Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Blurring

  1. Blur.
    A necessary metamorphosis. Over the last two decades, some of the international scene’s most aware, critical authors started to grasp the total divide between architecture as an evolved product for an increasingly complex international market, and as a free reflection on theory and research. It was as if any form of defining theoretical and conceptual content not directly linked to the professional practice had gradually been relinquished. Design and all its content were becoming the matrix for critical thought, dangerously combining communication with the definition of denser, more sophisticated content. I believe all this is the result of a historical and environmental backdrop which shies away from creating new useful theories, in spite of the fact that the world around us is undergoing a powerful, radical metamorphosis as it poses itself meaningful questions about our future which are extremely urgent and unavoidable.
    But whilst many professional outfits have opted to expand their press and marketing offices, or their laboratories for advanced research on materials and their environmental performance, a handful of rare cases show attempts to give rise to hybrid structures which still believe than an efficient professional studio can be combined with the production of evolved concepts.
    Such is the European case with the OMA/AMO duo, or the studios of Herzog & De Meuron, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl. Yet I believe one of the studios that has formed the best take of all on this condition is New York team Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In the space four decades, it has gradually created a structure whereby the sophisticated research body, around which the studio was first founded in 1981 by Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, has seamlessly merged with a professional entity with a keen eye for an increasingly high-performance, aggressive global market.
    The involvment of Charles Renfro and Ben Gilmartin as partners, after a long period of professional collaboration inside the office, signalled the start of a metamorphosis of the firm, which found itself facing design challenges proving increasingly complex on a design and a global scale. The process was built up gradually, the various players merging into one rather than just being added to one another mechanically. A process in which the construction of the underlying, conceptual and theoretical contents was still viewed as the foundation needed to imagine the design.
    The real change was heralded by the design of New York’s High Line, a combination of urban intuition, social vision, environmental provocation and economic accelerator in a forgotten part of the city. The result proved surprising, its success confirming the perception of potential waiting to be harnessed with an act of unbridled vision of design and form. This is one of the constant, coherent elements running throughout everything Diller Scofidio + Renfro does: the ability to take a critical view of the world to its extreme visual and formal consequences, transforming it into an unstable space that relates to its surroundings. A space called upon to play a role in this environment, to be a part of it, without necessarily being reassured by it. Architecture is not just the “warm home” protecting us; first and foremost it is a restless device which asks us questions, that forces us to slow down and consider a different use of the place we are crossing.
    Between 2002 and 2006, Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the first Blur Building on Neuchâtel Lake, followed by the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art (quickly succeeded by the unfulfilled work on the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology in New York). By then, the conceptual groundwork was laid for much of the work imagined and fulfilled in the subsequent two decades.
    The unstable, kinetic, atmospheric and collective dimension of these undertakings was examined and varied in a series of works which continue to provoke our fragile critical sense, forcing us to play a different role in locations and live them with a new approach. Whilst the suspended, inhabitable, floating cloud had an explosive effect in the architectural world, at the time being pressured by the emerging digital world to redefine its own paradigms, the two museum projects for Boston and New York gave even more form to an idea which elaborated the transition from the modernist obsession with its quest for total transparency to the advent of beeps and the Web. “The modern project is still partly unfulfilled, and lends itself to a new interpretation. The democratising aspirations of curtain wall technology and divisions without barriers, for example, prompted the realisation that glass was a two-way system, which over the following decades prompted a desire for privacy and mirrored glass. Nonetheless, the previous fear of being watched has now turned into a fear that nobody is watching us. Never before has there been such an obsession with transparency: the lightening of the curtain wall system has achieved a degree of expertise without precedent. What was once just something to be seen through is now something to be looked at. The buildings and its inhabitants have, by the same token, become exhibitionists” (interview with Antonello Marotta in D+S, 2004). The voyeuristic dimension mentioned by the designer points us towards a series of overlapping levels, in a design approach which began with the ICA and the Eyebeam and developed right up to the recently completed tower of the Vagelos Center in New York. In the latter, the need to give physical form to the constant flow of data our lives feed upon is combined with a reflection on the very nature of public space, which has completely left the rigid constraints of the modernist city behind. Every relationship is “blurred”, just like the cloud building at Neuchatel. Architecture, in a liquid state completely unknown to the constructive culture of mankind, is required to meet a change in concept and meaning which breaks with mankind’s history, where the relationship between inside/outside, public/private and domestic/public is intentionally turned on its head.
