Compulsive Subversion: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Mike Yong

Interviewed last year on television, the principals of Diller Scofidio + Renfro – Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro – sit around a table as Charlie Rose asks them whether they have, in the course of their career, resisted traditional architecture.

Scofidio responds first. “Elizabeth and I started working when there was a recession in architecture. Architecture on paper, showing in galleries… Because we were architects, we wanted to build. And the only way to start doing that was to start in performance, theater, out on the beach, other kinds of projects… art installations, where we could build something and see the reaction from the public.” Suddenly, Diller steps in and interjects: “I am going to disagree with him. There was a recession, and that was coincidental.

I came to architecture with no intent of being an architect… I studied architecture, but I was always interested in being an artist. Slowly, we started to work around issues of space, because we were interested in conventions of the everyday, interested in domesticity, issues of visuality, there were many issues that were of interest, but we were always in between many disciplines, and it wasn’t until the early ‘90s when we were started to be offered architectural commissions, that we thought well maybe, it’s appropriate to try [a building].[1]

Diller has publicly overridden her colleague’s answer. While other firms may have tried and failed to build in conditions hostile to architecture, D+S (now DS+R, with the 2004 addition of Charles Renfro as partner) ‘chose’ not to build. Their career, marked by substantial unbuilt work in fields besides architecture, like performance and installation, was (in Diller’s words) a decision consciously made. Though by all indications D+S’s years of speculation were the only practical thing for them to do – no one would let them build – Diller insists that there was a secret, unseen mission to them.

This is a strange and extravagant claim to make in public, and it chafes against the received perception of what DS+R have sought to do in their body of work: to make visible and apparent that which has been erased or marginalized.  In their renovation of Brasserie, the restaurant in the basement of Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building, for instance, D+S aimed to make apparent the perversity of a windowless restaurant in the basement of a modernist glass tower. The street entrance of the restaurant has been outfitted with video cameras, while on the inside, patrons watch large plasma screens to see who has arrived.

Blur Building

Their 2003 retrospective at the Whitney, albeit mid-career (“Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio”) included a piece entitled Bad Press: Dissident Ironing, consisting of shirts ironed in unconventional and contorted ways. Here, D+S sought to expose the biopolitical conditioning of domestic life by “efficiency engineers at the turn of the century… The residual trace of the orthogonal logic of efficiency is worn on the body.”[2]  This is dealt with by ironing our shirts in different, new ways that put the creases in inefficient places we would not expect.

The Blur Building has perhaps been the work of theirs with the most impact. An exposition pavilion for the Swiss Expo ‘02, atop a lake in Yverdon-les-Bains, made completely of water vapor and not a ‘building’ in any traditional sense, D+S essentially defined the central constraint on architecture as the form of the building itself. In their own description of the project, they write:

Contrary to immersive environments that strive for visual fidelity in high-definition with ever-greater technical virtuosity, Blur is decidedly low-definition. In this exposition pavilion there is nothing to see but our dependence on vision itself. Its an experiment in de-emphasis on an environmental scale. Movement within is unregulated.

In all of their work, DS+R have sought to rehabilitate things, ideas, and possibilities which have been erased or pushed to the margins, by the putatively malevolent force of instrumental modernity, broadly conceived. DS+R often conflate ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’ as equally responsible for these erasures and marginalizations. In Brasserie, for example, the agent of marginalization – what forces the restaurant into a windowless space in the basement, in order to preserve the perfect glass cube on the surface – is Philip Johnson and the modernism of the Seagram Building. In Bad Press: Dissident Ironing, the engineers of the turn of the century have repressed our capacities for expression, by forcing all shirt-wearers to iron and wear their shirts in a particular way. The tortured language they have used to justify the Blur Building, with its denigration of technical virtuosity and celebration of the erosion of the form of the building itself, speaks to the untenable and self-undermining position in which they find themselves. Architecture is conceived simultaneously as the context of their actions and what needs to be subverted. They may claim that there is nothing high-definition, nor technically accomplished about the Blur Building, but there are few architectural endeavors to have attracted the glare of the media as successfully as the Blur Building. Its mere construction required prototyping and fabricating thousands of custom-made metal nozzles at a factory in Taiwan.

