For Architect Elizabeth Diller, New York City Is Beginning to Feel Like One Big Punch List
When Elizabeth Diller graduated from the Cooper Union with a degree in architecture in 1979, she had no intention of necessarily becoming an architect. In fact, the Polish-born, New York–raised Diller chose architectural studies simply to explore her interests in art and physical space. Two years later, in 1981, she co-founded a forward-thinking practice with Ricardo Scofidio, who had been her professor and who she later married. At first, their budding firm fell into an avant-garde category that existed outside the corporate or institutional confines of art and architecture—and indeed it often critiqued those worlds. Diller and Scofidio were primarily making edgy, visually impactful installations and theatrical projects, as well as conceiving what might even be called “paper architecture”—dream concepts seemingly unlikely to be realized.
Over the past three decades, though, with the introduction of numerous technologies, the latter has become reality and, at the same time, the former has continued apace. The firm, now called Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R)—Charles Renfro became a partner in 2004, Benjamin Gilmartin in 2015—has gone on to become one of the most groundbreaking, ahead-of-the-curve practices in the field. DS+R’s many cultural and civic projects around the world include the elevated High Line park in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood; the Broad museum in L.A.; The Shed at Hudson Yards, in collaboration with Rockwell Group; an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, opening this fall; and the Centre for Music, a permanent home to be built for the London Symphony Orchestra.
Diller and her firm’s approach, which begins with questions, accounts for much of this success: “What if we made this building out of water?” “How can we create a conversation between digital media and reality?” The results are often radical. Just take the firm’s breakthrough project, the Blur Building, an “architecture of atmosphere” created for the Swiss Expo in 2002 in Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The project was a rebellious, almost anti-architecture statement: the structure disappears. At its heart, the Blur captured the idea of architecture as experience, which is really what the bulk of the firm’s work achieves. DS+R’s buildings typically slow you down; they make you feel something.
Today, Diller is among the most revered architects in the world. She has twice been named to the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people, in 2009 and 2018, and she was the recipient of the first MacArthur Foundation fellowship in architecture, in 1999. On this episode of Time Sensitive, Diller shares with Spencer Bailey her roundabout path to becoming an architect, the social and cultural impacts of the High Line and The Shed, and the emotional resonance of designing spaces in her home city.
Diller explains how her interest in movies came out of an early engagement in photography and sculpture, and ultimately led to her studying architecture at the Cooper Union, and, in a not-so-straightforward way, to her later becoming a practicing architect.
The architect thinks back to one of the firm’s earliest projects, Slow House (1991), a cornucopia-shaped house that explored the mediated experience in the truest sense. To be located on Long Island, its models and drawings were widely published (they are now in the collections of major museums, including MoMA), but the house itself stalled and was never completed.
Diller recalls how her parents left Łódź, Poland, in her early years, moving to New York City, where she grew up in the Bronx and Inwood, and ultimately in the West Village, where she still lives today.
After discussing her time as a student at the Cooper Union, where she studied with the likes of John Hejduk and Peter Eisenman, Diller explains how she formed a life-and-work partnership with Ric Scofidio. She also mentions some of the firm’s early work, including “Traffic,” a project involving traffic cones inventively placed around Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
Diller talks about a viewing platform at the World Trade Center that the firm completed with fellow architect and designer David Rockwell in the months after 9/11. She also talks about how Rockwell and DS+R recently collaborated on The Shed, a new cultural center at Hudson Yards, detailing how the architecture actually came before the institution itself.
The two look at how the High Line, located just outside The Slowdown’s New York City headquarters, has helped transform not just a section of a city but has also been a big impetus for architects and designers rethinking other cities and parks around the world.
The conversation finishes with Diller explaining her thoughts behind the design of the controversial MoMA expansion, which will open this fall, and acknowledging how, without the culturally minded Bloomberg administration, DS+R very likely would not have had so much success in its home city.
Spencer Bailey: Liz, welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s great to have you here today.
Elizabeth Diller: Good to be here.
SB: I wanted to start on the subject of painting and sculpture. I understand that before becoming an architect, before becoming interested in film—and we’ll touch on that—you were really interested in painting and sculpture. Where did that come from?
ED: I have absolutely no idea. I just thought it would be nice to do some still lifes. I don’t know how this came to me—I was a kid. I was probably eight years old or so. My parents got me into these painting classes, and I learned how to paint figural paintings and still lifes. And I realized that’s not exactly where I want to be. But I did have—my parents encouraged my artistic desires even though I didn’t know where they wanted to go.
SB: You also became engaged in photography. Did that stem out of this work or exploration that you were doing in painting and sculpture?
ED: Well, by the time I got to high school—I was at the High School of Music and Art in New York, and it was one of the five specialized schools [in the city at the time]. And it was a time of a lot of student unrest. I remember mostly about being liberated from school and protesting, and anti-war efforts. That was really the first time I was exposed to a more serious view, and I started to delve into photography and filmmaking—you know, whatever you could do with a Super 8. And my father had a camera that I just took and started to make photos. I realized that it was kind of a nice way to express myself.
SB: This was the late sixties?
ED: That must have been in the very late sixties, early seventies, yeah.
SB: This led to an interest in film. I understand that once you kind of figured out “Oh, I could have a career,” you were thinking that maybe being a filmmaker was something you could do.
ED: Yeah, photography has stuck with me a little bit, and the desire to make experimental films. At that time, we’re talking about Stan Brakhage and people like that. And that was really the beginning of The Public Theater, the Anthology Film Archives. I was always going there, and I was exposed to independent film. I wanted to go, at that point, to Cooper Union, and I had to make my way in. That was a little bit of a challenge, but I got in. And at Cooper, I continued to pursue filmmaking and photography as well as other media.
SB: Film was an outlet for you that somehow led to architecture. Or how did architecture come into this?
