No 21.

Elizabeth Diller

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa

Elizabeth Diller is an architect, professor at Princeton University, and partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. She is among the most distinguished architects of our time. She won the James Beard award for DS+R’s remodel of Phillip Johnson’s Brasserie in 1997 and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999. DS+R has built the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (2006), the School of American Ballet (2007), Juilliard and Alice Tully Hall (2009), and Lincoln Center (2010), the Eli Broad Museum (2015), and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2016), and The Shed and the Museum of Modern Art, and the completion of the final phase of the High Line in New York in 2019.


I initially encountered Diller’s work in a class at the New School, “Architecture Without Architects”—a riff on architect, engineer, and critic Bernard Rudofsky’s book, which shares the same title of the MoMA exhibition he curated in 1964. Through that course, I became engaged in the political implications and interventions (promises and failures) of repurposing the High Line, which drew an unprecedented number of tourists to an area that mainly housed galleries and art world shenanigans post and pre a new wave of gentrification—the first wave being the supplanting of industrial and commercial space with galleries, and the second with the introduction of the High Line. I was thinking about displacement, the people priced out of the neighborhood and the general toils and alienation of gentrification writ large. Ironically enough, after learning that the High Line is essentially La Promenade Plantée in Paris hidden in plain sight (history?), I was able to resolve the more biting questions and fumblings of architecture and my thinking changed. I now see architecture more as a practice, methodology, enclosure, and site of production (of people and theories). When I finally sat down to talk shop with Diller, the most pressing thing on my mind was to engage her about her relationship to art, her past, and her will to build though having come to being during a time when architects primarily expressed their desires through the practice and display of “paper architecture.” The interview was conducted in July 2021.


EO

Let’s start at the beginning. I want to work through how your relationship to art transformed into an architectural practice, and specifically when you started Diller + Scofidio. You graduated in 1979?

ED

We started around 1980-81, so ’79 is when I graduated from Cooper and then I did six months in Rome at the American Academy. When I came back to the US I started teaching, and Ric Scofidio and I decided to put something into physical space somehow. This was a thinking that was really without clients—it was more of an independent spatial practice, as there was no real name for what we were doing then, and neither is there now. It was on the border of public art, architecture, and research, and connected to both of our academic careers. Everything we were doing was pretty fluid at that time.

EO

I was reading RoseLee Goldberg’s essay “Dancing About Architecture” in Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio, the catalogue from your show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003, and she wrote about the recession of 1980, and talks about “paper architecture” being the movement at the time.

ED

[Laughs.] Yeah, when I was in school studying architecture the prospect of going into the profession seemed a bit dim to me. I wasn’t interested in practice, I was more interested in space-making but in a dissident way, without clients without budgets and rules. We were asking ourselves, “How could we do what we want to do outside of the system?” It seemed opportune because there were other architectural thinkers at the time that were contributing to the discipline but not through buildings, like Bernard Tschumi for example.


EO

Right.


ED

Also Glenn [Murcutt], [Daniel] Libeskind, [Peter] Eisenman and others. There were a bunch of people who were on the academic and architectural side, and in the end a lot of them joined the profession, but at the time there weren’t a lot of options because the economy was such that architectural thinkers didn’t have the opportunities to build, so a lot of work was done on paper, sometimes shown in galleries, or was printed in books. It was called “paper architecture” because it was mostly done on paper—it didn’t make it into physical space. It wasn’t necessarily intended for physical space.

EO

What was your relationship to New York at the time and what was New York’s relationship to you? And what was New York’s relationship to architecture?

ED

In the ’70s I was at school in Cooper Union, and I was very interested in what was happening outside of school, even though it was a great resource and there were a lot of great people teaching. I was between art and architecture and was initially going after an art degree and I was interested in film and multimedia art. Hans Haacke was there teaching at the time.


EO

Yes, right.


ED

There was such an interest to have a critical practice and the way that he challenged institutions was something that rubbed off on me, even though I never studied with him directly it was the ambiance of the place in a way. There was resistance from the architectural side with John Hejduk who really was also anti-practice; in his mind, the architectural practice was just corrupt. Most of his work was narrative driven and he went through his professional life where different things mattered to him, but it was either motivated by painting, literature, but mainly focusing on narrative structures. His influence on me was profound because I saw that architecture was a cultural discipline and it didn’t matter whether you built buildings, but it mattered that you could think critically about the world and borrow from other disciplines, which was an important takeaway for me.

