Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Masters of Space, Viewed Through the Rear View Mirror

By Victoria Bugge ØyeJune 22, 2013

Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Masters of Space, Viewed Through the Rear View Mirror

Diller Scofidio + Renfro by Edward Dimendberg

altered excerpts
from a collection of remains
from recent projects
involving the body as component,
body as motor,
body as site

— Diller+Scofidio quoted by Dimendberg, from the exhibition
Bodybuildings: Architectural Facts and Fictions at
Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, 1987

ON THE COVER OF film scholar Edward Dimendberg’s new book Diller Scofidio+Renfro: Architecture after Images we find an image that by now most of us should be very familiar with. Undoubtedly the most iconic green space in Manhattan since Central Park, the transformation of a derelict, elevated freight rail spur into the striking High Line Park has, together with projects such as the Lincoln Center renovation, helped solidify the name of DS+R as one that is synonymous with exquisitely clever revamping of Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. A culmination of what DS+R has come to mean for the metropolis, the cunningly cropped cover image is dead on. With a presumed local resident photographed scurrying across Gansevoort Plaza carrying heavy shopping bags and sporting an unglamorous sun hat, it is a cinematic rendering of apparent Jane Jacobean bliss: old and new, high and low, everyday and spectacle. But beyond a metaphor for the development, growth, and commercialization that both the city and the office have experienced in the past decades, the image also speaks to some of the fundamental concerns in DS+R’s multifaceted approach to architecture.

Snapped from the south end of the High Line toward Gansevoort Street, the cover of Architecture After Images shows the elevated park structure in a literal cross section. The old railroad tracks have been severed with surgical precision, a clean cut that is dramatized by sharply delineating glass railings. It is a structure cut open for prying eyes, voyeurs, and exhibitionists. From the beginning, DS+R have been devoted to displaying the social and spatial conventions of space by inventing their own language of representation. This commitment comes nearly full circle in this snapshot of a hybrid that has one foot in each camp: part building, part image. Dimendberg himself notes:

Evoking other DS+R windows, such as that in the ICA Mediatheque, it sets up a contrast between the promise of a frame and the relatively banal sight actually visible through the glass. Once again, transparency places what we see in quotation marks. Our expectations and the position of the wall/window (two functions merged) contribute to the meaning of the scene, within which visitors are participants and observers, seers and seen.

Rethinking the very concept of an urban park, the stretch of the High Line is both an investigation and taxonomy of what it means to be in public.

Although Architecture after Images does not touch upon DS+R’s most recent enterprises (the author tells us that the page numbers would not allow for him to go beyond the year 2008, and thus does not include projects such as the recently abandoned Bubble expansion of the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, DC, The Art of Scent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design from this spring, or the current Hudson Yards Culture Shed proposal), it gives an impressively full account of the office since Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio first met in one of his classes at Cooper Union School of Architecture in 1976. One of the most compelling aspects of the publication is indeed the professional trajectory Dimendberg is able to piece together about DS+R, which he does convincingly, intelligently, and sympathetically. As well, the footnotes are rich, at times even fascinating, and reflect the extensive research and numerous interviews with the architects as well as their collaborators, employees, students, and clients, that form the backbone of this book.

We come to learn from Dimendberg that while DS+R have gained widespread recognition as well as numerous awards for their projects and practice, Diller and Scofidio (they did not become DS+R until Charles Renfro joined as partner in 2004) was for a long time fighting an uphill battle. In the late 1970s they started their practice out of their studio in Cooper Square, a run down apartment with an unlisted phone number. By the end of the 1980s they had caught the attention of New York critics Herbert Muschamp and Michael Sorkin (then critic for The Village Voice), but it was not until the mid to late 1990s that the rest of the American architecture scene followed. Accepting Dimendberg’s narrative, their final breakthrough came in 2002 with the Blur building, a jet spray-packed tensegrity structure that hovers over Lake Neuchâtel as a “cloud” of water mist.  


