Diller and Scofidio on architecture and the High Line

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Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio

The High Line is a "pulling-back from architecture" say Diller and Scofidio

Interview: the architects behind the phenomenally popular High Line park in New York have spoken to Dezeen about how the project has changed the city and why attempts to recreate the idea in other places might struggle.

Originally launched to reclaim part of a disused elevated railway line, the High Line public park – designed by New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf – has become one of New York's most popular public spaces.

"The one thing people don't get, which I find interesting, is that when we were doing it I kept saying, 'our job is to defend the High Line from architecture', said Ricardo Scofidio, who co-founded US-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Elizabeth Diller. "A lot of people think it's this big architectural statement. It wasn't – it was really pulling-back from architecture."

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The High Line public park

"It became a ruin and it was self-seeded, all of that was what we built the thing out of," added Elizabeth Diller. "So our feeling was that our biggest work was not screwing it up – because it was already there."

Each section of the project has retained some portion of the self-seeded planting that had grown naturally on the structure before it was reclaimed, adding in wooden walkways, raised seating areas and viewing points. The third section of the 1.45-mile park completed in September.

Its success has led to a rash of proposals for similar schemes, reclaiming abandoned infrastructure in an attempt to revitalise neighbourhoods in cities around the world. These have included proposals for a green "promenade" in London, the Goods Line railway in Sydney, a garden bridge by OMA in Washington DC and even a "low line" scheme for tunnels in New York's Lower East Side.

Scofidio believes these will struggle to match the High Line's success as the projects focus too much on making architectural statements.

"I see a lot of proposals where people want to create High Lines and it's just too much architecture," said Scofidio. "What makes it so successful is that it's not an architectural statement. It's really about growing out of what was there in a very quiet way."

The High Line has had a knock-on effect of making the areas around it in New York more desirable for property owners and developers. Some have accused the project of having a negative gentrifying force.

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Diller said that they were "unsettled" about the potential for "monoculturalism," but added that change was inevitable in New York.

"In order to have done [the project] at all it had to be spoken about as a way for this part of the city to develop because otherwise there would have been no money put into it by the city," said Diller.

"We love this part of New York. We're all kind of unsettled a little bit with what potentially could happen with monoculturalism," she added. "There are more people than anticipated, it's more of everything – more new buildings, higher rents for real estate, and all that stuff."

"It's a kind of paradox. You want to keep doing things that are good. But you have to keep mobile and cities keep changing. The city that we built the High Line for is now a different city. In ten years it will be different still."

Diller and Scofidio, who founded their studio in 1979 and expanded to include partner Charles Renfro in 2004, were speaking to Dezeen at the opening of their most recent work – an installation called Musings on a Glass Box at the Fondation Cartier in Paris.

Like some of their best-known small projects, the exhibition uses different forms of technology to create an apparently low-fi effect – in this case a roof that appears to leak inside Jean Nouvel's original glass-walled gallery building.

The Musings on a Glass Box installation by Diller and Scofidio at Jean Nouvel's Fondation Cartier
Musings on a Glass Box installation at the Fondation Cartier in Paris

The pair said that their ongoing interest in technology was one of the threads that connected their work, from the installations they created early on in their career through to the Blur building – a floating platform on a lake shrouded in a pavilion of man-made fog – and major projects like the refurbishment of New York's Lincoln Centre arts complex.

"We were always working with space. It's just not in the conventional business part of professional architecture," said Diller. "But then buildings started to become just one other trajectory of the work."

"We've always come up with a project and idea and only then determined what the media was that we needed to use," added Scofidio. "So if we didn't need technology we didn't use technology. The project downstairs [Musing on a Glass Box] did. For me, the success of it is when you look at it and you don't see the technology. You don't think about the technology."

Portrait by Peter Ash Lee.

Read an edited transcript of our interview with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio:


Anna Winston: Is it unusual for a successful architecture practice to build a name by doing art installations?

Elizabeth Diller: For us, we never had an intention of doing architecture.

Ricardo Scofidio: We never said "one day we'll be doing this" or "one day we'll have a big office". It was never our intention. We were simply doing things that interested us and using the way that architects conceive the world to investigate conditions which we generally don't pay a lot of attention to. We accept that buildings get built a certain way because that's the way that buildings have always been built. Nobody ever questions it. Nobody ever looks at conventions. Says "Why are doing it that way?" So we started investigating it. A series of investigations of things which are invisible but yet influence our daily existence.

Elizabeth Diller: I would say that we were always architects. We were always working with space. It's just not in the conventional business part of professional architecture. But then buildings started to become just one other trajectory of the work.

