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.