web 05. indigestion photography by don lee

Source: Don Lee

Indigestion, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, intersected interactive video and virtual environment. The viewer could join the scene, which was projected on a horizontal screen/dining table

Edgy and provocative gestures already were evident in early projects. In Para-Site, a 1989 installation at the Museum of Modern Art, elaborately mounted video monitors in a gallery resembled prosthetic limbs and displayed visitors entering through its revolving doors and ascending its escalators. The Brasserie restaurant (2000) featured a splashy entrance stairway through the middle of the dining room and a bank of video monitors over the bar, which broadcast patrons as they walked through the revolving door. Irony melded with elements of institutional critique has never completely disappeared from the work of DS+R.

The tremendous popularity of the artificial cloud building Blur, which became the smash hit of the 2002 Swiss Expo, surprised even the architects, who suddenly had become rebels with an audience, sought after by clients and debated by students, critics and scholars beyond the small initial circle of their admirers. Diller observes, ‘In our early career, we were outside the institution throwing grenades at it. Today we are on the other side of the institutional wall, even building that wall, however penetrable. So rather than simply expressing a critical opinion, we apply our critical efforts to making new institutions or fixing old ones.’ Encouraging people to attend to the activity of looking has long concerned the studio.

‘In an age of increasingly ungenerous and indifferent public architecture, rebellion signifies realising buildings and public spaces that treat users well and respect their intelligence’ 

It is the central conceit of the High Line (2009-14), a slow park in the words of the architects. Once a nondescript neighbourhood of butchers and car mechanics that was slated to become a depot for Federal Express lorries, the West Chelsea district became the object of a successful grassroots community organising campaign that transformed the abandoned rail line into a park and provided the impetus for a spurt of architecture by Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, Neil Denari and Annabelle Selldorf. In October 2018, DS+R staged a widely noted opera along its length, which Diller proudly regards as being among their finest projects. The rebelliousness evident in the early investigations of institutions increasingly assumed a different form that one might call the social democratic turn in the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In an age of value engineering, and increasingly ungenerous and indifferent public architecture, rebellion signifies maintaining high standards and realising buildings and public spaces that treat users well, respect their intelligence and do not shirk from acknowledging the conflicts and contradictions that permeate the city.

Although many architects succeed on one or two of these counts, the insistence of Diller Scofidio + Renfro – in buildings such as the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center medical school building at Columbia University (2016) – on providing generous spaces for solitude and collaboration, creating an environment for learning that is genuinely inspirational, and reflecting on contemporary technologies and practices of vision represents a major advance in the design of university architecture. Critic Justin Davidson claims, ‘What this academic building offers budding doctors is a live-in lesson in balancing the scientific and the humanistic’.

Web 02 para site courtesy of ds+

Web 02 para site courtesy of ds+

Source: Courtesy of DS+R

Para-Site at MoMA, 1989, uses video with museum architecture to alter the viewer’s experience of the space

Today Diller Scofidio + Renfro work for some of the largest cultural institutions in the world, such the Museum of Modern Art, the London Centre for Music, and the V&A East, and face the formidable challenge of designing for ever-larger audiences. In the words of Diller, ‘We have to think about how to make today’s spaces, which are adequate, not feel too small tomorrow’. To what extent museums and arts facilities can be scaled up to become more inclusive and welcoming without losing their creative souls remains an open and high-stakes question. Few architects working today are better suited by passion, commitment and experience to provide a thoughtful answer in the form of built work and lucid public discussion than Elizabeth Diller.

The Jane Drew Prize

A spirited advocate for women in a male-dominated profession, Jane Drew graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 into a profession that was unwelcoming to women at best. She started her own practice after the Second World War, and her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modern Movement into the UK.

Last year, the prize was given to Amanda Levete. Previous winners include Odile Decq, Grafton Architects’ founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Zaha Hadid, Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay and Eva Jiřičná.

The Ada Louise Huxtable Prize

Ada Louise Huxtable made history by being the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. Dutch artist Madelon Vriesendorp won in 2018. Sculptorr Rachel Whiteread, former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones and client and architectural patron Jane Priestman are the previous recipients of the accolade.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today