In the High Line, the New York park, DS+R reacted against the development of Chelsea into a collection of expensive real estate developments. Their stated intention for the High Line was to keep a part of its old roughness in Chelsea, in opposition to developers’ intentions. It is however unlkely that the High Line has brought down property values, and the character of its opposition seems entirely rhetorical.

In the absence of a cohesive ideological project, each project in their oeuvre has searched for an enemy worthy of contestation. The enemy changes every time. In the Blur Building, that enemy was found to be the form of the building itself. Yet the enemy always seems to be a chimera, and the stated justifications for their projects incompletely, sloppily cover up the traces of more substantial and difficult questions having to do with architecture and its relation to capitalist modernity.

In recent years DS+R’s luck has changed. They have begun (dare we say, they decided) to take on high profile institutional commissions, including the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston and the renovation of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Receiving high-profile commissions has not dented their self-perception as operating a practice oppositional and subversive to power. When asked about her intentions for Alice Tully Hall by the Boston Globe, Diller insisted that her aim was to democratize an elite complex that had sought to cultivate high art at the exclusion of all else, and to subvert and contest Robert Moses, who had demolished a dilapidated tenement enclave that housed 7,000 families while developing the complex in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As if Moses were still alive and well; as if the neighborhood had not changed for fifty years; as if an affirmative action program for the poor, dead, and gone could ever be successful. Philip Johnson is dead, and the engineers who designed the technique used to iron shirts have been dead longer than that. DS+R must reach back decades into the past in order to find people and projects to contest, and the frisson of their projects is the frisson that comes with setting fire to a graveyard.

Nearly all of these projects are an attempt at the critique of modernism, but DS+R’s understanding of modernism is extremely crude. They understand modernism as concomitant with instrumental repression, and consequently there is a compulsive and undergraduate aspect to their subversion. It is subversion with no real content or cause (“Dissident Ironing”). DS+R believe that they have superseded problems in architectural modernism through the interrogation of what modernism had erased or pushed to the side. Their work has flourished in an intellectual context defined by postmodernism, with its celebration of incoherence and meaninglessness.

The increasing difficulty of architecture’s ability to mean has been clear for a long time. For Manfredo Tafuri, writing in Architecture and Utopia in the ‘70s, the practice of architecture had become not just difficult but impossible. Architects were at least in part to blame for this misrecognition of the problem:

Architects, after having ideologically anticipated the iron-clad law of the plan, are now incapable of understanding historically the road traveled; and thus they rebel at the extreme consequences of the processes they helped set in motion. What is worse, they attempt pathetic ‘ethical’ relaunchings of modern architecture, assigning to it political tasks adapted solely to temporarily placating preoccupations as abstract as they are unjustifiable.[3]

For Tafuri, architecture was – is – unsustainable under capitalism, and the crisis of meaning in which it found – finds – itself is irresolvable. Though architecture had once had a project, a purpose, and a meaning, it now finds itself unhinged and in the wilderness, committed to fleeting, scattered, and bizarre political and ideological fantasies which changed according to taste and moment without internal coherence or logic.

Pathologically, architects have accounted for their own loss of an ideological project not through clarifying their own situation, but in the pursuit of “abstract, unjustifiable” problems which they have no intention of solving, nor could they hope to solve. In DS+R’s case, the structure of the problem is always the same – x has been made to disappear or been pushed to the margins by y, where y is instrumental reason in the form of modernism, modernity, or the two conflated. This is the case with Alice Tully Hall, Brasserie, the Blur Building, “Dissident Ironing,” or any other project they have undertaken. The shallowness of the problems and solutions which DS+R stems, fundamentally, from this unresolved crisis of meaning.

