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The High Line, the mile-long park created on an old elevated railway in Manhattan, is one of those once-in-a-decade projects that, like the 1990s Guggenheim in Bilbao, both captures the imagination of the world and offers limitless inspiration to plagiarists. There are wannabe High Lines mooted for Calabria, Singapore, Jerusalem and Shenzhen, and in any number of American cities.
Any developer in possession of a meagre strip of green is apt to declare it a High Line. People changing planes at JFK airport have been known to nip over in taxis to get a glimpse before nipping back in time for their next flight, which somewhat negates the concept of a leisurely stroll in the park. One of the few people not completely mesmerised by it and ready to move on from it – who, indeed, believes it is not replicable – is one of its principal creators, Elizabeth Diller.
Her practice, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, together with landscape architect James Corner and garden designer Piet Oudolf, designed the High Line. “On the joyous side,” she says, “I am still totally amazed by how many New Yorkers are really thankful and love to go; the part that gives thought is that it’s almost too popular for its own good. It could easily consume itself.”
She has other things on her mind, such as the ongoing, 10-year, billion-dollar project to make over New York’s Lincoln Centre, about which a large book has just been published in America. A 1960s cultural complex, the Lincoln Centre is, like the South Bank and Barbican centres in London, based on the theory that it’s a good idea to group several venues in one place, and had similar problems of awkward circulation and hard-to-use public spaces. Here, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s aim was to “open up the Lincoln Centre in a very democratic way” so that its “buzziness” could be enjoyed even by those not holding expensive tickets for opera or ballet.
Techniques include digitised lighting displays, a pavilion roof that is also a large sloping lawn, and a recently completed bridge that takes people across one of the moat-like roads that bound the complex.
Diller and her partners are taking on the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, a hovering, forbidding, concrete doughnut whose form and material could not be more hostile to alteration or addition. They’re going to inflate a giant balloon that will bulge upwards from the hole at its centre and squirm out underneath it. They are also working on an opera – not just designing its setting but also conceiving it, commissioning a writer and composer and putting it on.
These projects have certain qualities in common. They are all concerned with engaging the public. They like to play with new technology, such as the lighting at the Lincoln Centre, not for its own sake but for its ability to alter perception and experience. They combine conceptual sophistication with simple direct pleasures: the Hirshhorn balloon, the tilted lawn, the moment on the High Line when the deck suddenly drops, to make a mini-theatre for viewing the traffic streaming up Tenth Avenue underneath.
The great British architectural thinker Cedric Price was fond of saying that “maybe the answer is not a building”. Other architects recall this line from time to time before deciding that, actually, in the particular case where they’ve been commissioned and paid to design something, the answer is a building after all.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro mean it. On the High Line their task was “how not to screw up” the “otherworldly beauty” of the weed-strewn viaduct, and the main contribution was the design of a paving system that would unify the park’s multiple incidents. With the much criticised original buildings of the Lincoln Centre they decided that “they are part of the iconography of New York, so we just accept them”. They’ve left plenty of it alone, including a somewhat pompous fountain that nonetheless attracted and soothed the crowds.
They like to use mobile and elusive substances as much as the hard, fixed matter of building: electricity, light, air pressure in the case of the Hirshhorn, and with their memorable 2002 Blur Building – a structure that created a walk-through artificial cloud above Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland – water vapour. Their works are more like events than objects.
They like performance, hence buildings that move and change, and hence the opera. They have a freedom that comes from a willingness, earlier in their career, not to build anything at all. “When I was studying architecture in the 1970s it was intellectually bankrupt,” says Diller, whom I catch while she’s in London to give a talk for the Architecture Foundation.
So it was a mark of honour for her and her partner and husband, Ricardo Scofidio, not to go along with the “conventional client-architect relationship”. “We didn’t want things handed down to us,” she says.
They made their name with installations, exhibitions and performances, in galleries and in found spaces, in which tables and chairs might hang from the ceiling, or a room might be filled with 50 open suitcases, one for each state of America, displaying postcards and other mementoes. Their themes included the problematic nature of the domestic, the definition of gender and, in the suitcase exhibit, tourism.
These works looked like art but, says Diller, they were “always about space-making; we always thought it was the activity of an architect”. Even if, as she also says, “the early audiences were esoteric and academic”. But then came an astonishingly rapid shift, from ephemeral pieces well thought of by the cognoscenti to the popular hit of the Blur Building, to projects in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, such as the High Line and the Lincoln Centre. “We thought it was a case of mistaken identity,” she says of her appointment to the latter. “We thought that for sure we’d have been fired a long time ago.”
But they weren’t, and although Diller is now 58 and Scofidio is 77, it feels as if their practice is still in the process of taking off. Their success has brought criticisms; the former architecture critic of the New York Times discerned clumsiness when it came to the craft of actually designing buildings, and the High Line has been accused of being a gentrifying force. They have the problems common to intellectuals who go mainstream, of looking less rigorous, more easy-listening, although they still seem pretty smart to me.
For Diller it’s a case of “broadening the audiences” and also finding something to enjoy in the extraordinarily complex networks of people and organisations that goes with a project such as the Lincoln Centre. She seems to have made the business of negotiating, navigating and collaborating with such networks an art project in itself.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk