The Reluctant Architect: Liz Diller at SARUP

Mar. 19, 2009
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Perhaps the most interesting architects are the ones reluctant to define themselves as such. It’s seems those who straddle the fringes of the profession are in the best position to vault most spryly over its boundaries. Such certainly appears to be the case with Liz Diller, from Diller Scofidio + Renfro - a recent speaker at UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning who will be working with students in the Urban Edge Unit over the course of the semester.

She bears a streak of stubborn rebellion that, given the fact she’s well past the precipitous ardors of youth, isn’t likely to dissipate – a furrowed brow quality that signifies the perpetually nagging enquiry “But why?” Incidentally, most of the work she showed in her slide presentation answers that enquiry with another question “why not?” Why shouldn’t an devote their time to creating a sea of traffic cones to temper the unruliness of the Columbus Circle in Manhattan or install video art on 42nd Street that solicits passers by through a pair of shiny pouting lips? Why not celebrate the memories of a piece of wall at the Whitney Museum - bask in the brilliance its absorbed through proximity to a great artwork? The truth is that, despite the fact this presentation was deliberately geared towards showcasing their public interventions, it also represents what her firm has hitherto been best known for since they were founded in 1979. In fact their first major architectural commission in this country was Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2007.

Still, even as they begin to make it in the world as a bona fide architectural firm it’s interesting to see a sort of mistrust of the architect label remain. In a brief chat at the end of the lecture she professes she stumbled upon architecture almost by accident. Elsewhere I’ve read she steadily avoided the field to spite her parents yet it seems to have nonetheless stealthily drawn her in which is perhaps why she appears to approach each of the projects she illustrated with a note of wariness – even a kind of underlying scorn. The latter is well illustrated in the firm’s Blur Building for the 2002 Swiss Expo. Pushing ephemerality (a word architects never seem to tire of) to its natural conclusion they created a building out of fog whose most tangible effect on its inhabitants would be a light dewy mist on their skin. There’s something so utterly ironic and at the same time so arresting about the idea of a building made of fog. It seems the work of a medieval court trickster, enlisting an army of cloud engineers to conjure up a subtle and transient magic. It’s the opposite of everything an architect stands for - four walls and a door blasted wide of its hinges.

Yet other projects revel in the architect’s consummate anal-ness. She describes with a mixture of pride and self-mockery the pains the firm took to create a mechanical device that drills random holes in a wall to seamlessly turn a corner in their 2003 retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum. And that somewhat mocking tone isn’t just aimed at themselves but at the rest of the world too – even nature isn’t spared. In 2008’s Liverpool Biennial they joyfully wedded it to the machinations of retail, planting trees on revolving car display units to make it appear that they’re dancing. The effect from the video segments I’ve seen is simultaneously cheesy and eerie in an M. Night Shyamalan kind of way.

I wonder if, were it not for her rejection of the artist/architect boundaries, the firm’s work would display this wry and slightly mordant humor? I suspect their sense of outsiderness gives them this slightly ascerbic edge.


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