Architect Elizabeth Diller, of the groundbreaking New York–based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, talks about designing everything from the High Line to The Shed to the upcoming expansion of MoMA.
When Elizabeth Diller graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture in 1979, she had no intention of necessarily becoming an architect. In fact, the Polish-born, New York–raised Diller chose architectural studies simply to explore her interests in art and physical space. Two years later, in 1981, she co-founded a forward-thinking practice with Ricardo Scofidio, who had been her professor and who she later married. At first, their budding firm fell into an avant-garde category that existed outside corporate or institutional confines of art and architecture—and indeed it often critiqued those worlds. Diller and Scofidio were primarily making edgy, visually impactful installations and theatrical projects, as well as conceiving what might even be called “paper architecture”—dream concepts seemingly unlikely to be realized.
Over the past three decades, though, with the introduction of numerous technologies, the latter has become reality and, at the same time, the former has continued apace. The firm, now called Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R)—Charles Renfro became a partner in 2004, Benjamin Gilmartin in 2015—has gone on to become one of the most groundbreaking, ahead-of-the-curve practices in the field. DS+R’s many cultural and civic projects around the world include the elevated High Line park in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood; the Broad museum in L.A.; The Shed at Hudson Yards, in collaboration with Rockwell Group; an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, opening this fall; and the Centre for Music, a permanent home to be built for the London Symphony Orchestra.
Diller and her firm’s approach, which begins with questions, accounts for much of this success: “What if we made this building out of water?” “How can we create a conversation between digital media and reality?” The results are often radical. Just take the firm’s breakthrough project, the Blur Building, an “architecture of atmosphere” created for the Swiss Expo in 2002 in Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The project was a rebellious, almost anti-architecture statement: the structure disappears. At its heart, the Blur captured the idea of architecture as experience, which is really what the bulk of the firm’s work achieves. DS+R’s buildings typically slow you down; they make you feel something.
Today, Diller is among the most revered architects in the world. She has twice been named to the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people, in 2009 and 2018, and she was the recipient of the first MacArthur Foundation fellowship in architecture in 1999. On this episode of Time Sensitive, Diller shares with Spencer Bailey her roundabout path to becoming an architect, the social and cultural impacts of the High Line and The Shed, and the emotional resonance of designing spaces in her home city.