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TED2012

Liz Diller: A new museum wing ... in a giant bubble

March 1, 2012

How do you make a great public space inside a not-so-great building? Liz Diller shares the story of creating a welcoming, lighthearted (even, dare we say it, sexy) addition to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. (From The Design Studio session at TED2012, guest-curated by Chee Pearlman and David Rockwell.)

Liz Diller - Designer
Liz Diller and her maverick firm DS+R bring a groundbreaking approach to big and small projects in architecture, urban design and art -- playing with new materials, tampering with space and spectacle in ways that make you look twice. Full bio

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We conventionally divide space
00:11
into private and public realms,
00:15
and we know these legal distinctions very well
00:16
because we've become experts
00:20
at protecting our private property and private space.
00:22
But we're less attuned
00:26
to the nuances of the public.
00:27
What translates generic public space into qualitative space?
00:31
I mean, this is something
00:35
that our studio has been working on
00:36
for the past decade.
00:38
And we're doing this through some case studies.
00:40
A large chunk of our work
00:42
has been put into transforming
00:43
this neglected industrial ruin
00:45
into a viable post-industrial space
00:48
that looks forward and backward
00:51
at the same time.
00:52
And another huge chunk of our work
00:53
has gone into making relevant
00:56
a site that's grown out of sync with its time.
00:58
We've been working on democratizing Lincoln Center
01:01
for a public that doesn't usually have $300
01:04
to spend on an opera ticket.
01:08
So we've been eating, drinking,
01:11
thinking, living public space
01:13
for quite a long time.
01:15
And it's taught us really one thing,
01:17
and that is to truly make good public space,
01:20
you have to erase the distinctions
01:24
between architecture, urbanism,
01:27
landscape, media design
01:29
and so on.
01:31
It really goes beyond distinction.
01:33
Now we're moving onto Washington, D.C.
01:35
and we're working on another transformation,
01:38
and that is for the existing Hirshhorn Museum
01:40
that's sited
01:43
on the most revered public space in America,
01:45
the National Mall.
01:47
The Mall is a symbol
01:50
of American democracy.
01:51
And what's fantastic is that this symbol
01:54
is not a thing, it's not an image,
01:57
it's not an artifact,
01:59
actually it's a space,
02:01
and it's kind of just defined by a line of buildings
02:03
on either side.
02:06
It's a space where citizens can voice their discontent
02:08
and show their power.
02:11
It's a place where pivotal moments in American history
02:12
have taken place.
02:16
And they're inscribed in there forever --
02:18
like the march on Washington for jobs and freedom
02:20
and the great speech that Martin Luther King gave there.
02:23
The Vietnam protests, the commemoration of all that died
02:26
in the pandemic of AIDS,
02:30
the march for women's reproductive rights,
02:32
right up until almost the present.
02:35
The Mall is the greatest civic stage
02:38
in this country for dissent.
02:41
And it's synonymous with free speech,
02:45
even if you're not sure what it is that you have to say.
02:49
It may just be a place for civic commiseration.
02:51
There is a huge disconnect, we believe,
02:57
between the communicative and discursive space of the Mall
03:00
and the museums that line it to either side.
03:04
And that is that those museums are usually passive,
03:08
they have passive relationships between the museum
03:12
as the presenter and the audience,
03:15
as the receiver of information.
03:17
And so you can see dinosaurs
03:19
and insects and collections of locomotives
03:21
and all of that,
03:25
but you're really not involved;
03:26
you're being talked to.
03:28
When Richard Koshalek took over as director of the Hirshhorn
03:30
in 2009,
03:34
he was determined to take advantage
03:36
of the fact that this museum was sited
03:39
at the most unique place:
03:42
at the seat of power in the U.S.
03:44
And while art and politics
03:45
are inherently and implicitly together always and all the time,
03:48
there could be some very special relationship
03:53
that could be forged here in its uniqueness.
03:57
The question is, is it possible ultimately
04:01
for art to insert itself
04:04