Diller + Scofidio, aerial view of Blur, Swiss Expo, Yverdon-les-Bains, 2002.
Photograph © Beat Widmer.
Reproduced by permission of the photographer and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Dimendberg stresses that both Diller and Scofidio had long held suspicions towards the discipline of architecture, and with the added factor of New York’s hard recovery from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, initially they directed their attention towards installations, performances, exhibitions, plays, and video projections. They did not receive any significant architectural commissions until the mid-1990s, and, rejecting the prospect of working in a corporate office their “Department of Money Losing Projects” (dubbed so by Diller, according to Dimendberg) relied mainly on grants, public art competitions, and salaries from their teaching positions at Cooper Union. Before they hired their first full-time employee in 1989, students from the school, and later also from Columbia and Princeton University, often populated the D+S studio, which was still being run from their apartment. It became even more crowded during their preparations for the exhibition The American Lawn at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1998. With several new employees busy at work night and day, Diller and Scofidio had to check in to a hotel to get some sleep. In 2006 they relocated to their current West Chelsea office, where they now employ around 100 people.

Dimendberg writes that Diller had originally begun teaching at Princeton after she was denied tenure at Cooper Union because of Dean John Hejduk’s fear that the couple would gain too much influence (although he was the one who had initially convinced Diller to change her studies from photography to architecture). Dimendberg includes one of Diller’s highly unorthodox seminar syllabi from Princeton in the book, which instructed the students to map an object or event, ranging from a pair of high heeled shoes, a meal, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the deformation of an automobile resulting from a crash, to give you an idea. Dimendberg describes Diller’s pedagogy as “acute and often devastating criticisms of student work without lapsing into moral judgments or personal opinions.” This was an approach that must have been so exceptional, appealing or alternatively horrifying that most of the architecture school allegedly eavesdropped from the hallway whenever she taught.

While Diller and Scofidio are still husband and wife, they are business partners first, and this aspect of their practice, as well as any other feature of their personal lives save from them being workaholics, is courteously avoided by Dimendberg. Neither does he elaborate on the working dynamics between the three partners, but in the footnotes he does refer to the two main articles that deal with more personal matters, one from The New Yorker (May 14, 2007) and the other from The New York Times (February 16, 2003). As is already to be suspected from the direction of Dimendberg’s spotlight, it is here confirmed that Diller is the one doing most of the talking. In his piece for The New Yorker, Justin Davidson quotes one of the firm’s employees: “Liz is the king, Charles is the prince. Ric is the king, too, but he stays more in the background.” While Scofidio is described as being more intuitive and detail-oriented than Diller, who is a talkative intellectual and self-proclaimed neurotic, they have not considered their thoughts separate since their professional identities “merged” sometime in the early 1980s.

Aside from the history of the architecture studio, as a film scholar Dimendberg’s primary interest in DS+R lies rather in their intimate relationship with visual culture and the moving image. With a portfolio that includes both projections and video installations, he affirms that DS+R are creators of images as much as they are architects. If their obsession with visual technologies was not already evident from their work, Dimendberg also writes that Diller has explicitly expressed that an ideal second career for her would be in the movie industry, and that she still carries the desire to direct a feature-length film.

DS+R frequently refer to cinematic archetypes and engage in narrative forms in their work, but their fascination with loops, delays, and spatial displacement seems to connect them more with the networked and spatial televisual technologies of the late 20th century: surveillance, television, video, and live streams, which Dimendberg also examines to a certain degree. In a 1981 interview in Cahiers du Cinema, Paul Virilio argued that the television set, or third window, did not only offer a prosthetic and enhanced vision, but its complementary VCR technology also delivered the promise of deferred time. Virilio’s writing, and in particular his notion of the television as an architectural element, became very important for Diller and Scofidio and directly inspired several of their early projects. They share Virilio’s argument that vision and technology are inseparable, and Dimendberg shows this by analyzing the way they use state-of-the-art technology in their building projects as well as walls, windows, screens, frames, cameras, glazing, and transparency to position the viewer and control, manipulate, frustrate, and play with their vision.

