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Liz Diller: 'We're considering opening a UK office'

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Elizabeth Diller of high-profile US practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro talks about her practice’s new LA gallery, the advancement of women architects and the influence of the High Line

Tell us a little about your new contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, the Broad
The two components of the design, the ‘veil’ and the ‘vault’ are a response to opportunities and challenges of the site and programme. The new building must be both a storage facility for the collection, and an exhibition space. 

Typically, collection storage is hidden from view, often in basements or off-site facilities. In order to justify having a large warehouse on a prominent spot on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, we made storage a protagonist. The ‘vault’ is a large sculptural volume that seems to hover in space at the centre of the building’s organisation.

You enter the lobby beneath the mass of the vault; the escalator shoots you through the volume to the main gallery on the third floor; you arrive at the gallery standing on the vault’s top surface in an acre of exhibition space under diffused daylight. Once you have seen the show, you return to the ground floor via a circuitous stair that snakes through the vault. Punctures along the way offer glimpses of the pre-curated art in storage. The vault is a constant reminder that this is not a typical museum but an idiosyncratic family collection.

The ‘veil’ is a porous exoskeleton that defines the building’s exterior as well as a structural element that spans 200 feet (61m) in two directions to produce the large column-free top floor. It filters natural daylight into the main gallery and public spaces, and makes for two-way vision between street and gallery, however oblique. The ‘veil’ lifts at the corners of the building to receive visitors, forming a ‘V’ (partially below the sidewalk) that functions as a structural rocker in seismic events. 

It couldn’t have been easy to build opposite Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall?
Yes, it’s challenging to design next to a major architectural icon. Gehry’s forms are sculptural and his surfaces are smooth and reflective. We decided that we could not compete; if anything, there was to be a relation of contrast: The Broad is sponge-like, absorbing light and it is matt. Unlike its exuberant neighbor, our large programme and restrictive zoning envelope prevents us from losing a singl e square foot of space to a formal strategy.

Are Diller Scofidio & Renfro interested in opening an office in the UK?
We’re considering it.

Your last experience in the UK, the Aberdeen City Garden Project, didn’t go so well so did that put you off working here?
Absolutely not! We would be happy to find opportunities in the UK.

The AJ has been running an equality campaign, Women in Architecture, which is now in its fourth year. What do you think are the main issues facing women in architecture?
The same issues facing women in any field. As a profession, we are tackling pay inequality, unfair maternity leave policies, equal representation at all levels of the practice, the list goes on. I do think, however, that there are measurable advancements. 

‘The era of the heroic male figure is starting to break down’

Have these issues changed during your career?
Yes. We’re seeing more women at the highest leadership levels of firms. The majority of our collaborations with executive architects – from Lincoln Center to Columbia University Medical Education Building – are led by women at the partner level. The number of women in the profession has grown and the majority of architecture graduates are now women. We still have a long way to go, but the era of the heroic male figure is starting to break down with collaborative studios. 

How do we tackle the issues?
Continued vigilance. Persistence. Time. 

Will the profession ever reach 50:50? 
Eventually, as the culture of architecture evolves. 

Diller Scofidio & Renfro is well-known for designing the High Line project in New York. What do you think of proposed projects inspired by this,  such as London’s Garden Bridge?
It’s important to untangle the notion of the linear park from the adaptive re-use of obsolete urban infrastructure. We’re gratified that policy makers across the globe are thinking sustainably and have been inspired to reprogramme obsolete infrastructure with public parks. In that regard, it’s faulty to compare the Garden Bridge to the High Line because it’s brand new. But who could fault a linear park over the Thames? 

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