    The condition of common areas and public spaces in a liquid society thus became one of the elements under greatest scrutiny. A series of designs conceived for collective and official premises took many of the art exhibitions staged by Diller + Scofidio between the Eighties and Nineties to a more real dimension, in which the obsession of the third eye, of video control and estrangement we are subjected to, were dealt with adopting a highly sophisticated approach.
    The constantly developing design for the High Line in New York, the redesigning of the public areas at the Lincoln Centre, and the work on Zaryadye Park in Moscow, all tackled the theatrical, flexible and visually participated dimension of the public, called on to inhabit a new, hybrid form of landscape combining the natural with the artificial; one in which the presence of people became necessary to define the character of the place at every moment and season.
    The “Mile-long Opera” was symptomatic of this vision. The 2018 project witnessed the collective participation of 1, 000 singers along the length of the High Line, with a performance which got underway at seven in the evening to mark the change from day to night.
    As Elizabeth Diller commented on this work: “After working on the design of the High Line for over a decade and witnessing the rapid transformation of the surrounding area, I thought a lot about the life cycle of the city – its decay and rebirth – full of opportunities and contradictions. This vantage presented an opportunity for creative reflection about the speed of change of the contemporary city and the stories of its inhabitants. The park will be a 30-block long urban stage for an immersive performance in which the audience will be mobile, the performers will be distributed, and the city will be both protagonist and backdrop for a collective experience celebrating our diversity.” The theatrical dimension became the perfect metaphor for the contemporary condition and its fragile, continuous metamorphosis in which bodies, stories, plants, minerals and animals are all involved in a physical story which attempts to create an open, flexible frame for a world constantly undergoing transformation.
    Our perennial condition as actors/spectators/observers has increased in more recent projects, such as that carried out for the McMurtry Art and Art History Building at Stanford University (2013), the renovation and expansion of the Juilliard School in New York, and the recent project for the London Centre for Music, currently under construction.
    In all these works, just as in the previously-mentioned projects, the focus of the reflection prompting the most significant choices revolves around the concept of public premises that question the traditional division between different forms and functions, aiming instead for organisms that can change and react with different communities over time.
  2. The tower of knowledge
    People are packed into the large university courtyard. The gates are open in spite of the fact that it is late at night. But the invitation proves irresistible: a public fashion show featuring one of the hippest designers, open to all. The lights come on, and an immense steel and glass aquarium suddenly becomes the proscenium of a performance in which the models constantly travel along the ramps moving up and down the building. The event only lasts about ten minutes, but those bodies dressed in futuristic white and silver garments make a statement: that temple of knowledge will no longer be the exclusive prerogative of its privileged inhabitants.
    When, in 1999, Bernard Tschumi’s Lerner Hall Student Centre was inaugurated in the heart of the Columbia University campus in New York, a very powerful conceptual virus was unleashed, changing the rules of the game governing university enclosures.
    The architectural box devised by the Swiss architect, at the time the Dean of the Architecture Faculty, maintains the same volume and proportions as the other buildings originally devised in the masterplan of McKim Mead & White. Yet on the long side overlooking the central courtyard of the Campus, it is opened up with a completely transparent façade in which the access ramps have been placed on show. The infrastructure becomes the public space par excellence, in which getting around and exchanging information and experiences adopts a pivotal role in university social life. The evolution of the monumental escalator of the Centre Pompidou resides in the fact that the space used for moving acquires even more substance, becoming a place in its own right for interpersonal relations.
    It was an important shift, because it declared that informal locations were gradually becoming the real locations of the university’s public life. It was a process which began with the Collegio del Colle di Urbino by De Carlo, and the Frei Universitat of Berlin, both works at the centre of the debate on the role of new public premises for Team10. The process overlapped the anomalous trajectories of America’s post-industrial spaces and lofts, radically rethinking hierarchies and functions and putting the physical and visual relationship with the surrounding landscape first.
