The City’s Their Stage

Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Inside-Out, and Still Lincoln Center

Bologna: Damiani; distributed in the US by DAP/Distributed Art Publishers,
288 pp., $85.00 (to be published in November)

Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston

with photographs by Iwan Baan and a foreword by Jill Medvedow
Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa; distributed in the US by DAP/ Distributed Art Publishers, 77 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Although there are countless tangents that a career in the building arts can take, it is nonetheless most unusual for a major architectural practice to emerge once a firm’s principals are well into what is loosely called middle age. Before the professionalization of architecture in the nineteenth century, it was standard for an aspiring mason or carpenter to begin his apprenticeship at fourteen and to become a master builder by his early twenties. But with today’s protracted educational adolescence and a much longer life expectancy, architects now finish schooling in their mid- to late twenties, work for an established firm during their thirties, and then, if sufficiently talented, embark on independent practice at around forty.

filler_1-092712.jpg
Iwan Baan
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, designed by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Designing a house for one’s parents is an almost cliché rite of passage—Le Corbusier and Robert Venturi are prime twentieth-century examples of helpful familial patronage—followed by more residential commissions and nondomestic renovations or additions. Only after two decades of sustained experience do big commissions generally start to arrive, although by the age of fifty typecasting also sets in.

If one is fortunate enough to bring off several well-received projects, a Pritzker Prize might come during one’s sixties, depending on that coveted award’s shifting and often inscrutable notions of artistic excellence and geopolitical distribution. Winning the Pritzker assures a flood of work in one’s seventies and eighties, jobs necessarily carried out by assistants as the demands of modern-day cultural stardom and the inevitable waning of physical capacities prevent many architects from attaining the transcendent final phase more easily achieved by artists in other mediums. Architecture is not a profession for the faint-hearted, the weak-willed, or the short-lived.

Thus among the most extraordinary emergences in the building arts during recent decades has been the husband-and-wife team of Ricardo Scofidio, now seventy-seven, and Elizabeth Diller, fifty-eight, who first attracted attention beyond avant-garde architectural circles in 1999 when they were awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Together with the forty-eight-year-old Charles Renfro they comprise the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Scofidio and Diller (who founded their office in 1979 and made Renfro a full partner in 2004) had long appeared determined to be among the theoreticians and educators who infuse architectural thought with vivid imagination but construct little if anything at all. In that regard they followed the lead of their Cooper Union colleague John Hejduk (1929–2000), the school’s longtime dean, a poète maudit who fantasized in drawings and philosophized in print but built almost nothing.

The prevailing impression of this maverick couple as consummate architectural luftmenschen was heightened by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s enigmatic 2003 exhibition, “The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio.” Devoid of almost anything the lay public could comprehend as architecture or urbanism, the show presented a series of the subjects’ more-or-less whimsical installation pieces. These displays included “Tourisms: suitCase Studies” (1991), a gallery with fifty …

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