Another thing in architecture that was going on was the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, which was a hotbed of intellectual exchange, and there is nothing that has followed it. It was unique to its time. Peter Eisenman was at the helm there and he brought in thinkers from all over the world, and it was a great place to engage in experimental architectural thinking. They had publications, exhibitions, lectures, and events, so that was my other outlet in architecture. It was a very focused time for me–it wasn’t architecture broadly but architecture as Cooper Union put it forward. But at the same time, laterally, there was a punk rock movement and a lot of drugs on the street, and I had a lot of interest in the music scene and dance. This was the time of Phil Glass, Steve Reich, Trisha Brown, and Gordon Matta-Clark and just so many people were working across disciplines. Rents were cheap and large loft spaces were available and new forms of art practice started to percolate and new audiences were formed. These are the kinds of things that drew me in, so my interests were always kind of split. It didn’t really feel like a tug of war, but I had two interests and they happened to intermix and exchange. I didn’t have a goal of how I would actually bridge all of these things together, but these were my interests in the ’70s.

EO

What’s your relationship to and understanding of architectural theory?

ED

At that time?

EO

I mean, yeah, it’s kind of a two-fold question.

ED

[Laughs.]

EO

Like, what’s your relationship to the concept of architectural theory? What was your understanding of architecture then and what’s your understanding of architecture now? [Laughter.]

ED

[Laughs.] That’s a big question! I’m not sure how to answer that but in terms of who was around: [Aldo] Rossi and [Manfredo] Tafuri and [Tony] Vidler all spent a lot of time at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and there were publications that engaged theory, such as October. At that time, it was called Critical Theory and was something that drew me in and was a part of the discourse and is partially why I became an educator. As for your question, “What do you think about theory at the time?” [Laughter.]: Theory was present, and I was absorbing everything that was out there, however, Cooper Union was not that place, it was not concerned with theory.

EO

What was the priority of Cooper?

ED

It was more about connecting architecture to fine art, literature, and painting. It was anti-professional but remained an intellectual pursuit, for sure, but not critical theory. I had a copy of Complexity and Contradiction [by Robert Venturi] in my desk drawer when I was doing my thesis and I couldn’t expose it.

EO

Yes, I’m familiar with the story.

ED

Because I would be blacklisted, right? It was a no-go zone to think of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the time, and people weren’t reading theory in general except literature, but especially anything that took the purity out of architecture and design was really detested. Having that book was really defining for me and grew my brain in every way.

EO

For me, my understanding of institutional critique, critical theory, modernism, and conceptual art is driven by the desire to expose the architecture of the problem.

ED

Yes.

EO

It’s knowing that the problem exists and conceptually understanding the infrastructure of the problem but thinking how to make that problem visible in space. And thinking about how to problematize these questions visually and position people to engage with them in meaningful ways rather than engaging them conceptually through a thesis and an analysis structure of an essay. But speaking of, I wanted to discuss one of Diller + Scofidio’s work Traffic from 1981, your installation in Columbus Circle, New York, which was commissioned by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies.

ED

Oh right, right. You can see from that work that type of thinking we were doing and how I was interested in talking to and through architecture. From the moment I transferred into the architecture department, I immediately had a critical approach to everything that was being done there, because it was purist but maybe it was also a defense mechanism. The nine square grid was a teaching tool and how architects are taught to build is so reminiscent of Sol LeWitt’s work.

EO

[Laughs.] Yes, of course!

ED

…picking up on minimalism, which in a lot of ways was ultimately an aesthetic. Anyway, you had to build a perfect nine square grid in quadrant scale on a black base and that was the basis for all the exercises. I made one but I fur-lined it, meaning that all the members, columns, and beams were lined with fur.

EO

Oh wow.


ED

But to come back to your point on who my influences were: [Marcel] Duchamp was a kind of hero for me, and it was for all those issues that he was questioning himself within the discipline of art as well as the relationship between words, images, the figure of the artist, their role, physical presence, and identity. He was questioning the market, too. I would say he’s one of the artists that’s the biggest inspiration for me and continues to be.

EO

Were you reading Daniel Buren?

ED

I wasn’t. Not at that time.

EO:

Was he ever someone you were interested in?

