Elizabeth Diller Works the Angles

Architecture | Sep 2015 | BY Ted Loos

Elizabeth Diller couldn’t say she wasn’t warned. The in-demand architect, who pulled off miracles in designing the High Line and drastically improving New York’s Lincoln Center, was urged to be cautious about working with the strong-minded tycoon and philanthropist Eli Broad on his signature private museum.

“People told me, ‘Watch out. Eli is not kind to architects,’” recalls Diller, sitting in the West Chelsea offices of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York. But Diller was intrigued by The Broad project and submitted a plan for the competition in 2010. The design won—something that has been happening a lot lately for her and her firm.

The fruit of their collaboration—easily the year’s biggest museum opening—debuts this month in Los Angeles. The Broad, DS+R’s 120,000-square-foot museum, which endured a year of delays and ultimately cost $140 million, now holds some 2,000 contemporary works in what is perhaps the country’s best private art collection—a trove of pieces by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Kara Walker and many more.

Cultured Magazine-Fall 2015-Elizabeth Diller-Broad Museum-Photo by Elizabeth Daniels

Diller was motivated by the challenge of working with Eli Broad on the building bearing his namesake. Photo by Elizabeth Daniels

And Diller found herself getting along well with her patron. “I found Eli to be very pragmatic, but also very protective of the architecture,” she says. “When he was judging the competition, he fell in love with the project, and he has defended it through thick and thin. The story really is that Eli is a fan of architecture.”

The way Diller wasn’t intimidated by Broad’s reputation is indicative of her fearlessness, but even more so, the way that thorny challenges of any sort turn her on intellectually, a pattern that has become clearer in the last decade of her work. “The more people said watch out for Eli, the more I wanted to do the project,” she says. “There was something about being attracted by danger.”

Diller, who is a thin and angular person with a sharp mind to match, calls her design for The Broad “dumb, in a nice way,” but that may be only from her lofty perspective. “It just has the one idea that we pushed and pushed,” she says. That idea was a two-part structure, the ‘veil’ and the ‘vault.’”

It grew out of “conflicting aspirations,” says Diller, namely that The Broad had to be both a museum and a large storage facility. So 36 million pounds of concrete went into creating the three-story vault, which is intentionally heavy-looking. Visitors ascend up into the light, with peekaboos into The Broad offices and storage areas along the way, toward a top floor of gloriously skylit exhibition area under the veil, some 35,000 square feet of column-free space.

Cultured Magazine-Fall 2015-Elizabeth Diller-Broad Museum-Photo by Hufton + Crow

The museum’s dramatic escalator. Photo by Hufton + Crow

“The veil nests over the vault,” says Diller. The building gets its dynamic look from the honeycomb of skylights that perforate the veil. They’re diagrids, and the shape ensures that no direct light enters the exhibition spaces, only the carefully filtered kind.

The veil’s look also explicitly contrasts with Frank Gehry’s ebullient Disney Hall, directly next door. “It was the most daunting of sites,” she says. “I think that in the end, we said there’s no way to compete. Disney has a more opaque and shiny surface—ours is much more porous and absorbent.”

Diller and her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, the co-founder of their firm, have made a career of tackling conceptual challenges that go well beyond designing buildings—they have curated museum shows about the idea of the American lawn, of all things, and even the culture of wine.

The Broad project was also given their signature big-picture questioning. “Museums want sound control, light control,” says Diller. “It usually means opaque buildings that are solid interfaces. But the idea of tuning the city out is not particularly interesting to me.” So, in addition to the porousness of the veil, its corners don’t come all the way down to the street—they are “folded up,” providing a more inviting presence from the street.

Cultured Magazine-Fall 2015-Elizabeth Diller-Broad Museum-Third floor_photo by Hufton + Crow

The Broad’s façade is composed of diagrids, which protect the exhibited works from receiving direct sunlight. Photo by Hufton + Crow

Diller is perhaps most proud of the building’s robust functionality. “We have a lot of muscle and not a lot of fat,” she says. “In most museums you’re lucky to have 30 or 40 percent exhibition space. The Broad is nearly 50 percent.”

