The Stealth Designers
For years, avant-garde darlings Diller + Scofidio have kept fresh with art projects, technologically innovative media installations, and paper architecture. However, writes Andrew Yang, what’s propelling the firmmnow with partner Charles Renfrooare two major urban planning projects that may transform the face of New York City.
|In contrast to the explicit directives of their work for Lincoln Center, above, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s (with OMA) master plan for the BAM Cultural District, is a conceptual framework for development. The early site plan, below, which has evolved with the needs of BAM, shows how different programs can be interwoven. The urban beach, and vertical garden, describe an attitude toward the public realm more than any actual building proposal.
According to Rebecca Robertson, the executive director of the Lincoln Center Redevelopment Corporation, there was a moment in 2002 when she was really doubtful that she could get Diller + Scofidio on the final list of competitors to redesign Lincoln Center’s public spaces. The others were all major players with several large public projects under their belttNorman Foster, Cooper Robertson, Richard Meier and Santiago Calatrava. At that point, Diller + Scofidio had a handful of installations and a much-loved restaurant interior, the Brasserie. That summer, their conceptual architecture-cum-art piece, Blur, a mist-filled cloud-making apparatus over Lake Neuchhtel in Switzerland opened to the public. While Diller + Scofidio clearly had the intellectual acuity to go toe-to-toe with these architects, their lack of built projects meant the firm would be a tough sell for Lincoln Center’s board.
Robertson had worked with the duo in the early 1990s, when she was the director of the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation. As part of a plan to animate the closed theaters and other dead spaces in the district, the corporation worked with the public-art organization Creative Time to commission projects from the likes of Jenny Holzer, Tibor Kalman, and Diller + Scofidio. She knew of the designers’ knack for multidisciplinary design, and the strong element of performance and surveillance in their workksuch as the monitors at the bar of the Brasserieeand knew they would be a good fit.
>For us, Lincoln Center was about more communication between the arts,, said Robertson. By focusing on that element of Diller + Scofidio’s work, she was able to get the firm on the list, and the rest is history.
Now renamed Diller Scofidio + Renfro, to reflect the addition of partner Charles Renfro, the firm still shows up on the shortlists of major competitions, but they are no longer the long shots. Two of their recently completed projectssthe redesign of Lincoln Square’s public spaces and a master plan for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural Districttre-envision two of New York’s cultural epicenters, and put the designers in a position to shape not just the buildings of New York, but aspects of the city itself.
It’s like they’ve absorbed Lincoln Center into their DNA, and the outrageousness of what they have done is subtle,, said Robertson.
The most drastic and controversial part of the plan calls for the eradication of the Milstein Plaza, a raised platform designed in 1965 by Harrison & Abramovitz, and which covers much of 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. Their plan also calls for slicing through a corner of the hard, brutalist Pietro Belluschii designed Alice Tully Hall, also home of the Julliard School. Along with an elevated lawn in the plaza behind Avery Fisher Hall, the firm aims to integrate the different topographic levels of Lincoln Center into a public space that’s more transparent and functional. If subtlety is the mark of this project, then the designers’ masterplan for the BAM Cultural District may be so subtle it’s downright invisible.
When the BAM Cultural District, designed in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas/OMA, was completed in 2002, very little in the way of fancy renderings was released to the press. That’s because there weren’t any. According to the firm, the masterplan really isn’t a masterplan at all. It is a series of programmatic and building recommendations for a network of systems and spaces that will maximize the dynamic interplay between the district’s different cultural institutions. We wanted them to understand that the project [had to be implemented] in phases, and could change, and affect what followed,, said Scofidio.
The plan for BAM, unlike Lincoln Center, is more of a conceptual schematic for the buildings in the district, and less of a stringent plan for buildings. While it recommends spatial programming like artists’ live/work lofts, retail, administrative offices, residential buildings, and a hotel, its salient feature is a plan for acculturation.. Because the area is several blocks away from still-gritty downtown Brooklyn, a period of reinvestment and renewal could make the artistic aspects of the neighborhood more visible. The plan recommends installing temporary public art projects and even an urban beachh in order to draw in passersby and raise interest in the area. By incorporating the BAM ethos into the very sidewalks, it would attract more foot traffic and other cultural organizations, thus encouraging a more organic type of development.
>The essence of this plan is mixing,, said Jeanne Lutfy, president of the BAM Local Development Corp-oration (LDC). The streetscape will be the connective tissue that ties the district to Fort Greene,, she said, noting that the programming of visual art into the public infrastructure is already happening.
And the chips are falling into place. Enrique Norten’s Library for Visual and Performing Arts, which was unveiled in 2003, will fill out a triangular block south of the BAM Opera House. The Manhattan-based Theater for a New Audience recently announced that Hugh Hardy and Frank Gehry will design a 300-seat, $22 million theater adjacent to the visual arts library. In between the buildings will be an open public space, which follows the Diller Scofidio + Renfro plan. Twelve new cultural organizations, including Bomb magazine and the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Art, have just recently been announced to fill 80 Arts, an eight-story building that will be renovated by the BAM LDC. Because of the sharing of various amenities by the different groups, 80 Arts is in many ways a microcosm of what this district is going to be about,, said Lutfy.
Just as ideas of performance, technology, surveillance, and the public domain are central to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s conceptual work, they are proving to be a trademark of the firm’s public planning projects as well. We didn’t think of it as a masterplan as much as There is a performance on the inside of the building and we want to bring that quality out,” said Scofidio. And we wanted to add the aspects of street performance and bring them in.. None of the blocks in the district as proposed are solid, but instead composed of varied units with public spaces cutting through.
By the time this long-term process is complete, the entire cultural area may be eclipsed by developer Bruce Ratner’s proposed new Frank Gehryydesigned basketball arena a block away. Its monstrous proportions and planning are the antithesis of OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s delicate, piece-by-piece, neighborhood-building strategy. The invisibility of the BAM Cultural Districttand how it unfolds over the next several yearssis just how the firm wants it.
Our interests are really broad and not about an image,, said Renfro, who is a generation younger than his partners and has witnessed the transformation of the office since he arrived seven years ago, after four years with Smith-Miller + Hawkinson. Brasserie was their first permanent work in this country,, he said. That project really changed the way people think about the firm. And it helped promote the development of the work into larger and larger scales,, he says.
Just as Lincoln Center is a dynamic interplay of buildings designed by heavyweights like Philip Johnson, Belluschi, and Wallace K. Harrison, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s intervention is subtle and respectful. And the BAM district is also proving to be a fruitful collaboration of architectural visionaries, the public can take it as a sure sign that the built reality will finally match the imaginations of the firm guiding it.
Andrew Yang, an editor of 306090, contributes to Wallpaper, Men’s Health, and Surface.