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Surface Mag Interviews Liz Diller on Architecture, Art, and Early "Aha" Moments

Below is an excerpt of the cover story of this month’s Surface magazine: an in-depth interview with Elizabeth Diller, published online for the first time here on ArchDaily.

The 35-year career of Elizabeth Diller, a founding partner of the New York–based architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is a study of contrasts: conceptual and pragmatic, temporary and permanent, iconoclastic and institutional. After graduating from Cooper Union in 1979, Diller started her practice mounting temporary installations with her partner and future husband, Ricardo Scofidio, their interests leaning closer to art and theory than conventional buildings and construction. Today the duo—along with Charles Renfro, who became a partner in 2004—is responsible for some of the most important architectural projects in the country. DS+R counts Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (completed in 2006) and a makeover of New York’s Lincoln Center (finalized in 2012) among its highest-profile works. Especially influential, at least among architects and academics, has been the firm’s unbuilt Slow House (1991), a proposal for a residence on Long Island, New York, renowned for its examination of how we see in a media-saturated world. 

One notices sharp contrasts not just in the firm’s work history but in its public reception as well. Widely lauded for repurposing a dilapidated elevated railway into New York City’s beloved High Line park (the third phase opened in September), DS+R received heavy criticism this year for its involvement in a major expansion proposal for the Museum of Modern Art. The museum’s plans included the demolition of its little-guy neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum; despite efforts to work the idiosyncratic building into the design scheme, Diller’s studio, hired to lead the expansion, ultimately acknowledged that the structure couldn’t be saved.

Surface recently met with Diller at her office in Manhattan to speak about the ensuing controversy, as well as early career experiences that have influenced her firm’s recent commissions for cultural institutions, including the current exhibition “Musings on a Glass Box” at the Cartier Foundation in Paris (through Feb. 25, 2015), a collaboration with composer David Lang and sound designer Jody Elff. Diller, 60, is pensive and surprisingly relaxed for someone whose aides are constantly interrupting her to remind her of meetings she has to attend. She speaks with an erudite inflection befitting her academic credentials and professional accolades (she is, after all, a professor at Princeton and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient), though she smiles with the ease of an affable neighbor.

What If MOMA Had Expanded Underground (And Saved The American Folk Art Museum)?

In January of this year, the latest work by Smiljan Radic, the Chilean architect chosen to design the next Serpentine Pavilion, opened to public acclaim. The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Museo de Arte Precolombino), located in Santiago de Chile, is a restoration project that managed to sensitively maintain an original colonial structure  - all while increasing the space by about 70%. 

Two days before the The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art opened, the Museum of Metropolitan Art (MOMA) in New York issued a statement that it would demolish the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, in order to accomplish its envisioned expansion. Two weeks ago, preparations for demolition began.

Some background: MOMA had hired Diller Scofidio + Renfro a year earlier to design the expansion. The office asked for a period of six months to consider the possibilities of integrating the American Folk Art Museum into the design. After studying a vast array of options (unknown to the public) they were unable to accommodate MOMA’s shifting program needs with the AFAM building. They proposed a new circulation loop with additional gallery space and new program located where the AFAM is (was) located.

What appears here is not strictly a battle between an institution that wants to reflect the spirit of the time vs a building that is inherently specific to its place. It represents a lost design opportunity. What if the American Folk Art Museum had been considered an untouchable civic space in the city of New York, much like the The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art is for the city for Santiago? Then a whole new strategy for adaptive reuse would have emerged.

Renovation of the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art / Smiljan Radic. Image Courtesy of The Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art Diagrams of the plan for the renovation of the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art / Smiljan Radic. Image Courtesy of Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino's Facebook Page Renovation of the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, in progress. Image Courtesy of Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino's Facebook Page Renovation of the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art / Smiljan Radic. Image © Nico Saieh

Tod Williams Devastated Over Folk Art Museum's Fate

Tod Williams has broke his silence in his first interview since the Museum of Modern Art announced their decision to raze the former Folk Art Museum, expressing devastation that the building will be “reduced to a memory.”

“Yes, all buildings one day will turn to dust, but this building could have been reused,” Tod Williams. “Unfortunately, the imagination and the will were not there.”

Though MoMA has promised to preserve the building’s iconic copper-bronze facade, Williams is concerned it will forever stay in storage. 

Proposals are being suggested on how to resurrect the facade, as the New York Times reported, including a concept from Nina Libeskind, chief operating officer of Studio Daniel Libeskind, and AIA New York executive director Fredric M. Bell that will be presented to MoMA next week. However, Williams expressed disinterest at the idea of installing fragments of the building elsewhere. 

