The New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) in collaboration with Rockwell Group will enhance the city of New York with a new, extraordinary public space. In an exclusive interview, Liz Diller, co-founder of the studio, explains the regeneration of the urban area on the West Side of Manhattan
photos Iwan Baan and Tim Schenck, courtesy DS+R – article Laura Ragazzola
Elizabeth Diller, who co-founded the firm DS+R with Ricardo Scofidio in 1981, (Charles Renfro became partner in 2004 and Benjamin Gilmartin became partner in 2015), has been known for extremely innovative, successful and popular projects, including the adaptive reuse of a New York obsolete, industrial rail infrastructure into the High Line, a 1.5 mile-long public park.
The firm’s latest project, slated to open in New York in the spring of 2019, promises to trigger discussions with its original approach and its impact on the cultural and social life of the West Side of Manhattan. She told us about this new achievement: The Shed.
Before talking about what you are doing in New York, I would like to ask you: are you optimistic about architecture today?
Our studio’s trajectory has led me to be optimistic. In the last decade, we’ve been able to accomplish so much at an urban scale that effects some real change in our own city (we’ve been working in other cities as well). I think you have to be optimistic that things have to get destroyed before they get improved and reborn. I owe everything to naiveté. And the luck of alignments between the right people and the right forces that help push things along.
How do you think architecture can improve the quality of life of people in cities?
I firmly believe architects need to be involved in policy making, although I acknowledge it can often require the support of civic administrations to be able to do that. We live in a time of the privatization of space and a significant migration to cities. Architects need to constantly question how much is public and how much is private. It’s a balancing act that we have to be very cognizant of.
Is your firm moving in this direction?
I think in particular, it’s been interesting to observe the impact of the High Line. When it was first proposed, we thought it would be amazing to get 300,000 visitors per year. The obsolete rail infrastructure was surrounded by a sea of open parking lots, and property owners in the area wanted to tear it down because it devalued their land.
Last year, seven million people visited the High Line, and the cost of adjacent property has been skyrocketing. Where there were once blank walls next to active trains, today you’ll find glass buildings twisting for the best view of the High Line.
I think if the city could have done it over, they might have ensured more diversity, more low income housing and more space for artists. But it’s still possible to change things, through policies that ensure an open dialogue between citizens and municipal institutions.
Could you tell us about The Shed?
The Shed – which we designed in collaboration with Rockwell Group – will be New York’s first arts center dedicated to commissioning, producing, and presenting all types of performing arts, visual arts, and popular culture.
The central idea of The Shed is flexibility, making it possible to come to grips with any cultural needs, because we simply could not know what the art of the future will be like. What we do know is space for the arts is limited and we have to protect it. And we could be certain there would always be a need for conditioned space of different heights and sizes, a need for structural loading capacity, and a need for electrical power. One possible solution, in our view, was to make ‘architectures of infrastructure’ precisely like The Shed.
How does it work?
The building has a fixed structure with a height of eight stories, equipped with a retracting telescopic outer shell that opens and closes for different needs, running on 83 meter rails, until it covers the adjacent plaza. In this way additional indoor space can be gained, which in turn can be isolated from the outside and equipped with seating for performances, or left empty as a covered plaza open to the people of the city.
In short, with The Shed you have activated a process of defense and at the same time of subtraction of public space?
Yes. Alongside The Shed, we’ve also designed our first skyscraper, also in collaboration with Rockwell Group. The lower levels of the tower contain the offices, storerooms and mechanical systems of The Shed, while the upper levels of the high rise tower are for residences.
This residential tower will serve to ‘protect’ The Shed in a sort of urban symbiosis – a responsible, conscious dialogue between public and private. This allowed us to protect the already tiny footprint the city preserved for culture use within the Hudson Yards development.
When will it be completed?
In the spring of 2019. It is a very complex work in terms of construction, which takes its cue from the infrastructures of shipping ports and railway systems…
In effect The Shed does resemble a gantry crane for the lifting and movement of cargo…
Precisely. Furthermore, the structure of the building has been manufactured by an Italian company called Cimolai (a historic Friuli-based company, with headquarters in Pordenone, ed.), specializing in steel structures for bridges and dams, and generally for large port facilities as well. We met with an extraordinary team of engineers and specialized workers: without their know-how and skill this building could not exist.
And after The Shed, what are your next works: a museum, a university, a theater?
The studio is currently working on the Centre for Music in London, which will be a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra (led by Simon Rattle) in the Barbican Complex. We’re also working on the Mile Long Opera, a site specific performance with 1,000 singers along the High Line that I conceived, produced and directed with David Lang. It is a meditation on the unprecedented speed of urban change, presenting our contemporary condition — caught between a state of nostalgia for an irretrievable past and apprehension about an uncertain future.
When will it be performed?
In October, in New York. Along the length of the High Line. And it will be free of charge, of course.