EG 2007

Liz Diller: The Blur Building and other tech-empowered architecture

Filmed:

In this engrossing EG talk, architect Liz Diller shares her firm DS+R's more unusual work, including the Blur Building, whose walls are made of fog, and the revamped Alice Tully Hall, which is wrapped in glowing wooden skin.

- 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

Aside from keeping the rain out and producing some usable space,
00:16
architecture is nothing but a special-effects machine
00:23
that delights and disturbs the senses.
00:27
Our work is across media. The work comes in all shapes and sizes.
00:30
It's small and large. This is an ashtray, a water glass.
00:35
From urban planning and master planning
00:39
to theater and all sorts of stuff.
00:42
The thing that all the work has in common
00:46
is that it challenges the assumptions about conventions of space.
00:48
And these are everyday conventions,
00:53
conventions that are so obvious that we are blinded by their familiarity.
00:55
And I've assembled a sampling of work
01:00
that all share a kind of productive nihilism
01:04
that's used in the service of creating a particular special effect.
01:08
And that is something like nothing, or something next to nothing.
01:12
It's done through a form of subtraction or obstruction or interference
01:18
in a world that we naturally sleepwalk through.
01:23
This is an image that won us a competition
01:27
for an exhibition pavilion for the Swiss Expo 2002
01:30
on Lake Neuchatel, near Geneva.
01:34
And we wanted to use the water not only as a context,
01:36
but as a primary building material.
01:39
We wanted to make an architecture of atmosphere.
01:41
So, no walls, no roof, no purpose --
01:44
just a mass of atomized water, a big cloud.
01:47
And this proposal was a reaction to the over-saturation
01:50
of emergent technologies in recent national and world expositions,
01:53
which feeds, or has been feeding, our insatiable appetite
01:58
for visual stimulation with an ever greater digital virtuosity.
02:03
High definition, in our opinion, has become the new orthodoxy.
02:09
And we ask the question, can we use technology, high technology,
02:14
to make an expo pavilion that's decidedly low definition,
02:18
that also challenges the conventions of space and skin,
02:24
and rethinks our dependence on vision?
02:27
So this is how we sought to do it.
02:29
Water's pumped from the lake and is filtered
02:32
and shot as a fine mist through an array of high-pressure fog nozzles,
02:34
35,000 of them. And a weather station is on the structure.
02:39
It reads the shifting conditions of temperature, humidity,
02:43
wind direction, wind speed, dew point,
02:46
and it processes this data in a central computer
02:49
that calibrates the degree of water pressure
02:52
and distribution of water throughout.
02:55
And it's a responsive system that's trained on actual weather.
02:57
So, this is just in construction, and there's a tensegrity structure.
03:02
It's about 300 feet wide, the size of a football field,
03:06
and it sits on just four very delicate columns.
03:09
These are the fog nozzles, the interface,
03:13
and basically the system is kind of reading the real weather,
03:16
and producing kind of semi-artificial and real weather.
03:20
So, we're very interested in creating weather. I don't know why.
03:24
Now, here we go, one side, the outside
03:28
and then from the inside of the space
03:31
you can see what the quality of the space was.
03:33
Unlike entering any normal space,
03:35
entering Blur is like stepping into a habitable medium.
03:38
It's formless, featureless, depthless, scaleless, massless,
03:42
purposeless and dimensionless.
03:47
All references are erased,
03:49
leaving only an optical whiteout and white noise of the pulsing nozzles.
03:52
So, this is an exhibition pavilion
03:58
where there is absolutely nothing to see and nothing to do.
04:01
And we pride ourselves -- it's a spectacular anti-spectacle
04:05
in which all the conventions of spectacle are turned on their head.
04:11
So, the audience is dispersed,
04:15
focused attention and dramatic build-up and climax
04:17
are all replaced by a kind of attenuated attention
04:20
that's sustained by a sense of apprehension caused by the fog.
04:23
And this is very much like how the Victorian novel used fog in this way.
04:27
So here the world is put out of focus,
04:33
while our visual dependence is put into focus.
04:36
The public, you know, once disoriented
04:40
can actually ascend to the angel deck above
04:43
and then just come down under those lips into the water bar.
04:47
So, all the waters of the world are served there,
04:50
so we thought that, you know, after being at the water
04:52
and moving through the water and breathing the water,
