PRINT November 2017


AS PART OF Artforum’s ongoing series of conversations about museum architecture, senior editor Julian Rose interviews ELIZABETH DILLER, whose decades-long practice has upended conventional ways of building, straying into performance, video, sculpture, and politics. Diller’s new designs for exhibition spaces—including a major expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, currently under construction—reflect the architect’s sustained investigation of mutiny and media.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mural (detail), 2003, electric drill, metal track, electronic components, drywall, dimensions variable.

JULIAN ROSE: You went to the Cooper Union in New York, one of the few institutions in this country where an art school and an architecture school coexist in the same building. How did that interdisciplinary environment affect you?

ELIZABETH DILLER: I came to Cooper as an art student. I wanted to make films. But on a whim, I saw a class called Architectonics in the course catalogue, and I thought, What could that mean? I decided to enroll. It was nothing like I imagined. In the art school, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about what you did, what it meant, and why you did it, or how you positioned yourself relative to history or theory. In the architecture school, we spoke about the discipline constantly—its history and intersection with other fields. I was seduced by those conversations and, of course, by John Hejduk, who was dean at the time. If I had found myself in any other architecture school, I probably wouldn’t have stayed, because I had very little interest in making buildings. Hejduk taught me that architecture included so much more than buildings. In fact, he was rabidly opposed to the profession of architecture. He felt it was intellectually and morally bankrupt.

JR: Do you think that was because he had a sense that architecture had to define itself as more than just a profession—as a legitimate intellectual pursuit?

ED: Absolutely, though the irony was that he spoke in riddles no one could understand. But his aura and sense of irreverence were undeniable. I was able to enjoy being around him and resist him at the same time. In the art school, there was a sense that being an artist meant being free from definition. The program was a bit of a free-for-all. You could take painting or sculpture or printmaking or photography or film. The architecture program was more structured. You had to go from step one to two to three, each with progressively more complex studio problems and technical courses. In a way, you had to learn to be an architect, whereas in the art school the focus was on learning skills in many media. The structure of the architecture school gave me something to push up against. You had to present your ideas and defend them to the faculty and dean—this allowed me to develop a critical voice.

JR: It’s interesting that you describe Hejduk’s primary influence on you in terms of discourse, because he was also known for a very particular aesthetic: a highly formal language that owed a lot to the modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies but also to artistic avant-gardes like De Stijl and Cubism. But I don’t see those influences in your work.

ED: His references at that time were very selective, many of them from early-twentieth-century literature, film, poetry, painting, and sculpture—all outside architecture. At the same time, his work became more and more allegorical. His approach was very idiosyncratic and his blacklist was deep. Entering Hejduk’s universe was liberating but dangerously cultish. While this opened me up to interdisciplinary thinking across a century, I was also fascinated by what was happening around the corner in real time. It was the mid-to late ’70s and Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Trisha Brown all had alternative spatial practices. I imagined my work would relate more to those artists.

Diller + Scofidio, Traffic, 1981, 2,500 traffic cones. Installation view, Columbus Circle, New York. Photo: Diller + Scofidio.

JR: That’s the genesis of works like Traffic, your piece in Columbus Circle?

ED: It was surely influenced by artists who were experimenting with repetition and modularity. The project was the result of a competition to rethink Columbus Circle, organized by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. It was intended to address the debate about the future of New York, but many of the proposals tried to model this traffic island as a spatially coherent European-style public plaza defined by a strong building wall. That was in 1981. Postmodernism was taking hold in architecture. Ric [Scofidio] and I saw no reason to apologize for cars: We loved the way the circle was subdivided into mini traffic islands, but it was perilous to walk across. We thought it would be powerful to unite the shards of the circle with a material indigenous to the site: international-orange traffic cones. If we could arrange thousands of these cones on a perfect grid, it would have a unifying effect—like the white blanket left after a snowfall, indifferent to cars, trees, and streets. We ended up building it completely guerilla style. We called the MTA and borrowed twenty-five hundred traffic cones, then showed up at four in the morning to survey the site and prepare it for the installation. The day was crazy, with the weather shifting from sunny to drizzling to foggy, which broadcast the orange color in the atmosphere. It was a twenty-four-hour project.

JR: That piece was almost anti-architectural—in its ephemerality, in shaping space through the accumulation of found objects rather than actual construction. And I can see how, as you described, it was productive for you to push against the conventions of architecture and urban design. But at the same time, you did graduate with a degree in architecture. You had a very specific, highly specialized skill set. You were critiquing architecture, but you weren’t simply making art, either.

ED: That project was our first reflection on the city and its neglected spaces. But our practice has always been focused on spatial conventions, sometimes through installations or performance works. In 1987, we were invited to collaborate on a theater piece commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Duchamp centennial. I spent days with The Large Glass [1915–23] and the Duchamp collection in Philadelphia and began to see this work through an architectural lens—the subversion of the conventions of spectatorship, flat versus perspectival space, the beautiful banality of everyday operational space, and the notion of “assisting” familiar objects by simple procedures like displacement.