ED: Yeah, so film, not in the classical narrative sense—not necessarily storytelling—was a medium that was time-based, where it was very interesting to manipulate space, flatness, and dimensionality in celluloid. I was very much taken by that.
Hollis Frampton was one of the faculty members [at Cooper Union]. I was really enthused by independent film and experimental film. This was a time, I would say in the mid- to late seventies, where I was sort of caught between what was going on in the art scene, in Soho and the Village—there were so many artists that were there who were breaking boundaries—and a lot going on in the music scene, and crossover work in all media. I was really interested in installation, and I became more and more out of the celluloid and into space and concerns about space.
At some point, while I was at Cooper Union, I decided to take this class called “Architectonics” in the architecture school, mostly because I didn’t know what it meant and I thought that was intriguing. By the way, to this day I still don’t know what it means. But it was there that I first met John Hejduk, who was the dean of the school. He was kind of an independent mind—a guru, a poet, and an architect. And I somehow got swallowed by his work and his attitude. It was more about the depth of the discipline and how the discipline is a cultural one, and it crosses over to literature and painting, all the references that were put in front of us—twentieth-century references. I was really intrigued by the discourse of the school of architecture and decided to transfer and get my degree in architecture rather than in art, but without any real desire to be an architect.
SB: [Laughs] It sounds like part of that decision was also understanding that you also had all of these other interests that you could bring into architecture. That you could look at through a film lens or—
ED: Exactly. Architecture was just one outlet, and it was a way of thinking about real time and real time in the public, with the public. I was interested in the conventions of everyday operational space, and I thought about how I could screw around with it. It was sort of an art practice and an architectural practice at the same time. I always thought that early work was about the discipline and not necessarily the profession. But I had felt when I was in school that the profession was just intellectually bankrupt, and it was just something that I wasn’t interested in pursuing. It was always just sort of adding one more tool to the toolkit, to think about space, and to have a little bit of an education around the history of the discipline, so that I could know my way around.
SB: Could you elaborate a little on this idea of professional architecture being intellectually bankrupt?
ED: [Laughs] Well, I was in school where at the time professional architecture was—there was no discursive part of it. It was really professional work; it was kind of repeating what had been inherited over decades. I think that maybe there was some inspiration from the work of Mies [van der Rohe], but at that point it was already corrupted. It wasn’t with Mies’s original intentions. There were very few references, and the references that I had as a student, of contemporary architects, were really doing alternative work. Like, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind and Zaha [Hadid] were just starting. They were doing alternative work on paper, in print, in galleries, in academia. So nobody was really building at the time. People who were interested in ideas were putting them out in other forms because there were very few opportunities to build.
SB: Yeah, this was before the shift to where the so-called “paper architects” actually, finally, had the technological tools to make and do. I’m curious about this time from a mediated experience perspective, because a lot of your work deals with the mediated experience. Was media something you were paying attention to, and how you might bring that into architecture?
ED: You know, some of the work that I did with Ric early on [in the 1980s] was with Creative Time. These were installations in different parts of the city. It’s the same Creative Time [nonprofit organization] that’s still there and doing independent work.
ED: Also, production companies. There was a young theater collective, and the members were really, really smart. We were engaging with them. It was something between performance art and theatre. At La MaMa [Experimental Theatre Club], for example, we did interventions in the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage and spaces like that—alternative spaces for theatrical productions. And in doing that work we became very interested in what the relationship between the stage and the audience is. Thinking about issues about liveness. It was a time where media was everywhere already—different kinds of media—and it was an opportunity to think about authenticity. And that was something that really came from John Hejduk. I was always skeptical about that word—what “authentic” really meant. Authentic was good and anything inauthentic was bad. I was rebellious, and I was pretty interested in how these terms were polarizing our view of the world and what were the grey areas.
That’s when I would become interested in aliveness on the stage, this physical connection with the audience and performers. But also bringing mediated presences to the stage. One of the very early projects just had a big mirror over the stage, at forty-five degrees, and offered two views of the same character—one natural, physical that you see in deep space, and one mediated from above through the mirror. We were looking at the same live performance, but not directly. And we were allowed certain new possibilities to happen. If a character decided to lie on the floor, they would appear to be floating in the air because they would be rotated ninety degrees by the mirror. That set up a really interesting conversation [surrounding] physical space, around what the audience could see. They had to think a little bit and play around with the stage. That also led to other kinds of mediation, like video, and pushing the abilities of performers to do extra special things, go beyond their physical limitations to digital possibilities. All of these projects, one rolled out of another, rolled out of another, and that also worked its way into architectural ideas.
SB: Right, I was going to mention, in 1991—it’s an unrealized project, but it was one of the early ones that captured a lot of media attention. Slow House, where you created this mediated view. Tell the listeners about what this project was and what you were trying to achieve as an architect, combining a filmed experience and a real-life home.
ED: I think we got the commission in probably ’89 or maybe ’88. And this was the first time that I had a hope that I could actually execute ideas in architecture with a client under the professional terms, with a budget and a time table and all of that. It was a private house near the Hamptons, on the bay. Ric and I became fascinated by the notion of a view, of having a view of the water, and how it wasn’t a view until you frame it. So you could basically be at the edge of a bluff, looking out, and you see the sea and you see the horizon. But it isn’t until you make a picture window that it becomes somehow valuable, and how the house participates as a bit of media to frame it and value it.
The house, of course, was facing this beautiful vista that was going to be the object of the idea of this project. And the house itself is, let’s say, in the shape of a cornucopia. It starts very skinny at one end and widens at the other end, and curves as it widens. It’s just the width of a door at one end, where you come in, and it opens up and widens into an expansive view of the sea, uninterrupted. As it does so, it frames it, and the programs adjust to that from the entrance to this arrival at this beautiful vista. At the same time, we wanted to produce the view from digital media. So we had a camera that was perched, looking at the view, sending a signal to a monitor that was exactly in front of the picture window, obscured part of it, and almost aligned with the horizon line. That same view was just slightly displaced, enough to cause irritation.
