Diller and Scofidio, in the business of architecture and artistry

 
December 9, 2010
Until a few years ago, the architects who won the commission to design Eli Broad's downtown Los Angeles museum were known for anything but the standard practice of architecture.

Elizabeth Diller and Rick Scofidio, who are married, were more interested in being artists than architects, in running a small practice out of their Lower East Side loft even allowing the FedEx man to use their bathroom.

They collaborated on theater performances, media shows and museum installations, and, for a long time, were best known for a banana-shaped house that was never built and a temporary pavilion on a Swiss lake that spewed fog.

They once set up 2,400 orange traffic cones for 24 hours in Manhattan's Columbus Circle to understand driving patterns. They suspended 50 identical suitcases from a museum ceiling to demonstrate how we don't tour America, we tour previous tours of monuments and hotels. In 1990, they designed a weekend retreat in the Hamptons for a Japanese art collector who wanted an ocean view. The curved house culminated with a picture window facing the water and a television monitor next to it playing a video loop of that view. The house was never built, but the architects' view-of-the-view was celebrated.

But there were no office towers, libraries or civic centers in their portfolio, and no demanding clients or planning boards editing their vision. Instead, they explored the essence of architecture rather than its practice, and in 1999 they became the first architects to receive a MacArthur "genius" award.

Then in the last few years, Diller and Scofidio, along with partner Charles Renfro, made two significant marks on New York and one on Boston. They renovated Lincoln Center, and in the tradition of Central Park, invented one of Manhattan's most important pieces of public architecture: the High Line, an elevated piazza built atop an old railroad trestle that snakes up the West Side and offers a whole new view of the vertical city. For Boston, they designed their first major building: the 60,000-square-foot Institute of Contemporary Art.

These projects raised Diller Scofidio + Renfro's profile to designers on a large scale. Now the firm is juggling numerous projects around the world, including one of the most prized commissions in Los Angeles. Now they are seeing if the vision that won them so much attention as provocateurs can stand up in three-dimensional buildings and stand the test of time.

Barry Bergdoll, chief architecture and design curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, predicted DSR "in the next five to six years will be among the people who shape the future of our culture institutions by designing their buildings."

"They are not content to leave the sink, the toilet stall, the elevator, the fire stairway alone. They make them all into events," Bergdoll said. "They make the most mundane elements into the language of their artistic invention."

Bergdoll said he could tell Diller and Scofidio had been nervous about making the transition to bricks and mortar.

"But they did it," said Bergdoll, "and in a very big way."

In short, the New York architects are hot.

"Hot?" said Diller, with a shudder. "Hot gets cold."

But, really, she doesn't seem worried.

Still subversives

The enfants terribles of architecture have come a long way. What was a small collective has turned into a firm with dozens of architects and designers, working in teams on multiple projects. Renfro, 46, was part of the dizzying growth. He started working with the couple in the late 1990s and was promoted to partner six years ago, injecting his self-described neurotic, nuts-and-bolts sensibility into their more theoretical and theatrical stew.

"We had a terrifying growth spurt after Lincoln Center, from six to 35 people, and now we're at almost 60," Renfro said, "and instead of doing 'one-of' little pavilions for an expo or a museum we are now actually turning into an official architectural studio."

The firm occupies a corner of the 18th floor of a historic Chelsea building that also houses the headquarters of Martha Stewart and designer Hugo Boss. It is a vast space with views of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline and energized by constantly brewing coffee and young architects in flannel shirts and jeans sharing desks and computers.

On a recent fall morning, as they sat next to each other at the end of a long table in the conference room, Diller, 54, and Scofidio, 73, resisted the idea that by running a big-league firm they'll lose their profile as "subversives."

"People come knocking on our door and we talk about what they want," said Scofidio, who is soft-spoken and seems preternaturally reticent except when he has something specific to say. "If it interests us we would take it on. So we're only taking on projects that we, well, that gives us an opportunity to express ourselves a certain way and allows the client to have something rich and important. That hasn't changed that much."

Here Diller interrupted. "We've kept the studio to a certain size that allows Rick and Charles and I to participate in all the work, to generate ideas for all the work and to see it through. If it grew much larger, I would say, you know we can probably stand to grow another 10 people or so but if it grew much larger, we'd get too bottom heavy and "

Here Scofidio interrupted, "I'd quit!"

Current projects include a new arts center forBrown University, a medical school tower for Columbia University, a museum and film archive for the University of California, Berkeley, and a large, temporary bubble that will inflate out of the central plaza and over the top of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The firm is also working in China (a factory/housing project), Brazil (a museum) and Abu Dhabi (a media zone).

Broad's museum at 2nd Street and Grand Avenue is their first project in Los Angeles.

"L.A. is a whole new continent for us," said Diller.

