Diller Scofidio + Renfro

diller-scofidio-renfro.jpgCharles Renfro, Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller. Photo by Abelardo Morrell

By Jakob Harry Hybel

In the world of unorthodox artist-architects, few have made such an impact as New York City-based design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Experimental, yet accessible and packed with social commentary, their wide-ranging, interdisciplinary work seek to blur the lines between architecture and the visual and the performing arts.

Founded in 1979 by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, their early work tended more towards art than architecture, earning them a reputation as avant-garde theater and installation artists. Then, a decade into their joint practice, they received a decisive commission, a weekend retreat on the Long Island waterfront for a Japanese art investor. Despite its simple program – as well as the fact that it was never actually realized – the project seemed to catapult the company’s profile from obscurity to fame almost overnight. It also encased the strict orchestration of space, that the architects would continue exploring in different shapes and forms for decades to come.

Although the firm have often displayed an apparently insatiable enthusiasm for new technologies, it is, however, often paired with a great deal of scepticism. Thus, in many of their projects, they have examined how man-made environments affect human behavior – perhaps most clearly articulated in the Seagram Building Brasserie , which they redesigned in 2000. Here, one monitor was placed in the windowless entrance vestibule to display the street scene outside and a row of 15 monitors over the bar to record in freeze-frame each arrival.

Diller and Scofidio have always asserted the artist’s prerogative of dictating the program. Geometry never seemed to interest them as much as inquiring into and challenging the program, they are presented with. The Blur Building, built over Lake Neuchatel for Swiss Expo ’02 serves as a fitting example: a steel structure studded with thousands of nozzles generating walls of mist, it was an immaterial building – a spectacle without substance.

In 2004, the husband-and-wife duo of Diller and Scofidio were joined by Charles Renfro as a partner, and they have not been short on commissions since then. While still making controversial projects (such as the Hirshhorn Museum expansion, a 145 foot tall inflatable meeting hall known as “The Bubble”), the firm’s usual polemical approach was remarkably toned-down in their recent, highly successful venture into city planning, the High Line project in New York City. With simple yet considerate means, they have transformed 1.5 miles of previously derelict high-line railroad tracks in Chelsea on New York City’s Lower West Side into a sophisticated elevated urban park to almost universal acclaim.

In 1999, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, the firm’s founding principals, were awarded the prestigious “genius grant” by the MacArthur Foundation, in recognition of their “commitment to integrating architecture with issues of contemporary culture”. In addition, DS+R are fellows of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and they have received, among many notable awards, the AIA Medal of Honor, the National Design Award from the Smithsonian and the AIA President’s Award.

Visit the DS+R website here.