An interview with Elizabeth Diller

Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Rendering of Museu da Imagem e do Som, Rio de Janeiro. Projected completion date 2016.

For the first decade and a half of her career, Elizabeth Diller and her partner Ricardo Scofidio built almost nothing. Research and provocations, theater designs and video installations, were more their thing. Yet since the early 2000s they have become prolific specialists in buildings for cultural institutions. In 2015–16, Diller and her firm are opening three different museums, with divergent programs in divergent urban settings: the private collection Broad in Los Angeles, the encyclopedic Berkeley Art Museum, and the media-oriented Museu da Imagem e do Som in Rio de Janeiro. And hovering in the distance is her firm’s heftiest museum project: a coming overhaul of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When (very premature) plans were unveiled in early 2014, they were greeted with near-universal disapproval — not least because they necessitated the demolition of the building next door, the former home of the American Folk Art Museum.

It seems fitting that Diller’s office — the firm is now Diller Scofidio + Renfro; the couple took on a partner in 2004 — sits in the middle of Chelsea. Art played a central role in her intellectual formation: once, she and Scofidio excised the wall from MoMA on which hung Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages, then hauled the fragment up Madison Avenue to the Whitney. I spent some time exploring the bookshelf in her conference room: Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Sontag’s Against Interpretation sit alongside Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, not to mention a well-thumbed copy of Ultraluxe Hotels.   × Jason Farago

You trained as an architect in the 1970s, but you always had a strong interest in art. You were an artist first, if I’m not mistaken.

In fact, I was an art student at Cooper Union. I had a desire to make films, ultimately. I took an architecture class just for amusement. It was called “Architectonics,” and I had no idea what it meant. It just sounded cool. That was where I brushed elbows with John Hejduk.

The dean of architecture?

Correct. He was not known as a builder, but Hejduk was a poet and a guru, and he was huge — looming, wore sweaters with big holes, and had this very affected Bronx accent and spoke in riddles.

And I was really intrigued; I thought this could be a more interesting place. What was interesting about the architecture school was that there was a sense of accountability to ideas that you didn’t find in the art school. You had an idea, and then you had to turn that idea into some kind of material thing. There was a constant back and forth. It was like a contract: you had a hypothesis about something, and then you’d do it. So I figured architecture school would be a place more suited to me. It didn’t really matter what the medium was, and no one in the architecture school was talking about building anyway.

And I suppose this was taking place against the backdrop of New York in the 1970s: this mythical beast. Those of us who didn’t live through the period sometimes idealize that period of loft culture. Cheap rent in SoHo. The interdisciplinary nature of things.

I was interested in crossover work. Dance, theater, installations and performance art was all right there and in front of me. I was interested in Richard Foreman, and Wooster Group was around then. Mabou Mines. Karole Armitage. Trisha Brown.

When I was in the second year of architecture school, my closest friend was a musician in Steve Reich’s orchestra. He was older, in his thirties, and I have no idea what brought him to architecture school, but I learned more from him than I learned from all of my professors. He had also worked with Phil Glass, and he provided my entrée into that culture. I spent as much time in museums and at performances, and also the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies — the institution that Peter Eisenman ran, which was a central hub for intellectual exchange, a bit like the AA in London. There were lectures, there were symposia, there was an education program. October was very connected with them. In New York, you didn’t really have to go to school to be educated.

You met Ric at Cooper?

Yes, he was my teacher. I was interested in the way his mind worked, and we had really interesting conversations when I was a student. When I was no longer his student, we started a relationship which carried on all the way through my studies. He had a small practice at the time, and he was kind of fed up with it. So when I finished school, we decided we’d work together. We started to share a lot of things: a bank account, a bed, and a practice.

Together, you built very little in the 80s and 90s. There were unrealized projects, like Slow House, and more experimental projects, like the Blur Building. You did a lot of theater design, a lot more on the boundary between art and architecture. To what degree did you even care about the word “architecture,” about the parameters of architecture?