ED

Not so much. I was aware of his work, but I was trying to think more with Laurence Weiner, Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, that group of people who were more Dia [Foundation] oriented artists, and earthworks and Smithson, especially Smithson, was important to me.

EO

Smithson is so in line with the model, the idea, and the execution of a concept. It’s pervasive in a way because he’s able to position you and produce and reproduce you as subject and control what you’re able to see. It’s very McLuhanian; the message is the medium but there’s also some kind of transference through the actual landscape with the land art movement with the Spiral Jetty as a book, as an installation, and as a film.

ED

Right, and it follows the line of thinking of Duchamp. My earliest research was on his The Large Glass, from 1923, and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Green Box), from 1934, and thinking about there being two forms of the same thing–one being printed in a kind of book of notations, and the other one physical space–that was really key because that inspired, The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate (Delay in Glass), from 1987, the performance that we put on at the Philadelphia Museum, but Duchamp was the only artist, for me, that really had that resonance of the word and the image, being in some kind of continuous contact and it’s not that the word is a supplement for the image but as a parallel form to it.

EO

Yes, exactly. My understanding of architecture stems from this one example of Brian Larkin’s work where he deems architecture as a practice of promise. We’re in a never-ending perpetual pursuit of architecture being this thing/machine that is constantly becoming, and it’s afforded the space to do so, though the people often given the proverbial keys to steer the car or pioneer the movement often practice a kind of senseless violence that leaves so many displaced and discarded; it’s a cyclical tragedy. Art sometimes can create space to mirror the material realities and inequalities that structure and make up the corners of the world, in terms of exposing and showcasing multiple truths at the same time.

What about conceptual work in the 1970s that produced you as a subject? You know, things that you encountered that immediately changed your subject-object orientation and effectively rendered you without any kind of control, where you’re engaging with the concept and the concept produced you? I feel like now a good deal of artists are making work in an architectural sense where they gesture at the promise of what they want their work to wishfully communicate but it doesn’t necessarily embody those desires with a physical presence.

ED

I think it’s both, you know? I think about Agnes Martin and those grid paintings: they’re mesmerizing and have a particular effect. If you go in the other direction and think about Vito Acconci’s work, which is also super influential for me and dealt with some of the questions you’re bringing up now; how as an audience member you were subjected to participate in the work just by attending the performance, and the work was made to make you feel uncomfortable. I thought a lot about the theater that was happening and some of the companies that were pushing the audience to be very present and have an exchange with the work on multiple levels—sometimes gesturing more towards discomfort. It was engaging and played on the subject-object inversion.

Just going back to Hans Haacke, for me that was a wakeup call to think about how institutions produce conventions that we need to be made aware of and think considerably more critically about as a daily practice and we need to be shaken out of our sleepwalking. And part of it is a political and economic step to challenge institutions but part of it was just the way to that very quietly that there was a production of powering authority that’s there and insidious in a way and you must start to pay attention to it. That’s what a lot of our work was about, especially in the early days, I’m thinking about Entry Gate, Art on the Beach, from 1984, which was installed at the Battery Park City Landfill in the summer on a vacant lot that was going to become a big development but, in the meantime, it was a space for an outdoor arts installation. We did this sort of interface between the municipal street and the future public space, and it was an area that mostly served as an exchange of money, so we were trying to counter that. We made a big issue of it and made a detail that there was an exchange of money present. Anyway, it was young work though it may not have been entirely mature work when I look back on it, we were already in the very earliest installations, sort of working with a critical voice. We weren’t accepting what was given to us on a silver platter, but we were constantly questioning everything and pushing the question out to the viewer to produce doubt and instability, it was never aesthetic, never formal. We used them as tools, but they were never the prime point.

EO

I was looking at Master/Slave, 1999, an installation at the Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporain in Paris…

ED

Oh yeah?

EO

And I was wondering, what’s your relationship to surveillance now? To me, to take it back to thinking about architecture as this promise of futurity, in thinking about the piece it’s both a declaration to the future and a kind of contemporary composite that doesn’t want to be engaged literally or critically—where it doesn’t yet know what it will be in the future, but it also must point you in a direction. Has your practice always developed in tandem with technology? Has tech been at the forefront of your projects?

