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Diller and Scofidio, in the business of architecture and artistry

Spouses Elizabeth Diller and Rick Scofidio, the designers Eli Broad tapped for his Grand Avenue museum, continue building on an inventive union.

December 12, 2010|By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • Elizabeth Diller, front, Ricardo Scofidio, right, and Charles Renfro, left, are partners in Diller Scofidio   Renfro architectural firm.
Elizabeth Diller, front, Ricardo Scofidio, right, and Charles Renfro,… (Carolyn Cole / The Times )

Reporting from New York — Until a few years ago, the architects who won the commission to design Eli Broad's downtown Los Angeles museum were known for anything but the standard practice of architecture.

Elizabeth Diller and Rick Scofidio, who are married, were more interested in being artists than architects, in running a small practice out of their Lower East Side loft — even allowing the FedEx man to use their bathroom.

They collaborated on theater performances, media shows and museum installations, and, for a long time, were best known for a banana-shaped house that was never built and a temporary pavilion on a Swiss lake that spewed fog.

They once set up 2,400 orange traffic cones for 24 hours in Manhattan's Columbus Circle to understand driving patterns. They suspended 50 identical suitcases from a museum ceiling to demonstrate how we don't tour America, we tour previous tours of monuments and hotels. In 1990, they designed a weekend retreat in the Hamptons for a Japanese art collector who wanted an ocean view. The curved house culminated with a picture window facing the water and a television monitor next to it playing a video loop of that view. The house was never built, but the architects' view-of-the-view was celebrated.

But there were no office towers, libraries or civic centers in their portfolio, and no demanding clients or planning boards editing their vision. Instead, they explored the essence of architecture rather than its practice, and in 1999 they became the first architects to receive a MacArthur "genius" award.

Then in the last few years, Diller and Scofidio, along with partner Charles Renfro, made two significant marks on New York and one on Boston. They renovated Lincoln Center, and in the tradition of Central Park, invented one of Manhattan's most important pieces of public architecture: the High Line, an elevated piazza built atop an old railroad trestle that snakes up the West Side and offers a whole new view of the vertical city. For Boston, they designed their first major building: the 60,000-square-foot Institute of Contemporary Art.

These projects raised Diller Scofidio + Renfro's profile to designers on a large scale. Now the firm is juggling numerous projects around the world, including one of the most prized commissions in Los Angeles. Now they are seeing if the vision that won them so much attention as provocateurs can stand up in three-dimensional buildings — and stand the test of time.

Barry Bergdoll, chief architecture and design curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, predicted DSR "in the next five to six years will be among the people who shape the future of our culture institutions by designing their buildings."

"They are not content to leave the sink, the toilet stall, the elevator, the fire stairway alone. They make them all into events," Bergdoll said. "They make the most mundane elements into the language of their artistic invention."

Bergdoll said he could tell Diller and Scofidio had been nervous about making the transition to bricks and mortar.

"But they did it," said Bergdoll, "and in a very big way."

In short, the New York architects are hot.

"Hot?" said Diller, with a shudder. "Hot gets cold."

But, really, she doesn't seem worried.

Still subversives

The enfants terribles of architecture have come a long way. What was a small collective has turned into a firm with dozens of architects and designers, working in teams on multiple projects. Renfro, 46, was part of the dizzying growth. He started working with the couple in the late 1990s and was promoted to partner six years ago, injecting his self-described neurotic, nuts-and-bolts sensibility into their more theoretical and theatrical stew.

"We had a terrifying growth spurt after Lincoln Center, from six to 35 people, and now we're at almost 60," Renfro said, "and instead of doing 'one-of' little pavilions for an expo or a museum … we are now actually turning into an official architectural studio."

The firm occupies a corner of the 18th floor of a historic Chelsea building that also houses the headquarters of Martha Stewart and designer Hugo Boss. It is a vast space with views of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline and energized by constantly brewing coffee and young architects in flannel shirts and jeans sharing desks and computers.

On a recent fall morning, as they sat next to each other at the end of a long table in the conference room, Diller, 54, and Scofidio, 73, resisted the idea that by running a big-league firm they'll lose their profile as "subversives."

"People come knocking on our door and we talk about what they want," said Scofidio, who is soft-spoken and seems preternaturally reticent except when he has something specific to say. "If it interests us we would take it on. So we're only taking on projects that we, well, that gives us an opportunity to express ourselves a certain way and allows the client to have something rich and important. That hasn't changed that much."

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