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Guerillas in the mist  Diller & Scofidio architects

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Published in Tate international arts and culture magazine, Nov/Dec 2002.


They create weather instead of buildings, parody Orwellian surveillance techniques, and wage subversive warfare that undermines the norms of architecture. The husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have become the hottest of New York's architectural partnerships. Lucy Bullivant reports.

Drenched at regular intervals by clouds of spume, the mystified participants stroll in their 'braincoats' plastic raincoats that turn red or green at the whim of a master computer, laughing out loud at the sheer audacity and spontaneity of the peformance they had just walked into - and become a key part of. A hundred dogged visitors, ascending to the heart of a strange craft seemingly moored at the lakeside location of Yverdon-les-Bains in Switzerland, were not indulging in the latest spa experience, but playfully immersing themselves in Blur, one of last summer's year's Swiss Expo 'Artplage' sites in the Three Lakes region above Lausanne.

In place of the more monumental pavilion jingoistically showing off national feats you might expect at an Expo, was Blur; New York architects Diller + Scofidio, chose to create Blur, an artificial cloud 300 feet wide x 200 feet deep floating 75 feet above a lake. Little by little, an underlying metal structure became discernable - a space frame a bit like an oil rig suspended over the water, and studded with over 31,000 tiny nozzles, and a skeletal weather-making machine producing a perpetually changing blanket of fog. Enveloped by the mist, Blur's intrepid visitors - up to 400 people could enter the building at anyone time - arriving at the structure's platform from the 120m long access bridge had to work out how they are to function in an sometimes disorienting environment devoid of the usual battery of visual information.

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Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, doyens of the New York experimental architectural scene, are happy to give you a jolt, or get you wet in the process. The husband-and-wife team partners create projects - including animations and exhibitions commissioned by museums and galleries - for a society consumed by media and technology. They could be called choreographers of the modern world, making architecture a performance that demands your participation. As Diller explains, "We are specifically interested in the convergence of electronics architecture, and in the immersive potential of Blur, beyond the mechanisms of the eye, and on an environmental scale. Entering is like coming into a habitable medium, except that orientation is lost, time is suspended. It is like being immersed in ether".

More than two years in the planning, Blur survived numerous problems that threatened to dilute the thrust of D + S's carefully engineered innovations, from contaminated water to overzealous building inspectors who - unbelievably - wanted to instal a sprinkler system. Despite being completed without its planned light and sound-based communication systems after the buyout of a corporate sponsor, Blur was acclaimed an environmental masterpiece from the day it was unleashed on a captivated public in June last year.

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By thwarting the audience's reliance on vision, D + S seek to heighten other senses, calling on the 'inherent ambiguity (of fog) to engage substance without form'. They make a comparison with bokeh, the Japanese photographic term for a desirable blurring technique created by a lens. "To blur is to make vague, to obfuscate", Diller explains. "In our visually obsessed, high-definition culture, blur is equated to loss or imperfection". Blur also incorporates what could be called 'smart weather' - a computer interprets the changing weather conditions and then orders the production of more or less fog, as required to cover the building. It is not the first fog building: that distinction belongs to the geodesic dome covered by a fog-like layer created by Japanese artist Fujoko Nakiya for the Osaka World's Fair, but Blur uses fog to do away with architecture's traditional reliance on tectonic form and the façade as a means of representation. It stands at the intersection of media and landscape by combining nature and artifice into a new hybrid form. Blur is undoubtedly visually seductive but, as Diller admits, "from within there is really nothing to see".

In a further conceptual tactic, visitors to Blur fill in a Dada-style questionnaire in advance, and the data is fed into a computer linked to each 'braincoat'. Movements towards or away from other participants trigger an electronic reaction, blushing red, for instance; if two raincoats react in the same way, they are reflecting an affinity between their wearers. This trickery with design and technology is about a new kind of social radar, "...producing anonymous or involuntary intimacy". D + S are more than happy to use their audience as guinea pigs. "Could these wireless, unfixed technologies expand communication beyond conventional language? Transmit emotions, attractions or embarrassment?" Diller asks, adding: "It's a strategy of staging a very slow event dissolving the distinction between content and context, delivering a messageless message without the use of vision".

