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democratizing space with

Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R)

Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro and Benjamin Gilmartin
 
INTERVIEW



a+u: You has been quoted saying that “My intention was never to be an architect.” It’s very interesting for us. Could you expand on that notion?


Elizabeth Diller (Liz): I went to school at Cooper Union to study art. I was interested in film and multimedia installations. On a whim, I saw a class called “Architectonics” in the course catalogue and I was curious about what it meant. I slowly became interested in the discourse around architecture, and got more broadly interested in the discipline but not in the profession. Previously, I was interested in photography and time-based media, but I started to think in three dimensions. So I decided to get an architecture degree, but not with the intent of joining the profession. My only intent was to make a career in plastic arts and work with sculpture and media in a spatial way. I became keenly interested in working in space and time.

Ricardo Scofidio (Ric): Architecture was very enclosing for me at that time. The profession was practiced in a very prescribed way. I came out of the school of the master architects – the heroic, solo figure – so it was rather oppressive to be in architecture when I first started. In fact, I never wanted to be an architect either. I wanted to be a musician. I was very musically inclined. I had played both classical and jazz, and when I decided that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living in music, I went to Cooper Union to study art. So I had never really contemplated architecture.

Charles Renfro (Charles): I think of architecture as more of a calling rather than a profession. It’s something that almost oozed out of my blood very early on. Even in kindergarten, I was making models of towns and streets that were of my own creation. My teachers would often double check with my parents to see if they were behind the models because they couldn’t believe a five year old was capable of making something like that. Actually, as a kid I didn’t know what it was called. I grew up in Houston, a boom town where every space is referred to as real estate. I assumed that designing and creating buildings was called real estate, so I had a stamp made when I was in fifth grade called Renfro Real Estate. I didn’t realize real estate was the financial arm of making buildings. So architecture is something that has been percolating in me from a very young age. I didn’t have to decide my profession. It sort of decided me.

Benjamin Gilmartin (Ben): I’m still not sure I want to be an architect. I started out studying English literature and writing in parallel with architecture. I’ve always found a covalency between those two modes of thinking. Architecture always starts with the line on the page, but then very quickly there’s discursive, critical appraisal. Identifying what’s working and what’s not working in writing and language responds quickly to drawing and working in a spatial realm, in that they go back and forth. Writing is more of a critical tool, I would say, and a tool for broadening the conversation beyond the initial intuitions of design. I was actually leaning more towards writing when I graduated, but my opportunities first led me to architecture. It was the first job I was able to land, and I sort of stayed maybe more as a guest than a permanent resident ever since.


a+u: I was wondering if your initial intent of not being an architect has changed. How did you find yourself moving from predominantly artistic ventures to the architecture scene?


Liz: When Ric and I started working together, we imagined an alternative practice: not an architecture practice, but a practice where we could teach, write and make installations. We wanted to create agendas that followed our curiosity, independent of the profession which we felt was intellectually bankrupt at that time. We had little interest in making buildings. Later, things started to open up for us, and I saw the light. We’ve come into the field slowly, but on our own terms, progressing from experimental work to new institutions that foster experimentation, like The Shed, rather than building up a practice from apartment renovations and shops. However, we balance the permanent building projects with independent ones for public space, theater and dance.

Charles: When I joined the studio in 1997, Liz and Ric were in the process of completing the first phase of a housing project in Gifu (Opposite, above), which was their first building. The Brasserie, which was the project that I worked with them on, was going to be the studio’s first stateside piece of architecture to be completed. Whether by coincidence or by design – no pun intended – the studio started to morph into a much more building-oriented practice at about the same time I arrived. First with The Brasserie, followed by the Blur Building and then rolling into three watershed projects for the studio: the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the High Line and Lincoln Center, both in New York.



a+u: You’ve stated that two common threads in your work are to democratize art and design spaces for the public. Can you expand on that?


