PRINT Summer 1988


THE RELATIONSHIP OF FACT and fiction in architecture is not as clear as it once was. At one time, these two realms were seen in radical opposition: the form-givers were the fact-makers; the architects of the imagined, the visionary, the speculative—however allegorical or delightful their propositions might be—offered fantasies. Much work has served to befuddle this dichotomy, to locate a new meaning in the overlapping, rather than the disjunction, between what architects can conceive and what they can construct. And our century has been a period of enthusiastic endorsement for the notion that “fictions,” too, are bearers of veracity. In the 1960s particularly, “paper” architecture flourished—offering representations of new ways of thinking and responding to space and structure. But ironically, the publication in 1980 of Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History, one of the few major overviews to acknowledge the conjectural as an important thread in the weave of architecture’s history, coincided with a conservative realignment. Today, it is common reportage that so many of the young architects of a decade ago who were once eager to draw are now eager to draw only to build—any kind of building at any cost. Given this peculiar shift, just as the options had begun to expand, the architecture of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio represents an alternative to the world of conventional practice. Their provocative constructions continue to explore the rich ambiguity of both fact and fiction, of both specific circumstances and general phenomena; they have continued to open doors while many of their colleagues choose discrete peepholes. In fact, the device that makes the opening of doors possible—the hinge—has been an insistent presence, both literal and metaphoric, in much of their work.

The hinge, that supple joint, creates a manipulable connection. But its essence lies in the transformations it empowers. Its flexibility and ambiguity were probably first explored in the early 15th century; a hinged horizontal railing on the Gothic Swing-Back Bench permitted the sitter to face first one direction, then another. Now ubiquitous, hinges turn immovable objects into movable ones, permit multiple uses, or can even—as in the case of Marcel Duchamp’s door in 11 Rue Larrey, 1927—confound all kinds of accepted notions that distinguish form and function, time and space, positive and negative, the defined and the infinite. This simple and elegant connection at our shoulders, hips, and knees makes a step or a slight turn commonplace and unconscious. If frozen, the hinge stops all movement, all potential for change. “It all hinges on whether this happens,” we say. The hinge is about rupture and mending, the given and the desired, the ordinary and the extraordinary. And for Diller and Scofidio, the hinge is also an axis, axle, and critical pivot from a tradition-bound architecture of accommodation to an autonomous architecture of invention that scrupulously avoids and challenges comfort as an end.

The Plywood House (sometimes referred to as the Kinney House), 1980, was a site of departure for these architects. That year, a writer approached the team; the program she presented them with was limited but complex. She wanted a reclusive, quiet home with a feeling of openness in which to work on weekends and vacations. But the site was undramatic—a rural escape in New York State that had been transfigured into a suburban enclave—and the writer’s budget was modest. The small house that Diller and Scofidio built, rather than a quiet compromise in light of site and budgetary restraints, might be said to represent an apotheosis of the irreconcilable. Undermining the greatest convention and lesson of architecture—that the parts of a building should be modulated to fit a general, holistic conception—Diller and Scofidio allowed the home to register the concrete needs of the client, the innovative vision of the architects, and the conflicts of aspirations and realistic constraints. This “collision” of desires and dictates is anxiously recorded in the building. The exterior and the interior of the house do not find harmony; neither have been adjusted to a compromised conception of a good fit. With an exterior constructed of low-cost treated plywood in 4-by-8-foot standard modules, and regularly placed, stock-unit casement windows, the residence appears to occupy its site with a blatant, blocklike banality. Inside, however, the home has a spacious, barnlike quality. And an exceptional disjunction has occurred as two unexceptional circumstances—outside and inside—confront one another. The interior layout was permitted to evolve independent of the standardized exterior system. Some windows, then, frame views of the exterior site; others are cut or completely blocked by interior walls in order to fashion interior spaces required by the client. Of course, a program of compromise and subtle adjustment would have been possible—if it were sought in the first place. But this was an unusual client, one who welcomed the opportunity to participate in a project (a built fact) that documents, in undiluted form, the intrinsic tensions of the architectural process: client versus architect, program versus form, interior/private space versus exterior/public face.

