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Liz Diller: ‘My intention was never to be an architect’

08. elizabeth diller. photo by geordie wood 2
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The winner of this year’s Women in Architecture Jane Drew prize talks to Catherine Slessor about originally planning to be an artist, her relationship with New York and plans for London’s forthcoming Centre for Music

‘My intention was never to be an architect,’ says Elizabeth Diller. ‘My intention was to be an artist and to make films.’ Studying art at New York’s Cooper Union in the mid 1970s, Diller found herself in an intoxicating, cross-cultural ferment of art, architecture, music, dance and performance. ‘At some stage, I decided to take an architecture course,’ she recalls. ‘I then became very interested in the discourse. I thought there was more accountability for the ideas generated by architecture rather than art. So I transferred and began architecture school, but at the same time I was still going to concerts and clubs, and my friends were musicians and artists.’ 

I thought there was more accountability for the ideas generated by architecture rather than art

Diller is still friends with luminaries such as composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and has always relished cross-disciplinary collaboration. From her earliest years she worked on staging and set designs; provocations calculated to tease out ideas about space, performance and perception. More recently, film director Spike Jonze called her when he needed a take on the nature of the dystopian future city for his film Her, and she was involved in designing last year’s Heavenly Bodies show at the Metropolitan Museum, which explored the fruity reciprocity between couture and Catholicism. A highlight of the associated Met Gala Ball was Rihanna consorting in full papal regalia.   

Lincoln center photography by iwan baan

Lincoln center photography by iwan baan

Source: Iwan Baan

Lincoln Center, New York

When Diller and her partner Ricardo Scofidio were starting out, New York was on its knees economically, but the city’s decay and disinhibition also stimulated risk-taking and the proliferation of underground and artistic subcultures. ‘The streets were full of heroin,’ says Diller. ‘It was kind of rough but it was also very active and productive. Yet over time New York has totally transformed, so what was the centre of art production has become the centre of the art market. So we need to think how about how to bring production back.’ 

The Shed, due to open in early April, is a conspicuously upscale response to this predicament. Built on city‑owned land next to the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, it is conceived as a mobile Kunsthalle, with a colossal, steel-framed enclosure that can extend or retract to accommodate different programmes and crowd sizes. Enclosed in quilted ETFE panels, it has been described as a ‘giant Chanel handbag on wheels’ but still adds steampunk heft and eccentricity to Manhattan’s slickly corporate terraforming, with its nod to Cedric Price’s infinitely adaptable Fun Palace. 

The shed 12 18 photography by brett beyer

The shed 12 18 photography by brett beyer

Source: Brett Beyer

The Shed, New York

‘It was motivated by an idea about flexibility and a future we don’t know’, explains Diller. ‘It’s a space that combines all art forms, but is also responsive to different needs. So it should be robust, it should have tremendous loading capacity, it should have electrical power, it should have a theatrical grid and a flexible footprint. But if you don’t use it, you don’t have to heat or programme it. It’s an architecture of infrastructure and amorphousness.’ 

New York’s streets were full of heroin. It was kind of rough but it was also very active and productive

Diller and her practice colleagues enjoy toying with both the physical and conceptual limits of architecture. The Blur building for the 2002 Swiss Expo in Lake Neuchâtel was a literal and metaphorical erasure of boundaries, a lightweight structure perpetually enrobed in a hovering, diaphanous cloud of mist generated by thousands of nozzles. Each visitor was furnished with a plastic raincoat to prevent them getting sodden, adding to the surreal, suggestive nature of the enterprise. Conventions of permanence and solidity were subverted and redefined by the presence of water, confecting an architecture of atmosphere, an ephemeral mechanism to reframe how space is seen and perceived. The Brasserie, a restaurant in the podium of New York’s Seagram Building, was a different kind of exercise in scenography, with diners’ entrances recorded on video screens as they navigated a catwalk-like construction down into the interior. For a moment, you became the spectacle, the dish of the day. 