Liz: When Ric and I started, we were working during a time of institutional critique that questioned what could be defined as a space for art. Is it in the museum? Is it in the street? We did a lot of our early independent work on found, borrowed sites. Sometimes we squatted as a form of guerrilla architecture. It was often ephemeral – at times only in existence for 24 hours. So the idea of working in the public realm was always part of the ethos of our work. At a time when our cities are being rapidly privatized, it’s also important to protect the decreasing publicness of our cities and defend the importance of parks and public spaces. It’s really important for architects to advocate the democratization of space for its health, recreational and social value. That drove our work on the High Line and at Lincoln Center, where we felt it was important to extend the openness and accessibility of the public realm into institutional space just beyond the walls and to infuse both with cultural offerings. There should be spaces you can enjoy with or without a ticket.

Ric: It’s interesting because when I was a student studying architecture, public space was external, exterior, and it stopped at the door. Public space never entered the door into lobbies or anywhere else. The moment you passed through the door, you were no longer in public space. And so there’s been an incredible transformation in the way we see buildings and how they function since then. I think we were very interested in exploring what the world meant if you looked at it through the eyes of an architect, whether it was public space, whether it was performance, whether it was built form, or unbuilt form. So I think we really expanded – for ourselves and the public in general –the definition of architecture.

Liz: In many of our projects, we claim more space than we actually have. There’s the possibility of extending your physical space with optical space by enabling us to look at the city in a different way. I think what’s really strong and unusual about the High Line, and one of the reasons it became so popular. It opened up more than the surface of the High Line. It opened up new, unofficial vistas of New York. You can sit on the sunken overlook on 10th Avenue, looking at traffic going into the vanishing point. It was a technique of controlling a view optically, which I think may be common in Japanese landscape design as well. We think of that very much as a way of extending our ability to appreciate deep space even if it isn’t technically part of the site.

Ric: I think also that for years, it spoke to an understanding of Manhattan as a map. Where you were, you would always think of yourself in relation to an intersection on a map. And I think the High Line was one of the first times you really could look at the space of the city optically, and understand where you were visually rather than thinking about it mentally as a map condition. I think that was very important for people, because in a way it goes back to kind of the history of architecture, of the piazza, the plaza, the experience of understanding your location within an urban condition, by being able to visually see where you are, rather than to only think about where you are.

Ben: I also think it’s ultimately all about the social life of the city and trying to foster as much energy and interaction as possible so that a critical mass of people is attracted to that social life. That can happen through formal cultural programming, but oftentimes it’s also a result of the very informal spaces that we make, where people are passing through and they end up sticking there and hanging out.

Charles: Democratizing space is definitely one of the calling cards of our practice. We aim to make each project more generous and more engaged with the broader public than the client ever anticipated it could be. From the High Line to Zaryadye Park in Moscow, our work is defined by free and accessible space. Each offers a new generosity to a shared experience. Tickets are not required. Informality is encouraged in lieu of predetermined experiences. Access is granted to everyone regardless of race or class or gender or sexuality or education level or nationality. Fences and gates were originally required at Zaryadye Park, but we insisted on openness and 24/7 accessibility. We were able to convince the client to allow the park to be completely porous to various points of entry around the city.

    Another project that I hope will radically revolutionize this principle is the Museum of Image and Sound, which is yet to open in Rio de Janeiro. Even without a ticket, visitors can access the building directly from Burle Marx’s iconic promenade, walk up the exterior stair of the building, look into the galleries, and enjoy the public rooftop. This will be the first elevated vantage point of the beach that doesn’t require you to own a private residence or be a guest at a fancy beachside hotel. Museums are typically not considered places of democracy but places for the elite. We wanted to flip that script by having the Rio project be an extension of Copacabana Beach, one of the most democratic spaces in Rio.

Liz: With the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which we will be finishing this October, we are democratizing the entire ground floor at the street level. One of our main critiques of MoMA’s previous iterations was that art was half a mile away from the entrance. You have to walk in, through, up, into galleries, to actually see anything. We wanted to bring art closer to the street, so now there will be several galleries that are on the ground floor, free and open to the public. We are submerging the commercial store that once blocked MoMA’s frontage in an open, double-height space. There’s now a two-way visual connection between the lobby and the street for the public. It’s quite transparent. And we’re removing those big ticketing queues from the entrance and relocating ticketing away from the front door to an adjacent space that’s slightly elevated. The curators will have more freedom to use the street level space for art. The garden is still free and open as it always was.

