All Sides of the Wall

An interview with Elizabeth Diller

In 2019, the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro completed two important projects for prominent cultural institutions in New York City: the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, and the Shed on Manhattan’s West Side. In this interview with the firm’s co-founding partner Elizabeth Diller, Phillip Denny asks about the intricacies of working with, and building for institutions, and the many roles that walls play in producing relationships among art and audiences, between buildings and their neighbors, institutions and the city.

Tell me about MoMA. It’s an enormous expansion and renovation on a charged site for a tremendously complex institution. And Jean Nouvel is your neighbor.

A deal was struck for the tower. MoMA would have those floors right above the lobby. That’s the second-floor, a double-height space, and floors four and five. That would be it. We met with Jean and had a bunch of conversations. There was a question about the lower floors and facade, but by that point the facade was determined for the whole building. So we thought, here’s the intersection between the westward expansion of the museum and the vertical tower. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have some sort of overlap at the intersection of both buildings? [Diller lifts up her hands, forming a criss-cross pattern with her fingers.]

A kind of plaid registered on the facade.

That’s what we thought. Both buildings on top of each other. And I think Jean was open to our ideas. He was thinking of a certain type of facade. It was going to be that black glass, and we started to talk. But in the end, we couldn’t get anywhere because there was already so much about the tower that was determined by the developers. It ended up being almost an interior job. The core and shell were provided.

And you had to inhabit that shell.

We did. We moved one stair and made the space more efficient. We got rid of one big mega-column. There are still two columns, and we decided we would work around them. We were able to do that.

The negotiations ended up occurring at the level of the structure, something that a visitor might not notice. You stealthily inhabit the lower floors of the Nouvel tower.

You can’t see much of what we did. But I think that what can happen—and I look forward to this happening—is that the walls that are along the south and north sides of the block, right at the intersection with the Nouvel tower, are temporary. The tower’s mega-trusses come into the gallery space. I think that’s a provocation for any show—to open up to the outside. In the first hang, they’re mostly covered up. But the curators have the option to make interventions in the wall. Make a cavity, backlight the wall, see the gallery from outside. There are things that we could have done, but it was very restricted.

How has working on MoMA compared to the Shed, for instance?

Totally different. Couldn’t be more different. Both projects were critical. This was an immense opportunity for our studio. That they both came together in the same year—it’s something that we didn’t exactly plan. In the case of the Shed, there was no institution. We started with a call for action on that site that was given by the city, and we responded with an idea. An ethos about a new institution. Something that would be built around a physical space that we imagined. The artistic director came a little bit later in the process, six years into planning. There would be brand-new staff. Everything was new. But the premise was that, as it goes with contemporary art, nobody knew what the art would be. We don’t know. How do you build for something that’s so indeterminate? That was the burning question. No collection, no history, no legacy. Nobody to get angry at you for screwing it up.

But you had plenty of opportunities to do that at MoMA.

Yes, exactly! You know, the Shed commission worked. Everything was really flexible. It was so different at MoMA. It’s an institution that has a huge legacy, a long history, an architectural history. It already has a thinking staff that wants change. It has this incredible collection that is mostly in storage. They have adventurous ideas about what to do with it, and they want to speak across disciplines. That’s something we as a studio have in common with them.

And the expansion was designed to help serve those curatorial goals.

Curators—they’re not happy to be so constricted. This was a great opportunity for them to work with this remarkable collection and rethink how these histories are told. For us it was an incredible responsibility to work with this museum, on this constricted site, with all of those past buildings and all of their logics that are so different from each other. You don’t really even understand them until you begin to take the walls apart. Then you realize that if you want to make a little passage to move from east to west, all of a sudden your building can’t breathe anymore, or it starts to fall down! We had to be extremely careful to untangle all of those logics and put them together in a new way. So this project came with a different kind of homework. It meant dealing with many voices that were already speaking and, in a sense, many sort of dead folks who also had voices here that you couldn’t get out of the place.

Taniguchi, Johnson, Pelli…

MoMA and the Shed were great experiences, and I can’t say that one was richer than the other.

How do you, as an architect, think about your role in making space for art, artists, and audiences? I think of the Shed as a brawny, infrastructural answer to this question. Does the MoMA renovation try to accomplish much of the same, or do something else?

We love to do museums. And we’re used to being on all sides of the wall. You know, as an artist, that means tearing that wall down. From the point of view of institutional critique—something from when I was educated—the moment that you step into the institution, that wall, that gallery is something that you want to take on. But from the point of view of someone curating shows, what you want out of a gallery, and the freedoms you want—you don’t want the architecture to get in the way. You don’t want it to be so loud, but maybe you want something to brush against.

Something that’s not entirely background.

Maybe. And from the institutional perspective, the directorial perspective, it’s a little different. There are curators here now, but there are going to be new curators in ten years, or twenty years. That’s a lot to try to get right.

You could plausibly guess what MoMA will be doing ten years from now. The Shed’s future is less determined.

It’s always different working with museums. Historical museums, ones that have collections, are a little easier because you have a fixed subject. In a contemporary museum—MoMA is now sort of both—you have this open-ended question. The architecture is fixed, it’s heavy, and it’s expensive. You can’t really do much with it after you declare it. And then it’s a sign of its times. It’s so out of step with contemporary art.

Contemporary art keeps changing shape but the building doesn’t.

And so you could never really, really get it right. We’ve kind of come to terms with that. The Shed was more like infrastructure. Three stacked spaces. One for theater. Another space for any kind of art. And a giant, vertical space for everything else, inside and outside. And in that case, no one stood in the way of us saying, “This is what it should be like.” Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director, agreed with what we came up with. And that’s what made it such a great fit.

At MoMA, the challenge was to fit the addition into what was already there.

We dealt with all the galleries that we inherited. In the eastern part of the museum we upgraded and made the existing galleries more flexible. Some of the temporary exhibitions are there. With the Taniguchi galleries we only made small nips and tucks. Changing the floor color, sanding the floor, bleaching the floor. These were small shifts that integrated them with the new galleries. For us it meant that the architecture doesn’t need to do that much. The flow needs to happen. On the west end, the real difference in the new galleries, that you can see, is this stack. [Diller clasps her hands in a shape emulating the vertically interlocking new galleries.] They’re sectionally opposed and interlocking with views overlooking other galleries. The loop is on the way coming into another gallery, and you see this connectivity. That was an opportunity to do something that was off-piste but also part of the circuit. It’s in the space of the old American Folk Art Museum.