Diller and Scofidio’s Plywood House was a risky and witty attack on the checklist (and checks and balances) organization that underlies the traditional approach to building. The project also represented a break in their thinking, or served as a hinge to their future work. For the past eight years, the team has concentrated on architectural installations for particular events, performances, and short-lived situations; in this kind of architecture as guerilla activity, they have posited a new kind of program. The program is plot, that open-ended matrix for developing ideas and character, for testing the legibility of personal visions, for exploring the multiple nature of experience. “The plot,” wrote E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, 1927, “instead of finding human beings more or less cut to its requirements. . . finds them enormous, shadowy and intractable, and three-quarters hidden like an iceberg.”1 Comprehending the plot requires both memory and intelligence, for “mystery is essential to a plot. . . . To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.”2 For Diller and Scofidio, the plot is of interest for the structure it implies, not for the story it may record. Their recent work, therefore, while rigorously antinarrative, embraces the notions of contrivance, contemplation, and human action as the hinge between idea and fulfillment.

This idea is explored most conspicuously and aggressively in the team’s 1986 Drawing in Tension project. Creative Time, Inc., a nonprofit New York arts organization, invited artists and architects to propose temporary installations for the Anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge—a vast space of huge vaults and tall, dank chambers. For Diller and Scofidio, this great immovable bulwark suggested all kinds of movement. It hinges the treacherous currents of the East River with the bustling traffic of Manhattanites and Brooklynites on each shore; it is the locus of both departure and destination. Each installation would also have to serve as set or props for the Creation Company’s production of Matthew Maguire’s play The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo, a play inspired by a 16th-century poet, scholar, architect, philosopher—Giulio Camillo, the quintessential Renaissance man. His original “Theater of Memory” was a great hall filled with objects and artifacts amassed to arrest the viewer’s attention and stimulate memory; Camillo wanted his theater to serve as a vast and tangible projection of the human mind, in which occur the mysterious associations with collective culture that give rise to the creation of history.

With the commissioning of Drawing in Tension, the architects set about constructing two identical planked walkways supported by cables and slender beams. Each walkway, 20 feet in the air, was attached to opposite sides of the central vault that forms the primary entrance to the Anchorage. But the sense of rest or repose, of a journey safely completed—suggested by the placement of two upright chairs at the point where each walkway met the side of the vault—was undermined by the impending danger of a plunge to the floor below. For the two walkways did not meet at the center. Instead, these mirrored elements transformed the slender slice of air between them into a charged void, one that could either transmit or obstruct an impulse. For playwright Maguire, that gap served to signify the process of memory, in which the “consummation” of innocence and experience can only be achieved through risky and aggressive action. The action that revealed the intentions of the project took place only once in the play. In its central dramatic moment, the character Camillo took a stride; with one foot on his side, his other foot on the opposite, the two walkways became one bridge. Camillo’s stride was a momentary consummation, his body the hinge, a dynamic synapse simultaneously joining past and future, structure and plot.

In another project, a theatrical collaboration with writer and director Susan Mosakowski and composer Vito Ricci, Diller and Scofidio designed the set, body constructions, and some of the props for the Creation Company’s production of The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate, first performed at New York’s La Mama, Etc., during the summer of 1987. Mosakowski focused on the story of Duchamp’s own internal contradictions and their relationship to his art and ideas. Diller and Scofidio created their set to serve as a structural reflection of Duchamp’s protean work The Large Glass, 1915–23, and its exploration of notation, complexity of roles, androgyny, and the relationship of organic and mechanical systems. (The Large Glass seems to lend itself to such endeavors. Twenty years before, the work inspired Jasper Johns’ set design for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company piece Walkaround Time.)

The central device of the Diller-Scofidio set was a large, aluminum-sheathed panel that physically divided the realm of the Bachelor from the domain of the Bride. But this panel was set on a horizontal hinge; periodically throughout the performance, the characters would rotate the screen 360 degrees—plot moving structure, or structure moving plot, or both?—and the Bride and the Bachelor would exchange places/spaces without actually encountering one another. Angled above the screen, another panel, this one a large mirror, disclosed to the audience the activities of whoever was behind the partition, reflecting in elevation a multiplicity of confounding perspectives that are ordinarily the province of drawing and graphic representation. As with Duchamp’s work itself, viewers became voyeurs, complicit participants in a theater that freely announced its own artifice. Stage front and center, the character of the Oculist Witness manned a camera on a tripod; from another point, the episodic flash of a strobelike light simultaneously punctuated and interrupted the continuity of perception. Duchamp’s Large Glass cut through time as well as space through syntactic eruptions. The Diller-Scofidio kinetic set did the same. In this case, the architects used their hinge not to bring cohesion, but constantly to break and disrupt the flow of information gleaned through action.