Preparations Begin to Demolish the American Folk Art Museum

Preparations have commenced to demolish Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ American Folk Art Museum in New York. Despite international backlash from preservationists, architects and critics, the neighboring Museum of Modern Art will raze the 12-year-old structure in an effort to make way for an expansion designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro. According to recent reports, scaffolding has arrived at the site and will soon be erected in front of the museum’s distinct, copper-bronze facade. More on the controversy, here. 

Dear MoMA, Couldn't the Nouvel Tower Save the American Folk Art Museum?

In this Metropolis Magazine post on MoMA's planned demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, Karrie Jacobs asks a strangely unasked question: How has the Nouvel Tower - in its day the most controversial of MoMA's expansion plans - not been brought into the debate? The Jean Nouvel-designed tower was predicated up a circulation plan that, by necessity, ignored the (then occupied) Folk Art Museum entirely. Why is this plan no longer possible? Read the fascinating argument here.

MoMA to Preserve Folk Art Facade

Though it has been confirmed that Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Museum of Modern Art expansion will result in the demise of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects' American Folk Art Museum, the New York Times has confirmed that the beloved copper-bronze facade will be preserved. 

“We will take the facade down, piece by piece, and we will store it,” Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, said in an interview. “We have made no decision about what happens subsequently, other than the fact that we’ll have it and it will be preserved.”

OPINION: DS+R Should Have Resigned from the MoMA Commission

With all the controversy surrounding Diller Scofidio +Renfro (DSR) and MoMA's decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum to make way for expansion, DS+R has increasingly come under fire (indeed, even DS+R's democratizing move to make the MoMA's sculpture garden accessible to the public has provoked considerable ire). In the following article, which originally appeared on Metropolis as "Damage Control," critic and author Martin Pedersen questions: why didn't DS+R just walk away?

A few weeks ago, in the wake of MoMA’s decision to raze the Folk Art Museum, the estimable Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times asked ; why Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR) didn’t simply resign the commission, rather than recommend the demolition of a building designed by their (former?) friends. At the time, I was skeptical of the suggestion. But with the onslaught of negative publicity—which will continue up until the demolition of the building and perhaps well beyond—I’m beginning to think Hawthorne was right. And right not just from a moral, ethical and historic perspective.

Glenn Lowry on American Folk Art Museum: The Decision Has Been Made

Yesterday, Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Elizabeth Diller, principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, presented their plans for the MoMA expansion to an audience in New York City, insisting  - once again - that they require the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum

The presentation was part of a larger event, "A Conversation on the Museum of Modern Art’s Plan for Expansion," presented by The Architectural League, the Municipal Art Society, and the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter. After Lowry and Diller reiterated their case, a panel of experts - including the editor of Architectural Record, Cathleen McGuigan, and critic Nicolai Ouroussoff - gave their opinions on the subject (some panelists spousing particularly anti-MoMA sentiments). ArchDaily was there to catch the conversation; read on after the break for the highlights. 

The Indicator: The Floor Plates Just Didn’t Line Up

The Folk Art Museum is most certainly doomed; it may have been doomed from its first appearance. Designed and built to endure, it will soon dissipate in a fog of demolition and fading memory, its lifespan ultimately briefer than a McDonald’s franchise. Looks aren’t everything, I guess.

This raises a lot of questions about permanence, memory, and the spatial character of cities. If The Folk were not in New York, would its status as a landmark building still hold? A particularly New York type of building, more front and slot, it’s a building that is about the street as much as it is about an interior world beyond that street. And losing it will mean West 53rd will be wrought more mega in scale and commercial in vision.

Liz Diller on MoMA Expansion: We'd Be Against Us Too "If We Didn’t Know All the Details That We Know"

In a must-read interview with Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times, Liz Diller defends her firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and their design of the MoMA expansion.

Hawthorne asks some great, insightful questions: from whether or not architecture should be considered ephemeral to whether or not idiosyncratic architecture is more vulnerable to change. Diller responds with some fascinating points, claiming that if DS+R's ICA museum in Boston faced demolition, she'd understand because of the possibility that "at a certain point [a building] takes on another identity." But perhaps the most poignant response is the one that she gives regarding the maelstrom of negative criticism surrounding the demolition of the Folk Art Museum, saying, "We would be on the same side if we didn’t know all the details that we know." To learn more about those "details," read on for excerpts from the interview...