ED

The answer is yes. Our practice has completely developed in tandem with technology and as technologies have evolved, we’ve paid attention to the kind of technophilia in the air, especially in the ’80s and beyond where everything that came out was a great thing. There were technophiles and technophobes, and we were neither, we were interested in using technology as one of our tools but using it again in a kind of critical and thoughtful way. Indigestion from 1995, was a piece that was about public interactivity, where you could select characters that are based on human stereotypes, and you could change the nature of the conversation across the dinner table by selecting the characters—the dialogue changes with the meal changing. It was the first interactive thing that we ever did and was a critique on interactivity because of the way it focused on this specific type of stereotyping.

The Blur Building, 2002, was an early artificial intelligence project in the base of Lake Neuchatel in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland because it was learning and acting in real time how to behave in its environment, and then it was ultimately automated, but it had to learn behaviors relative to weather systems, humidity, temperature, wind direction, and then it learned to compute—how to produce more fog here and there to always fill out the cloud. We were using that technology in service of a low depth space . . . so it was very thematic for us, we’re always using the theme of technology to mirror back the reflection of itself and the same thing with surveillance. We’re fascinated and critical of it, especially in the early days when a lot of our projects used surveillance cameras and brought images here from someplace else and observing who has the power and who’s in control. Surveillance is a two-way system, right? Sometimes we count on surveillance to make us feel safe, at least that’s the notion where if you have enough cameras there won’t be crime. On the one hand, people don’t want to be watched, but on the other they don’t want to not be watched. It’s a funny weird thing and it’s the same thing with glass. It’s meant to bring transparency to the fore where we were able to look out and see infinitely but what most people forget is that if you can see out someone else can see in.

EO

While doing research and reading, I was thinking about the weaponization of the mist cloud that the Blur Building produces and the building as virus because it takes water from Lake Neuchâtel and changes its material reality and changes our relationship to it. So, what’s your understanding of performance and how has performance advanced over time? And in terms of Blur, what’s your relationship to materiality and how does it drive your practice?

ED

I want to address something about Blur that people generally don’t know. It could have been a deadly tool and project because we realized, only after we were deep into it, that atomizing water makes it so that it goes into your lungs. It’s not like when you drink it and it goes through your digestive system—when it goes through your lungs, basically when you inhale bacteria, it could kill you and/or give you Legionnaire’s Disease. We hired water engineers and tested the water and saw how polluted the lake was—it was filled with phytoplankton, bacteria, and other pollutants. We had to buy these expensive water filtration systems to be able to move forward with the building, because had we not, we would have killed off an entire population of people in Switzerland who were visiting! So, we had to refocus our attention on the invisible infectant because it was so deadly. It was so interesting because there weren’t too many rules that we had to abide by. The Swiss were most interested in having the world’s largest sprinkler system and they weren’t concerned about the quality of air that people were breathing.

EO

So, they were driven by the aesthetic?

ED

Yeah, these were the Swiss authorities that allowed us to build the thing in the first place. They were pushing us to get a specific kind of sprinkler system, and it was just so absurd, I learned a lot, and I do think of it very much as Blur as Virus.

Then, to answer your question about performance, I think about Chris Burden who was very much so on my mind during the earlier days of our practice and Acconci. They were artists that were working in performance and approached their own bodies being subject to all sorts of torture and incorporated it in these visceral ways. I’m thinking about Wooster Group, Trisha Brown, and others.

EO

At one time the audience was necessary to activate the performance but now in conceptual art there’s more leeway for a passive audience. We have been conditioned to engage with and experience the material and physical promises of art and not think past conjecture.

ED

Right, right. So once performance art became its own thing and separated itself, we saw a shift in the infrastructural use and that was a source of great inspiration for me as well. Bernard Tschumi and RoseLee Goldberg were together, and his work was starting to spin with performance, and it was interesting just to look at architecture as a vital piece that you remain in constant dialogue with. You don’t just make a building in a vacuum. It’s interactive with humans and bodies and there is an exchange all the time, and it expanded my thinking generally and to this day, I can’t think of architecture as anything other than a performative art form. You do it, you live through it, and have a constant exchange with it. Even the things that you imagine that can happen is transformed from your earliest thoughts on what it can be and it’s a very dynamic form that isn’t frozen in time.

EO 

I noticed that D+S and now DS+R have revamped a few of Phillip Johnson’s extensive architectural projects.  [Laughter.]

ED

[Laughs.] Oh, you noticed that?