Blur building by beat widmer

Blur building by beat widmer

Source: Beat Widmer

Blur Building, Lake Neuchâte, Switzerland

New York is still the operational and emotional nerve centre for Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), now 150 strong. However, Diller was recently in London to unveil proposals for the £288 million Centre for Music, a new Barbican concert hall to be built on the site occupied by the Museum of London, which is due to move to Smithfield. It’s a blaring and alienating urban terrain, cut through by roads and hemmed in by dull extrusions of capital. The practice aims to activate the site by rerouting traffic underneath the building and populating a new ground plane. The concert hall itself is like a giant acoustic kernel, cosseted in a pyramidal carapace. A labyrinth of promenade spaces and foyers emphasises the importance of life between performances, so people can linger and socialise, animating the building even if there isn’t a concert going on.

There is so much more to architecture than space-making

‘The Barbican has been on my mind for a very long time,’ says Diller. ‘Because we spent 10 years reworking New York’s Lincoln Center, which was a similar urban condition, with centralised, mid-century planning, all designed for car culture, very inwardly focused and hostile to the environment. We came in with the notion of respecting its DNA and bringing out what was best about it, yet many people just wanted to flatten it.’ In the end it required what Diller describes as ‘heart surgery, brain surgery and cosmetic surgery’, but ‘thinking about opening it up and bringing it into our time was good preparation for the Barbican’, she observes.

01 highline photography by iwan baan

01 highline photography by iwan baan

Source: Iwan Baan

The Highline, New York

The arc of Diller and Scofidio’s practice has mirrored the shift of New York, from arty edginess to the mainstream, from periphery to centre, marking a fascinating, if perhaps predictable, trajectory. The High Line is especially emblematic of this ambiguity. In reclaiming the relics of a previous industrial age and transforming them into an elevated boulevard that presents a new way of experiencing the city, the High Line has become a victim of its own success. Visitor numbers have rocketed and its adjacency has catalysed a real-estate boom in Chelsea and the West Village, marginalising and driving out existing communities. 

‘We originally thought we might get 400,000 visitors annually,’ says Diller. ‘Last year it was 8 million. Pretty much every prediction about this project was dead wrong. At the start, we just wanted to make a great park. But the economy kept changing along the way, and sites that were originally valueless became much more valued and properties were flipping. Now it’s some of the most expensive real estate in the city. It gentrified too quickly, I think we can all agree, and there are too many people. But would we have done it any differently? I don’t think so.’

Reflecting on the High Line’s convulsive change prompted Diller to devise The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock, a collaboration with composer David Lang and poets Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine. It was staged on the High Line last year, with a mixture of professional singers and community choirs spread out along its length performing to a perambulating audience. 

06 mile long opera  iwan baan

06 mile long opera iwan baan

Source: Iwan Baan

The Mile-Long Opera, a biography of 7 o’clock, performed on the High Line

‘Thematically, it was about the speed of change of the city and the misaligned rhythms of its citizens, but not in a didactic way,’ she explains. ‘It was intended to be something with emotional content that made you see and feel and think about this transformation. Part of it has to do with this sense of nostalgia for an irretrievable past and part of it has to do with an apprehension about a potentially alienating future. And how in the real time present we can have a collective experience around this idea.’

In the past, Diller has talked of a ‘thick understanding’ that underscores how DS+R positions itself to architecture, seeing it as intimately related to the wider scheme of things, a kind of scaffolding for dialogues and events, both static and active, synthesising professional practice, academic study and artistic experimentation. ‘I think of architecture as a cultural discipline, totally integrated, not autonomous,’ she asserts. ‘There is so much more to architecture than space-making.’ 

Concept design centre for music–diller scofidio + renfro

Concept design centre for music–diller scofidio + renfro

Centre for Music, London, concept design

Her track record caught the eye of Time magazine, which last year named Diller as the only architect on its annual list of the world’s most influential people. Now comes the Jane Drew Prize. Diller is flattered but still combative, having witnessed and been part of the slow struggle for gender equality since the 70s. ‘Architecture has been male-dominated forever and I am a grateful beneficiary of the women’s movement,’ she remarked when the Time list was announced. ‘It’s a sign of a dramatic change in what an architect looks like. No longer are we seeing the singular heroic voice, the individual genius that gets a lightning bolt from God. Instead we’re seeing collaborations of different sorts, like the collective of my own partners at DS+R.’ 

Vagelos education center iwan baan

Vagelos education center iwan baan

Source: Iwan Baan

Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center

Women in Architecture Luncheon

Liz Diller will be speaking at the annual Women in Architecture Luncheon on 1 March.
Click here to find out how to attend 

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