The Shed was conceived programmatically and physically as radically open to the public, exposing new populations to experimental work in the arts that would otherwise not be exposed to it. The shell nests onto the fixed building, exposing an open public space. For performances, there are ten dollar tickets in every row, rather than just in the nosebleed area. The Shed features emerging artists along with established ones.


a+u: Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center is located in New York City and to my understanding, land prices here are high and as such community spaces are usually neglected. Yet you eventually designed large, shared social and study spaces into the building. How did you convince the client to accept this proposal?


Liz: Columbia’s progressive medical education program presented a different motivation for their facility: to address a paradigm shift in medical education from passive, lecture-based instruction to team-based problem solving. Simultaneously, we had to respond to the site’s narrow footprint and tapered zoning envelope. We built up a vertical landscape: a 14-story ‘Study Cascade’ that extends campus activity along the south elevation of the building with a diverse network of social and study spaces for informal learning and collaboration. Some of them are large. Some are intimate. Most are indoor, but there are some outdoor spaces. Some have food and drink. Some have acoustic isolation. Some are just completely open. All have beautiful panoramic views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge, and you see a huge expanse of New York to the south and east. All the spaces are connected by a continuous route. There are no defined barriers between social space and work space. As a counterpart, the north elevation is dedicated to more controlled, specialized learning spaces like flexible classrooms, anatomy laboratories, and a simulation center. These include both cadaver and simulation-based examination rooms designed to foster empathy for patients and precision through robotic training.

    This was a new notion of flexibility that we wanted to put on the table. Typically, flexible buildings are generic, but we wanted to define flexibility as a variety of unscripted spaces. The Cascade, in combination with the specialized classrooms and labs, offers students and faculty a range of spatial experiences, with opportunities to work alone or in groups, in public or behind closed doors, in light or shadow, during school hours or at any other time of day or night.
   
    Even though it’s a private educational facility, we inverted the typical organization of the building populations. The students have the upper floors with access to the best views and light; offices were positioned on the lower floors. We felt that that inverting the power balance was best for creative teaching and learning.

Ric: There are a number of architectural spaces that come with a set of behavioral rules. Classrooms are a typical example. In a classroom, the teacher is always at the front of the room and is generally surrounded by the equipment they need to teach a course. All the students are lined up and face one way to pay attention to the teacher. So there’s an inherited program of behavior. There are no rules of behavior in the Study Cascade. You can turn it into whatever your needs are at the moment, and use it as you so desire at the time.

Liz: There are no prescribed uses, just a variety of attributes like sound insulation, views to the south, large stepped spaces that you can hold a seminar in, and so forth. Those attributes are how we determine the space, rather than giving spaces names and predetermining their uses. If this were a house, we wouldn’t distinguish the living room from the dining room from the bedroom. We would just say it’s an open space with different attributes. The place with a soft surface is where you sleep. That’s our approach.

Charles: I think all our educational buildings operate as active tools in instrumentalizing the pedagogy. The intention of the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University was to mix disciplines in arts and sciences in project-based creations. The building is split down the middle and offset, manifesting a fecund meeting point between different programs. The structured misalignment allows each floor to interface with two others. At Stanford University, the McMurtry Building, we were given a program which was by definition split between art history and studio art, with both sides of the program refusing to give in to the spatial and architectural requirements of the other. We put those two strands of the discipline against one another, making a building which is about the discourse between art production and art study. The two strands taunt each other from across a courtyard. The Art and Architecture Library, a transparent floating glass box, is literally and metaphorically positioned between the two strands. The building illustrates the standoffishness of the two sides of the program but it also provokes them into engaging one another creatively.