EO

[Laughs.] Yes, my brain is constantly seeking out patterns. I’ve also been thinking about something you once said, that “the greatest opportunity is being able to build in your backyard.” It’s very telling that you had the opportunity to revise Johnson’s La Brasserie (2000), Lincoln Center, (2009), and the Museum of Modern Art (2019). In terms of excavating these sites, how do you continue to approach expanding someone’s work you keep encountering in your proverbial backyard, especially someone with the likeness of Johnson?

ED

I’m careful. In the case of the Brasserie, it burned down and there was very little left so there wasn’t much to consider in terms of how we approached that project. I was more concerned with Mies [Van Der Rohe] at that point with the Brasserie than with Johnson, and at Lincoln Center, I was much more concerned with Johnson and his work particularly on the central plaza (the entrance) and taking on mid-century monumental modernism, or whatever it’s called. I was very conscious of undoing that and thinking about the beneficial elements that came out of that period of early reflection of postmodernism and was thinking about the unfulfilled aspirations that Lincoln Center had as a public institution. It was easy to hack at it and I thought extensively of it as a hacking process, something to disassemble and reconfigure

EO

I moved to New York after that renovation, so I never knew it in its previous state. The renovation is so much more dynamic than the original and thoughtful as a design and challenges more conventional aspects of design, especially with the Hypar Pavilion (2010). DS+R really thoroughly excavated and activated the architecture of Lincoln Center so much so that the initial plans of LC seemed more like infrastructure than anything else and was two dimensional in a way.

ED

Yeah, it was really empty before and, look, it was frankly built for car culture, suburbanites, and was leaning into the idea of the mega block, the big garage, and antiseptic spaces of public spaces. The design was inaccessible in many ways, with an edge blocking the sidewalk facing West.

EO

Right.

ED

Design with a hard solid right angle/edge…

EO

I’ve been thinking about this recently and how modernism was really concerned with the hard angle/edge; serve me up some ninety-degree angles . . . [Laughs.]

ED

[Laughs.] Yes, so we had to approach the redesign and blow up what they had in place. We had to turn it inside out and a large part of that was late ’50s planning and early ’60s architecture, and so basically when we interviewed for the job, we said we “wanted to make Lincoln Center more Lincoln Center than Lincoln Center. [Laughs.] I didn’t exactly know what I meant by that, but it was appealing to them. I think what I meant is that it was really a dynamic space at night, filled with people and events and things, but during the day, most of the time, it was absolutely empty, zero people. No one would be attracted or stay a moment after a performance or come before, and they only would gather during intermission—so that’s kind of what I meant by that. The project was a critique of that planning and Johnson was an early proponent of postmodernism and reflected it back historically, but he wasn’t the only one, Harrison & Abramovitz were also. Those two did the Met and what was originally known as the Philharmonic Hall (1962) which was renamed the Avery Fisher Hall in 1973. That whole cluster, you know the New York state theater was a part of the cluster of buildings that we had to take on maybe on its own terms. We got rid of the road and added stairs with an electronic element and got rid of the cars, and our focus was to make it more monumental, but we also were able to dematerialize it through the use of the electronics and make it, so it wasn’t self-conscious.

EO

With architecture, I think you’re either combating form or challenging/reimagining the functional components of the infrastructure. What’s most compelling to me is that Lincoln Center wasn’t a single-issue problem, it wasn’t an expansion or a remodel, it was more sporadic and you needed to exist in a more reactive state to combat issues that would arise overtime.

ED

It’s true, it was a project that grew, especially since it started off with rehabilitating 65th street, the north plaza, and then to the box office of Alice Tully Hall, and then that expanded to Juilliard's whole building and addition, which ultimately led to a complete renovation of Tully Hall. And then we ended up redoing the entire part of the southern campus and the entrance and then took on the School of the American Ballet, all of which were separate projects. With every institution that I’m mentioning the conversation started with us discussing minor adjustments or we approached them with some suggestions but there was no grand plan. It was just a continuous bout of surgeries, you know, the patient was sick, and we kept shifting to address the removal of one organ and then something else went wrong or was obstructed and we had to adjust accordingly.

It was ten years of multiple parallel projects that was so complicated and that required a lot of problem solving. But our primary focus was rethinking rebuilding Lincoln Center for our time, and we had to make sense out of something that was built 50 years before. Ultimately, we wanted to prioritize the publicness of the public space and make that the mainstage of the new Lincoln Center.