This project, for us, that’s kind of the essence. There was more to it, but it was about that conversation between the view through the picture window and the view on the monitor, which was media. It was a kind of rhetorical point, in a way, that both frame value. The one that’s digital, we could actually record the weather and play good weather back and bad weather, and we could zoom in and have extra abilities. We could extend the ability of our sight to be binoculars and to look deeper into things. We had more agency in a certain way, but on the other hand, there was this other view that was still there and was still valued by that other frame. That was a really seminal project for us, and it started to be built—
SB: It was so ahead of its time, too. Fifteen years before the release of the iPhone, long before most people were on the internet even.
ED: It’s true, it’s true. It was pretty early, and I think because it somehow became—well, we started to build it. There was a foundation in the ground. The problem was that the client was selling two Cy Twombly paintings, and he was going to sell them to pay for the house. That was when the art market sort of [tumbled], and he couldn’t sell them. Then they were “burnt,” meaning he couldn’t put them up at auction for a number of years. He had to wait. So, in that time, he sort of lost it, had to go back to Japan. We built the foundation and were fabricating off-site components that we had for the house, and then we had to stop. It was very heartbreaking.
But there was so much attention, somehow, to this house, because it was an idea that was published all over the place, became iconic, and museums wanted to collect whatever we had of it. There’s a bunch of things already in MoMA and in France at the FRAC and the FNAC. It sort of became legendary. I feel like we did it already, but there’s no one actually living in it.
SB: [Laughs] Why [call it] Slow House? Where did that name come from?
ED: I think Slow House came from, actually, the geometry. It was a spiral, which was a kind of expanding curve. Part of the definition of this geometry was a slow curve. But also the way you perceive it and the way you enter, it basically stretches this threshold and connects the front door to this picture window. And everything between is a threshold. Just the shape of the house, and the cross-section, is sort of leaning in, and in, and in. It slows your pace, and it heightens your perceptions and translates what you’re about to see and makes it more meaningful.
SB: I want to circle back to—or go all the way back, let’s say, to Łódź, Poland, where you were born. I understand you moved to this country [the U.S.] around age five. That your family faced an anti-semetic situation, where [your parents] had returned home, and your home was boarded up and you had to leave. Do you have any memories from that time?
ED: My family has always lived a very secular existence. My parents actually survived the Holocaust under other identities, but their families were wiped out. And when they decided to go to Poland, it was to reconstruct their lives. They tried living in Paris. It didn’t work out, and they had to go back to Poland. And actually it wasn’t really a happy existence for them, even though it was comfortable. My father was arrested all the time. I don’t really quite remember it. I was pretty young. They tried to get exit visas for a long time. We had family in New York. At some point, they were able to do it, and they just picked everything up and left. And the comforts of upper middle class living in Poland—my father was running multiple factories—to coming and boxing groceries and for my mom to be cleaning office buildings. It was the immigrant story. They somehow shielded my brother and me from the difficulty of all of that. We grew up middle class. My father started to assimilate, and then became the manager of a hotel, and it was fairly comfortable.
SB: You were living in Greenwich Village, after moving to Inwood in 1959.
ED: That’s right. In ’59. We came and moved to the Bronx first, lived there for a number of years, and then moved to Inwood. And then a couple of different addresses. I had a distinctive address. I didn’t think that anybody would really believe that this exists, but it’s the corner of Cumming Street and Seamen Avenue.
ED: That ‘s where I lived when I was in junior high, and then moved a little bit south when I was in high school. And then, when I was in college, moved south again, to the Village. This time I was on my own, and I’ve been in the Village ever since. Never moved out.
SB: What was it like for you growing up in the Village at that time? I mean, this was probably late Jane Jacobs era maybe?
ED: I probably moved around, I would say, ’77 or something like that. This was a time when, well, first of all, everyone was shooting up. It was, like, totally drug-filled. Everybody was in the streets. It was a little bit hairy out, I would say. But this was the mid- to late seventies, where there was just a lot of activities happening in the music scene and the art scene. There was a lot going on, but it was a little dangerous. I felt like it was home. To me, I grew up sort of stepping over crack addicts just to get from school to home. So it was a pretty unusual time, and it was a little harsh. But that’s the world. It was New York at its richest culturally, in a way, but it was also desperate. There were a lot of homeless people all over the place. Anyway, it was trying, but it was a great place to be and to get a life education.
SB: Were you thinking about buildings, about architecture, at this time, or did that come later?
ED: That came later. To bring my family back into this whole equation: My mom, the one thing that she always told me was to get a great education, and to be independent of men. Because she was dependent, and she wanted me to not be. And she was trying to get me to channel my artistic energies into a profession. In fact, it was her idea for me to go into architecture, and if not architecture, then dentistry.
ED: You know, I saw these two things together, and I thought, Oh, architecture would be like a root canal. So I never even gave [dentistry] a shot. When I was at Cooper Union and I transferred from art to architecture, I never told my parents because I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of—
SB: That you’re somehow a little bit closer to becoming a doctor.
ED: [Laughs] Exactly, yes, something like that. As far as [my parents] knew, I was graduating with a degree in art. They thought was going to be totally useless. And when they came to graduation, they saw me pick up a degree in architecture. They were thrilled. But I warned them: “I’m not really going to be an architect, it’s just something I studied.”
SB: [Laughs] Yeah. So then you go to Cooper Union. That experience obviously led you to the path you’re on now. Other than this architectonics class that you mentioned earlier, where did you find your calling? I know you took a class with Ric, for example, who became your partner in life and work.