We were always interested in the conventions of space. One of our very first projects was for Art on the Beach, down in Battery Park, on a landfill that was temporarily used by Creative Time. They asked if there was some way we could create a gate (you had to pay a modest admission). We made this very simple plane, a place of exchange of information and actual money. Bisecting that plane was a bowl, a perfectly hemispherical bowl, where one hand would meet another hand to accept the admission fee.

We were at that point thinking about what it meant to make an interface, an optical interface. Also, what makes something mediated. A lot of this came from Cooper Union, actually. It was driven into our brains that there was this hard line between media and real experience, authentic experience, and anything that reduces that sense of immediacy is somehow bad. That was drilled into us, but I never bought it. It was just a formulation of John Hejduk, who was resistant to technology.

When we got to Slow House, we were really interested in framing the context. And the context was this beautiful view in the Hamptons, looking out over the bay. As far as the eye could see was this protected view. We were really interested in how you see this context, and it only becomes a view when it’s in context. A discrete view out to the horizon and the water. And we were asking ourselves the question, is the view from a video camera a live view? Why is that more mediated than the architecture framing the view itself?

I suppose museum architecture poses the same question: how space directs one’s gaze, how walls and glass edit.

Two decades after Slow House, it’s this same framing. Editing everything you don’t want to see from everything you do.

We did the same thing on the High Line over Tenth Avenue with the sunken overlook, the one that drops down; all you see are the taillights of cars disappearing into the perspective. All we did was frame something that’s already there and super mundane. But it works because our productive generation, or couple of generations, is used to doing things in the time that we have. If we’re not working, we’re burning calories at the gym, or we’re consulting devices. We’re always sending messages or getting messages. But on the High Line, you’re not permitted to do anything except walk, and sit, and watch. You can’t bike there, you can’t play ball there, and you can’t bring a dog. The notion of distraction, and filtering out the notion of being in production, and really doing nothing in that space…. It’s the ultimate Jerry Seinfeld moment of nothing, and I think we found the sweet spot in the urban fabric where it’s actually fine to do that.

I suppose as the High Line has got almost too successful, those pauses and disruptions become more important.

It’s an interesting problem. When we got there, most of the meatpacking was already gone. Dia was the first pioneering effort to bring a different culture there. Slowly it started to transform. Artists beget restaurants beget boutiques beget condos. That’s the order of evolution in the city. And the High Line helped to accelerate that, somewhat unwittingly. We expected, conservatively, that 300,000 people would visit the High Line annually. It turned out last year to be six million and probably growing. What we’re seeing beyond the specifics of the High Line — we see it in museums today and all over — is that mass tourism has generated a handful of places that everyone feels very attracted to, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Met, as well as the High Line. What can we do? Do we want to deter people from coming there?

In the 70s, your student days, it was the moment of how to democratize these spaces, but now people are moaning about exactly the opposite.

This is our complaint: that the left has become the right. The very people that were championing breaking down the elitist walls of the institutions are now saying, “Hey, we don’t have our personal experience with the art anymore because now we have to share that space with all these tourists.”

It’s a problem that we all share, but also a victory we all share. We have to think about how to make today’s spaces, which are adequate, not feel too small tomorrow.

Let’s talk about that in specifics. At the Broad, can you outline how the veil/vault relationship works, and how it’s articulated to someone coming into the museum?

It stems out of a very strange paradox. The project brief for the Broad asked the architects to figure out how to put almost an equal amount of storage as exhibition space in the building. It’s largely a warehouse — but it’s a warehouse on Grand Avenue, a place that is supposed to be part of this effort to urbanize downtown LA. How does such a place contribute to this urbanization strategy? Not to mention that it’s right across the street from [Frank Gehry’s] Disney Hall, arguably one of the most interesting buildings of our time. Our building is on a much smaller footprint, with a lower height restriction. A much tighter space.

And it’s largely storage! These spaces are typically off-site, or out of sight. More recently, the ability to look at open storage, for scholars to have access — there is more of an interest in that crossover, but when we were thinking about it, it was a liability. And below us was a parking garage. The typical LA experience: there are cars everywhere, even if you don’t see them.

So we asked ourselves, what if art storage became the protagonist of the building? What if it became a figure? What if you were constantly in touch with it? What if it was accessible, visually, physically? We came up with this idea of the vault, holding the art and back-of-house, as being a largely opaque element that was sculptural and floating in the middle of the building. It was shrouded on all sides by the veil. So, that alliteration, veil and vault, became the entire thing.