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The couple have solid academic credentials and careers as well as a reputation as street smart artistic guerrillas. They met in the 1970s, when Diller, who had emigrated from Lodz in Poland as a child, was a student of Scofidio's at Cooper Union art school in New York. He gave up his architectural practice to join forces with her, and in 1979 they founded their studio on profoundly collaborative, interdisciplinary lines. To date, very few projects have been realised as permanent structures. Slither, 104 units of social housing in Gifu, Japan, represents one built work, like all schemes of its kind created for a low budget. The Brasserie, in Mies van der Rohe's refitted Seagram Building, New York, is another. But that is all set to change with the winning of two prestigious architectural competitions, for Eyebeam and the ICA in Boston. They have a great hunger to build, one that will now be fully satiated.

It is as if they have been on slow burn - he turned 67 this year, after all, and she is 48 - honing their conceptually-driven experimental work while being supported by academia: Scofidio remains a professor of architecture at Cooper Union, while Diller teaches at Princeton. But their lack of buildings has not prevented this partnership from influencing their peers, according to Roger Conover, a longstanding architectural editor at MIT Press and patron of much of the significant architectural theory that has been produced over the past 25 years. "It's impossible to have operated in the field of architecture during the past decade without being aware of the liberating force that Diller + Scofidio have exerted on the profession", he says. "They are rigorous in their commitment to architecture as a form of discourse and social critique", he emphasises. "They set an example which is perhaps unique in terms of showing how two-dimensional thought, research, theory and intellectual interrogation can be translated into three-dimensional form and media projects that are just a bit more elusive and interesting". While their place within the architectural firmament is high, Conover adds, "their practice is also considered threatening and dangerous to rank-and-file architects, because they are not using their considerable design talents to build monumental edifices, but rather to create temporary gestures and insinuate subliminal spaces".

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For many years, architects in the States have faced a choice: either become a maker of dullish corporate architecture, or - for those interested in innovation - teach and write. To D + S, this was not a choice at all, for theirs is an architecture of no compromise, as well as high speculation. It breaks the barriers between architecture and other media, but also between temporary and permanent projects. In their performance-based work, art collides with architecture and technology, and the audience - the participant - is vital to its meaning. Media, performance, art and technology all have their place, and D + S tease the distinctions between 'live' and mediated experience. Media is in any case becoming more environmental, 'replicating the real', they say, and in their work it takes on the mutable 'live' quality of nature. As a result, they expose the hidden, elusive and anonymous values and norms of society.



Given that they are at the forefront of thinking about architecture as a social product, it's no surprise that they aren't attracted to commercial architecture. Instead, they say "...architecture must change what you expect from it". "They teach us the importance of architecture in service of ideas", Conover stresses. "They expose architecture's weaknesses, to reveal its strengths, and they admit its limitations, in order to demonstrate its possibilities". D + S take the paradoxes of modern life, in other words, and make them seem workable. Technology has a spooky, Big Brother side to it, but it can also be the most playful medium. Public space doesn't have to be po-faced or switched off in: it can be fun, can wake you up, like water in the face.

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The turning point in their career was the winning of the MacArthur Foundation Award in 1999, the first fellowship given in the field of architecture. $375,000 to use in any way they wish over five years has bought them valuable time off from their academic posts, one semester each year. It's helped them devote time to completing the Blur building and advance other design projects in the United States, Japan and Europe.

The Award was a tribute to D + S's acute readings of how space functions in our culture and the ways architecture affects social behaviour. They know we live in an age of dramatic changes in social structures, breakdowns of ideologies and moral institutions, and a lack of collective meaning. They know - and their relative lack of built work bears this out - that conventional, high-quality architecture is fighting to keep any of its traditional cultural value, as interchangeable malls and sheds take over the world. Representing corporate power with real spaces is no longer essential because branding and advertising create more international statements, we move around and change spaces so much more often, and the Internet enables our social and business relationships. Big Brother technology is a reality, with electronic surveillance techniques just as pervasive as secure physical walls, doors or fences.

