New York–based Diller Scofidio + Renfro are the new darlings of California. Fresh off major projects at the High Line and Lincoln Center in New York, the firm won commissions this summer to design the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in the Bay Area, and Eli Broad’s new contemporary art museum in downtown Los Angeles. AN’s Sam Lubell talked with the firm’s founding principals, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, about the new work, the direction of the firm, and whether or not they consider themselves “starchitects.”
The Architect’s Newspaper: You’d never worked in California, and now you have two large commissions. Are you surprised you won both? Some people thought winning Berkeley would exclude you from the Broad commission.
Ricardo Scofidio: I wasn’t that surprised. The commission we knew we wouldn’t get because of Berkeley was SFMOMA [the expansion was won by Snøhetta]. I thought that there was such a programmatic difference between Berkeley and Eli Broad’s project that it wasn’t a problem.
Some people are upset that local architects aren’t leading these projects. What do you say?
RS: We’ll be working with local architects (EHDD in Berkeley; Gensler in LA), so it’s not as though we’re coming in and trying to take work out of everybody’s hands.
Elizabeth Diller: It’s a different world now. There are some very good architects out there and they’re sprinkled around the world. It’s just a question of getting the right fit for the right project.
You’re not allowed to release specific details on these California projects. Why is that? When can we get more details?
RS: Eli has asked us not to release anything to the press yet. We have to respect that. Who knows why. It may be because he hasn’t worked with us before and doesn’t know how we’re going to work together. I don’t know if public review will be part of the process.
ED: We’re very much in the process and don’t want to give anything away before it’s cooked. This is typical. Until you can confirm everything, clients are hesitant to put stuff out there because then you get attached to an image, and sometimes a project doesn’t fulfill that image. We got a good start on Broad in August, and we should be ready with schematics in December.
Without revealing the designs, can you tell us more about your strategies for each project?
ED: I think on Berkeley we really saw the potential to do a more complex, layered scheme. Our work at Lincoln Center prepared us well for dealing with existing conditions and an existing building, and in reading between the lines and trying to reinvent what was there. It’s not a blank slate; we’re not starting from scratch. It’s not a formally derived strategy; it’s more about reading the site thoroughly and finding a strategy.
I’ve likened it to one of those butcher charts. Every part is used and not discarded. We’re treating the site as a partially found object that optimizes every bit of the area that’s there. Also, it constantly changes its nature. It’s not consistent. It’s inside and outside.
The problem in LA is that you’ve got Disney Hall next door, which is so exuberant. You basically don’t want to try to compete. You just have to try to change the terms of engagement. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the Grand Avenue project as an urban ambition. And we’re interested in the problem of building an exhibition space and storage space together. You don’t typically do that. It’s given us the ability to find the intersections and a kind of dialogue. We are also very conscious of automobiles and automobile culture. It has to do with the moving car and driving by. Knowing that viewers will be sometimes moving by it at three miles an hour and sometimes at 30. I think the same with Berkeley.
Are you anxious about working with Eli Broad? He has a reputation of being difficult to collaborate with.
RS: That’s what everybody says, but I must say that I play a very quiet role in his presence and Liz is able to kind of get through to him and talk to him and argue with him without it becoming antagonistic. We’re very fortunate in that respect. Who knows what the future holds, but so far we’re moving ahead. I wasn’t anxious, although after doing Lincoln Center with all of the stakeholders and voices and people you had to deal with, it’s kind of relaxing to deal with one person who makes the decisions.
ED: We’ve gotten along really well. When people are aligned in aspirations, it busts through whatever differences there might be. He’s a very strong guy with a great collection and very, very involved, and we’ve had a lot of support. I think the project is very important for him and his wife personally, and it’s important to them to get it right.
Your careers are taking off. Are you scared your firm will grow too fast? Do you consider yourselves “starchitects” now?
RS: I think we’ve been growing too quickly for the last ten years. It’s a way of life for us. We’ve always put a lot of time and energy into all of our projects, whether it was a water glass or a theater piece. We just continue to do the same thing. The scale has changed. I think right now, we’re very comfortable in what we have. I think we’ll be very selective in terms of what we take on and what we don’t. We’re not grabbing anything that walks through the front door.
I’m surprised when I wake up and people say, oooh and aah. I don’t try to judge myself in relation to everyone else. And because we’ve never planned how we’re going to proceed with our lives, I don’t think about it in terms of: we’ve arrived. As far as I’m concerned, we arrived when we started working together. The firm is at 60 people, and we’ll probably add about ten people over the next month or so. We haven’t opened new offices in LA or San Francisco. It becomes a kind of madness when you start opening up offices elsewhere. We have enough work here. We’re happy here.
ED: I don’t really know what “starchitect” means. I take it as a pejorative, because it means that you’re sought-after. It comes hard to us. We don’t roll it out of the drawer. We don’t repeat ourselves. Each project is torturous and joyful, and it’s always an inspiration. We don’t think we get projects because of celebrity; we think we earn them. We fought hard to get these projects. The alignments happened not because of our name. We had the right ideas for those sites. That being said, we’re really glad to be seen at a high level and to have the chance to compete. I’ve always dreamt that we would, when we stepped into the practice, and we never stepped away from our art and our other research.
You started out with conceptual art, and then moved to architecture. Often, you combine the two. Now it seems that you’re redesigning cities.
ED: At times, it’s been difficult for people to hire us because they can’t look at our work and say, “that’s what we’re going to get.” We do think a certain way and design a certain way, and we have a vocabulary that people recognize as ours. We are very interested in vision. We’re very interested in social interaction. How the site enables you to move in space. These are issues that get embedded and lock it in to recognizable forms. The disciplinary boundaries between architecture and urbanism need to be dissolved. We’re always operating in different disciplines at the same time. That’s never changed.