In what language could architecture speak? In whose voice?” The New York City-based practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which operates at what Edward Dimendberg calls “the intersection of architecture, art, mass culture and cultural criticism”, is notable for being one of those rare practices to have shot to fame and success through the rigorous and single-minded research of their subject and the dedicated pursuit of teaching, which is always a heartening tale. They are perhaps best known for masterminding the High Line elevated park in Manhattan, which opened in 2009.
Ricardo Scofidio, a teacher at the Cooper Union in New York, and Elizabeth Diller, who was then his student, got together in 1979, at the dawn of a decadent period for architecture - Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even being the Dada-esque touchstone for their work at that time. It amused me that the only picture we see in this book of wife and husband (Charles Renfro being a late addition to the team) is of their buttocks morphed together on the cover of their 1994 book Flesh: Architectural Probes. As a female architect, familiar with the kind of corrosively hostile scene through which Diller emerged, I would have liked to hear more about what makes her tick. Of course, that would be a different book.
Dimendberg has worked hard at defining his terms to create “a critical chronological exploration of the status of images (both moving and still) in their architecture and its transformation of modernism”. One of the things I really like about this book is its introduction, in which the author (a film, media studies and visual studies academic at the University of California, Irvine) grapples with what it is to be a historian of the recent past and the historiography of architecture in general. He is upfront about his lineage as a film-maker, something that is evident in his analyses of the many art installations that populate Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s early career. These are beautifully observed, easy to read and fascinating. The only problem is that the chronological format means that they begin to read rather like a catalogue, which makes the book useful as a reference text but a less-than-flowing read. In general, the question of politics is dealt with at arm’s length - almost as though Dimendberg were equipped with one of those prosthetic arms of which Diller Scofidio+Renfro are so very fond.
Although the approach may be logical in a book about images, as an architect I regretted that less space was given to the group’s architecture, which is subtle and clever in the extreme, in both practical and theoretical terms. I wanted to hear more about the translation of their ideas from the artwork into the hard reality of building. The trio’s Slither housing development in Japan (1994) has a truly ingenious plan and section that gives a separate identity to each apartment, while at the same time relieving monotony on the exterior facade. Diller Scofidio+Renfro recently also gave new life to the slightly De Chirico- esque Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City through a subtle shift of planes. The same obsessive quality of detail that informs their art practice comes through here. Although this is a well-illustrated book, I wanted to see more plans and sections, without which Icould not make my own interpretation; I was left to rely instead on glossy architectural marketing views.
Significantly, this book has a near absence of really critical criticism. Indeed, there is an uncomfortably hyperbolic moment when the author appears to assert Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s leadership of the whole architectural scene. It would be interesting to know the role they played in the creation of this text, and how close it comes to vanity publishing. That said, given that it is very difficult, politically and ethically, to write about living people, Dimendberg has done a good job in pinning down the work of a practice - the very essence of which, of course, is not to be pinned down.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Architecture after Images
By Edward Dimendberg
University of Chicago Press, 248pp, £42.00
ISBN 9780226151816 and 9780226008721 (e-book)
Published 20 March 2013