The Musings on a Glass Box installation by Diller and Scofidio at Jean Nouvel's Fondation Cartier
Musings on a Glass Box installation

Anna Winston: It has escalated quite quickly to really large substantial projects like the Lincoln Centre.

Elizabeth Diller: We were very lucky. I think Lincoln Centre and the ICA were breakthrough projects. We were just given some opportunities. We were kind of arrogant when we started and became really humbled as we were doing architecture. It's really hard to work with budgets and deadlines and all of these collaborators and all of these voices and special interests. But I think it was very gratifying because each form has its own thing. Theatre is real-time – you get that real-time audience reaction, which is fantastic. And with art pieces, people don't ever have to explain themselves. You can do something and really follow a research. With architecture you have to be much more public. You have to build consensus. You have to work within the law. There are more complexities. But in the end our research is our research. It just manifests in different ways and uses different media, a different toolkit.

Ricardo Scofidio: They were snapshots. All these [installation] projects had a very short life, we did them and they disappeared. But they were important snapshots for us. There were things we took away from them that we could bring to other projects.

Anna Winston: Is there a common thread between your first installations and big projects like the Lincoln Centre?

Elizabeth Diller: I think we've always been interested in technology, the world of technology. And one interesting thing about what constitutes an authentic experience, what constitutes artifice, or mediated experience. That's something that has been a constant throughout. So having two forms of the same thing – like a bucket and the mediated large-scale super human vision. That has persisted in a lot of projects since the beginning.

Ricardo Scofidio: Though when you say we have been interested in technology, we're not geeks. Also, we don't always use technology. We've always come up with a project and idea and only then determined what the media was that we needed to use. So if we didn't need technology we didn't use technology. The project downstairs [Musings on a Glass Box] did. For me, the success of it is when you look at it and you don't see the technology. You don't think about the technology.

The Musings on a Glass Box installation by Diller and Scofidio at Jean Nouvel's Fondation Cartier
Musings on a Glass Box installation

Anna Winston: In a way it's similar to the Blur building, which was more about creating an experience but relied on a lot of technology to produce the effect.

Ricardo Scofidio: It's to achieve an affect – whether it's drawing my hand, or painting, or using a computer it's the effect that's going to be produced.

Elizabeth Diller: Another common theme is visuality. It's something that's always been on our minds. The culture of vision… there are so many different aspects of perception and power, of voyeurism, exhibitionism. All these different aspects of the way the culture of vision operates. And so that's another thing that somehow permeates a lot of our work.

This project had an acoustic quality, the last project we did had an olfactory one, Blur was about heightened senses. Vision was turned off in a way. So there are many themes that are many themes. Not every project allows us all the freedoms to do this.

Anna Winston: Do you think that generally in the architectural scene there's enough thought behind the way technology is applied?

Elizabeth Diller: Architecture is a technology. And it's involved in all of the different networks of systems that produce architecture – including politics, economics, social and cultural conditions. So architecture is already in technology.

But when we think about responsive systems, materials, and things like that... It's like what Ric was saying: concept comes first. And sometimes the concept is about the technology but not often. Sometimes we have to use technology as a tool to accomplish something, or technology becomes the weapon, or technology becomes the target. It keeps changing. Technology is so broad that it almost covers everything. The way we look at it is neither technophilic or technophobic. It's just one of the things we use. We use it in design, we use it in the operation of buildings, and then we use it architecturally for different kinds of effects.

Stephen Burks on the High Line New York

Anna Winston: The scale of your building work seems to be growing quite rapidly. Do you still get time to investigate many projects like this?

Ricardo Scofidio: I think we'd shut our doors if we didn't. We'd stop working. We wouldn't make a building if we didn't continue to do this kind of investigation. It's the heart of who we are.

Elizabeth Diller: At any given time we're doing several different projects at the same time. We're doing two operas right now, we're doing another book. We just finished working on two fashion projects. It's so natural for us to be doing different scale projects and some that are independently generated, and some that are client-initiated.

Ricardo Scofidio: In some ways the small-scale projects are more complex than a large piece of architecture, which is basically maybe just a lot of repetition to achieve a result.

I've often said that the most difficult architectural problem is to design a kitchen. If you really designed it and decide where the forks and knives go, where the plates go, where the cups go, where the foods goes, where you cook. It's an incredibly complex project. So people just go and buy ready-made kitchens, because it's too complicated for most brains to deal with.

Elizabeth Diller: There's nothing too small for us. And we don't engage in projects by size. We go wherever our curiosity takes us.

Ricardo Scofidio: We always have.