It’s the public/private game again, the visibility game. Eli Broad is one of our major collectors, and his collection isn’t going to LACMA or MOCA. This is one man’s stash.

We’ve worked together very well, against everyone’s predictions that we’d either quit or be fired. I’ve actually found working with Eli and the foundation to be really collaborative. I think that maybe a lot has to do with the fact that this is such an important personal project for Eli. This is his collection that he wants to share with the public. It’s free of charge; it’s in this very prominent location. It’s going to be very fluid with the street: people can come off the street, work their way through the gallery, come and go as they please. Part of urban life.

It was an interesting challenge for us. It’s not what we did at the ICA in Boston, or what we are doing at MoMA or Berkeley. It’s a private collection. It’s idiosyncratic; it doesn’t try to be complete; it doesn’t necessarily tell a story. We wanted the public to always be reminded of that, and that’s why the vault plays such a prominent role. You’re always reminded that that stuff is there, and that it gets put into different stories all the time.

Turning to Berkeley, which is the opposite in some ways programmatically. It’s a universal, encyclopedic museum.

We started with this beautiful building — I think only architects can be champions of Brutalism — but in this case, it was in a seismic zone. The museum took a different site, a little bit more urban, on the edge of the school. It was the site of a 1930s printing plant, and it was to be an adapt-and-reuse strategy, with a more modest budget, but still with the intention of showing the encyclopedic collection with very high levels of museum environmental controls, and with space for contemporary exhibitions. In addition to that, the home of the Pacific Film Archive.

We just took a different approach, trying to optimize the conditions of that site. By undermining the printing press. We found space below, and we’re using the skylights that were already there. We still have columns, a lot of the existing shell, but that’s part of the charm of that building, that you don’t have to build from scratch.

A lot of our work — Lincoln Center and the High Line — attempts to reread the past, to reinvent it. We’re not preservationists. We don’t believe in mummifying old structures. We do believe in breathing life into old things where we can. Sometimes it’s not possible.

Folk Art.

Folk Art. But I think that that general ethos is very much in our work throughout. We’re not the first ones to get there. Those programs have been there before, and it’s up to you to be a good reader and write between the lines.

Well, at first, the Museu da Imagem e do Som appears totally out of context; it’s nearly your old plan for Eyebeam in Chelsea, teleported to Copacabana. On the other hand, the exterior plugs directly into Roberto Burle Marx’s promenade. The sinuousness reminds you of Niemeyer.

The museum is devoted to the culture of Rio. It’s music, dance, films, comedy, literature, telenovelas, and it has the Carmen Miranda collection of headdresses and shoes — what could be better? And in our reading, in the public imagination too, Rio has this fantastic romance of beauty and the body: the single tan body on the beach, all the riches and sensual aspects of Rio and the beauty of the site. The buildings that line the beach are hotels or condos. But a couple of blocks back, it becomes more depressed. We observed though that the most democratic site in Rio is the beach. It’s free. Anyone can go there. These huge festivals are held at the beach, where a million people can gather, or a single person. Anything can happen there.

We were interested in merging a museum-going population with a beach-going population. They’re different, and so how could we make this building fuse these cultures? We took the prompt of the Burle Marx mosaic on Avenida Atlântica. Rolling it onto the building, so that you could effectively walk up the side of the building from the sidewalk, and have a drink and watch a free movie. Or if you chose to go inside, you would pay admission. And these populations would merge and cross over on these stairs.

One of the experiments in the building is the façade. There is a kind of screen that is very deep, made up of tubes ganged together but facing different ways. It allows you, as you walk up the stairs on the inside, to have sweeping but framed views. We convinced the foundation here that their best holding was the view of Copacabana beach and the sea. If you could dispense it or frame it, it could be a part of your entire experience. You see moving traffic, the sand of the beach, or one of the mountains, or the sea itself, or the sky.