When writing about DS+R’s spaces and use of materials, Dimendberg brings up the notion of quotation marks several times. Both transparency and glazing are understood as a means to place the environment in quotation marks (much like the effect of a long shot in film, he writes, unfortunately without any further detail) and the D+S publication Flesh: Architectural Probes (1996), evidently attempts to do the same for human corporeality. DS+R use materials, plans, prose, and images in a highly self-conscious manner, that usually aim to produce an effect beyond the mere visceral. The quotation mark as a cultural condition was perhaps best described by Susan Sontag in her brilliant 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” where she writes: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”


Diller + Scofidio, Master/Slave, installation, Cartier Foundation, Paris, 1999.
Photograph © Valérie Belin and © Collection Rolf Fehlbaum, Basel.
Reproduced by permission of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

While DS+R’s restrained aesthetic, critical eye and highbrow cool does not immediately lend itself to the apolitical and flamboyant sensibility of camp, there is something in the studio’s devious appeal to popular culture and appreciation of artifice, especially in their earlier works, that sits, albeit uneasily, in the same register. Being is for them always playing a role, whether it is through the spectacle of dining or the highly codified practices of travelling, visiting the museum, relaxing in a vacation home, or simply enjoying the view. In the Seagram Building’s renovated Brasserie (2000), a centerpiece staircase with deliberately wide steps makes the graceful “grand entrance” near impossible, and the use of surveillance cameras and video screens underline the importance of seeing and being seen as an integral part of the “dining out” experience. In their exhibition Tourisms: suitCase Studies (1991) at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, they addressed the formulaic mass-cultural practice of tourism by displaying 50 “case studies” of American tourist attractions in identical Samsonite suitcases, and the video installation Para-Site, realized at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989, used CCTV to turn viewers’ attention towards their own presence in the museum, where the most important aspect was, in Diller’s words: “the point at which the viewer in the museum becomes aware of himself or herself as the most irreducible museological unit after the artifact itself.” In their infamous Slow House (1989), an unrealized Jersey vacation residence for a Japanese real estate investor, they interrogated the idea of paying for an unobstructed ocean front view, and made a curved house that would, upon arrival, gradually reveal its large picture window, obstructed only by a screen showing an even better recorded version of that very same view.

A fascination with prostheses, plastic surgery, bodily modifications, and androgyny in many of their projects supports a view of identity as something inherently unstable and fleeting. This includes the suggestive “body armor” used for their multimedia theater work A Delay in Glass, or The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate (1987), created in collaboration with Creation Company; the permutable walls dividing the men’s and women’s restrooms in the Brasserie; and Diller and Scofidio’s own merged buttocks on the cover of Flesh, all analyzed in Architecture after Images.

Where camp uses the quotation mark to simply produce a wider specter of things to celebrate and enjoy, the distancing act of DS+R’s projects does not lie in aestheticizing. Their quotation mark is created by an unconventional use of design components, disrespect for spatial orthodoxy, and the often unnerving implications resulting from this. Through a slight refocusing of our everyday spaces, they place our attention towards the social constructs that constitute them. Dimendberg writes: “They estrange the present by magnifying its contradictions, questioning its certainties, and discerning its opportunities.” “No architects today can match their elegance in translating social analysis into space,” is Herbert Muschamp’s alternative analysis, which Dimendberg also includes. This is the distance of the rigorous and analytical mind and of a present that is always mediated through technology — of the eye that views the sunset through the television screen. There is poetry too, in Diller’s prose (which Dimendberg appropriately devotes attention to), in the care for materials, and in their bio-technological body, which is no longer whole but that can still experience pleasure.


Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Grandstand and Harborwalk of Institute of Contemporary Art, 2006.
Photograph © Nic Lehoux.
Reproduced by permission of the photographer and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.