That same summer, Diller and Scofidio became designers, directors, and characters in their own creation. The Capp Street Project, under the direction of Ann Hatch, offers a house in San Francisco to artists to create and live in their own temporary installations. By isolating and playing with central issues regarding the nature of domesticity, Diller and Scofidio’s installation there, the withDrawing Room, demonstrated that the conflicts inherent in the traditional, comfort-oriented architect/client relationship are underwritten by perhaps even more entrenched acceptances of conventional architectural hierarchies. First, Diller and Scofidio took the property line of the site, the “plot”—that most abrupt, capricious, and yet most hallowed declaration about what’s public and what’s private—and brought it inside, incising it through the floor, even through pieces of furniture, exposing the wood floor of the original frame structure and the earth below. Next, they tackled the sovereign ground of propriety, where human beings consistently find themselves “more or less cut,” in Forster’s words, to the requirements of etiquette. With their bizarre setting, Diller and Scofidio dared to render this concept inconsequential. They suspended a dining room table and four chairs in the air. The furniture floated on an imaginary surface suggested by a dotted line that ran along the upper balcony and indicated where the home’s original second floor had been. And then, to challenge comfortable notions about where and how intimacy occurs in the domestic environment, the architects designed a double bed with a hinge at one end so that one side could swing away from the other. Even when reunited, the two sides were bisected by a vertical wall that came down almost to the surface of the lead bedspreads. Any resolution in this bedroom would be stridently irresolute; any comfort of connection, provisional at best.

The fertile arena of architecture as art has been more the province of artists than of architects crossing over the traditional boundaries of their fields. But Diller and Scofidio’s calculated detour into the realm of temporary installations embodies important philosophical questions for architecture. The permanent construct, however imaginative, has always been limited by the constraints imposed by what people (the client, the public) think the future will bear. By implicitly incorporating suppositions about the next generation’s reception of the work into its conception, the architect of the permanent may be forfeiting the opportunity to mark the present with radical conviction. The architect of the temporary, who posits the future as a mystery, may be the one who can most potently speak to and of the moment. Furthermore, Diller and Scofidio demonstrate that the ephemeral work need not be an illusory or insubstantial one. Their use of traditional, “enduring” materials and their rigorous methods of construction give their installations a profound and powerful presence. This is their great irony and perhaps their most significant iconoclasm.

These explorations of the temporary also have interesting and puzzling repercussions for the critic of architecture. Goethe’s notion of architecture as frozen music, or at least the timelessness that notion implies, reflects our traditional perception of buildings and their makers. But with the temporary, what’s frozen melts. On what terms, then, does the critic evaluate the work? Few feel comfortable (or responsible) analyzing a construction they’ve never seen. (I faced this problem in writing about the withDrawing room, and it was only with some reluctance that I overcame my resistance to discussing an installation I didn’t actually see.) Yet temporary installations such as Diller and Scofidio’s cannot be deemed merely theoretical propositions; even if their Drawing in Tension or their Capp Street installation no longer exists today, they did exist at some moment. Conventionally, the critic of architecture approaches drawings and photographs as the prelude for the encounter with the actual building or space. But if by the time the critic views these documents, the actual construction no longer exists, the drawing and photograph—generally considered illusory and adjusted evidence—become the permanent record, the space the passing event. Diller and Scofidio’s temporary thus monumentalizes the drawing and photograph, and trivializes the constructed object or environment. In a strange confirmation and inversion of Walter Benjamin’s premise in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, the forms and methods of documentation take on an aura and endurability that recall but also eclipse the site of the original manifestation.

Like most architects, this team uses drawings as generative resources, and as tools for clarification. But with Diller and Scofidio, the plot thickens. For after their constructions are dismantled, they revise the story, producing after-the-fact drawings that they call “altered excerpts.” The architects center a black and white photograph of the actual installation on paper, then draw additions or deletions based on their memory of how things worked, or how they might have worked better or differently. By inverting the conventional order of drawing to construction, by moving the drawing from prelude to epilogue, Diller and Scofidio present their most original and provocative use of the hinge. The story reads backward and forward, making legible the illogical. Diller and Scofidio’s work is hot and cool. The tactile, visceral, and yet ephemeral life of their constructions provides the friction that ignites and then exhumes, and their drawings are chilling analytic and poetic moments that raise afresh the question: what is the work of art or architecture—the event, the moment of invention, or the evidence that stimulates memory?

Patricia C. Phillips writes regularly for Artforum.



1. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955, p. 85.

2. Ibid., p. 87.

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