ED: While I could say that my faculty [at Cooper Union] really was the inspiration, it wasn’t really necessarily that. Ric and John Hejduk and others that I came into contact with helped me to read drawings, to think three-dimensionally, to think that there were crossovers between the discipline of architecture and other things. When I was a thesis student, I was reading [Robert] Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and this was forbidden in the architecture schools. There was like a black list of architects and references that you couldn’t really use, couldn’t refer to, and I felt like I was trying to find an area that was not … at that time, it was the whites and the greys. All of the greys represented all of the blurry stuff and the whites were the purists and the closest to conceptual art that you could find. I actually found the greys more interesting, in a funny way. But [I was] picking up a lot of what was offered by people like Peter Eisenmann and John Hejduk.
[I was] trying to find an alternative path when I left architecture school. I immediately got a grant—and a fellowship—to go to Rome, and I did some travelling and some thinking. Then I was asked to teach at Cooper Union, so I somehow looped back. But when I was there as a faculty member I decided to experiment with bringing other media into space-making. And this was a time when there wasn’t the NEA and NYSCA. It wasn’t possible to get project money for independent projects.
There were a lot of things that I wanted to explore, and that Ric and I wanted to explore together, as independently generated work. And based on salaries for teaching, and from the fellowships and grants, I wasn’t able to finance some of these projects. Most of them were on a credit card that I ended up having to pay off for [the] next ten years. But it allowed me to just have an outlet to do things. Like “Traffic,” which was one of the first independent projects that Ric and I did, in Columbus Circle. Just repositioning twenty five hundred traffic cones there, and sort of moving traffic around, and creating this field of color, using an indigenous material to the site.
From that, we started to experiment, and this led to commissions that came from independent sources, such as Creative Time and Artists Space, which led to other commissions. All of this time, I was really throwing grenades at these institutions of the museum and the gallery. It was this institutional critique period of my life. When we were actually invited into these institutions to do work, it produced a sort of problem, an ethical problem, of how to do it, how to step into the institution and still have a critical voice. A lot of the work that was created early—in book form, and in the form of alternative work in gallery space, or in public space—was independent agendas and self-initiated.
SB: From what I understand, when Ric and you decided to come together and join forces as a firm, he was kind of frustrated with what was happening in architecture and leaning more toward other spheres. You were coming from this sort of aspiring filmmaker in architecture point of view. How and why did you decide to create the firm with him? And how would you describe that early vision between the two of you?
ED: By the time I graduated, we were already a couple, in secret at the time, because that wasn’t really cool. He had decided to leave the profession as he knew it, because he had already been running a studio for a number of years, probably about fifteen years prior. And he didn’t really find that much satisfaction out of it. The relationship with me had sort of expanded into research and testing new ideas. He was very happy to totally board all of that up and start a new life. And when I started teaching at Cooper, we were both teaching side by side. We were evolving this independent work together. We were interested in issues like visuality, the culture of vision and all that that meant, including surveillance, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and perception. But we were also interested in tourism and cultural issues that were being explored in academic circles—critical cultural issues—and bringing them into the fold as space explorers.
SB: Yeah, and one of your first—if not the first—projects that took a lot of this academic thinking and brought it into the real world was the Blur Building in 2002, in Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Could you talk a little bit about that project? You were mentioning this sort of greying of architecture, and I was smiling, thinking that your first real built work in a way was this Blur project, which was literally an interpretation of that description. The blurring of—
ED: [Laughs] Yeah, it was probably the first really big, public, environmental project [we did], and you could call it a building, a sculpture, or a landscape environmental project. But it was basically a response—a competition—to do something on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland for the Swiss Expo. We had this idea to do something, rather than next to this scenic lake, right on the lake or in the lake, maybe five hundred feet in, that used the material that was already there, the indegenous material if you will—water—as a building material. This idea came to us to make this kind of fog bank that was produced out of water that was pumped out of the lake, filtered, and then shot through thirty five thousand mist nozzles that were suspended on a steel structure that you could actually walk from the shore, along a long bridge, into. You would basically be walking into this cloud.
It was a vision that we had, and often we have visions we don’t know exactly what they are about. They’re not necessarily the product of a logical thought stream. But there was an interest in testing vision as the master sense. Like, why are we so compelled? And why is architecture so much about vision? [We were] very much inspired by Marcel Duchamp, really since the eighties, when we started to do work. We did “The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate,” which was about The Delay in Glass, one of Duchamp’s seminal works in which he used anti-optical, anti-retinal devices to actually create beautiful visual work that was just pushing himself against the desire to make something aesthetic and do it through chance. This approach was really channelled into a lot of future work.
The experiment with the Blur Building was to limit vision, to produce a space where you really couldn’t see much and you were dependent on the other senses: sound, smell, touch, and taste. And so, what would this be like?
This cloud, which was not really defined, was defined as blur, which is defocused vision. Usually, you use it as a kind of negative term. Like a “blurry shot” on your camera is something that isn’t operating—the lens is not operating right. But we thought about this as a positive thing. Like a “motion blur,” for example, is something that you construct to express movement. We wanted to create a space that was a blur that you could actually inhabit, where you couldn’t sense depth, you couldn’t sense dimension, you were just kind of lost in this medium that you had to somehow move around in. But it was luminous, it wasn’t like a dark room. It was filled with light. And there was some kind of weird effect called “the ion effect,” which I know might be pseudo-scientific. But you sort of feel great while breathing this air as this very, very fine mist. You sometimes get it next to a fountain, this ion effect, this euphoria. [The Blur Building] produced this at a huge level—it was the size of a football field—and there were no walls. There were these floating platforms, and you could get out onto it. It held hundreds of people that could be moving in every direction. There was really nothing to see and nothing to do but to contemplate our dependence on vision.
SB: Another project you did that was very much about viewing, which was done in collaboration with David Rockwell, was a viewing platform at the World Trade Center site [after 9/11].