Most of the firm’s projects are in the cultural realm these days—a statement most architects would kill to make. “We feel like we can make our best contribution there,” Diller says. DS+R is underway on two different buildings at Columbia University, the new business school and a medical education facility, not to mention the controversial MoMA expansion and 2019’s Culture Shed.

That group of institutions highlights the fact that by the time the current slate is finished, no prominent architects will have gotten so many significant structures built in New York City. That’s the Holy Grail for many, partly because it’s so difficult.

Diller was born in Poland, but she grew up mostly in New York City, and so the concentration of work there pleases her greatly. She and Scofidio live in the Village, and they have a house upstate in the Hudson Valley, too. Amusingly, given the vast scale they work at, they are too busy for the simplest of tasks on the homefront: “We can’t even renovate our own bathrooms.”

Cultured Magazine-Fall 2015-Elizabeth Diller-Broad Museum-Photo by Iwan Baan

The collection’s storage facilities. Photo by Iwan Baan

Diller attended Cooper Union, and fell into the profession sideways. “I never even wanted to do architecture,” she recalls. “I wasn’t interested. I took architectonics just for the hell of it.” Once Diller joined forces with Scofidio, they favored the experimental and the conceptual. “The way the studio grew was on ‘thinking projects,’” she says. “For us, success doesn’t mean having bigger projects or a bigger studio. It’s just keeping us amused.”

Successes came fairly quickly, but two projects in particular made a difference. “To me the paradigm shifting projects were Lincoln Center and High Line—these two opportunities to do something in our own city,” Diller says. “We could see the change—just the brutal force that it took to get these projects done.”

Brutal force is a phrase that some critics have associated with DS+R’s huge MoMA addition, some 40,000 new square feet, because of the planned demolition of the former American Folk Art Museum building next door.

Diller went into the project thinking she could save the 2001 building—MoMA had bought it with an eye for expansion when the folk art museum had to retrench—but eventually realized it was impossible. The situation was made worse by the fact that she and Scofidio are friendly with the doomed building’s designers, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

“It was a huge ordeal when it happened,” says Diller. “Tearing it down became a lightning rod for everyone’s anxieties.” But the firm decided to see it through. “That would be the easy way to go—to run from it. We tried our best, and we took the knocks when we couldn’t save it.”

Cultured Magazine-Fall 2015-Elizabeth Diller-Broad Museum-Exterior-photo by Iwan Baan (1)

The Broad’s Exterior. Photo by Iwan Baan

And better her than someone else to figure out how to improve a cultural landmark. “I felt we had another professional ethic to try to make MoMA better because I want to go to MoMA,” says Diller, having grown up as a fan of the museum. “I don’t want to be just one of those people complaining about all the tourists.”

When she talks about her projects, the one that lights her up the most is Culture Shed, partly because she was “an architect without a client,” and took the lead, along with designer David Rockwell, in conceiving of the institution, to be located in Hudson Yards at the end of the High Line.

The city had designated part of the development for culture—but no one was biting, since it was back in the economic morass of 2008. “It’s a unique case where we were able to push the agency of the architect beyond the existing definition,” she says. “It’s a brand new startup.”

The idea is for Culture Shed to earn its way, without being totally dependent on donors and sponsorship, by hosting events like “Fashion Week”—though the Hudson Yard developer, the Related Companies, and the city have both kicked in money, and philanthropic guru Dan Doctoroff is chairing the board.

Curator Alex Poots (who is also advising on Miami’s Faena Forum) will be running the kunsthalle-style programming. So Diller’s scheme is flexible in the extreme. “The building actually has a telescoping part that rolls out,” she says. “It doubles the footprint when it needs to. When we don’t need it, it retracts.” DS+R even agreed to throw in an adjacent condo project to help protect the space.

From its design to the very existence of Culture Shed, Diller is again demonstrating her disdain for limits and conventional thinking. As she puts it, “If it seems impossible, I’d love to step in there and figure out how to do it.”

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