"What does it mean to draw boundaries in a society where entire environments are intermixed by means of sensor and display technology and interface design?", asks editor-in-chief of Archis magazine Ole Bouman. Now that the transient counts for more than the long lasting, as Bouman observes, an architecture that belongs neither to the physical nor the virtual realm is in the ascendent - one that is hybrid. While the world's leading architects have long since strived for lighter structures and transparent walls, or scaffolding three-dimensional digital designs into reality, the essence of D + S's high-tech architecture is not formal style, but as a hybrid cultural activity. D + S are hybrid because they want to blur the boundaries between architecture and technology, synthesising them so they take on each other's character. Not to be confused with virtual reality, their work is out there in the real world - the physical realm, and they mix all their influences with all the quirky poetry they can muster.

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Following the award D + S could not be in more demand from clients offering opportunities to show off their talents. Last summer D + S completed Blur, a media pavilion for Swiss EXPO 2002, Travelogues, a permanent installation in the new international arrivals terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Facsimile, a permanent media installation with a flat screen for the façade of the new Moscone Convention Center expansion in San Francisco will open in spring 2003. This focusses on their live/not-live obsession, with a gliding armature holding a live camera scanning activities within and scrambling the broadcast with recorded material of 'imposter spaces'. Major works in progress include a collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, an admirer of their work, on a masterplan for Brooklyn's Academy of Music cultural district. With a large retrospective of their work is planned by the Whitney Museum in New York, which runs from 27 February to 1 June next year.

In addition, D + S have won two prestigious commissions to build Eyebeam, a new media arts centre in Manhattan and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Arts. Eyebeam, in the old and rapidly developing industrial area of Chelsea, will be New York's first institution dedicated to new media art and the largest of its kind in the US, housing an exhibition space, artists' studios, an education centre with multi-media classrooms, a state-of-the-art new media theatre, a digital archive, a restaurant, and a bookstore, and is scheduled to open in 2006. The architects' visualisations show a serpentine wall rising up through a tight urban site, 'choreographing' physical connections between the producers and viewers of multimedia while carrying the electronics necessary to make it all function. Embodying their cultural passions for architecture and new media art, Eyebeam is an ideal project for their brand of subversive thinking.

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Cultural ideals for new facilities of this kind are inextricably tied to the realities of finance, real estate and politics, which must bend to create new urban forms adapted to the city's changing role in contemporary life. The US is still recovering from the unfulfilled promises of urban renewal in the Sixties and Seventies, but D + S's latest competition win for the new ICA in Boston should help to reverse that trend, being in the waterfront zone of a city that has, from the era of Revolution to today's technological prowess nurtured by the area's many labs, always embraced innovation.

The ICA, due to be completed in 2004, gives D + S a pivotal first: an entire building. Not only is it New England's leading contemporary arts museum, it will be the first art museum to be built in Boston in almost a hundred years, and the cultural cornerstone of the $1.2 billion, 0.75 acre Fan Pier waterfront development. Backing comes from the Pritzker family, sponsors of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, who are owners of the Fan Pier properties along the Boston Harbor, and see the ICA scheme as a catalyst for a civic space to elevate the cultural and architectural profile of the downtown harbour area.

D + S use all the media tools to narrate the contemporary world including videos and the written word. It's a shame some of their gems have not been realised due to cost. In 1995 Diller + Scofidio they proposed Cold War, an art installation at the National Car Rental Center, home of the Florida Ice Cats. This would have transformed the 85' x 200' ice field into a video projection screen - the largest ever built - showing a battery of sequences of ice melting, game highlights and instant replays that debunked the culture of winning.

For Travelogues, an installation for two characterless 2000 foot long corridors at JFK's new International Terminal, they used lenticular screens, lenses in the form of a two dimensional sheet that produces an image with depth and motion. The moving viewer saw a series of interconnected images taken from large format transparencies in an animated sequence, frames that add up into a narrative with stop frame, zooming and flash backs, 'captured' from four randomly picked travellers and the contents of their suitcases.

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Writing books helps to lend architects' work legitimacy. How else would have Koolhaas achieved such global celebrity without his major tomes, S, M, L, XL and Delirious New York? Books form an important part of D + S's oeuvre to date, although now they are so busy building there has to be a question over how they find time to add to their list of titles. In Flesh: Architecture Probes (1994) they targeted the body as 'a site of transient inscriptions, inseparable from program', mapping out critical strategies for architecture in domestic and media spaces. Using multiple strands of text and imagery - a motley collection of disparate architectural elements, photographs, dialogues, statistics, manuals, diagrams, pithy observations, drawings, and mathematical formulas - they manage to make it nonetheless cohere as a strong architectural statement.