ED: Yeah, so after 9/11, there was a kind of call to action to a lot of people in the professional world, of coming down and coming to the aid of whoever needed it. Like a rescue effort, and even feeding the—chefs came to feed the fire fighters and the rescuers.
There was this very, very curious natural desire to see the wreckage. And it wasn’t perverse, really. It was because those towers were no longer there. People just really couldn’t make sense of the site and wanted to go there, but you couldn’t because there were barricades. We had this instinct to build a viewing platform that was ramping from the street up in the air and would create a perch for the public to be able to bare witness without getting in the way of the rescue and the cleanup effort.
During that time, it was very hard to get the attention of anyone in the city, but we were able to work enough of the city to enable us to make this three hundred foot long ramp. We made a little foundation to raise the money to build this. It was no one else’s concern. We just did it, and it became really popular. There was a big line to get up and see it from an elevated standpoint. I think that it performed a kind of task and got us involved in this whole effort. So we [David Rockwell and DS+R] did that project together, and we were thinking, Well, what else can we do together?
SB: Now, The Shed. [Laughs]
ED: Well, the Shed came much, much later, in 2008. David knew some folks at Related, which was the developer that was to develop the [Hudson Yards] site later. We knew some people from the city, and we had heard that there was this RFP that was going to come out to imagine a new cultural facility at Hudson Yards. Which was going to be developed as this sort of mega-development project. One day, David and I happened to be in the same place at the same time. We were talking about this and decided we would have twice as much chance of getting it if we teamed up. That was sort of the beginning of that. We put together our loose proposal—it was a little manifesto—submitted it, and the city thought this was actually a good marriage.
SB: And this was before any real institution, before [The Shed’s chief executive and artistic director] Alex Poots was involved—
ED: Oh, way before. This was in 2008, and it was at the height of the financial crisis. It seemed totally improbable that anything would ever happen, and we were really surprised. In Hudson Yards, there was this square of property, not very much space, about a twenty one thousand square foot footprint. But it could somehow grow to two hundred, one hundred and fifty thousand square feet. All there was were the words “cultural facility,” that’s it. There was some discussion about some kind of flexible thing that didn’t replicate something that was already in New York, but was something different, that’s it. This was an RFP for a cultural entity. This was an unusual kind of thing, that architects would go after something like this, but we did. And the first conversation led to different options. Like, what does “culture” mean anyway? Was it going to be in science? Was it going to be in design, fashion, culinary arts? All sorts of things.
For three months, we were flipping ideas back and forth. And then, ultimately, there was a first catch. I remember this first catch, and it was, like, how to expand the footprint—because twenty one thousand square feet wasn’t very much open space next to us. We thought, What if we could use it, part of the time? That would allow us to have a much bigger footprint. And there was a certain point where this evolution of the idea of the building sort of landed in DS+R’s studio. We were evolving it—at that point, getting more and more definition as a new experimental arts facility that would bring all sorts of creative disciplines under one roof.
The city is filled with cultural institutions, whether they be visual arts, like galleries and museums, or performing arts, like Lincoln Center or theaters or dance theaters. It’s so siloed in New York, how the arts are subdivided into those categories: theatre, dance, opera, orchestral music. We have these different houses that specialize in different things. But, aside from what was happening at the [Park Avenue] Armory—which was starting at that time—there was no purpose-built, flexible entity that would embrace all of the cultural disciplines in one space. We started this project without a client, and it was a kind of a hunch that this [would be an] expandable building that could actually utilize the adjoining space, that could mount various shows, installations, performances at various scales—they could be extra large. [It was the idea that] this institution that could be so flexible, that it would also have a flexible floor-plate footprint.
Even before that, the question was, what will artists be doing in ten years, twenty years, thirty years? There’s no way to know.
ED: The idea [of The Shed] was to make a kind of architecture of infrastructure, which meant something really robust. A lot of loading capacity for heavy things that were going to be suspended, or that were going to grow out of the floor. Electrical loading capacity for driving any kind of media. And the ability to control light and the ability to control sound. Those were the basic irreducibles. And to have enough space, and to protect it. This was really the key thing: to protect that space that the city had the vision to defend right from the beginning, because The Shed sits on city property, which is entirely sovereign, even though it’s within the four corners of the [Hudson Yards] development. It’s not subject to anything of the development. It’s its own site that could do its own thing.
SB: Hudson Yards has had its fair share of detractors— [Editor’s note: We highly recommend this New York Times review of the site by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, who is a guest on an upcoming episode of Time Sensitive.]
SB: [Laughs] I think The Shed has somehow managed to become a shining example of good within a larger evil perhaps.
ED: The city, in its wisdom, said, “Well, if the city is going to grow, then culture should grow with it,” and therefore made sure there was a space for culture. I don’t think anybody anticipated what it would ultimately be. But as we saw it evolve and as the project evolved, we also became involved in—
SB: The tower.
ED: 15 Hudson Yards, which was the adjoining property. First, in self-defense, because—
SB: [Laughs] I believe you described it as your “deal with the devil.”
ED: I said that someplace, and it got me into trouble. But I think that, in the end, our mature selves said we wanted a good neighbor and wouldn’t it be interesting to contribute to the skyline, to have an opportunity to do something that was really not natural to our studio, to do a commercial project like that. But it was maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do that here, to make an ensemble. They’re totally different projects, different clients, that happened to conjoin. If we were the architects of both [buildings], then we could argue back and forth and always win an argument.
SB: You wouldn’t have to deal with the tower architect.
ED: Exactly, and they would likely not be someone who would release more space, or allow us to do things we ended up doing. Like producing the cantilevers throughout the building. The Shed could dock right into the bottom of the tower. We picked up ten floors of back-of-house space of the lower portion of the tower that was less valuable to the developer, and we were able to situate our large freight elevator into that footprint. We were able to do a lot of things to protect the space that we had for cultural use. We were able to tuck away our mechanical equipment and all of that. That was actually a smart idea.