    A few years down the line, Diller Scofidio + Renfro presented the project for the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology: a narrow tower built with two sinuous ribbons, housing internal infrastructures and exhibition premises that defined the façade of the building, showcasing the museum’s activities. The debate over Blob architecture has assumed a tangible guise, with the shape of technology transformed into an artistic experience becoming a new Moebius ribbon, which communicates with the city instead of folding up on itself.
    The projects described represent the start of an approach which radically changed the future of American university campuses, today the focus of an increasingly widespread phenomenon of importance from the urban standpoint.
    The enclosure separating the campus from the traditional urban context has gradually been shattered, transforming the university into a force for development, combining education with fluid forms of socialisation, services open to the public, and mixed-capital start-ups.
    Many of these new architectures have become an explicit manifesto for the change in strategy, establishing new physical and visual relationships. Such is the case of the Ray and Diana Vagelos Education Center in New York, which was completed in 2016.
    The 14-story building is 67 meters high and has a surface area of 10, 200 metres squared. It defines the northernmost confine of the North Campus of Columbia University in front of the Hudson, and sits alongside Washington Heights. It was designed to shake up the traditional sequence of public spaces, classrooms and administration, with one building in which the informal premises are the main structure of the organism.
    The limited size of the plot afforded an opportunity to develop an education building vertically, on a scale which would be coherent with the surrounding context.
    The spine and visual centre of the project is the “Study Cascade”, a vertical succession of micro ateliers, alcoves, terraces and meeting places linked by a main staircase running the full height of the south façade. This is a fully glazed wall which marks the boundary of the medical campus. The main structure, a combination of reinforced concrete and steel, has been designed as an expressive element that defines the visual layout of the façade. It achieves this with the slight overhang of the white masonry, the lightweight effect of the windows, and the bright red of the wooden covering of the collective premises located along the staircase. This fluid space, designed to host meetings of small working groups that change over time, binds together the classroom, admin premises and the Simulation Center, which instead overlook the other side with a closed, protected façade. The Vagelos Center provides an alternative approach to the extreme, private vertical constructions dominating the heart of Manhattan; it is a structure in which city and university look at one another, constantly reducing the boundary that has traditionally kept them apart.
  3. A dynamic prologue
    Who knows if Le Corbusier, when he first coined the phrase defining architecture as a “machine for living”, ever imagined he might one day see one of his works actually moving.
    In the Sixties, the Archigrams dreamed up “plug-in cities”, nomadic cities that could move and physically connect with others using telescopic pipes.
    The vision came true, in part, in New York, where Diller Scofidio + Renfro created “The Shed”. The multipurpose facility has a surface area of 15, 000 square metres, and has been designed to house every possible form of artistic expression thanks to a roof/façade which moves autonomously on rails, making it possible to use the space in all its many variations.
    Located in the middle of one of the most important real estate operations ever embarked upon in Manhattan, The Shed is a site designed for experimenting with every possible kind of event and research, from traditional art to performance and public events. The image is one of an enormous translucent tent, embroidered with diamond-shapes that mark out its load-bearing structure. This is why we have opted to give this elegant design a space of its own in the magazine. I think it is important to draw this brief essay to a close with this particular work, because it not only continues research into contemporary spaces with a coherent approach, but also pursues the current state of architecture with a restless, powerful work open to varied scrutiny.
    Not one piece of work by the New York studio has failed to make us slow down and reflect. Their work on design and theory guides us through the mists of a world devoid of footholds. Together, it suggests that the answers lie in the places in which we live, but with the urgency of a different, slightly critical vision.
    We find it hard to believe that Diller Scofidio + Renfro have yet to receive the Pritzker Prize. Who deserves it more than they do?

Interview . Luca Molinari

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Captions and Photo credit (from top to bottom)
Ph. Geordie Wood
High Line – Ph. Timothy Schenck
Vagelos Education Center – Ph. Iwan Baan
Blur Building – Ph. Beat Widmer
MoMA 53rd Street elevation – Courtesy of DS+R
ICA – Ph. Chuck Choi
Entry Plaza. Concept Design, Centre for Music – Courtesy of Diller Scofidio and Renfro
McMurtry – Program Cross Diagram
Mile-Long Opera – Ph.Timothy Schenck