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Sep 10, 2009

Designer Liz Diller and architect Ric Scofidio enact a transformative vision of America’s public spaces in the very private space of their relationship.

By David A. Ross

Diller and Scofidio live in a world of blurred boundaries. Married to each other and their work, they overlap the worlds of art and architecture, theory and practice, ivory tower and construction site.

Among their missions is to soften the borders and invade the privacy of public space, a project that won them a MacArthur “genius” Prize. Their relationship is a laboratory and their studio is its home.

The Long Road to the High Line

Diller met Scofidio in an elevator. She was the new student, he was the professor. With her was her “really bad, bad” boyfriend of the moment, the professor’s former student, who introduced them.

Diller’s bad boy was good enough to see the future. “You’re going to end up with that guy,” he said.

They didn’t hook up right away, but waited for the end of the school year. “I always thought it was a huge cliché,” he says of getting involved with a student. “It was something I would never do. But…there was a way that we had of talking to each other and talking about projects which really was the thing that attracted us to each other, more than physical attraction at first.”

That was in the mid-’70s. In the 30-plus years since, they have collaborated on everything from critical essays and books to performance pieces and museum installations, including exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (1989) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (2003).

Their architectural work is equally wide-ranging. Having just redesigned the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, they are perhaps now most famous for transforming the cityscape of downtown New York City with a park called The High Line, which they built on a long-abandoned elevated train track.

“The High Line is a place to celebrate people watching,” Diller says. “During the morning, you get your joggers, but in the late evening you get your cruisers.” In considering what to make of such a space, she reflects, “we think about precedents a lot. We think about how the world wants to move.”

A Singular Togetherness

There have been other well-known couples working as architects and designers—Charles and Ray Eames, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Billie Tsien and Todd Williams.

Each of them had to construct their working and private lives under the added pressure of a male-dominated profession defined by tremendous competitive jealousy.

Diller and Scofidio took an unusual approach to this problem: They agreed that they could violently disagree. Especially when their work demands solutions in areas they know little about—the obscure field of psycho-acoustics for Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, for example—they agree to resist fixed positions, to refine their proposed solutions in the crucible of heated argument.

“Rick and I typically argue a lot,” she says.

“Yes,” he says.

“We kind of beat each other up. He has his ideas, I have my ideas, and I think my ideas are better than his.”

“When we first started working,” Scofidio remembers, “Elizabeth was afraid she was going to be consumed and in fact I think the first new project she did, you did without me.”

“I had a problem with authorship. I had a problem with sharing a bed, sharing a bank account and sharing authorship,” she says. “So I got over all of that.”

“Early in our relationship, we really pushed it many times to be on the breaking point,” he remembers. “I mean really be on the breaking point, and then 20 minutes later we’re back together and everything was fine. And I think that that has enabled us to be totally brutal and honest with each other.”

Getting Things Inside Out

Five years ago, Diller and Scofidio brought in a third partner, Charles Renfro, as collaborator-cum-tie-breaker. As Diller once remarked to a reporter for the New York Times, “it created a de-stabilizing condition that is actually good for the work.”

Instability and ambiguity seem actually to energize them. Ask them a simple question, and you are likely to get anything but a simple answer.

For example: Are they artists or are they architects?

“It depends on who’s asking,” she says. “If artists asked, we said we were architects, if architects asked, we said we were artists. We always liked being on kind of the marginal side of things.” In another victory over boundaries, that sidelines strategy has placed them as close as anyone can be to the center of the action in architecture.

In their view, the key to this success has been a deep understanding of whatever project they confront and a fidelity to certain abiding themes in their work.

“Like the culture of vision,” says Diller. “That’s one that has always been there. I mean even Tully, for example. One of the ways we understood that acoustics could operate was through psycho-acoustics—when you saw better you actually heard better. So we made every effort to produce a space where sight was turned into a feature. In Blur, that was super-important.”

Blur is a house they built in 2002, an exposition pavilion on a lake in Sweden that was completely surrounded in mist—a work that was all but invisible.

“We just keep coming back to these themes, and over this and many other kinds of smaller themes that work in and out of every project, we just haggle over everything. It’s kind of a non-stop battle.”

She hesitates, then adds, as if to explain: “We’re always kind of looking for something that’s just a bit ineffable, you know?”

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Wow, es verdaderamente impresionante

mauricio bugueño
Oct 26, 2009

This is Important – even if you don’t think so, America. Why? I was 42, when the abcess in my cranium broke through my brain pan – sending me into violent seizures, while on a long camping adventure, and so, I thus ended up tumbling headfirst into thorny bramble bush, so that, by the time I got to the ER (crawling, half-paralyzed) I was covered with scratchs; and do you think, in that time – when I could have easily ended up comatose, with no local kin – that I, or my Doctor (I’m Disabled by a Neuropathy – so I DO Have one), had any Idea what i might, or might not, have wanted them to do with my vegetable-ized zombie body? The fact that my Hospital has attended to this issue – in more detail than the law requires, is a telling statement, as well.

James Staples
Sep 19, 2009

Liz Diller appeared before a large, hopeful audience in Denver a few years ago. We were genuinely interested in her work, and were eager to hear about her approach to the new Clyfford Still Museum. Alas, this was not to be. Once onstage she buried herself in her notes, inaudibly mumbled her presentation, refused any eye contact with us, her would-be clients, and rushed off the stage afterwards. Her office then refused to release a written version of her comments, despite repeated requests. In general, a performance full of contempt for the rubes here in flyover country.

Donald Frazier
Sep 16, 2009