SB: How do you feel about the result, now that you see it in real life? Obviously, there are some complications with the site. You have Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel nested so closely to The Shed. But it’s functioning, the Shed is, and it’s there, so—
ED: I like to think about what we had control over, which was the tower and The Shed, and of what we were able to do there in a positive light. We could have never done this project anywhere else. Because there was a site, and because it was open on three sides, and we actually had a fourth side that we could control, we were able to imagine a brand new kind of cultural facility.
It was sheer opportunism, I think, in the end that brought us there. There was this RFP, there was this really cool idea to imagine, and the city thought—by the way, the first three years were relatively unfunded. We were probably the first contributors to The Shed. We proofed out that this idea could actually exist, from an engineering standpoint, from a programmatic standpoint. We worked with lots of cultural leaders from all over New York to get their best wisdom. We worked with the Guggenheim, BAM, Tribeca Film Festival, the Whitney, and all sorts of other entities to give us feedback to what we were doing. And some with real technical criteria. There was a lot of discourse.
SB: That seems so generous in a city—
ED: It was extraordinary.
SB: There’s so much competition here.
ED: I think, in the end, there is a lot of competition for donors, but The Shed was going to do something that no one else was really doing in New York. The closest was the Armory, and I think there’s enough room for two institutions that are similar. Alex [Poots] is doing something really unusual. We started in 2008, and Alex was hired in 2014—
SB: The director of the Shed.
ED: Yes, Alex Poots, brilliant director of the Shed. And before that, Dan Doctoroff, who was the deputy mayor—and was already no longer in government, but it was in the private sector. He was a kind of fantastic mentor. He became chairman of the board. He made this whole thing ultimately happen, and it was during this transition between 2008 and 2011, where we were more autonomous. Working with the Hudson Yards development project, Hudson Yards made sure the cities’ interests were preserved. Those were the only people who we interacted with.
We were the clients and started to work with Dan more intensely in 2011 and 2012, and then The Shed became—it was still called the “Culture Shed” at that time—an independent not-for-profit with Dan as the chair. He started to build a board. That was the first time that we actually had a contract, in 2012. We sort of willed this all, this group of people that were pioneering, Dan and the group of people he started to assemble around the project to give this whole thing credibility and to start to get capital money into it.
Around 2013, ’14, there was this, “Okay, there now needs to be a leader, somebody needs to be hired.” There was an international search. Alex was selected as the obvious choice. He was sort of magical. His proposal and his thoughts were really in sync with the ethos of The Shed and what we had already done. This was already a building—we had been building foundations, producing steel already, because we had to keep up with the infrastructure that was being built at Hudson Yards. So when Alex came in as artistic director and CEO, he had already had great success at the Manchester Festival, doing experimental work across disciplines, and now he sort of felt like this was an opportunity to do not only a festival that lasted two weeks but three hundred sixty days a year. He was very interested in the possibility of what this building could also deliver for him.
SB: In a way, it was an architectural cue to building the institution. Normally, it’s the other way around—you’re building the institution, you have the collection, and then you make the building.
SB: In this case, it was actually architecture leading the way to the—
ED: It was the only way it could have happened because of this RFP. It was 2008. What institution in their right mind would actually step into a new bricks and mortar project to situate there at that time when no one knew how much money they had in the bank?
It started off as this theoretical idea and ended up having a lot of traction. But it was pretty much in the third or fourth month that this idea started to have this visual component to it, this moving “shed.” At first, there were four telescoping pieces—it was much bigger. But as it matured, and grew, and as time went on, it became a little bit more humble, and it was just one fixed building with multiple levels of galleries and performance spaces, and this telescoping outer shell that would double its footprint. That was enough. We were oriented at once to the north and then we were oriented to the east, and it always made sense. It was always this same sort of argument, which was, you don’t need to deploy it, you don’t need to heat it and cool it, or be obligated to programming it. You could just simply nest it and open up a big open public space under the sky that you could create outdoor programming for.
It was an idea that seemed to take, and the actual technology for it was really simple. Seems complicated, seems spectacular, but it’s just a gantry crane that was made into a building that has seals so that you can basically thermally control it, just like any building. But you can also just sort of move it out of the way using a very simple rack-and-pinion system and the horsepower of one Prius engine. It only takes five minutes [to move].
SB: Yeah, and speaking of architecture that moves, the High Line is linked directly to this site. Which, of course, your firm worked on and was a lead designer on. Could you talk a bit about everything you were learning in the building of the High Line, knowing that this was the site where The Shed was going to go, and understanding the cultural and social significance of the High Line, and how the High Line was reshaping this neighborhood? Did that feed The Shed [design] at all?
ED: I think there was a set of unanticipated consequences. When we started the High Line with James Corner and Piet Oudolf as collaborators, we anticipated maybe four hundred thousand people a year will come. And this was basically the pitch to the city—the city that needed to be convinced to save the High Line. Because, after all, [Rudy] Giuliani, as his outgoing act as mayor, signed a demolition order to tear it down. And Michael Bloomberg, under pressure from people like Amanda Burden, who was his planning commissioner, was convinced to give it a try, to let the idea sort of come out. And Robert Hammond and Josh David were brilliant young citizen activists who just had this vision to turn it into a park.