04:56
you could also drink this building.
04:59
And so it is sort of a theme,
05:02
but it goes a little bit, you know, deeper than that.
05:06
We really wanted to bring out
05:09
our absolute dependence on this master sense,
05:11
and maybe share our kind of sensibility with our other senses.
05:15
You know, when we did this project it was a kind of tough sell,
05:19
because the Swiss said, "Well, why are we going to spend, you know,
05:23
10 million dollars producing an effect
05:25
that we already have in natural abundance that we hate?"
05:29
And, you know, we thought -- well, we tried to convince them.
05:31
And in the end, you know, they adapted this as a national icon
05:36
that came to represent Swiss doubt, which we -- you know,
05:42
it was kind of a meaning machine
05:47
that everybody kind of laid on their own meanings off of.
05:49
Anyway, it's a temporary structure that was ultimately destroyed,
05:51
and so it's now a memory of an apparition, actually,
05:54
but it continues to live in edible form.
05:58
And this is the highest honor
06:01
to be bestowed upon an architect in Switzerland -- to have a chocolate bar.
06:03
Anyway, moving along.
06:08
So in the '80s and '90s, we were mostly known for independent work,
06:10
such as installation artist, architect,
06:15
commissioned projects by museums and non-for-profit organizations.
06:19
And we did a lot of media work,
06:24
also a lot of experimental theater projects.
06:27
In 2003, the Whitney mounted a retrospective of our work
06:29
that featured a lot of this work from the '80s and '90s.
06:34
However, the work itself resisted the very nature of a retrospective,
06:38
and this is just some of the stuff that was in the show.
06:44
This was a piece on tourism in the United States.
06:47
This is "Soft Sell" for 42nd Street.
06:50
This was something done at the Cartier Foundation.
06:53
"Master/Slave" at the MOMA, the project series, a piece called "Parasite."
06:56
And so there were many, many of these kinds of projects.
07:01
Anyway, they gave us the whole fourth floor, and, you know,
07:04
the problem of the retrospective
07:10
was something we were very uncomfortable with.
07:12
It's a kind of invention of the museum
07:14
that's supposed to bring a kind of cohesive understanding
07:16
to the public of a body of work.
07:20
And our work doesn't really resolve itself into a body in any way at all.
07:22
And one of the recurring themes, by the way, that in the work
07:27
was a kind of hostility toward the museum itself,
07:32
and asking about the conventions of the museum, like the wall, the white wall.
07:35
So, what you see here
07:40
is basically a plan of many installations that were put there.
07:42
And we actually had to install white walls
07:45
to separate these pieces, which didn't belong together.
07:48
But these white walls became a kind of target and weapon at the same time.
07:50
We used the wall to partition the 13 installations of the project
07:55
and produce a kind of acoustic and visual separation.
07:58
And what you see is -- actually,
08:03
the red dotted line shows the track of this performing element,
08:05
which was a new piece that created -- that we created for the --
08:10
which was a robotic drill, basically, that went all the way around,
08:13
cruised the museum, went all around the walls and did a lot of damage.
08:17
So, the drill was mounted on this robotic arm.
08:23
We worked with, by the way, Honeybee Robotics. This is the brain.
08:26
Honeybee Robotics designed the Mars Driller,
08:30
and it was really very much fun to work with them.
08:33
They weren't doing their primary work, which was for the government,
08:35
while they were helping us with this.
08:39
In any case, the way it works is that
08:42
an intelligent navigator basically maps the entire surface of these walls.
08:44
So, unfolded it's about 300 linear feet.
08:50
And it randomly generates points within a three-dimensional matrix.
08:53
It selects a point, it guides the drill to that point, it pierces the dry wall,
08:57
leaving a half-inch hole before traveling to the next location.
09:02
Initially these holes were lone blemishes,
09:07
and as the exhibition continued
09:11
the walls became increasingly perforated.
09:13
So eventually holes on both sides of the wall aligned,
09:16
opening views from gallery to gallery.
09:19
Clusters of holes randomly opened up sections of wall.
09:21
And so this was a three-month performance piece
09:25
in which the wall was made into kind of an increasingly unstable element.
09:28
And also the acoustic separation was destroyed.
09:35
Also the visual separation.
09:39
And there was also this constant background groan, which was very annoying.
09:41
And this is one of the blackout spaces