All of this construction is taking place against a sea change in the urban role of museums. And the role of art museums more generally. The 19th-century idea of the museum as a place of social improvement, the V&A model, is over. The 20th-century model of the white cube, the museum as secular church, is dying too. Now museum building is much more an urbanistic challenge, a challenge of public space, as well as of the display and preservation of art.

As art grows more and more popular, what is the duration of the museum experience? What are the other experiences one has in a museum? How do you look into the future of what art making will be? You make a building that feels right for today, but what is it going to be tomorrow? That’s the problem with museums: they are geo-fixed and fixed in time. What is the language of that? We’re thinking about that with Culture Shed, since it’s a start-up and doesn’t have a prehistory. The best thing to do is claim space and provide an open infrastructure for anything to happen. Any kind of collaboration across the disciplines of any scale.

But do you not worry that keeping options allegedly “open” might in fact privilege certain types of production? Performance and installation over small-scale painting, for example. You can’t do calligraphy in the Culture Shed.

Certainly certain kinds of spaces are conducive to certain things. In Culture Shed, we have a lot of museum-quality gallery space that is 22 and 24 feet high, that I imagine paintings will be displayed in. But then we have a third level, that’s open to different kinds of programs, and the shed itself, where you can do anything. Of course, you could do a beautiful reading of a poet in the middle of a vast space and it could be very powerful. And you don’t have to always fill it.

Yet then you look at the atrium in Taniguchi’s MoMA. Certainly over the last ten years, the MoMA curators have got better at using it. And yet, even when it’s used correctly, it still seems to resist the art — more of a catch-nothing than a catch-all. How do you keep options open without letting everything be so open that it becomes un-programmatic?

I agree that this space, at first, was this monument that no one could figure out how to touch, and then came a batch of great installations and performances. And I think it’s now sought after as a space. If one could say that spaces and art forms are somehow related, and the possibility of the loft produced in the 70s a different way of thinking of art, installation, dance, and music, then one could say that the prompt of spaces, even when they are inherited accidentally, can be creatively undertaken.

That puts enormous pressure on you. It’s one thing to design a white cube, but if the future of art might be in some way determined by the architectural parameters in which it finds itself, then you have an ethical responsibility.

I think my ethical responsibility is to create spaces that should have distinction. It is up to the architect to make clear the time that it was built, to be somewhat explicit and not try to hide. But, at the same time, to modulate the volume of that architectural voice in different ways across the building, to create spaces that are mute architecturally and very open to re-scripting by curators and by artists in any number of ways. Whether it be a white space or black space or tall or short…

You’re in the trenches with MoMA, then.

It’s super complicated. You have these collections you want to build, and you want to expose more. MoMA has so much in storage, and has the motivation to show more of it and show it better than the galleries allow now, with the motivation to show it across disciplines. It’s huge. We were very motivated to help MoMA allow that to happen.

Renderings were made public, and were not at all well received. Were you surprised at the scale of the backlash?

Were we surprised by the backlash? I think that our story was really simple. In our minds, we were the best answer to save the [Folk Art Museum] building. We were super sensitive to the issues. We tried to make it work as an adapt-and-reuse, and we couldn’t make it work. And we were the second-opinion doctors, and we found the patient couldn’t be saved. But you don’t blame the doctor for killing the patient! It’s just a second opinion.

I think it was a kind of lightning rod for so many anxieties about the power of MoMA. The expansionist mentality. The previous renovations that people may not have been happy with. A midtown rezoning that everyone was afraid of, and totally justified concerns about removing buildings that still had life to them. I can’t say that I’m on the side of the developers. I’m on the side of the preservationists and the architectural community when it comes to saving buildings. And we do our best to try to do that, and sometimes it just can’t be.

This backlash also came from art lovers. In the light of mass tourism, the museum experience was compromised. How do you reconcile the fact that art is popular? The very institution that we accused of being elitist decades ago is now accused of being overrun with tourists, and our individual, beautiful experience with paintings is compromised. All of this came out in the backlash, and I also think it was something of a David and Goliath story. Big, bad MoMA.

It’s also about the shortcomings of the Taniguchi building. A very good architect, one of the most accomplished museum architects of our time, produced a building we all have a lot of problems with. You have a fixer-upper on your hands, and it’s only ten years old.

