Princeton
Weekly Bulletin
March 27, 2000
Vol. 89, No. 21
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Thinking about architecture
Reality in wavelets
Senior thesis leads to Nature paper
"Ballet to literature to icons to onion domes"

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Thinking about architecture

"Everything we do is a kind of anomaly," says MacArthur Fellow Elizabeth Diller

Elizabeth Diller in class (Photo by Sally Davidson)


 

By Nancy Beth Jackson

The New York Times calls Associate Professor of Architecture Elizabeth Diller a visionary, and

the Financial Times of London sees her as the darling of the American architectural avant garde -- but the hostess at the posh Brasserie in the Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan calls her Liz.

When a fire destroyed Philip Johnson's original design for the Brasserie, Diller and her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, were chosen to create a new interior worthy of an architectural legend. Just about the time Diller was winding up a fall seminar at Princeton on the strategy of display, the restaurant opened to mixed reviews for its food but unanimous bravos for the renovation.

"Each part of the structure, while fulfilling its practical function, carries a double entrendre that says something about the ritual and glamour of eating out in restaurants," wrote Alice Rawsthorn in the Financial Times in February.

Alternative architecture

Diller and Scofidio are often associated with an alternative form of architecture that unites cultural and architectural theory and criticism with design, performance and electronic media. A commercial project like the Brasserie might seem an unlikely project for such intellectual architects, but "How could we say no to the chance of working in one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century?" Diller asked. "It was an anomaly for us, but then almost everything we do is a kind of anomaly."

The Brasserie, The Seagram Building, New York, 2000.

"The rough concrete surfaces of the original space have been relined with new skins of wood, terrazzo, tile and glass," Diller explains, "and these thin liners often lift from their surfaces to become structural, spatial and functional components. For example, the madrone floor peels up, while the pearwood ceiling peels down and is molded into seating as part of a continuous wrapper around the main dining space." (Photo courtesy of Diller+Scofidio)


 

    

Early on, Diller and Scofidio functioned as "guerrilla architects," staging installations on vacant urban land to demonstrate that planning and architecture are not ends in themselves but exist to meet the needs of the people. "We haven't had any desire to develop a professional practice," Diller said. "Our work has always been research-based. We never imagined that the kind of work we did would be sustained by a private practice in architecture."

Born to Holocaust survivors, Diller immigrated to New York from Lodz, Poland, as a child. She and Scofidio met in the 1970s when she went to Cooper Union, where he still teaches. Originally an art student, she enrolled in an architectural course to look into issues of space and culture, which remain central to her research, design and teaching. Her creations are seen in dance performances and museum shows as well as in buildings such as the international arrivals hall at Kennedy International Airport.

Increasing recognition

Diller and Scofidio's independent projects have received increasing recognition. In the 1980s they received fellowships from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism, and three years ago they won the Chrysler Award for Achievement and Design.

Last year they were among the handful of architects and designers the Museum of Modern Art invited to consider the house of the future. Their contribution was Slow House, a beach house that includes a video camera digitally duplicating the "natural" view of the water for replay. This use of cameras is a trademark of Diller+ Scofidio designs. In the Brasserie, for instance, video cameras capture photos of patrons as they walk through the revolving door and then broadcast the images on screens above the bar.

One of Diller+Scofidio's most ambitious projects for live video was conceived as part of a redesign of CNN headquarters in Atlanta. The design employed the product--the news--as a chief design element. Every half hour on the hour, a translucent wall of the building's atrium was to display live images from the broadcast, making the space into a huge television monitor. The project was ready for final approval when CNN was sold to Time Warner, and the redesign was shelved.

MacArthur Fellows

Last year Diller and Scofidio became the first architects to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. The MacArthur Foundation cited them for work that "explores how space functions in our culture and illustrates that architecture, when understood as the physical manifestation of social relationships, is everywhere, not just in buildings." They received a grant of $375,000 to be spread over five years, a no-strings award they may use any way they please.

The MacArthur grant "gives us the financial freedom to buy time," Diller says. She and Scofidio plan to take time off from their academic posts one semester each year for the next five years, beginning this spring. They will work on design projects in the United States, Japan and Europe, including Swiss Expo 2002 for which they are creating a space they plan to shroud in a mist created by 15,000 high-pressure water nozzles.

In addition to providing a welcome financial boost, Diller says the MacArthur "makes us feel our work is appreciated. It's a very prestigious acknowledgment that what we're doing, we should continue to do."

Students from around globe

From her earliest days as an architect, Diller has also been a teacher, lecturing at institutions such as Cooper Union and Harvard before joining the faculty at Princeton in 1990. She says she has seen substantial changes in the School of Architecture, which is now drawing numbers of talented students from around the globe.

"More and more, the master's degree students are attracted by the strong theory component of the school," she says. "Students are interested in thinking about architecture. That's what I do with them."

Issues such as technology, gender, politics and architectural space are the bridge between Diller's architectural practice and her teaching. For all the freedom the MacArthur Fellowship will make possible in the next five years, teaching will remain an integral part of her professional life. She wouldn't have it otherwise.

"Teaching is an extension of our work," she said. "The fellowship allows us to be able to teach and also to concentrate on our own work. We don't want to give anything up."


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