Their techniques bringing the viewer into an intimate engagement with their work appear in their films. In Indigestion, an interactive video installation, old and new genres - film noir, video games, video installation art - converge into an ironic mix. Two characters meet across a dinner table. Only their animated hands appear on screen, reaching, gesturing, spearing - with both their meal and witty dialogue revealing a mysterious tale. The viewer-cum-guest is invited to choose the characters from a 'menu' of gender and class. The film wittily uses this narrative structure to question the rhetoric of 'consumer choice' surrounding interactive technologies, politics and class distinctions.

Linking film and architecture allows them to question the role of electronic media, which push all other forms of media into the background, thanks to their potential for the live and acute observation of society. Electronic surveillance has become an accepted form of social contact in public space, creating what they call a transparent world in which our own presence is also rendered transparent. While film - as a 'black box medium' - can be enigmatic about precise location, architecture's inherent physicality connects with the specific conditions of a location. In projects like D + S's Jump Cuts (permanent installation, San Jose, 1995), recorded images interfere with real-time footage in a way that encourages us to alter our way of observing.

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Digital technology in their hands parodies the nightmare of Big Brother. It sets up a parallel feedback loop by making fun out of the ubiquity of electronic controls, commenting on the presence of surveillance cameras. Their renovation of the famous Philip Johnson-designed restaurant in the lower level of the Seagram Building weaves an elaborate drama there using surveillance technology - aided and abetted by the visitor. A fire destroyed Johnson's original design for the Brasserie, and D + S were a somewhat improbable choice to create a new interior that would match the stature of this iconic architectural space. "How could we say no to the chance of working in one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century?" Diller asks. "It was an anomaly for us, but then almost everything we do is a kind of anomaly". A 40-inch plasma panel displays live footage from an exterior camera, while fifteen LCD monitors above the bar present motion-blurred freeze frames of the last 15 people to pass through the revolving doors. Heavy with double meaning, the design amplifies the theatrical ritual of restaurant going, with materials that perform: thin, millefeuille layers lift from their surfaces to become structural, spatial and functional components. Curved planes of madrone floor and pearwood ceiling mould into seating as part of a continuous wrapper around the main dining space.

'Liveness', a term from broadcasting that means a reliable authenticity of experience, is of more than just academic interest to D + S. "Liveness suggests the unmediated, the uncut, the uncensored, and not fully controlled. Liveness turns the passive viewer receiving messages into an eyewitness", they explain. In Refresh, a web project for the Dia Art Foundation, they used office webcams to examine the role of live video technologies in everyday life. The live cam is considered a public service, or a mode of passive advertisement, but that's not the whole picture. Views always appear to be "...casual and lacking dramatic interest and content - they appear unmediated", they comment, but at the same time, the cam unleashes what Diller calls "a new type of exhibitionism, or self-disciplinary device. Despite apparent innocence, the cameras' field of vision is carefully considered. Behavior within that field cannot help but anticipate the looming presence of the global viewer".

Surveillance as a type of 'liveness' that interests them because technology - blamed for the 'loss' of the public realm - has produced a chilly, transparent world in which its own presence has become transparent. Omnipresent CCTV camera screens - 'calculated surfaces' - with their illicit or official gaze, leave few zones of privacy. Human performance is projected there, and it from these that it is read. While 'liveness' in broadcasting is about the act of witnessing, with surveillance it's about the act of monitoring. But, as D + S point out, where surveillance was once considered invasive, it is now the accepted social contract in public space, even a welcome assurance of security and connection. "Can the public realm, apparently lost to media, however, be defined outside of the media?" they ask. "Have not the terms 'the public' and 'media' been indistinguishable since the invention of the printing press?"

D + S want to know who you are, not leave you a mere shadow on the screen. Their exploits humanise and make more approachable the technological paraphernalia and screen-based living we've become accustomed to. Two of the world's true visionaries, they actually work with their audiences. All the signs are that they are likely to draw a wider public in future for their advanced use of media. This persistent and quirky unpicking of the seams of contemporary reality will make you smile as it plays with our three dimensional selves, larger and more believable than any flat screen.


© 2006 Lucy Bullivant


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Blur (top & above)



ICA Boston





Cold War (top & above)



Travelogues



Eyebeam proposal



Brasserie, New York