The Taniguchi has some shortcomings, but has some good aspects to it. The garden is singularly one of the best pieces of architecture in New York, but it preceded Taniguchi. The Gund lobby is quite beautiful, the north part of the entrance with the double-height glass…

It’s nice that the ticket-takers have been moved and are now by the stairs.

That was our very first thing: let’s change operations before we start changing the space. Just by decongesting the tunnel, there’s a different fluidity throughout the museum. You feel it right from the beginning.

We don’t have to always solve things with walls. We started by observing how MoMA works, and where it doesn’t work. Now, at the end of our second year of working with MoMA, we feel like we know the institution much better. We are starting to create plans that work in different ways. Our work isn’t just restricted to that zone of expansion, but actually touches a lot of the organism of MoMA. We can’t look at just its one arm without looking at its heart and brain.

This is not a museum that ever really got it 100% right in its architecture. It’s a mid-block jumble.

It started to grow by agglutination. The Johnson was totally different from the Goodwin and Stone, which was totally different from the Cesar Pelli, which is totally different from the Taniguchi. The Nouvel tower was already set in stone before we arrived. We are at the intersection of all of those histories.

But I have to say, this criticism of the congestion of MoMA — you know, one of the folks at MoMA read this letter from a patron, complaining about the congestion of the galleries. “It’s really hard to move from one space to another, you don’t have privileged space with the art.” And the letter was written in 1950-something! It was really interesting to hear it because it’s effectively the same criticism. You make more space, and it fills up more.

One reason art museums are becoming so popular, at a moment when theater is not doing so well and people don’t go to the movies anymore, is that it’s a spatial experience in which culture is endlessly interrupted. You can be on your phone, you can have lunch, you can cruise. And so I wonder if the anxiety around congestion in museums is not only about increasing numbers of people standing in front of the Mona Lisa. I wonder if the anxiety reflects a larger transformation of how museums are used, how people move through them. As an architect, how do you design a building where you don’t just look at Cézanne’s Bathers — you get on the wireless, you buy a bag…

It’s kind of like different traffic lanes on a highway: you have your slow, medium and fast. I do think there are different kinds of spaces; circulation spaces don’t have to be only getting from here to there. There can be spaces to pause, palate-cleansing spaces where you can do other things, rather than being on a relentless circuit of galleries. Spaces where you can stop and understand where you are, from a navigation standpoint and a city standpoint. We thought about that at the Broad, and now at MoMA. There are more moments to get your bearings.

At MoMA, we are trying to change the relationship between fat and muscle. All spaces should be art spaces. At the same time, we want to decongest those spaces. Using new technologies to rethink ticketing or accelerate coat check. Offering different routes, not having a singular way of moving through the museum. Opening up the arteries.

Which goes directly against the old Alfred Barr model of MoMA, in which a single narrative of the development of modernism was choreographed in space.

But it already doesn’t really work that way. People don’t understand the circulation. They don’t begin by going to the fifth floor [where the painting and sculpture collection begins]. Chronologies are still important to curators, but I don’t think they’re so purist about starting at the beginning. You can start at the end, or in the middle. I’ll leave those discussions to them, but from a circulation standpoint there can be so much more freedom. Expanding collection space is one part, but so is adding new galleries that allow the museum to do things it couldn’t do before.

All that said, MoMA’s legacy is one you were somewhat resistant to as a student. It’s an irony.

One of our very early projects, Para-Site (1989), was the first architectural use of MoMA’s old project room. A room which disappeared in the Taniguchi building. We did a surveillance project there, at the edges of institutional critique, looking very closely at the thresholds of the museum, the gallery, the garden. We came in with a lot of hesitation and skepticism about the museum and its power and its role.

And I think, over time, as we crossed the wall, and as we started to make exhibitions at the invitation of the museum, and curated projects in museums, and now as we begin to make the actual walls of the museum, we haven’t relaxed our vigilance — we’re still always thinking about how to soften the edge and democratize space, and how to adjust and calibrate. But it’s not a resistance. We’re stepping into the middle, to change things from the center, as opposed to from its margins.

Jason Farago is editor of Even.