Elizabeth Diller: That's what makes it fun. If we're doing something that we haven't done before and that we haven't thought about, so we learn. We kinda throw ourselves off a cliff and have no idea, and 'where's our parachute', and then we figure out 'oh, this is how we can do it!'.

It would be really not interesting if we didn't do everything. Now we have this real appetite to do so many different scales. It's just normal for us.

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Anna Winston: The third part of the High Line has just completed. Is that the end of the saga?

Ricardo Scofidio: No, because of the construction there there's a section there which still has to be designed.

Anna Winston: Did you ever expect it to be quite as popular as it is?

Ricardo Scofidio: No.

Elizabeth Diller: No idea. The incredible irony is that here we are in Paris, the Promenade Plantée is here. It preceded the High Line and we used the Promenade Plantée as an example of how could have a park up in the air when it was being fought for. The High Line itself has triggered so much positive response both in the city but also around the world. And so it becomes a reference. And in a way the Promenade Plantée has fallen off as a reference, but it is still the reference.

But there's something about the unique properties of the density of that area, of the post industrial quality of it. It has seen so much. You see the city in a very different way. It became a ruin and it was self-seeded, all of that was what we built the thing out of. And so our feeling was that our biggest work was not screwing it up – because it was already there.

Ricardo Scofidio: We did get it right.

Elizabeth Diller: A lot of it was figuring out how much of a voice it could take. Because there was so much already there.

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Anna Winston: It has been accused of being a gentrifying force. What do you think about how it is changing the city?

Elizabeth Diller: First was the popularity of the High line, then was the effect that it had on real estate. Of course, in order to have done it at all it had to be spoken about as a way for this part of the city to develop because otherwise there would have been no money put into it by the city. The city believed that this kind-of burnt-out area would go through a change.

From our standpoint, we love this kind of abject part of New York. We're all kind of unsettled a little bit with what potentially could happen with monoculturalism. But I think that what, to us, is really interesting with the High Line is that it is in this state of the in-between. And we feel this nostalgia looking back at a past that can never be recreated, and a future that we don't quite know that might be scary. It's like a pathological state. It's an interesting experience.

Ricardo Scofidio: The one thing people don't get, which I find interesting, is that when we were doing it I kept saying, "our job is to defend the High Line from architecture". A lot of people think it's this big architectural statement. It wasn't – it was really pulling-back from architecture.

I see a lot of proposals where people want to create High Lines and it's just too much architecture. What makes it so successful is that it's not an architectural statement. It's really about growing out of what was there in a very quiet way.

Elizabeth Diller: The after effect that we can totally count on is that there are more people than anticipated, it's more of everything – more new buildings, higher rents for real estate, and all that stuff... In a way there's kind of an organic urban growth that happens. In a place that's blown out, you put something good there. And then everybody is attracted to it and then the value rises. And then it goes through that whole cycle. The artists who were there ultimately have to leave.

Ricardo Scofidio: They wanted to tear it down. Giuliani, the Mayor of New York, signed papers to tear it down. He took it to court. Had it been torn-down, you would not only have just as much new architecture going there because developers would have moved in immediately, but it would have been really ugly architecture, and you wouldn't have had the High Line.

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Elizabeth Diller: It's a kind of paradox. You want to keep doing things that are good. But you have to keep mobile and cities keep changing. The city that we built the High Line for is now a different city. In ten years it will be different still. You just want to keep doing your best work wherever you have an opportunity. You never want to make it anything less than successful. It's a really great testament that it touched a really big audience. It's just amazing.

It's a new idea for a park where there's nothing to do. I mostly appreciate that. It's so much about nothingness. You can't ride a bike, you can't play ball, you can't do anything recreational. But you can sit and you can walk. And that's such a discovery for New York. It's a super big deal. So we kind of loved that discovery. And then to make spaces in that space in that where there's even less to do. It touched a chord with New Yorkers that we're really happy about.

Anna Winston: What happens next?

Elizabeth Diller: We're doing a museum in Rio. And we're doing a factory project in China.

Ricardo Scofidio: The park in Moscow. Culture Shed. A big museum in Colorado Springs. A number of things.

Elizabeth Diller: I think it's the ability to do these larger museum projects or urban public space projects with a little bit more wisdom and with some new experiments. It's always evolving. But I think the most exciting thing is this new agency for the architect - being able to put a programme on the table and to really raise consciousness about it, find the support, and work with a whole group of people to enact change. To not only inherit. I mean that's the problem – architects inherit bad, old ideas from programming of the past. You try to change something with design, but to fundamentally question our institutions, that's really important to do.