It wasn’t really ours. We did a competition in 2003 or 2004, I believe, with James. And this was an international competition from a field of architects. Our idea was just to make it habitable, this fantastic new environment, instead of microenvironments that happen in a very perverse way. Windblown seeds, or seeds that came off of railroad cars that came off the High Line as an industrial piece of infrastructure, sort of got rooted in the ballast and all these weird things grew in. In 1980, it was abandoned, and then it became this sort of overgrown ruin. We were very inspired by that and decided to take it to the next step. Like, how do you preserve that otherworldly sensibility, bring the public up there and have humans and vegetation coexist in a new way, in a new form? Which gave birth to a new system and this meandering path, and the combing together of these systems and different—
SB: And now eight million visitors a year. [Laughs]
ED: Yes, fast forward: When we open the first chunk of the High Line, the one to 20th Street—and that was in 2009—already there was this weird effect going on, where the properties all around the area, knowing there was going to be this park … the park was understood already—those properties were being traded and flipped. When the High Line opened in 2009, it becomes a really big hit. New Yorkers love it, and it started to sort of feed into our cultural imagination of its roots, as a post-industrial city, and looking back nostalgically at this past. There was this future that we didn’t really know what it could be, but it was a new and alternative park, a new way of seeing New York, a way of seeing the city’s subconscious.
SB: Like the work we talked about before, about a view?
ED: Yeah, it was views, but it was on to what would normally be thought of as unsightly things, because we were looking at, basically, the parting walls of buildings that wanted to build away from the High Line, because the High Line was this industrial piece of infrastructure—it made noise, it was ugly. At least that’s what the perception was. All of a sudden, the High Line was marketable, and was a real park that started to create this desire to look at it. All of these new glassy buildings started to shoot up like blades of glass, and there was what I think of as a phototropic effect, like sunflowers following the sun. These buildings [that would] normally turn away from it were leaning in to look at it. Every [developer] wanted to use the High Line in their [building] names.
ED: Exactly. Every possible variation on the use of the name was used in everything; nobody could defend it because it was not copyrightable.
SB: It showed a lot about the power of good design, good infrastructure, rethinking. Similar to what Frank Gehry’s Bilbao did from this institutional point of view in 1997. Here you had a park that was reshaping, not just one institution or one corner of a city, but an entire neighborhood, city blocks.
ED: We didn’t realize it would have that catalytic effect. And the argument of growth was very much in there, because we can’t pitch a cultural or civic project to a city without talking about economic development. At least in a real estate-driven city like New York, there always had to be an argument like that. So the argument was about the growth of this area of Manhattan, which was pretty much empty—we remember some of the leather clubs and things like that that were cool and interesting, but they were not going to survive for very long—and how a part of a city could evolve, how it could develop, and this park was going to be a great asset in that growth because there was no green space in the area.
The prospect of bringing that many people, hundreds of thousands of people, there, to this kind of unusual area to see Manhattan in a new way, and to be able to walk without stopping for a traffic light—the park caught on. We were starting to design part two, from 20th Street to 30th Street, and it was already obvious that the park was going to do more, it was going to catalyze the area. Property values started to escalate. At the same time, the High Line started to inspire other cities to do similar things. There was this viral effect of the High Line in global cities everywhere, worldwide, to create public space out of obsolete infrastructure.
SB: Yeah, even The Lowline in New York.
ED: Every variation that you could possibly think of, and a lot of them were totally legitimate. But even weird ones, like building a new bridge across the Thames called the Garden Bridge that Thomas Heatherwick was responsible for, and using the High Line as an example of a “success” of a piece of infrastructure as a park. But that was totally a misuse of a reference. The High Line was so important because it was already there, and it was an adaptive reuse. It was a way of thinking sustainably in an environment where we have limited resources globally. We’re all having to deal with this. This was a great way of bringing people together to do something that was very old-fashioned: walking and sitting. There’s not much you can do there. You can’t really throw baseballs around, you can’t bring a bike or dog. You can walk and sit. But this was a total discovery for New Yorkers—the notion about doing nothing.
ED: I sort of love that idea because we’re so productive by nature, being urbanized. We’re working, and when we’re not working, we’re burning calories on a treadmill, and when we’re not doing that, we’re spending money in a store—we’re always doing something. But the idea of carving out time to really truly do nothing is a kind of invention for New York. So that, I have to say, is part of it: rediscovering something very very old-fashioned. Walking, looking at people, and not using devices. When you go to the High Line, people don’t really go on their devices. It’s a kind of parenthesis in your day.
SB: I want to close on the MoMA project, because I think it’s interesting that early in your career you were critiquing the very kind of institution you’re now designing. Have you thought about how to deal with that contrast, bringing in some of those ideas of the very critiques that you had, in terms of how you’re thinking about the future of this institution?
ED: It’s actually a pretty interesting history for us, because we were invited to do the first Projects Room series [at MoMA] as an architect. Before us there were artists. But this is a commissioning project—and we did this piece called “Para-site”—where you’re commissioned to enter a gallery and do an original, new piece of work. The institution doesn’t know what you’re doing before you do it. So it was a fantastic opportunity, and of course we took it. This was way back [thirty years ago, from July 1 to Aug. 15, 1989], where we came and started ripping the institution apart. We started looking at this meta approach to inhabiting a place that we were also critical of. At some point along the way in our career—our first museum project was at the ICA, actually.
SB: In Boston.
ED: In Boston. It was the first time we contended with the issue of “What happens now, for us, when we started off as the critics of the institution, and now we have to speak as the voice of the institution?” We decided, at that point, because the invitation came from someone who was my age—a woman—who basically was critical of past institutions as well, “Let’s take this trip, let’s do it.”
There was a huge maturing process, and thinking about making a new institution for artists to be able to rescript, to be able to do things that they couldn’t ordinarily do in other kinds of typical museums. It was an opportunity to think about architecture as also being a contributor to the culture of architecture. And this was after Bilbao, where there was this whole debate about, “Is architecture the protagonist, that it makes sort of an icon, and the art is secondary to the building? Or is architecture the background player, and put art first?” Our studio thought that was a ridiculous argument. It was neither of those; it was collaborative. And it had to contribute as space-making at the time of its execution. But it also had to turn the dial back in terms of the volume of the architect’s voice and allow other voices to emerge—the voices of artists, curators, and creative people.
