DAMN°: Your studio has come up with an intriguing concept for the pavilion – a canopy composed of hundreds of pairs of jeans that spans the courtyard space. Could you tell us about your design process for this - the ideas underpinning the concept?

Elizabeth Diller: We had a chance to engage this beautiful courtyard with a pavilion for which very little programme is expected – it only has to provide a modicum of shelter for interviews and facilitate some events. So it afforded us the opportunity to think about the most basic form of shelter – the roof.

Matthew Johnson, Kumar Atre, and Liz Diller working on the Litta pavilion in Milan. Image courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
We like using ready-made modules – actually misusing them – for architectural purposes. In the back of our minds - and this might sound very peculiar – we have always wanted to use actual trousers as a module. What’s attractive about this particular conceit is that it is possible to use them as a tensile element, but also to actually fill the trousers – to use them a pneumatic element that can contain air, just as trousers are normally filled with fat and muscle. Having two legs and one waist, they have an implicit structural logic, and we started to see that we could combine these units, connecting their end points to construct a net-like tensile structure.

DAMN°: It looks less like just trousers, and more like legs with the shape of a body.

ED: Well, the body is imprinted in them, but it is also de-familiarised by reorienting and rubber-stamping it. We put two pairs of jeans together, stitching waist-to-waist and hem-to-hem, to produce a catenary diagrid which then spans the site. The net has a “hypar” geometry with two high points and two low points, and this allows each of the four sides of the courtyard to be a little bit different. The net will support a transparent membrane layered over part of it, to keep out the rain, so there is actually some physical enclosure. We wanted to make a roof that doesn’t hide the courtyard; you can see right through it, but its span will convey a sense of overall enclosure.

DAMN°: Blue jeans in an Italian palazzo - it feels very American.

ED: Do you think so?

DAMN°: Not in a bad way!

ED: The jeans give it a grass-roots, voice-of-everyman ethos – rather than a top-down one.

Kumar Atre: There’s a sense of collectivity, a sort of community, that is inherent to the courtyard typology. There’s a history of Renaissance courtyards being used as semi-public, semi-private spaces. Whether using something more pedestrian and utilitarian like denim or something more elevated, this concept really indexes the coming together of people for this event.

ED: I think that’s really key.

KA: There is this human scale you can use to measure the whole architectural space of the courtyard, but then there’s also the idea that it is many of a single thing. And that coming together is important, I think.

DAMN°: You’ve also been working on several other projects using the idea of mesh – like the ‘veil’ on The Broad in Los Angeles.

ED: That’s true. It is also integral to our design of The Shed, a new center for artistic invention in Hudson Yards, and it permeates our studio’s thinking, although here we are using it in a different way.

DAMN°: Yes, because it’s a light, temporary structure.

Matthew Johnson: It’s also interesting from the perspective of basic architectural components, looking at the juxtaposition of classical architectural elements – the massive compressive columns, the colonnade, the corners of the courtyard – and then superimposing this light-filled tensile structure on them.

DAMN°: Indeed, not only in terms of the structure, but also in terms of the mixed language – a noble palace, and the denim as workers’ clothing.

KA: Looking at it in terms of the architectural motif of the grid and the twisted surfaces, there is something delightful about coming into a pavilion and seeing an exuberant geometrical language and then realising that this thing is not 3D printed; it has not been modelled on super fancy software; it’s actually just a bunch of trousers strung together. This is a nod and a wink to what has become a genre of pavilions as formalist experiments. Any fair you go to – an art fair, a furniture fair – somebody is showing some new twisting geometry that they’ve come up with.

MJ: There are definitely going to be many readings of it, depending on how you approach it and where you are underneath it. But having that reference to the trousers, to the individual units, grounds it – just as we refer to bricks as being fundamental elements, as units in construction units. The bricks relate to the hand; the trousers refer to the body.

DAMN°: And in Renaissance architecture, that’s the measurement used for the composition – the human body.

KA: Yes, it’s a module, a measure, for architecture.

MJ: There is another storyline to this, in regard to the origins of jeans...

KA: Sure, there is a myth that may be true, that the word ‘jeans’ originated in Genoa. Blue denim was brought to the US to make tents for the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, but the prospectors said: “What we really need are sturdy trousers.” Thus, trousers were made out of the denim using metal tent rivets, and blue jeans were born. So in a way, we’re coming full circle, taking trousers back to northern Italy and turning them into a tent. But really that’s incidental; we didn’t set out to tell this story.

MJ: But the story is fun; you don’t end up with these stories unless you take unlikely things and put them together, and then you start to make all sorts of connections through that image. This has been the most enjoyable aspect of the project for us – being introduced to the Palazzo Litta and starting to play with different combinations of structures in the courtyard; and this one literally has legs!

COURTYARD PAVILION / Fuorisalone: Palazzo Li a Corso Magenta 24, Milan Milan Design Week / 04-09 April 2017

This article appeared in DAM61. Order your personal copy.