Ben: I think one of our most exciting challenges right now is designing a new home for the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. It’s almost like trying to do surgery on your own brain, because we identify with the clients so closely. We teach in those schools and we went through that education ourselves. We’re very connected to the academic community. The architecture school is relocating from MIT’s distinctive Infinite Corridor of different disciplines into a historic brick storage warehouse facility. Creating a new interpretation of the Infinite Corridor in an impenetrable fortress is an exciting challenge. The new facility will house the School Of Architecture and Planning, as well as Project Manus, a campus-wide maker space, and a series of other programs in art, culture, and technology, and advanced urbanism. There’s a desire to bring multiple disciplines together into a 21st-century space for education – one that’s more networked with a strong sense of connectedness to the public.


a+u: Notably so, the Blur Building was considered to be one of the first structures to be built by DS+R. This is not an architecture, I think, but more of a space because the form is made by a mist. The concept has a message with regards to the way you design spaces and architecture. How did it feel to start on a project of that scale and size at that point in time? What were your intentions going into the project? What was the desired effect and experience of the Blur Building?


Liz: The Blur Building has structure and plumbing just like a typical building, but it’s not a typical building. It doesn’t have a program, and it doesn’t have walls. Within our installation work, it falls in the unusual scale of an environmental installation but it has some of the characteristics of a building. We had to meet the safety rules applied to typical buildings – the authorities pushed us to have a sprinkler system, ironic as the building is made of water! The project was an experiment about vision for the 2002 Expo in Switzerland on Lake Neuchâtel. Our site was at the edge of the lake. We thought it would be interesting to build in the water rather than just use the lake as a backdrop. The lake could be the site and the main building material. This was a national expo that fulfilled the typical agenda of exhibiting progress and technological advancement. We were also personally interested in making an expo pavilion where there’s nothing to see and actually nothing to do except think about our dependence on vision itself. So the building was a kind of ether that you could inhabit – a big cloud that prevented you from seeing which way to go. You had to pay attention to your other senses – smell, the sound of the space, the feel of it and chance interactions with other people in the space based on a limited perceptual engagement with it. At first, there was a lot of criticism. The press asked, “Why do we need to make fog for the expo when we already have too much of it naturally?” Later, everyone came to embrace it. Blur became mandatory for every student to visit. It was seen by all the expo visitors of all ages, all ethnicities, all income levels, all levels of education. For the first time in our careers, we had created a mass spectacle.

Ric: We never saw it function until the day it opened because of technical problems with the water filtration system. But one of the things the public discovered on site is that there was a restaurant at the expo that was served by blind waiters, and the restaurant had no lights. It was in complete darkness, and you had to come in and order and have your meal in complete darkness, understanding what it’s like to have to function within the space that you cannot see. Apparently, that was also a very powerful experience. The cloud was in many ways very similar to that experience: it changed the rules of how you operated, forcing you to accept a different environmental condition that you had never really experienced.

Liz: I thought when Ric mentioned the restaurant, he was going to tell you about the one next door with the large outdoor deck. The customers complained that their chicken was always soggy because the mist was drifting everywhere.

    The Swiss Expo followed the Hanover Expo, which was a demonstration of the latest high definition screens. By contrast, the Blur Building was decidedly a low definition experience. But technology played a big role. It was an early artificial intelligence projects. There was a weather station on the structure that read all the weather conditions – wind, temperature, humidity, dew point, wind direction and responded in real time accordingly. It learned behaviors as it went.

Charles: We also created a GPS geolocation application that was meant to be used in the Blur Building. Given that the Blur Building eliminated the use of vision to navigate and communicate, a new system of stimulants would be given by electronic elements embedded in a raincoat. These stimulants took the form of vibration, sound and light and would be triggered by the proximity of other visitors. With one statistical match or mismatch on the deck at all times, thanks to a computer aided algorithm, the stimulants would be activated as you approached your match or deactivated as you went away from your match. Matches were determined through answers provided by each user on a questionnaire. Although the questions were nonsensical, they anticipated the requirement to provide stats for dating sites such as Grindr. Grindr and other hook up sites are in essence a blind condition like the Blur Building – your date materializes, preselected, before having been seen.

Ric: It’s unfortunate they never let visitors go out at night. We were lucky to be able to go out at night when it was only lit by artificial lighting. Being there at night was probably one of the strongest spatial experiences I’ve had. It would have been astounding had they done that.

