Elizabeth Diller

Elizabeth Diller interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba and Benedict Clouette

C-Lab: For many, raw ambition is viewed as questionable and a not particularly positive contributor to the advancement of architectural design. However today, ambition, and specifically, seeking public notoriety, is an important activity of the architect. Architects now acknowledge it as a necessary activity to advance professionally. The belief that, ‘if one just does good work, then s/he will eventually be acknowledged,’ is not as widely held as it once was. Based on your experience during your career as a practicing architect, what shifts in values regarding public notoriety have you observed? What have been defining moments, acts of strategic brilliance, related to this aspect of ambition?

ED: You’re being too reductive. Ambition is not always ‘raw’ and driven by power or fame. Architecture breeds other forms of conquest such the desire to push the limits of the discipline. Our particular pathology couples naiveté and optimism with an addiction to danger. The economy is interesting: the more risk you take, the more notice you get; the more notice you get, the longer the noose afforded for you get to hang yourself, which brings more notice. Media attention, however, comes faster if you avert it. It’s an inadvertent game of ‘hard-to-get’.

C-Lab: How have architects made use of this opportunity? What seems possible now that wasn’t in say the early 80s, and what seemed possible then that isn’t today?

ED: Unfortunately, architectural celebrity is rarely used as a tool to leverage anything other than the perpetuation of self-promotion. In this post-moral moment, however, cross-branding allows for a successful integration of architectural and consumer culture. I have zero nostalgia for the 80s.

C-Lab: The increase in attention to architects as cultural figures offers the architect the chance to communicate ideas, views, visions for the city, environment, world – beyond the context of a given commission or prospective project. It offers a platform for the architect to be heard and appreciated for her/his intelligence. Are there new types of public intellectuals (and practices of acting, speaking, even dressing) that have emerged as a result?

ED: Architecture has finally broken out of its self-imposed exile and realized it has a voice in policy, economy, and the environment. In public speaking, the one-dimensional voice of the genius architect is no longer effective. To help shape public opinion, the architect has to read audiences carefully and master many voices: the big-thinker, the compassionate healer, and the average citizen. Form is as important as content. A contemporary audience responds to multiple resisters of information and the tempo of broadcast television with short streams of information punctuated by commercial spots. The reach and speed of media has driven the architect’s narcissism to new depths, which requires better stylists.

C-Lab: How can younger, rising architects make use of this opportunity in the future?

ED: It’s not hard to get a platform but you need something interesting to say. There’s no shortcut for sustained good work to earn the sustained interest of the media and the public.

C-Lab: On the other hand, despite this attention, should architects avoid being public intellectuals? Are there situations that architects should not even try to address, and if so, why?

ED: Playing the intellectual is a liability. The superior thinker is often more effective playing the role of the down-to-earth, self-deprecating, hard-working person with divine inspiration. My advice is, stay close to the discipline. The only thing more painful than hearing architects express their world views is seeing them ravage other fields of knowledge in the name of interdisciplinarity.

C-Lab: A building’s public reception can be swayed by a number of forces. For this reason, the message about the building requires careful crafting, especially in the case of a high-profile commission. For the sake of the project’s overall success, the message may not represent the architect’s complex and layered design intentions. As you have discussed earlier, the narrative ought to be specifically shaped to yield a favorable reception from a given audience. This strategic formulation of a project’s qualities is a form of public engagement that has helped architects to better influence the outcome of buildings. It is an important evolutionary step because it liberates the architect from the myth of being a figure of unrealistic integrity (dedication to a set of transparent principles, consistency of thought and action, attention to making physical things and arguments stand up). At the same time, it opens up the need and opportunity to define the figure of the architect in the context of her/his new roles. What qualities would this include?

ED: The architect must be an info-tainer and provocateur and very mediagenic. He/she must have humility, expertise, and clairvoyance.

C-Lab: Notoriety is not always a good thing. Often it is a vicissitude that accomplished architects must contend with. This is especially the case when a project’s reception or the possibility of commission is linked as much to the architect’s persona as itis to the architect’s body of work. Thus, managing the persona is as important as managing the messages of projects. What acts of navigating the public media-scape do you think are instructive, and what figures have established a productive relationship with the media?

ED: I won’t name names but managing the message and persona is a full-time job that leaves little time for anything more than recycling old ideas.

C-Lab: Despite the notorious difficulties of working on cultural projects in the States and specifically in New York, you have effectively navigated these contested waters (the High Line, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston). How would you characterize the conditions under which projects are initiated and developed in the States versus elsewhere? How does that affect the ambitions and personas of American architects?

ED: Because US projects are largely funded by individual philanthropy, there is little initiative for peer or public review. And because trustee boards are often fiscally responsible for the health of their institutions, they are less likely to take risks. That is why it is much harder for untested architects to get opportunities in the States. We’ve been lucky. The High Line was anomalous – a competition won on merit. We were selected for the ICA because they wanted a first – an architect’s first building in the US. This is no longer an asset we bring. For Lincoln Center, our selection might have been a case of mistaken identity. We declared we
wanted ‘to make Lincoln Center more Lincoln Center than Lincoln Center.’ There was a lot of room for the decision-makers to hear what they wanted to hear.

C-Lab: How has the culture of celebrity architects affected the school environment? Despite the often-lamented dangers, can students at star schools also benefit from this aspect of their education?

ED: Yes. One of the by-products of professional success for academics is shorter, denser contact time with students, which fosters new professional skills for students in utilizing limited human resources.








Diller Scofidio + Renfro