Architecture after Images is a book that has been almost 10 years in the making, and that comes from a deep and genuine understanding of DS+R’s practice. Although chronological, Dimendberg’s approach is very far from the descriptive dead meat that so many monographs suffer from. He has done a remarkable job in approaching each of DS+R’s projects on their own particular terms and not limiting them to any one narrative, even if the importance of film and media does play a central role. Politics are analyzed at the level of institutions, colleagues, and teachers, and he does a particularly decent job in describing their relationship with John Hejduk at Cooper Union (who supported Diller in her early studies and gave his blessings to their relationship when Diller and Scofidio first confessed it to him, but became increasingly jealous as their careers thrived). Unfortunately the format of the monograph does not always allow for Dimendberg to follow through on the depth of his ideas, and his spotted account of DS+R’s relationship to modernism and postmodernism leaves some questions unanswered. He only superficially compares the practice with predecessors and concurrent developments in architecture and does not really imbricate them into larger societal structures and changes (which, to be fair, Dimendberg also states is not his project). These are, however, minor issues, and the text stands as one of exuberant knowledge and astute observations, where expertly gathered facts and quotes sprinkle the pages to build a solid framework from which to better understand DS+R’s work.

Dimendberg does not conceal the fact that Architecture after Images is a book written by a friend and not a critic. He carefully narrates DS+R’s journey from gallery, stage, street, and into the spotlight, and rightfully defends the office for what many have criticized as a decline and “sell-out” as they began to take on more commercial projects (the first years of their practice were financed by credit card debt). By the time we reach the last page, Dimendberg has left us with a picture of an exceptionally creative and rigorously intellectual office that is driven by idealism and very hard work. As Dimendberg appropriately quotes Mark Wigley, current dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University: “[they] simply work harder than anyone you have ever met.”

The main issue of the book, however, lies less in any of the above than in the relation between image and text. For a publication dealing with the status of images in architecture, there are remarkably few of them. Dimendberg presents several smaller as well as unrealized projects, but the accommodating documentation for these are often scarce, if present at all (with a few happy exceptions, such as Diller’s student project Chair, Loosely Termed). For the most part, the better-known projects are represented by the now iconic images already widely circulated in magazines, earlier publications, and on the web. In addition, extremely few plans and sections are shown, a choice that seems peculiar when writing about a practice where form, concept, and architectural modes of representation interconnect so intimately. At times this becomes a problem for Dimendberg’s line of argument, as when he explains the importance of the positioning of the spectator without providing any sketches or other visual evidence of DS+R’s strategies. As the first proper monograph of DS+R, it would seem like the perfect opportunity to showcase a larger range of archival material. As the layout of the book stands now, Dimendberg’s well-written text is doing most of the lifting.

Aside from a fixation on bodies, vision and media technologies, rejection of formulaic solutions, and disregard for any purity of discipline and genre, one of the enduring characteristics of DS+R’s practice that we can extract from Architecture After Images is perhaps what Dimendberg refers to as a quotation mark, or what others have referred to as performance or simply art. In this double business of parallel-action, DS+R often come close to an almost compulsive self-awareness or even auto-dissection. They do not only have the uncanny ability to combine the roles of the cultural critic and the architect in the same practice, but to fuse them in the very same object. This makes them both difficult and easy to write about. While their work is rich in connotations and open for interpretation, few can compete with the insight and prose that they themselves devote to their projects. In his cinematic account of their trajectory, Dimendberg comes awfully close. And perhaps he is right to devote his efforts to a monograph, because although DS+R are children of their time, their skill in manipulating bodies through architecture is so unique, their grasp of visual culture so intuitive, the mastering of space so thoroughly in their command, that they remain, really, without comparison. 


Victoria Bugge Øye is a writer and critic based in New York.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Bugge Øye is a Norwegian writer and critic based in New York. She is currently a contributor to Domus and participant in the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale. Øye is also working on the exhibition and oral history project Nicht Realisiert: In Search of Lost Experience, Vienna 1968-1972, which focuses on the reception of Coop Himmelblau’s early installations. She has previously studied architecture, aesthetical theory and urban geography, and graduated from M.S. Critical, Curatorial & Conceptual Practices in Architecture at GSAPP, Columbia University, in 2012. In 2012-13 she was the Power Corporation of Canada Curatorial Intern at the Canadian Center for Architecture. Beginning in the fall of 2013 she will be a PhD candidate in the history and theory of architecture at Princeton University.


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