“Architecture and the Architect” is an extremely short piece by Meyer Schapiro, published in New Masses in 1934, dealing with architecture during the Depression and the increasingly more dire financial straits it found itself in. “This slump,” Meyer Schapiro writes bitingly, “was all the more catastrophic because of the extreme optimism of architects and their illusions of unlimited prosperity.”[4] Architects had misrecognized their own condition. While some well-funded buildings (for rentiers!) were triumphs, the majority of the built environment was execrable, having taken inspiration from the modern movement as an excuse to provide badly constructed buildings at minimum standards:

This poverty of form is sometimes blessed as an admirable simplicity, suited to the age, and is compared with the qualities of a villa by Le Corbusier. But whereas this bareness of surface in a large private dwelling planned by Le Corbusier for a rentier esthetic is an elegant, highly-formalized and studied solution, enhanced by choice materials, ample spaces, fine furniture and pictures, and by the complexities of freely designed interior vistas, in the poorer homes, with its small rooms, low ceilings and plain walls, it is simply the expression of the celebrated “minimum standards” with which functionalist architects have been so preoccupied.[4]


The two kinds of architectural practice Schapiro mentions can be mapped onto the difference between modernism and modernity. While architectural modernism was an aesthetic movement, emblematized (in Schapiro’s words) by the Villa Savoye of Le Corbusier, with its high degree of formalization and complex understanding of the architectural problematic, modernity in architectural is represented “the poorer homes”, which took modern architecture’s discoveries superficially and applied bits and pieces when and if it was convenient to do so. This piecemeal approach has led to the contemporary comedy of the box which can be done up mid-century, Cape Cod, or ranch, depending on what is more profitable.

Modernism, requiring substantial investment and the intellectual achievements of bourgeois culture, was always at risk of being subsumed by “the poorer homes” entirely. This is a tightening vise which has been built into modern architecture since the beginning. It is not coincidental nor accidental. It conditions and constrains architectural production at all levels and scales. Even work which is speculative and purely theoretical, created in order to escape this vice, cannot ultimately escape it. What has changed for the worse is how architects have come to investigate and articulate their particular problematic, preferring to anxiously, neurotically shift between topics, fields, disciplines, and political projects, to theoretical clarity.

One would expect that in the career of an architect, the conceptual problems that motivate the practice would be brought into sharper relief and greater focus with age. It is indicative of how inadequately DS+R has formulated their own architectural problematic that the older they get, and the more they are allowed to build, they are losing conceptual clarity.

Their most recent project – a pneumatic, inflatable bubble to be perched in the hole made by Gordon Bunshaft’s circular Hirshhorn Museum, called “Bubble” – is a masterpiece of contemptuousness produced by an adolescent mind, with seemingly no other purpose than to have the final word against instrumental reason:

In respectful dialogue with this Modernist icon originally designed by Gordon Bunshaft in 1974, the Bubble is an architecture of air: a pneumatic structure enclosed only by a thin translucent membrane that squeezes into the void of the building and oozes out the top and beneath its mass.

This project neatly sums up the facile nature of DS+R’s “critique of modernism.”

DS+R would prefer to evade any real engagement with the architectural problematic, and they would prefer to see the instrumental repression of the conflated chimera of modernism and modernity as the continuing enemy. They would prefer to deal with issues so small and numerous, ranging from international tourism to the military to the body, as to allow the total misrecognition and evasion of any substantial problem deserving of architecture as a human practice. Postulated in digestible chunks, for all their rhetorical bombast, DS+R’s world is surprisingly orderly, and liberations are surprisingly easy to find. All you need to do is iron a shirt differently, and there you have it. The revolutions are won.


1. Charlie Rose, “A conversation with Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro,” March 31, 2009,

2. “Bad Press: Dissident Ironing,”

3. Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, translated by Barbara Luigia La Penta (Cambridge: MIT, 1982) 178.

4. Meyer Schapiro, “Architecture and the Architect,” republished in “Looking Forward to Looking Backward,” Grey Room 6 (2002) 87.


About Bret Schneider,

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