into the dialogue of national and world affairs?
04:06
And could the museum be an agent of cultural diplomacy?
04:09
There are over 180 embassies in Washington D.C.
04:13
There are over 500 think tanks.
04:18
There should be a way
04:21
of harnessing all of that intellectual and global energy
04:22
into, and somehow through, the museum.
04:25
There should be some kind of brain trust.
04:27
So the Hirshhorn, as we began to think about it,
04:30
and as we evolved the mission,
04:34
with Richard and his team --
04:36
it's really his life blood.
04:38
But beyond exhibiting contemporary art,
04:40
the Hirshhorn will become a public forum,
04:44
a place of discourse
04:47
for issues around arts,
04:49
culture, politics and policy.
04:51
It would have the global reach of the World Economic Forum.
04:56
It would have the interdisciplinarity of the TED Conference.
05:00
It would have the informality of the town square.
05:03
And for this new initiative,
05:08
the Hirshhorn would have to expand
05:10
or appropriate a site
05:11
for a contemporary, deployable structure.
05:13
This is it. This is the Hirshhorn --
05:16
so a 230-foot-diameter concrete doughnut
05:17
designed in the early '70s
05:20
by Gordon Bunshaft.
05:23
It's hulking, it's silent,
05:24
it's cloistered, it's arrogant,
05:26
it's a design challenge.
05:27
Architects love to hate it.
05:30
One redeeming feature
05:31
is it's lifted up off the ground
05:33
and it's got this void,
05:35
and it's got an empty core
05:37
kind of in the spirit and that facade
05:38
very much corporate and federal style.
05:41
And around that space,
05:45
the ring is actually galleries.
05:47
Very, very difficult to mount shows in there.
05:49
When the Hirshhorn opened,
05:51
Ada Louise Huxstable, the New York Times critic,
05:53
had some choice words:
05:55
"Neo-penitentiary modern."
05:57
"A maimed monument and a maimed Mall
05:59
for a maimed collection."
06:02
Almost four decades later,
06:03
how will this building expand
06:05
for a new progressive program?
06:07
Where would it go?
06:09
It can't go in the Mall.
06:10
There is no space there.
06:11
It can't go in the courtyard.
06:12
It's already taken up by landscape and by sculptures.
06:14
Well there's always the hole.
06:19
But how could it take the space of that hole
06:21
and not be buried in it invisibly?
06:25
How could it become iconic?
06:27
And what language would it take?
06:29
The Hirshhorn sits among the Mall's momumental institutions.
06:33
Most are neoclassical, heavy and opaque,
06:36
made of stone or concrete.
06:39
And the question is,
06:41
if one inhabits that space,
06:43
what is the material of the Mall?
06:45
It has to be different from the buildings there.
06:48
It has to be something entirely different.
06:51
It has to be air.
06:53
In our imagination, it has to be light.
06:55
It has to be ephemeral. It has to be formless.
06:57
And it has to be free.
06:59
(Video)
07:01
So this is the big idea.
07:13
It's a giant airbag.
07:16
The expansion takes the shape of its container
07:18
and it oozes out wherever it can --
07:22
the top and sides.
07:24
But more poetically,
07:26
we like to think of the structure
07:28
as inhaling the democratic air of the Mall,
07:30
bringing it into itself.
07:31
The before and the after.
07:35
It was dubbed "the bubble" by the press.
07:39
That was the lounge.
07:43
It's basically one big volume of air
07:45
that just oozes out in every direction.
07:48
The membrane is translucent.
07:50
It's made of silcon-coated glass fiber.
07:52
And it's inflated twice a year for one month at a time.
07:56
This is the view from the inside.
08:00
So you might have been wondering
08:03
how in the world
08:05
did we get this approved by the federal government.
08:07
It had to be approved by actually two agencies.
08:09
And one is there to preserve
08:14
the dignity and sanctity of the Mall.
08:17
I blush whenever I show this.
08:20
It is yours to interpret.
08:23
But one thing I can say
08:26
is that it's a combination
08:28
of iconoclasm
08:31
and adoration.
08:33
There was also some creative interpretation involved.
08:37
The Congressional Buildings Act of 1910
08:40
limits the height of buildings in D.C.
08:43
to 130 feet,
08:45
except for spires, towers, domes and minarettes.
08:47
This pretty much exempts monuments of the church and state.
08:50
And the bubble is 153 ft.
08:54
That's the Pantheon next to it.
08:57
It's about 1.2 million cubic feet of compressed air.
09:00