The Broad museum design, which has been closely guarded since the firm won the commission this summer, is expected to be made public early next month.

Diller was cagey about specifics except to describe how the project came with a list of demands: It had to have galleries but also room to store all of Broad's 2,000-plus pieces of art; it had to have parking but also generate downtown foot traffic; it had to make a statement but not overwhelm its grand neighbor, Disney Hall. "This was a challenge," said Diller, "but it had in common our interests in visuality, spectatorship, urbanism, structure."

Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, whom Broad also recruited from New York, was part of an informal committee that previewed six design proposals from different firms. He said the committee found DSR's "by far the most exciting because they clearly put a tremendous effort into thinking, analyzing and making sure the building wasn't isolated but functioned within the urban fabric."

It also did not go unnoticed that "all the principals of the firm showed up and were obviously completely engaged," Deitch said and that Diller, in particular, connected with Broad, a famously prickly client. No one was concerned that DSR had completed only a few buildings, said Deitch, adding: "I think they're going to be able to deliver."

On a recent Monday over breakfast in Chelsea, Diller made it obvious she was a canny judge of clients. "I'm used to working with complicated personalities," she said. "With Lincoln Center, the personalities were all complicated, but I think everyone in the cultural world, including Eli and all those people, when you make everyone pull back and look at the picture, what's at stake, people, in the end, they figure it out. I'm able to do that with Eli."

Diller has been the most public of the partners she courts the clients and appears at presentations using a kind of art-speak that isn't always easy to follow but demonstrates a luminescent intelligence. A smallish woman with cropped hair and asymmetrical bangs who dresses mostly in black, Diller was relentlessly earnest, even when chronicling a weekend break she and Scofidio had just taken at a fancy hotel on the opposite side of Manhattan from their loft. She pulled out a small sketchbook and, drawing circles and arrows, traced their movements to a nearby restaurant, spa, park, movie theater for what she described as their "conceptual weekend" that might otherwise have been viewed as a "staycation" across town.

"We checked in on Saturday and just left," she said with a slightly sinful smirk. Gesturing toward her black bag, she added: "All that, with just pajamas."

Diller and Scofidio met in the late 1970s at Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, where he'd been teaching since 1967 and she was his student. As soon as she graduated in 1979, Scofidio left his wife, moved in with Diller and the two formed a partnership. As described by each, their collaboration was as all-consuming as it was unconventional, as they blurred distinctions between art and architecture and their private and professional lives.

The couple brought in a few young associates, but even after the economy recovered in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than aim for designing heroic buildings, they kept rethinking the quotidian. While the firm now has assistants who keep design meetings to one-hour sessions, for years work went on around the clock. "Sessions could get bloody," said Renfro, "but usually we talked each other into a solution."

Sometimes, they run through hundreds of ideas, said Scofidio.

"I'm working, say, for three weeks on something, give three weeks of my life to it, and I finally think: that's it, and then Liz walks by and looks over my shoulder and goes, 'Yeah, yeah, but,' and in one minute worth of conversation we have to change everything. So who's the author?"

If they were at an impasse or a debate became too heated, they'd tumble onto the street to buy a hot dog, recalled Deane Simpson, an Australian who came to work at the studio fresh out of Columbia's architecture school and stayed nearly seven years.

"Everyone was expected to contribute," said Simpson, who is 37 and now teaches at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. "If you were not bringing ideas to the table, it was a problem." There was also what Simpson characterized as "a bloody mindedness about pursuing big ideas to the very, very end."

Since everything was, more or less, an experiment, that could get messy. The Blur pavilion, created for the Swiss Expo in 2002 and which drew so much attention to Diller and Scofidio, had practical problems from the start.

The pavilion was made of filtered lake water shot as a fine mist through a complicated network of 13,000 fog nozzles that created an artificial cloud measuring 300 feet wide. The technology had never been used in building and created major air-quality and plumbing problems in the nearby Swiss town. "People couldn't flush their toilets," Simpson said. The architects would not compromise on the design and negotiated with the Swiss bureaucracy, by phone and in person, until it was fixed.

"I saw a commitment that makes me think they can build anything," said Simpson.

Culture-minded

Despite their latest incarnation as wooers of big commissions, Scofidio and Diller said they will always be architects who are interested in cross-fertilization in culture. Right now, they have a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art about the role of art and design in the transformation of the wine industry. There is a possible collaboration on an opera and, for years, there's been talk of a feature film.

They have an idea for a story, and the L.A. project has them on the left coast the right one, perhaps, for moviemaking.

Could this be the moment?

"It's like Everest," Diller said, demurring when she is pressed for details about the story. "It's there. You just don't know whether you will climb it in your lifetime."





Diller and Scofidio, in the business of architecture and artistry
By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times