The Unnatural: How Diller Marches to a Different Drummer

Event: “Unnatural” in Architecture by Elizabeth Diller
Location: National Arts Club, 06.16.08
Speakers: Elizabeth Diller — Principal, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Douglas Friedlander — Chair of the Architectural Committee of the National Arts Club (introduction)
Organizer: The National Arts Club, Architectural Committee

Poss Family Mediatheque at The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, one of Elizabeth Diller’s favorite unreal spaces.

Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

In an era when “natural” is touted in everything from food to design, it’s refreshing to hear someone come out in favor of its opposite. “The unnatural doesn’t necessarily have to be bad,” declared Elizabeth Diller in a recent talk about her firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s (DS+R) work. “It’s not necessarily fake, it’s just a different kind of natural.”

Her firm has long treaded the border between the natural and the artificial. Take the Blur Building, a technologically conjured fogbank at Lake Neuchâtel for the Swiss Expo 2002. The ephemeral “building” redefined what architecture could be, putting a focus on the visitors’ transient experiences instead of creating an enduring physical form.

To promote social contact in the densely foggy environment with limited visibility, the firm designed an intelligent raincoat for visitors that would blush pink when someone with a similar personality profile drew near, Diller explained. Although the wearable technology was never developed, the designers’ fascination with the natural phenomenon of blushing continued. As part of a renovation of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, they designed an “intelligent skin” lined with wood veneer and resin translucent enough for light to shine through, creating a warm glow. When the house lights come down, the lighting under the veneer will glow briefly, “blushing,” so that “momentarily attention is stolen from the stage and brought to the architecture,” she said. Audiences will first get to see the effect at a gala this December.

Designs such as The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) and the unbuilt Slow House play with the artificial framing effect of windows. At the ICA, views of the harbor are slowly doled out, glimpse by glimpse. A favorite spot for Diller is the Mediatheque, a vertiginously sloped computer room that draws the eye to a patch of undulating waves framed by a window at the end of the space. Devoid of context, the view’s impact almost begins to appear unreal. “When we opened, some elderly gentleman stood at the top and said, ‘Wow, this is the biggest screensaver I’ve ever seen,'” she recalled.

Unlike such eye-grabbing experiments, DS+R and Field Operations’ design for the High Line called for a light touch, she said. As documented by Joel Sternfeld’s photographs, the long-abandoned elevated railway had the eerie charm of an industrial ruin being reclaimed by nature. The architects’ goal was to preserve that feeling of a natural oasis in the midst of the city, so they designed slender paved areas weaving through vegetation, inspired by the look of plants pushing up between cracks in old, crumbling concrete. They never anticipated the development frenzy that the High Line would trigger, and that worried them, she said, along with concerns about potential overuse of the park once it opens.

“We had this strange feeling of doubt that we’re losing the very thing that we love, that melancholic, very beautiful postindustrial feel of this abandoned railroad that we wanted to turn into something that was a kind of contemplation about the nature of nature,” she said. But in the end, “we began to realize that this kind of growth is very much part of what cities are about and the High Line will ultimately be a blend of the natural and the cultural. The notion of ‘nature’ really does need to be rethought…. We foresee a future of the High Line where nature and culture will find a really smooth and interesting interface that we can’t entirely predict.”