JR: Duchamp doesn’t just turn a commodity into a sculpture but spatially manipulates the object. When he puts the urinal [Fountain, 1917] on the floor, you go from looking at it from the front to looking at it from above—you’re essentially shifting from an elevation view to a plan view.

ED: And rotating it completely defamiliarizes it. The Large Glass was the starting point for The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate [1987]. The stage was divided in half by a rotating wall, and an enormous mirror tilted at forty-five degrees was suspended over it. The audience saw half the stage from a typical, frontal, perspectival point of view, and the other half in plan from its reflection in the mirror. That arrangement allowed us to reorient performers in relation to gravity and enabled them to be more virtuosic. It also presented the characters actually and virtually—so you would see the male downstage and the female in an undefined floating space above, or vice versa. The bachelor’s bed allowed the audience to see the performer’s head actually, but his body reflected in plan. The body and head would sometimes cooperate and at other times split into two characters. We loved the idea of a headless body and a bodiless head performing as a duo. The theatrical potential of these devices came from a totally architectural sensibility.

Diller + Scofidio, The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate, 1987. Performance view, La MaMa E.T.C., New York, June 3, 1987. Photo: J. Vezuzzo.

JR: And yet many of your projects that were exhibited in galleries and museums could, in fact, be seen as forms of institutional critique. I’m thinking of works like Para-Site [1989], where you were invited to do something in the projects room of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and you turned your installation into an interrogation of the conventions of movement and vision throughout the museum by introducing live video feed from surveillance cameras placed around the building. You even programmed a robotic drill to systematically destroy the gallery walls during your retrospective at the Whitney [Mural, 2003]. These projects make your eventual transition into the actual design of institutional spaces seem like something of a paradox. At that time, you were already working on the design of your first major museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art [ICA] in Boston. How did you think about building one set of museum walls even as you were literally attacking another?

ED: At a certain point, we realized it wasn’t enough to just lob grenades at the institution from the outside—it might be stealthier and more effective to enter the institution through the front door. And then we realized the institution itself was changing. We were asked to do the ICA in Boston in 2000. When I met the director, Jill Medvedow, I had an epiphany. Here was my first institutional client, and she was of my generation. That meant that our voice had already somehow been heard. We couldn’t just think about the museum as “the man” anymore. It was this woman, my peer, who wanted to make a new and different kind of institution.

JR: Artists love to critique architects as complicit, as instrumentalized, as merely manifesting institutional power. But you recognized that by physically shaping an institution, you have the ability to enact fundamental changes within it. How did that dynamic play out in your actual design of the space?

ED: I started in crisis: In whose voice do I speak when I build the walls of a museum? I’ve been on both sides of the museum wall. I’ve cut those walls up and destroyed them. How do I maintain my critical position as I step inside the institution I was once critical of? I empathized with the artists who would be inhabiting our galleries. I didn’t want to see traces of the architect’s hand in a space I wanted to personally script. At this point Charles [Renfro] joined the studio, and our mutual dilemma was to produce galleries that were not overdetermined but did not default to generic.

JR: Could you do both? Could you somehow create a white cube that was site-specific?

ED: At the time, the debate ignited by the Guggenheim Bilbao had not evolved: Should architecture be the protagonist or the background player to the art on its walls? Should architects design an icon for the city or an ideal space in which to view art? We thought that this was a false duality, and that architecture could have it both ways. The galleries had to be flexible, well lit, and scalable. But it’s the obligation of the museum architect—almost the moral imperative—to add to the culture of architecture through the design of the building. That’s the museum’s obligation as well. The museum introduces art to the public—it should do the same for architecture. In this case, since the ICA occupied one of the most photogenic sites in Boston on the harbor, we chose to make the galleries simple and inwardly focused, while the building was conceived as a cinematic trajectory exposing the site in small doses—scanning it, framing and turning it off.

JR: I can certainly see the appeal of a hands-off approach to the galleries in a place like the ICA, which started its permanent collection only relatively recently and is still largely functioning as a kunsthalle, including commissioning ephemeral projects from artists. But aren’t there times when you also have to design more of a trajectory within the gallery itself? Right now, you’re working on the MoMA expansion—incidentally, you’re back at one of your early sites of institutional critique—and the museum is also in the process of completely rethinking the way it presents its collection, eliminating traditional divisions based on medium or historical movements. As institutions like MoMA start to try to deconstruct—or even just expand—the canon that they themselves have helped establish, is there an accompanying architectural shift that needs to take place?

