We‘re not just there to solve problems. We make problems.
Sitting on the rooftop lawn of the Lincoln Ristorante—a rectangular expanse of grass tilted and warped to produce an urban hillside open to the public—I am reading Justin
Davidson’s 2007 New Yorker article “The Illusionists,” and shifting my gaze every so often to the Julliard School building. I am in a perfect position to grasp the overwhelming presence of the renovated building. Davidson’s article is an intimate look at the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, containing reflections on the principals’ beginnings as multimedia installation artists and insights into their early projects, and is rich in Liz Diller’s smart and snappy quips, like the one above. The theoretically inclined and staunchly opinionated Diller is portrayed as a wonderful complement to her partner in both life and work, Ricardo Scofidio. He is older and more soft-spoken, trusting Diller to convey to clients and staff the innovative designs and concepts they arrive at together. These characteristics come to life for me as I lose myself in the Center that they have renovated, where hardly a building or public space was left untouched.
In many ways, DSR was the appropriate firm to reimagine the future of Lincoln Center. As longtime New Yorkers, they are familiar with the public’s engagement with the city’s built environment, and their past projects offer unique and engaging experiences; they create buildings that insist you stop and look, rather than ignore on your routine commute to work. Since its completion in the 1960s, Lincoln Center has been the subject of controversy, in both appearance and social function. Blocks of dilapidated brownstones and tenement buildings were demolished for the Center’s construction, and its Brutalist architecture, combined with performing arts programming that was seen as elitist, offended local residents. For DSR, opposing this legacy, and opening public space in a city overgrown with corporate privatization, were important motivations.
Similar concerns are expressed in their design for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (completed in 2006). The museum is situated along the 47-mile-long Harbor Walk overlooking the waterfront. Rather than obstructing this public walkway, the museum is cantilevered above it, and the privilege of enjoying the shaded steps below the gallery is open to everyone. The glass façade of the building opens the galleries to pedestrians, and perfects the art of people watching from the Walk. For museum visitors, a majestic view of the harbor is offered by floor-to-ceiling windows in the theater and the educational/media facility; the latter drops down in what Diller calls a “sunken overlook,” suspending visitors in a container with an impeccable view. Through this open and inviting environment, Boston’s ICA affords visitors the opportunity to lose themselves in art, and to find themselves in the city.
The open glass walls and sunken overlook are directly referenced in the Julliard School renovation. The activity of the first floor—the location of the American Table restaurant and entrance to Alice Tully Hall—is on public display, again inviting interaction between people inside and outside the building. The Julliard building’s high glass walls replace a looming concrete wall that formerly ran the length of the Broadway block and acted as a barrier between the school and passersby. The inclusion of an elegant sunken overlook for one of Julliard’s dance studios allows the public to glimpse emerging ballerinas and other dancers from the street. Davidson compares this overlook to a snow globe, a lovely image.
Even before DSR transitioned to built architecture—when it was only Diller + Scofidio, working out of a small studio in New York City’s downtown art world—it was concerned with intervening in urban spaces. The principals’ artistic origins were in theoretical work, and it was not long before they began to execute projects that made connections between performance and architecture. Sentinel (1984), a project conceived by Diller in collaboration with sculptor Jim Holl and performance artist Kaylynn Sullivan, took the form of a pavilion resembling a sentry box, and functioned as an interactive, freestanding structure. This project led to several performance collaborations, for which Diller + Scofidio used set design as a platform to examine how elements of the stage could influence the performer’s actions and the audience’s engagement with the work.
The performances that Diller + Scofidio collaborated on with other artists and production companies in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s placed particular emphasis on their audience’s visual mobility. Their set designs included video projections and mirrors as a way to complicate the viewer’s range of focus. In some instances, such as the 1987 multimedia theater work The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate (Delay in Glass) for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the events onstage are flipped 45 degrees (through the aid of suspended mirrors) and displayed above the performers, offering the audience different viewpoints in tandem. For their 1996 international collaboration with Hotel Pro Forma, Copenhagen, and Dumb Type, Kyoto, titled (Monkey) Business Class (after the Marx Brother’s film), the duo utilized a large screen to project recorded as well as live footage of the dancers, who were also performing below; the audience’s gaze dances with the performers in this subtly complex choreography of space.
The firm’s performance-based sensibility serves them well at Alice Tully Hall, which is part of the Julliard building. What was once a dreary, lifeless box has been brought to life with delightfully mischievous technology and attentive dedication. Alice Tully Hall’s interior walls undulate slightly, and are covered in a thin veneer of moabi (an African wood rich in color). LED lights are embedded within the walls, illuminating the wood with subtle hues not unlike those produced by a setting sun. It is as if the walls are alive, capable of blushing at every grand crescendo.
DSR experienced considerable acclaim following the Lincoln Center renovation and repurposing of the once overgrown High Line, leading to a consistent stream of projects from cultural centers and museums to residential and commercial buildings. Future projects include Zaruadye Park in Moscow, the Columbia University Medical Center in NYC, the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro, and renovations of University of California buildings at Stanford and Berkeley. On the firm’s website, images of renderings can be browsed, most proposed structures featuring the white, angular buildings that the firm is now known for. Their descriptions are interesting and the programming seems exciting, but two projects have been the source of controversy in the past few years.
The Broad Art Museum, to be completed in 2015, is a mammoth structure located in Downtown Los Angeles. A component of the structure dubbed “the veil and the vault” will provide patrons with the opportunity to peer into the museum’s archive. I attended a lecture this year at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation to hear Diller speak about this project. She began by stating that that the design was intended to oppose Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Concert Hall. Her description of the project was compelling, yet the involvement with Eli Broad’s collection arouses suspicion. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is also located in the Downtown district, hardly a mile away from the construction site of The Broad, and has suffered from financial trouble for many years. Eli Broad had committed to saving the institution by donating a considerable amount of money, but ultimately backed out in favor of building a museum to house his collection. While this is a great opportunity for DSR, the building may come to represent the winning battle of private collections over historical cultural institutions.
Similarly, the firm recently signed on to take over the Museum of Modern Art’s latest expansion, scheduled for completion in 2018. The project involves the demolition of the building that until recently housed the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. This decision was publicly announced before the firm was hired for a “surgical expansion,” and DSR conducted a lengthy architectural investigation to see if the destruction was necessary. Their conclusion, announced recently, is that MoMA’s strict conditions for preservation could not be met, and the demolition will occur. I can only speak as an outsider on this matter—I do not know the stipulations of their contract with MoMA or the constraints of engineering—but their commitment to pursuing this expansion does not sit well with me. Would the firm have gone through with the Lincoln Center renovation had this level of demolition been involved? Should this be seen as a moral breach? My impulse is to point a finger at MoMA and their priorities, but any judgment will ultimately be shared with DSR. The firm has come a long way since their interventions with traffic cones and temporary structures.