09:47
where there's a video piece that became totally not useful.
09:49
So rather than securing a neutral background for the artworks on display,
09:52
the wall now actively competed for attention.
09:56
And this acoustical nuisance and visual nuisance
10:00
basically exposed the discomfort of the work
10:04
to this encompassing nature of the retrospective.
10:07
It was really great when it started to break up all of the curatorial text.
10:13
Moving along to a project that we finished about a year ago.
10:17
It's the ICA -- the Institute of Contemporary Art -- in Boston,
10:21
which is on the waterfront.
10:26
And there's not enough time to really introduce the building,
10:28
but I'll simply say that the building negotiates
10:31
between this outwardly focused nature of the site --
10:33
you know, it's a really great waterfront site in Boston --
10:39
and this contradictory other desire to have an inwardly focused museum.
10:42
So, the nature of the building is that it looks at looking --
10:47
I mean that's its primary objective,
10:51
both its program and its architectural conceit.
10:54
The building incorporates the site,
11:00
but it dispenses it in very small doses
11:04
in the way that the museum is choreographed.
11:08
So, you come in and you're basically squeezed by the theater,
11:11
by the belly of the theater, into this very compressed space
11:15
where the view is turned off.
11:17
Then you come up in this glass elevator right near the curtain wall.
11:19
This elevator's about the size of a New York City studio apartment.
11:24
And then, this is a view going up,
11:28
and then you could come into the theater,
11:30
which can actually deny the view or open it up and become a backdrop.
11:32
And many musicians choose to use the theater glass walls totally open.
11:37
The view is denied in the galleries
11:43
where we receive just natural light,
11:45
and then exposed again in the north gallery with a panoramic view.
11:48
The original intention of this space,
11:53
which was unfortunately never realized,
11:55
was to use lenticular glass
11:58
which allowed only a kind of perpendicular view out.
12:00
In this very narrow space that connects east and west galleries
12:03
the intention was really to not get a climax,
12:06
but to have the view stalk you,
12:10
so the view would open up as you walked from one end to the other.
12:12
This was eliminated because the view was too good,
12:16
and the mayor said, "No, we just want this open."
12:19
The architect lost here.
12:22
But culminating -- and that's where this hooks into the theme of my little talk --
12:24
is this Mediatheque,
12:27
which is suspended from the cantilevered portion of the building.
12:29
So this is an 80-foot cantilever -- it's quite substantial.
12:33
So, it's already sticking out into space enough,
12:36
and then from that is this, is this small area called the Mediatheque.
12:40
The Mediatheque has something like 16 stations
12:45
where the public can get onto the server
12:49
and look at digital artworks or also curated artworks off the web.
12:51
And this was really a kind of very important part of this building,
12:55
and here is a point where architecture --
13:02
this is like technology-free -- architecture is only a framing device,
13:04
it only edits the harbor view, the industrial harbor
13:08
just through its walls, its floors and its ceiling,
13:12
to only expose the water itself, the texture of water,
13:16
much like a hypnotic effect created by electronic snow
13:22
or a lava lamp or something like that.
13:26
And here is where we really felt that there was a great convergence
13:29
of the technological and the natural in the project.
13:33
But there is just no information, it's just -- it's just hypnosis.
13:38
Moving along to Lincoln Center.
13:45
These are the guys that did the project in the first place, 50 years ago.
13:48
We're taking over now, doing work that ranges in scale
13:52
from small-scale repairs to major renovations and major facility expansions.
13:55
But we're doing it with a lot less testosterone.
14:01
This is the extent of the work that's to be completed by 2010.
14:04
And for the purposes of this talk,
14:09
I wanted to isolate just a part of a project that's even a part of a project
14:11
that touches a little bit on this theme of architectural special effects,
14:15
and it happens to be our current obsession,
14:19
and it plays a little bit with the purging and adding of distraction.
14:23
It's Alice Tully Hall, and it's tucked under the Juilliard Building
14:29
and descends several levels under the street.
14:33
So, this is the entrance to Tully Hall as it used to be,
14:37
before the renovation, which we just started.
14:41
And we asked ourselves, why couldn't it be exhibitionistic,