Fast forward to MoMA: We come back to MoMA now, and we have the opportunity to make a change there. We were there as dissonance originally. Now [we are] able to change MoMA for the better. In our interview with the leadership of MoMA, we were quite critical of a bunch of things. One was that art was so far from the street. The public realm was not really contended with. It was the post-[Yoshio] Taniguchi period. There were things that went right with that project, but there were other things that could be done in a different way. And we brought up some of these issues to the leadership. They decided, of all the people that they interviewed, which I still don’t know [who they were], we were the ones they wanted to go ahead with. We went in with our eyes wide open.
SB: Well, you had to …
ED: We had to. And MoMA was interested in doing some new things, like bringing more of their collection out, because they were severely cramped. Even though they had done all these expansions. It’s the proportion of public space, or space for other functions, to gallery space. [The amount of gallery space] was disproportionately small. While MoMA was growing and growing, there wasn’t that much space, ultimately, to grow into further gallery space.
One of the principal things in this expansion was to actually pick up a lot of gallery space. It was to put into the public sphere—they have an incredible collection, but only a very small percentage of it sees the light of day. A new set of curators, really forward-thinking, wanted to tell the story of modernism in new ways. There wasn’t one story. They were working across disciplines, as well. This very old-fashioned idea of the department store with different disciplines per floor was going to be shaken up in a new way. We would be a part of that change, and that was one of the forward-thinking things that we were engaged with that was led by the curators and Glenn Lowry. At the same time, we thought, “Well, what kind of galleries?” We thought there could be some new kinds of galleries that MoMA didn’t even know that it needed. There was also an opportunity to shape the public sphere, the public realm, pre-ticketed, on the ground floor, which was really beautiful. You have this fantastic sculpture garden, and the way that the public interacted with it—that garden was really used by people who already had tickets. There were some changes about to happen, and we got involved. There was a big effort to rethink everything. While the expansion was to the west, we couldn’t just add another arm to this organism without drawing the blood from the heart and the brain in a different way. The whole organism had to be rethought.
SB: Here you are, talking about architecture like a doctor. [Laughs]
ED: [Laughs] Exactly, well, we had to do a lot of … surgeries. My mom would be proud.
SB: Your parents would be proud. [Laughs]
ED: [Laughs] But in a way, there was a lot of selfless work in this, because we knew a lot of it would be buried; a lot of it would be changing all the mechanical systems where you try to do something like add extra elevators or stairs in this new wing, and in order to do that, you have to move everything around in order to get the ticketing out of the front door, where it was before. You need to move a lot of things around, and a lot of logic that was there before you got there. So it was immensely complex.
SB: And then you have the cultural critics, art critics, architecture critics, and just critics.
ED: Right, well, there was not a lot of goodwill towards this effort, and the Folk Art Museum [demolition] was part of all of that. It was, in the end, something that we worked on for a while to try to figure out how to incorporate it. There was no good solution, and then somehow we got blamed, and it was a horrible time in my life and Ric’s life. All the anger that people had at everything—midtown zoning, glass buildings, the power of MoMA. Everything was brought to this project. It was very, very hard for us because we were critical of MoMA as well, and nobody wants to tear down a building. That decision was made before we got through the front door. Our first instinct was to try to find a way of saving things that were already there. In the end, when I look back on that period, it was brutal, but we got through it and the project really got very smart. We opened a piece of it last year. Or was that the year before? I can’t quite remember. It’s amazing to be able to do major institutional projects in New York at the same time. Between The Shed and MoMA, who could be luckier to do that?
SB: And this is to say nothing of the medical buildings you did at Columbia University.
ED: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of great opportunities in New York to build. These, the High Line, and another couple buildings for Columbia’s business school. We’ve been able to make a contribution to our own city, which is very, very unusual, because most architects have to leave their own city, make a reputation some place else, and then be brought back out of pity in their eighties. But we had a chance, and I think we were beneficiaries—oh, and Lincoln Center, by the way.
SB: [Laughs] Can’t forget that one.
ED: We were sort of beneficiaries of the Bloomberg administration that had a very big cultural bent and a lot of really, really interesting, pioneering people who were part of that administration who listened. There were these opportunities that were opened up that we could step into. We were in the right place at the right time.
SB: And clearly with partners who weren’t afraid to take a risk with you.
ED: No, Ric was always game, and Charles Renfro came in as a staff member and became a partner. Ben Gilmartin also, who worked on Lincoln Center as one of the leaders of that project, then became a partner later. Basically, the four of us, as partners, were able to do so much work, and now we’re working around the globe. But we still have this incredible passion to change our own city because we are the citizens here that get to use these places. We know our own city better than we know any other part of the world. In a way, stepping into Moscow, or even London, or Rio, or—
ED: Yeah, or Budapest, Tianjin, other places that we’re building. Adelaide. We’re basically visitors to these other cultures, parachuting in and sort of pretending that there’s a global idea that can be exported. We actually believe in doing research and trying to understand where we are before we even make a move. But those are all great opportunities to extend some of these logics, and extend local logics as well, and try to make new things. But New York is ultimately the place where I live. I want to go to Lincoln Center to hear a concert. I’m going to want to go to The Shed to see an installation, or to MoMA to see an exhibition or hear a lecture, or go to the High Line to take a walk. It’s really terrifying to think that, my god, the whole city’s a punch list.
ED: I see all of these things that haven’t been finished that are maybe not kept up as perfectly as they could be, or changed. And it’s kind of an interesting thing to live through. Those kinds of transformations of places I’m going to actually live through—so far, so good, as intended—but I’m sure in ten years, there’s going to be all sorts of new uses to them, and I don’t know whether I’m going to feel great about it. But it’s like giving up this baby, this child, children, all over the place, and it’s for others to interpret and take forward.
SB: Liz, this is great, thanks so much for coming here today.
ED: Thank you, fun conversation. Thanks for the therapy.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 16, 2019. The transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.