ED: Yes, of course. But we begin with the dilemma that MoMA simply doesn’t have enough space to show its collection. You can’t add a wing of galleries without considering the consequence for the whole, just as you can’t add an extra arm to a body without changing the way the brain sends signals to it or the heart pumps blood to make it function. We worked with the chief curators and director on answering fundamental questions: How can the additional 30 percent plus of galleries be distributed? Does this extra capacity change where temporary exhibitions go? Where does the permanent collection go? How permanent is “permanent”? Do you have to tell stories chronologically? Should visitors start at the fifth floor and work their way down, going forward in history, or at the second floor working their way up from past to present? Does it matter that the collection unfolds in a sequence, or can it be discontinuous? Is there an ideal approach for MoMA? We were privileged to be part of these incredible conversations.

JR: And how does the design respond?

ED: We came to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. We would never know what stories the museum would want to tell in the future, or how different disciplines or media might ultimately be used to tell those stories. So we tried to think about the kinds of spaces the museum doesn’t have. The current galleries are very fixed. They’re similar in size, and you move between them along a rigid circuit with a slightly unproductive ambiguity. We decided that the best thing we could do for MoMA is to give the curators the most freedom possible, state-of-the-art galleries that could take all media, and the flexibility to create large or intimate spaces. How could a giant, flexible gallery subdivide into thirty-foot rooms? Was there sufficient lighting to cover each smaller space? How would the new proportions feel? In a back-and-forth with the curators, we also introduced new types of galleries that can be used for collections or newly commissioned work: a street-level gallery; a project space similar to where we got our MoMA start; and a studio gallery for performance linked to a simpler exhibition space that enables a curator to restage a performance alongside an exhibition of reference documentation.

JR: The most dramatic example of flexible space in your work—and possibly the most dramatic anywhere in the world right now—is the Shed, which is opening here in New York in Hudson Yards in 2019. It’s a kind of kunsthalle that can dramatically expand its volume by extending a movable shell out into the adjacent plaza. I wonder, though, whether new problems will emerge as the building becomes more active: At a certain point, does the building’s flexibility itself become a kind of performance? Does it become so spectacular that the visitor can’t actually engage with the space and becomes a mere spectator? We’re not talking metaphorically about active spaces or dynamic architecture. We’re talking about a giant building that is literally in motion, shifting before our eyes.

ED: For us, the dynamics of the building were not intended to be a spectacle; they’re a pragmatic approach to an opportunity. With our partner, David Rockwell, we speculated about a building for an undefined cultural entity that could be scalable. The two-part structure comprised a conventional building with a stack of galleries under a telescoping outer shell that could deploy to double its footprint part of the time. The shell can be retracted to open the use of the outdoor area. There’s a kind of economy to it—you heat or cool the enlarged space only when you program it. We worked very carefully with engineers to make the movement itself as efficient as possible. In the end, the shell rolls out on steel wheels over a track using the horsepower of one Prius engine, and it takes five minutes to deploy or retract.

JR: What will be taking place in the building? What are some of the different scenarios that will be enabled by this movement?

ED: That’s up to the artistic director and CEO, Alex Poots, who is putting meat on the bones. Beyond helping to refine the design, he’s building the institution itself and creating the programming for the first years of operation. This is a start-up, and we’ll learn many things along the way. The ethos of the building has always been and continues to be to equip artists and curators to do just about anything. It will be a place where visual and performing arts live under one roof. When we began, we were very aware that we could not predict what art would look like in ten years, twenty years, and beyond. So the question became: How could we design something that speaks to today but does not get in the way of tomorrow? We realized that infrastructure would be the only answer. The building had to provide an unlimited amount of electricity and loading capacity and it had to be climate-controlled and divisible into spaces of different sizes. The entire shell roof is a theatrical deck that could be used to light the entire space or rig anything anywhere. You can use the shell as a gantry to haul heavy loads up into the gallery stack. This infrastructure allows the space to easily change on demand. Drop the grid and create a long-span horizontal gallery. Darken the space for film. Flood it with people for a dance performance.

JR: So it’s generative rather than generic: You’re not providing a blank wall for artists to do what they want with, you’re giving them a set of tools, a physical infrastructure that can actually help produce their work. The building becomes a collaborator, in a sense. But how do you get artists to engage with it?

ED: It’s a complex problem, in part because there are now several generations of artists who have come of age during a time when there weren’t a whole lot of new contemporary art buildings being built. The trend was to take over existing industrial spaces. These are spaces that everyone feels uninhibited in because they’re messy and raw. And artists are happy to respond—we often hear artists say they like spaces with “character.” The fact that these spaces were hand-me-downs actually made them appealing. But when you create a contemporary institution from scratch and end up with a new, clean, fancy space—where clearly a lot of money was spent to build it—suddenly it’s very inhibiting. It doesn’t feel like the building is for you. And in the worst case, these spaces can feel overdetermined, which is also alienating. So by shifting emphasis from the aesthetics of the architecture to the infrastructure for production in the Shed, we are making a kind of instrument that artists feel they can use, that is theirs. We want this to be a machine for making art.