14:43
like the Met, or like some of the other buildings at Lincoln Center?
14:46
And one of the things that we were asked to do
14:49
was give it a street identity, expand the lobbies and make it visually accessible.
14:52
And this building, which is just naturally hermetic, we stripped.
14:57
We basically did a striptease, architectural striptease,
15:01
where we're framing with this kind of canopy --
15:04
the underside of three levels of expansion of Juilliard,
15:09
about 45,000 square feet -- cutting it to the angle of Broadway,
15:12
and then exposing, using that canopy to frame Tully Hall.
15:17
Before and after shot. (Applause)
15:22
Wait a minute, it's just in that state, we have a long way to go.
15:26
But what I wanted to do was take a couple of seconds that I have left
15:30
to just talk about the hall itself,
15:33
which is kind of where we're really doing a massive amount of work.
15:35
So, the hall is a multi-purpose hall.
15:39
The clients have asked us to produce a great chamber music hall.
15:42
Now, that's really tough to do with a hall that has 1,100 seats.
15:47
Chamber and the notion of chamber has to do with salons
15:51
and small-scale performances. They asked us to bring an intimacy.
15:54
How do you bring an intimacy into a hall?
15:57
Intimacy for us means a lot of different things.
16:00
It means acoustic intimacy and it means visual intimacy.
16:02
One thing is that the subway is running and rumbling right under the hall.
16:06
Another thing that could be fixed is the shape of the hall.
16:10
It's like a coffin, it basically sends all the sound,
16:12
like a gutter-ball effect, down the aisles.
16:15
The walls are made of absorptive surface,
16:17
half absorptive, half reflective,
16:20
which is not very good for concert sound.
16:22
This is Avery Fisher Hall, but the notion of junk -- visual junk --
16:25
was very, very important to us, to get rid of visual noise.
16:29
Because we can't eliminate a single seat,
16:33
the architecture is restricted to 18 inches.
16:35
So it's a very, very thin architecture.
16:38
First we do a kind of partial box and box separation,
16:41
to take away the distraction of the subway noise.
16:45
Next we wrap the entire hall -- almost like this Olivetti keyboard --
16:47
with a material, with a wood material
16:52
that basically covers all the surfaces:
16:55
wall, ceiling, floor, stage, steps, everything, boxes.
16:57
But it's acoustically engineered to focus the sound into the house
17:01
and back to the stage. And here's an acoustic shelf.
17:05
Looking up the hall. Just a section of the stage.
17:08
Just everything is lined, it incorporates --
17:11
every single thing that you could possibly imagine
17:14
is tucked into this high-performance skin.
17:16
But one more added feature.
17:18
So now that we've stripped the hall of all visual distraction,
17:20
everything that prevents this intimacy
17:23
which is supposed to connect the house, the audience,
17:26
with the performers, we add one little detail,
17:29
one piece of architectural excess, a special effect: lighting.
17:33
We very strongly believe that the theatrics of a concert hall
17:37
is as much in the space of intermission and the space of arrival
17:41
as it is when the concert starts.
17:45
So what we wanted to do was produce this effect,
17:47
this lighting effect,
17:51
which made us have to bioengineer the wood walls.
17:53
And what it entails is the use of resin, of this very thick resin
17:57
with a veneer of the same kind of wood that's used throughout the hall,
18:03
in a kind of seamless continuity
18:07
that wraps the hall in light, like a belt of light: rather than separating,
18:11
like a proscenium would separate the audience from performers,
18:16
it connects audience with players.
18:20
And this is a mockup that is in Salt Lake City
18:22
that gives you a sense of what this is going to look like in full-scale.
18:28
And this is a guy from Salt Lake City,
18:33
this is what they look like out there.
18:36
(Laughter)
18:38
And for us, I mean it's really kind of a very strange thing,
18:41
but the moments in the hall that the buzz kind of dies down
18:44
when the audience is waiting for the performance to begin,
18:50
very similar to the parting of curtains or the raising of a chandelier,
18:53
the walls will just exude this glow, temporarily stealing attention from the stage.
18:57
And this is Tully in construction now.
19:03
I have no ending to say, except that I'm a couple of minutes over.
19:07
Thank you very much.
19:11
(Applause)
19:13

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About the Speaker:

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 >>

 

More profile about the speaker
Liz Diller | Speaker | TED.com