Critical Round-Up: Reaction to the Folk Art Museum's Demolition, MoMA's Expansion

The flurry of criticism that erupted when MoMA announced its plans to demolish the American Folk Art Museum (in its new plans for expansion, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro) has yet to settle. After the break, we offer a more complete round-up of the critics' reactions - including Paul Goldberger's of Vanity Fair, Michael Kimmelman's for The New York Times, and more...

Confirmed: American Folk Art Museum to Be Demolished

In a statement released last night, Glenn Lowry, the director of the MoMA, confirmed that the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, will be demolished in order to make way for a re-design and expansion spearheaded by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R).

More information - and the critics' reactions - after the break.

The Indicator: Ipso Facto

It is a building, a building in New York City, a building erected in the dust of 9/11, a building that upon completion signaled hope for larger reconstructions, a building that presents itself to the world through the intricate patina and pocking of white bronze. White bronze. This alone conjures something alchemic, ancient, timeless. 

But buildings are not timeless. They have their time. As architects we memorialize each one that resonates with the thoughtfulness of capital “A” architecture—in part because we understand what it takes to realize them. 

Despite this, the Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed American Folk Art Museum may ultimately be doomed to the brutal translations of administrative efficiency, cruel syllogisms, that as Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of MoMA's architecture and design department notes, are “painful.” 

Critics React to Folk Art Museum’s Imminent Demolition

Just as designers have reacted to the death sentence of Ted Williams and Billie Tsien's American Folk Art Museum building, forming petitions and a tumblr (crowdsourcing designs that integrate the building with the MoMA's existing facilities), architecture critics have also been wielding their weapon - words - and entering the fray.  

Most critics have responded with outrage (it's "nothing less than cultural vandalism" says Martin Filler), denouncing MoMA's prioritization of corporate needs over cultural value. However, a few are actually defending MoMA's decision, saying the building was never ideal for displaying art anyway. See a round-up of all the opinions - from Davidson to Goldberger - after the break...

Barry Bergdoll Breaks Silence About American Folk Art Museum

Among the many ironies of the MoMA's decision to demolish Ted Williams and Billie Tsien's 12-year old building for the American Folk Art Museum, is the most obvious: as a cultural institution, the MoMA is meant to value and protect, not demolish,  architecture. 

Critics such as Justin Davidson and Martin Filler have pointed out that the irony is particularly acute considering the MoMA's "distinguished" and "revivified" department of architecture and design, curated by Barry Bergdoll. They note that Bergdoll, who they both praise highly as "visionary", has remained conspicuously silent on the decision. Davidson even claims that the MoMA can only appreciate such innovative "individuality [such as Bergdoll's] under glass."

However, a week after the decision first went public, Bergdoll has finally broken his silence to Architect's Newspaper. See what he has to say about the MoMA's decision, after the break...

After 12 Years, Tod Williams & Billie Tsien's NYC Gem To Be Demolished

“There are of course the personal feelings — your buildings are like your children, and this is a particular, for us, beloved small child. But there is also the feeling that it’s a kind of loss for architecture, because it’s a special building, a kind of small building that’s crafted, that’s particular and thoughtful at a time when so many buildings are about bigness.” - Billie Tsien, quoted in The New York Times 

After only 12 years, the Tod Williams & Billie Tsien-designed American Folk Art Museum is slated to be demolished. Despite the acclaim it has received from critics, including high praise from the likes of Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp, and the importance it has been given in New York's architectural landscape, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, which bought the building in 2011) reports that it must tear down the building to make way for an imminent expansion. 

At the time of its construction, the building was of the first new museums built in New York in over thirty years. Unfortunately, the building will more likely be remembered for its short life, taking, in the words of The New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin, "a dubious place in history as having had one of the shortest lives of an architecturally ambitious project in Manhattan."

Read more about the American Folk Art Museum's imminent demolition, after the break...

Museum Closure Exposes Financial Risk of Signature Architecture

© Michael Moran
© Michael Moran

NEW YORK–Although the American Folk Art Museum has avoided dissolution thanks to a cash infusion from trustees and the Ford Foundation, the institution’s ongoing financial troubles raise difficult questions about the relationship between signature architecture and cultural capital.

American Folk Art Museum / Tod Williams + Billie Tsien

© Michael Moran
© Michael Moran

“You do not have to look at it for long before you realize that this is as sensual a building as New York has seen in a very long time,” stated Pulitzer-prize winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger of the American Folk Art Museum. Completed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in 2001 the museum is 40 feet wide and 100 feet long and is surrounded by the Museum of Modern Art on three sides. It was the first new museum built in New York in over three decades.

More on the American Folk Art Museum after the break.