Liz: It was beautifully illuminated by the sun inside, but at night it was ethereal. It was like floating in a cloud with no gravity, no orientation, just luminosity. When you inhale the atomized water you feel a sense of euphoria. This happens at a waterfall or a large fountain. Some say the ion effect is a pseudoscience but people were happy there, and I ended up feeling happy too.

Ric: It has to do with the atmospheric electrical charge of positive and negative, and apparently in waterfalls and when you have a lot of mist in the water, it changes the balance.


a+u: What do you hope for your future projects?


Ric: When we first started, we never said, “This is what we’re going to do, and this is what we’re going to become.” Lots of people establish their offices and say, “One day, we’re gonna have X, Y, and Z.” We’ve never approached architecture that way. We’ve always been very loose, and we’ve always been open to the next project. So for me, I have no desire to try and figure out what is around the corner. I think that our past work is directing us to what we will inherit, and what will come onto our tables. And I’m fine with that.

Liz: Our growth has been unplanned. We started with an independent practice. We followed our curiosity to different projects in visual and performing arts. Then we added buildings to our repertoire. We like to intervene very early in the formation of an architectural project, when we can help determine the programmatic strategy through a consciousness of the social, political and economic context of our time. Our approach has consistently been both critical and generative. We’re not planning too far ahead of ourselves by means of expansion or focusing on a certain typology. We want to remain open, to follow our instincts. We don’t like to do the same thing twice. Our independent projects progressively get more complex. We just did The Mile-Long Opera (pp. 56–63), which was a performance for 1000 singers on the 1.5-mile stretch of the High Line. We created, co-directed, and co-produced the piece without any institutional backing.

    The Shed was also ground up. We got involved very early in 2008 at the height of the recession. The City issued a Request for Proposals. They were looking for ideas for a new cultural facility at Hudson Yards, in their words, a “unique and innovative place for creative expression and the deepest, freshest thinking regarding cultural production and consumption.”. We responded with our friend, David Rockwell with both a physical and theoretical strategy for a flexible building, an “architecture of infrastructure” that could house all the creative disciplines under one roof. We proposed an architecture so flexible, it could even change the size of its footprint. And now, eleven years later, The Shed is an independent non-profit organization on sovereign land at Hudson Yards. It has a board led by Dan Doctoroff, who has been its pioneering leader since the beginning. We worked with him as a temporary client until Alex Poots, our great artistic director and CEO, came along in 2014. Alex immediately decided that the Shed would only commission new work, defining its identity as a true a place of production.

    We want to continue to work at that level of involvement: to not just inherit received programs, where we simply interpret and make formal adjustments. We want to conceive programs from scratch, and find the right collaborators and cities. We live in a time where architecture just feels too slow. From the time you have an idea, to the time you design it, to the time that it’s constructed and occupied, it’s rarely less than five years and oftentimes much longer. Architecture is geo-fixed, it’s heavy, it’s cumbersome and in place for good. And it’s expensive. Reflecting specifically on the challenge for the Shed, architecture is everything that’s contrary to contemporary art, which by definition is constantly in flux. The challenge is, how do you build a permanent building for a discipline that is constantly evolving? The Shed is a response to that question.

Ric: All of our early first projects were all projects that we initiated. So Elizabeth, what you’re talking about is really a continuation of that experience, but at a different scale.

Charles: To add to Liz and Ric’s point about the agency of our profession, I also feel architects are called to, and equipped to take on a larger social responsibility. We can’t go around with our heads in the sand as architects, in denial about inequity and climate change, which are the two biggest issues facing humanity. Architecture is one of the most impactful tools we have to combat these problems. My personal goal with projects here in the studio is to focus on ways to help the world address these issues using our experience tackling similar problems in more developed or more fortunate contexts.

Ben: There’s always been a desire to hold on to the kind of core interdisciplinary, self-initiated mission, which is around what Liz and Ric founded. And while we’ve definitely built up a confidence in cultural and public realm projects, I think there’s also a fearlessness that the studio has always had that also comes from Liz and Ric. It’s a relentless desire to take on projects of all scales and types, and in all locations around the world, that are different than what we’ve done before. There’s always a harder mountain to climb.

Interviewed on 25th April 2019