Liz Diller at the DS+R offices, 2016 Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván

A Chat With Liz Diller

On Zumtobel’s annual report and etcetera

December 2016
Eight years ago, DAMN° interviewed architects Liz Diller, Ric Scofidio, and Charles Renfro in New York.
They had just moved from their small studio in Cooper Square to their current two-storey loft space in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in West Chelsea. Today, the studio employs more than 100 people and has many major projects under its belt – among them the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Redevelopment, and the High Line, both in New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; The Broad in Los Angeles; the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center at Columbia University Medical Center; the Berkley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the
University of California; and the Museum of Image & Sound in Rio de Janeiro. At this exact time, two very important projects are underway in the Big Apple: The Shed – an innovative structure for artistic invention - and the Museum of Modern Art-Expansion. But even though the practice is very busy with these architecture projects, it hasn’t stopped doing the artistic, research-based work that has been there from inception and that indeed has shaped it. This interview highlights one such project on each side of the spectrum.
DAMN°: You are an artist and an architect. Which came first?
Elizabeth Diller: The artist came first. My parents wanted me to channel my artistic energies and de- sires into a ‘profession’, and gave me a choice be- tween architecture and dentistry. From that point on, I equated architecture with pain. I went to art school with the hope of becoming a filmmaker. After taking some courses in the architecture school, I decided to stay there and get a degree because the courses were more challenging. One had to make an argument for a design and defend it. I liked the nature of the discourse, but I had no intention of becoming an architect. Once I left school, Ric Scofidio and I began to experiment with space in the public realm, using found or borrowed sites as laboratories, funded by grants or credit card loans. We were able to play out short-term exercises on the nature of privacy, transaction, domesticity, etc. At that time, I was interested in the discipline, not in the profession. But I was slowly seduced into the breadth of architecture and the discovery of being paid to think.
DAMN°: How does this relationship between art and architecture work?
ED: Very naturally. All of our work is an extension of our on-going research; it’s a matter of aligning the strand of research with the opportunity, whether it comes to us as an art commission or as an architectural commission from an institutional, municipal, or private client, or if it’s self-initiated and self-funded. The medium, the budget, the scale, and the degree of permanence change with each opportunity.
Each project requires picking the right tool from the toolkit. What’s important to us is keeping all of this work intertwined, as every project feeds off of the next. We’re currently working on an urban-scale opera, a museum installation about an important but relatively unknown modernist architect, two books, a house, a museum, several university projects, a new cultural start-up, and a new city.
DAMN°: Speaking of art projects, you are the creative director for Zumbtobel’s annual report, which is done each year by a different artist or designer (people like James Turrell, SANAA, Olafur Eliasson, and Bruce Mau, to name a few). It’s an opportunity to create a piece of art that deals with light. Your concept is called Blue Hour and was shot by photographer Matthew Monteith. Can you tell us about it?
ED: Zumtobel invited us to do a project on paper in the form of a book. They are a very progressive company, and we thought this would be a great opportunity to think about their prime identity – electric lighting – in conjunction with our culture’s absolute dependence on artificial light. We became fascinated by the moment of transition between day and night – the time in which day submits to night, which varies at different times of the year, with the season and the geographical location. This moment at the day’s end is referred to as the ‘magic hour’ or the ‘blue hour’. The colour of the light changes from warm to cool and there is a flattening of contrast. That time of transition holds the beauty of day and night simultaneously; this surreal moment is captured in Magritte’s Empire of Light paintings. Electric light defines our modernity and the social contract of being urban. It’s also the best time to photograph buildings – everything looks sexier because the warmth of the light brings out colour intensity and depth of shadows.
Blue Hour focused on this time of day. The intentionally ambiguous narrative is told in 45 still photos across this stretch of time. It features a character in a domestic space who we only see indirectly through shadows and reflections, or because objects in the frame of the photo move and light fixtures are turned on and off. We don’t know whether the person is male or female, living there or visiting. It’s a short cryptic movie in which light is the protagonist.
DAMN°: You find yourself at the junction between art and architecture, and maybe because of that you find yourself doing a great deal of art-programming and designing cultural institutions. Let’s talk about the MoMA expansion currently under construction [due for completion in 2019]. How did you get that commission?
ED: We have had a strong relationship with MoMA for a long time. The Slow House and the Blur Build- ing are in MoMA’s collection. We were the first architects to be commissioned to make an installation for their Projects Series. Three years ago, DS+R was among a small group of architects invited to inter- view for the expansion project. We never really expected to get the project because, at the interview, we had some critical things to say about MoMA. But I think we struck a chord. We said that the building was difficult to navigate, that there was a lack of public interface with the city, that the art was a mile away from the front door. We also had a vision about how to improve the building while doing the expansion. I think that our critical yet constructive approach resonated with the leadership of MoMA.
With the next expansion, they were genuinely motivated to look more introspectively at the museum and the way its collection is presented, the way it tells the stories of Modernism, the way it engages the public. They were also concerned about maintaining a strong museum experience given the growing mass of visitors interested in modern and contemporary art.
DAMN°: And what are the goals? What are you trying to achieve?
ED: The critical goal is to significantly improve Mo- MA’s ability to show more of its collection in a better way. MoMA’s collection is vast and mostly in storage, and this project will expand its galleries by over 30%. We’re also trying to resolve practical problems like circulation and navigation. We’re helping MoMA with reimagining how to break down the disciplinary barriers between the departments in order to be able to tell stories across disciplines, in fresh ways. There were other key goals, as well, such as to improve public space, to make a better interface with the street, and to bring art back to the ground floor, where it once was – in the Projects Room where we exhibited in 1989.
DAMN°: What’s the programme?
ED: The entrance, ticketing, the shop, circulation, a new flexible exhibition space, a space for performance, and most importantly, making the gallery sequence and viewing the collections more coherent, broadening it, and basically giving the museum more opportunities than it has today.
For us, it’s not about making a heroic building; it’s a project of many small surgeries on existing buildings and newly created ones. Connecting the western expansion through the existing back-of-house space is very difficult, as we’re working inside a collection of buildings with pre-established forms of logic. The complexity of this will never be apparent if we’re successful. I keep going back to the biological metaphor. We are surgeons rerouting arteries and nerves. You cannot just add a building wing without affecting the entire organism. A body cannot acquire a limb without changing how the brain directs signals to it and how the heart circulates blood to it.
Liz Diller at the DS+R offices, 2016 Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Blue Hour, 2015/16 Zumtobel's Annual Report Time-lapse art project Art direction: Liz Diller / DS+R All photos: Matthew Monteith Courtesy of Zumtobel
Site of the DS+R expansion (former American Folk Art Museum) between the museum and a new residential building by Jean Nouvel [for which MoMA sold the land to Hines (developer) / MoMA will use the lower floors of the building for additional galleries. Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
The Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street, 1960
The Museum of Modern Art lobby, 1939