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Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Anatomy of Architecture

Daria Ricchi

25:05 min

THE NEW YORK CITY BASED ARCHITECTURE FIRM run by Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro is widely recognized for their diverse portfolio of architectural commissions and independent projects, that blur distinctions between art and architecture, nature and artifice, technology and body. All these dichotomies are sustained by a kind of Hegelian dialectic, and the intention of the architects has always been to challenge these conventional dichotomies. In this sense, DS+R's infamous Blur Building for the 2002 Swiss Expo best explains how distinction can vanish between installation and architecture. The Blur Building (see "Blur Interior" and "Blur Exterior") is an architecture of atmosphere –a fog mass resulting from natural and manmade forces. Water is pumped from Lake Neuchatel, filtered, and shot as a fine mist through 35,000 high-pressure nozzles. The technical configuration of the building achieves a complete rarefaction of the building –if we can still call is as such. The videos –as well as photography– serve as the only record of this ephemeral work.

The year 2002 also marked a shift in the over thirty-year long activity of Diller and Scofidio (the firm was founded in 1979, the duo joined in 1997 by Charles Renfro). Diller explains: "The Blur Building was the first time we became aware of the importance of audience. Before that, the studio had an academic and subcultural following." After the Blur Building the office somehow opened to a wider public recognition. Diller Scofidio and Renfro were part of history, learnt from it, and contributed to shaping it by joining the artistic ferment that contaminated New York's culture in the Eighties with their installations and site specific works. Perhaps they also inverted history when, in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis that halved architecture offices in New York as well as in the world, Diller Scofidio + Renfro the studio made it through it, and later completed several new buildings for both the private and public sectors, like the Alice Tully Hall or the Juilliard School. That said, these dichotomies deal with other complex frictions that make the analysis of their work more difficult.

I would like to get rid of these categories, for the moment, to pay attention to a constant feature in the work of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, that is, the anatomic aspects related to body, in art and architecture. This topic is always present in their videos and films. Anatomy: a fascinating work like "Moving Target", that dates back to 1996, is a true "device to explore the deepest meanderings of body movement", as the Architecture Player introduces in the video made to document it. During its 14 minutes the human body is slowly vivisected starting from the foot up to the ciliary movement.

A DYNAMIC IS STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM and triggers a movement extended to the whole project. The human body is projected, analyzed, X-rayed, and little by little substituted by mechanical skeletons. The mechanic body is then reassembled, thanks to a masterful editing, where real bodies dance and emerge in front of representations of reality. And it doesn't matter whether reality is real, or there is a delay. And here is another favorite topic for Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one that anticipated history of architecture and art. Moving Target introduced projections of real time or recorded body movements. In "FacSimile" a screen moves over the entire building's elevation of the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. It makes real time or delayed views of the interiors visible to the outside. At the ICA in Boston (see "ICA Mediateque"), the window frames a rectangle of water that appears as a moving abstraction, while the computer screen savers have images of waves moving across the screen.

In all these cases video is essential to the project. The human body and its X-ray images are very dear to Diller Scofidio + Renfro who included them in many works, especially in video-installations. I remember I landed at JFK in New York eight years ago and I was accompanied with body scans exhibiting a variety of images about travellers' bags and bodies. It was after 9/11. Anatomy is often represented in their videos, but is also there in the architecture works and in buildings. Here mechanic arms, projections, perspectives all evoke human being's ergonomics.

HOWEVER VIDEO, WHEN INTEGRATED IN THE PROJECT (as it happens quite often) or just employed as a tool to explain it, is always intentionally bare, skeletal, sometimes basic. In general, videos accompanying architecture are not so generous with space. They are not rewarding towards the environments that accommodates them, or that they represent. The work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro has been labeled as postmodern, post transgender, or eclectic. I would rather define their projects as 'total'. To me, they nearly become works of the Renaissance, vaguely recollecting Leonardo for their synthesis of arts, body anatomy, music, dance, technology, architecture, psychology, and for the use of video among many other disciplines. Diller Scofidio + Renfro keep the Hegelian dialectic on and enrich it with an anti-dialectic element, molded from a Freudian approach, for making even more complex and inclusive works.

Nowadays, in a world made of images, Diller Scofidio + Renfro overturn history once again. Videos, intrinsic or extrinsic to the project, blur with the building but don't act at the level of the building. If they do, they become a product themselves of the work of art. Architecture is something else, and for this time, from the aesthetic point of view, reality takes over imagination.

Blur Exterior

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Blurring boundaries between architecture and art installation.

The Blur Building, the renowned temporary structure designed by Diller + Scofidio in 2002 as a centerpiece pavilion of the sixth Swiss national exhibition, is here showed in its main peculiar aspect: an immaterial, changing object ready to swallow all who want to test a trick for the senses.

The structure, more similar to a tensegrity sculpture than a real building, used fog as its main material. An absent architecture was produced, visitors were challenged to enter and enjoy a sensorial experience while wandering into the fog.

This short live-footage portrays the exterior view of the pavilion where two main features are fused: the smart technology, which responded to the outside weather conditions and transformed the lake water into fog, and Diller + Scofidio's interest in working on the boundary between architecture and art.


Architect: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Mentioned project: Blur Building
Project location: Yverdon Les Bains, Switzerland

USA 2002
Duration: 4'59''