Blueprint innovation: 16 interviews with international architects

Liz Diller

Liz Diller. Photo: Aberl Ardo Morrell Liz Diller. Photo: Aberl Ardo Morrell

Liz Diller is a founding partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R). She trained as an architect but originally wanted to be an artist. Dubbed the first ‘post-wall architects’, DS+R is ideas led, choosing to interrogate issues that matter - anything from migration to public space - with outcomes as diverse as a multimedia art installation (Exit), a pavilion made of fog (Blur Building in Switzerland) or a disused railway line that has become one of the most iconic public spaces in Manhattan (the High Line). She, with founding partner Ricardo Scofidio, are the first architects to be awarded a MacArthur ‘genius grant’.

Innovation is not something we undertake with the explicit aim of doing something novel; it typically springs from the desire to fix something that’s broken or outdated, or produce something that’s needed. Occasionally, however, we have an itch that has to be scratched. We get ourselves into trouble imagining things that we have no idea how to pull off.

Our studio is driven by curiosity. We are always attacking conventions of everyday space that we sleepwalk our way through. The Shed, for example, is a cultural start-up that we conceived with David Rockwell in response to the absence of a kunsthalle in New York: one that serves both the visual and performing arts and achieves a level of financial sustainability.

The building itself telescopes open and closed using industrial crane technologies upgraded to be responsive with new skills. We brought it to the city administration, got support, continued to make converts and now it has a board and an artistic director, and both the institution and the building are in the process of being built. This desire for a new model drove an innovative and entrepreneurial approach. It reflected our interest in expanding the architect’s agency. Architects shouldn’t only perfect yesterday’s models; we should be creating new ones.

The Vagelos Education Center at Columbia University, New York, (under construction, May 2016)Photo: Luc BoeglyThe Vagelos Education Center at Columbia University, New York, (under construction, May 2016) Photo: Luc Boegly

Our studio started off as an independent practice that engaged problems in space through art and performance. Public space has always been of prime importance across multiple formats, at a variety of scales, from cities to stages, to gallery walls, to print, to the internet. Architecture is but one outlet.

Our studio of more than 100 is a place of misfits. They are typically trained as architects but they refuse to take a straight path. Rather than solving problems in other studios they choose to help make new problems with us.

We have a division in our studio for money-losing projects, fed by the ones that are just getting by. Our curiosity and research oriented practice takes us into uncharted territory. Thus, we collaborate with many experts outside the studio, whether they are writers, or directors, or programmers or geographers.

We are aware of our limited knowledge, so we pick our collaborators wisely, as needed by a project. On EXIT, for example, a digital project with Paul Virilio about human migration across the world for economic, political and environmental reasons, we grew our team to include geographers, programmers, graphic artists and statisticians. The Blur Building needed engineers, agriculturalists, deep-sea divers and meteorologists. We are very interested in rethinking institutional frameworks.

The Vagelos Education Center at Columbia University, New York, (under construction, May 2016). Photo: Luc Boegly
EXIT, a multimedia installation about human migration across the world at the Palais de Tokyo (November 2015). Photo: Luc Boegly

The museum is one. Education is another. We are just finishing a medical education building at Columbia University; the building’s organisation is structured to be unstructured to fuel and inspire team-based learning. There are really no great models to draw from except maybe the cafe. The relationship of space to education needs a total makeover - how we learn, how we teach, how space can contribute to creative thinking and collaboration.

To that end, we’ve just finished a building at Stanford that intersects art making and art history. Each has a wing, united by a library. At Brown University we made a building for the visual arts, the performing arts, the sciences and the liberal arts that facilitates the creation of new crossover projects rather than discipline-specific ones. It’s a loft sliced in half, with one half displaced by half a storey. I would love to have a go at an elementary [primary] school and apply new spatial freedoms to a younger group of students with less hardened attitudes to the conventions of the everyday. VS

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