Eccentric's Corner: Deconstruction Worker

How do you break down walls even as you put them up? Liz Diller discusses the visual culture of her architecture.

By Matthew Hutson, published on May 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Liz Diller

Profession: Architect

Claim to Eccentricity: Made a building out of a cloud.

For Liz Diller, a building is a conversation—an argument, most likely. She's an architect of provocation more than anything, set on interrogating conventional ideas about space. Her early works with Ricardo Scofidio (her husband, partner, and former professor) include disorienting theater sets and a building made out of a cloud (Blur Building, comprising 35,000 water nozzles). Now the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro plays on a bigger stage; they're responsible for designing Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), converting New York's elevated High Line railroad into a park, and reconfiguring the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. But as well articulated as their buildings are, Diller can never predict how the public will talk back.

I noticed your bookshelf has sections labeled "Sci-Fi/Robots" and "Humor/Magic."

Our work is a little bit like a Chinese encyclopedia. There are a lot of different disciplines that are crossing over each other in unexpected ways.

What drew you to architecture?

As a kid I imagined being an artist. I began to study photography and film in college at Cooper Union. My parents wanted me to do something professionally viable, so they were pushing me into architecture. Every bone in my body said no. I never had an interest in buildings. But the way architecture was taught at Cooper, it was really about the intersection of architecture with literature and film and everything I was interested in. I was more into making problems than solving them.

How do you make problems?

In my thesis, I made an intellectual exercise out of creating a pair of buildings that were a repeat but slightly different—dissonant things make me uncomfortable. When I left school and I started to work with Ric, we pursued our own research. We intersected with nonprofit groups doing independent artistic work, but because we were architects, we were always interested in space, in relations across space: power relations, institutional relations, privacy, everything.

How did you transition into buildings?

Slowly we were invited more into museums and galleries, and then we were invited to do architectural projects. We did an installation of ironed shirts in Japan called Bad Press. Someone saw the show and thought, "Wow, why don't we get these guys to do a housing project?" I discovered we could do professional work on our own terms and find opportunities to develop unresolved ideas. We're constantly thinking about visuality.

Isn't all architecture about visuality?

I mean the culture of vision. Our ICA project is right on Boston Harbor and there's a picturesqueness about it. The challenge was to dispense the view as if it were on a control valve. So, at one moment, the building uses the site as a theatrical backdrop and at another frames just the texture of water. We treat the building as an apparatus for constructing views in different ways.

Are you frustrated when people don't see your work as you intend?

The public brings our buildings to life and we try to choreograph a lot of things, but our most successful work functions in unanticipated ways. Like the Blur Building. When little kids got in there, they cried or laughed or ran around. And no matter how much theory we put on top of it, it didn't matter, it worked. So that was a real learning project for me.

For years you hosted the firm in your home. Why?

I didn't know any other way. When I left school and Ric and I started working together, we got a loft and then an employee. One became two, then four... The turning point was when the FedEx guy asked to use the bathroom. I realized that this bathroom I had been sharing with 18 or 20 people, with all my personal stuff, became a public bathroom. But being able to close even one door was something I hadn't experienced as an adult, and as an architect it's a pretty stunning experience to discover so late in life.

That's a project on public and private space in itself. Is there still a lot of personal-professional overlap?

I can't imagine having a spouse who is not an architect. It's hard to put myself in the shoes of other couples where each partner brings totally different things from their day to the table.

How did adding another partner change the dynamic?

With Ric everything was pretty symmetrical so we didn't have any way to dissolve disagreements. We needed a third leg.

Has collaboration changed you?

One thing has really changed. The Lincoln Center project was far more complicated than I ever imagined. There are boards, there's the city, there are preservationists; you have other architects and engineers and consultants. Then I had a major epiphany. I realized that managing all that was also a creative endeavor. I got it.

The more constituents the better?

I would never be satisfied doing something that doesn't go into the public realm. It's really important to get it out there so we can play a small role in changing certain conventions that need to be changed.

What conventions need changing?

We just entered a competition for a public building involved in civil human rights. Typically in New York we make public space in front of the building and set the building back. With this project, the building is both underneath and hovering over the ground plane, so it's like there's a slice removed. That's the public space: It's inside the building but outdoors. We're sleepwalking through a lot of spatial things, and it's not until you really start to push them that you see there are other ways. Every project brings some of that.