And so we argued it
09:03
on the merits of being a dome.
09:05
So there it is,
09:07
very stately,
09:09
among all the stately buildings in the Mall.
09:10
And while this Hirshhorn is not landmarked,
09:14
it's very, very historically sensitive.
09:17
And so we couldn't really touch its surfaces.
09:19
We couldn't leave any traces behind.
09:22
So we strained it from the edges,
09:23
and we held it by cables.
09:26
It's a study of some bondage techniques,
09:28
which are actually very, very important
09:31
because it's hit by wind all the time.
09:33
There's one permanent steel ring at the top,
09:34
but it can't be seen from any vantage point on the Mall.
09:36
There are also some restrictions
09:39
about how much it could be lit.
09:42
It glows from within, it's translucent.
09:43
But it can't be more lit than the Capitol
09:45
or some of the monuments.
09:48
So it's down the hierarchy on lighting.
09:50
So it comes to the site twice a year.
09:50
It's taken off the delivery truck.
09:54
It's hoisted.
09:57
And then it's inflated
09:59
with this low-pressure air.
10:01
And then it's restrained with the cables.
10:03
And then it's ballasted with water at the very bottom.
10:04
This is a very strange moment
10:08
where we were asked by the bureaucracy at the Mall
10:12
how much time would it take to install.
10:15
And we said, well the first erection would take one week.
10:18
And they really connected with that idea.
10:20
And then it was really easy all the way through.
10:24
So we didn't really have that many hurdles, I have to say,
10:28
with the government and all the authorities.
10:32
But some of the toughest hurdles
10:34
have been the technical ones.
10:35
This is the warp and weft.
10:37
This is a point cloud.
10:38
There are extreme pressures.
10:40
This is a very, very unusual building
10:42
in that there's no gravity load,
10:44
but there's load in every direction.
10:46
And I'm just going to zip through these slides.
10:48
And this is the space in action.
10:52
So flexible interior for discussions,
10:56
just like this, but in the round --
10:58
luminous and reconfigurable.
11:01
Could be used for anything,
11:02
for performances, films,
11:05
for installations.
11:06
And the very first program
11:09
will be one of cultural dialogue and diplomacy
11:11
organized in partnership
11:13
with the Council on Foreign Relations.
11:15
Form and content are together here.
11:17
The bubble is an anti-monument.
11:19
The ideals of participatory democracy
11:22
are represented through suppleness
11:24
rather than rigidity.
11:27
Art and politics
11:28
occupy an ambiguous site outside the museum walls,
11:29
but inside of the museum's core,
11:33
blending its air
11:37
with the democratic air of the Mall.
11:39
And the bubble will inflate
11:41
hopefully for the first time
11:46
at the end of 2013.
11:48
Thank you.
11:50
(Applause)
11:53
Translator:Timothy Covell
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Liz Diller - Designer
Liz Diller and her maverick firm DS+R bring a groundbreaking approach to big and small projects in architecture, urban design and art -- playing with new materials, tampering with space and spectacle in ways that make you look twice.

Why you should listen

Liz Diller's firm, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, might just be the first post-wall architects. From a mid-lake rotunda made of fog to a gallery that destroys itself with a robotic drill, her brainy takes on the essence of buildings are mind-bending and rebellious. DS+R partakes of criticism that goes past academic papers and into real structures -- buildings and art installations that seem to tease the squareness of their neighbors.

DS+R was the first architecture firm to receive a MacArthur "genius" grant -- and it also won an Obie for Jet Lag, a wildly creative piece of multimedia off-Broadway theater. A reputation for rampant repurposing of materials and tricksy tinkering with space -- on stage, on paper, on the waterfront -- have made DS+R a sought-after firm, winning accounts from the Juilliard School, Alice Tully Hall and the School of American Ballet, as part of the Lincoln Center overhaul; at Brown University; and on New York's revamp of Governer's Island. Their Institute for Comtemporary Art has opened up a new piece of Boston's waterfront, creating an elegant space that embraces the water.

Learn more about the Hirshhorn Museum >>

 

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