In Her Own Words
Since its breakthrough project of 2006, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the partnership of Elizabeth Diller, her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro has been on a roll.
Joseph Giovannini -- Interior Design, 1/1/2011 2:30:00 PM
Since its breakthrough project of 2006, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the partnership of Elizabeth Diller, her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro has been on a roll. Their restaurant pavilion at New York’s Lincoln Center has opened, and the second phase of the High Line elevated park is about to begin. Los Angeles collector Eli Broad just unveiled their design for his personal contemporary-art museum. Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Image and Sound is already under construction on Copacabana Beach. On the National Mall in Washington, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has accepted their proposal to blow a huge bubble out of the top of the central courtyard.
Unlike the boutique ateliers that lose their edge as they take on larger corporate and institutional projects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro continues to produce smart, humorous, and even sassy stuff that makes people stop, look, and think. Recent projects posit discreet challenges in culturally sacred precincts, where angels would fear to tread. Despite the impressive stature of those clients, the three partners position their practice in alternative territory between design and performance—and somehow get away with it, as Diller elaborates.
Your Lincoln restaurant pavilion has suddenly brought life to a typically desolate modernist plaza. Congratulations. How did you do it?
The design was urbanistically motivated, with the commission calling for both an outdoor meeting space and a destination restaurant on the same small piece of real estate. So we stacked the program by planting grass on the building's roof, which has a touchdown point at one corner. Theoretically, you could get food at the Lincoln and then picnic on the roof. The distinction between "high" and "low" is not as pronounced today as it was when Lincoln Center was built, though the Lincoln's interior is of course more formal. It's designed like the surrounding theatrical venues, theatrically. A glass display kitchen is embedded in a glass display restaurant-a box within a box, its transparency animating the plaza day and night.
How did you get the pavilion to fit seamlessly into such a demanding, scrutinized context?
Even though we were rethinking modernism, our pavilion has a DNA connection to the 1960's. The design had to respond to the monumental scale around it. In section, contours needed to be sweeping. Anything more modest would have looked puny. We also carried over materials from other venues in our master plan for Lincoln Center-structurally supported glass, travertine, mahogany. And we kept the color palette light, limiting contrast to reduce distractions.
What was the design genesis of the High Line, and have there been any surprises since then?
Inspirations were multiple, but primarily we built on the micro-ecologies already established on the derelict rail bed. Some segments were windswept and some sun-drenched, so different things grew. Or didn't grow at all. We developed a design that built on the urban conditions we found to either side, and that varied from block to block and sometimes from building to building. But there's no way to predict how that original context will change, given the urban feedback loop with gentrification accelerating around the High Line because of its popularity. There are already synergies we couldn't have anticipated, like the red-haired cabaret singer who comes out and performs on her fire escape or the Pilates classes that spill out of a gym nearby. Unlike a highly controlled New York park, it feels very alternative.
Why propose a bubble for the Hirshhorn?
The director, Richard Koshalek, plans to expand the mission of the museum beyond paintings and sculpture, first with cultural discourse and diplomacy and eventually with seasonal events. So the program was to expand the building's footprint for theater, dance, film, and anything-can-happen installations for as many as 1,000 people-but only during part of the year. We needed something easily demountable, and we decided to fill in the round central courtyard that was already there as well as the space beneath the building. The idea of an inflatable bubble is a site-specific move inspired by the heaviness of this opaque 1970's structure. In addition, the bubble is conceptually breathing in the air of the Mall, which is a place of gathering, celebration, and protest.
At the Museum of Image and Sound, you're making the facade a viewing instrument. How and why?
One wall of the museum faces Copacabana Beach. The beach is therefore one of the museum's most important holdings, and we're treating it as an exhibit by embedding tubes of various sizes at different angles in the wall. As you walk past and look out through the tubes, you see evolving glimpses of the beach. Collectively, the tubes defamiliarize and reinterpret the image by framing it. It's not just a blow-out view. Meanwhile, from the outside, the tubes will look like cilia or a fuzzy marine organism.
Now that your firm deals with larger projects, how do you keep the same level of hands-on control?
We ended up growing without having any preconceived ideas about big offices, but we're very careful about how we grow, because there's a tipping point at which the three partners would start to lose contact with specific projects. There's a calculus operating, a ratio of so many staff per active partner. We find that the threshold is 75 people total. Below that, we can continue to accept projects according to whether they are intellectually stimulating, projects that give us latitude to speak in our voice.
Images courtesy of Diller, Scofidio & Renfro.