Architect Liz Diller on theatre and architecture

Metz met Diller

Tracy Metz, Liz Diller

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For a large part, it consists of projections, with the audience seated around all four sides.'

– Architect Liz Diller on her design for Bill T. Jones' Deep Blue Sea

There is nothing theatrical about her appearance, which is rather more minimalist. Slim, no makeup, no jewellery, always dressed in black. Friendly, albeit mainly intense and focussed. There is certainly always an element of experience, of theatricality, of the ‘performative’ in the work of DS+R (founded in 1981). They describe themselves as ‘an interdisciplinary design studio that integrates architecture, the visual arts, and the performing arts’.

This certainly held for the first building of theirs that really struck me. This was the Blur Building (2002), a pavilion of mist above the water of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It was beautiful and intriguing: not only because I was curious how you would make something like this, but more importantly: how do you even come up with something like this?

DS+R is always looking to push the limits, both in terms of form and the materials used: facades of fog in Switzerland, the 3D-printed facade of philanthropist Eli Broad’s private museum in Los Angeles (2015). “The concept is called The Veil and The Vault”, Diller explains. “The Vault is the repository at the heart of the building. You walk across it, beneath it, and you look into it through windows in the stairwell. Covering the building is The Veil, which keeps everything together”.

Set next to the neighbouring Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry, with its soaring, complex curves, the Broad is a monumental block from the outside. Diller: “Gehry’s building is shiny and smooth, the Broad is matte and absorbing”. The large spaces, without even a single column, are filled with subdued, almost dreamy daylight thanks to openings in these facade elements. It allows the spaces to accommodate even such flashy works as Jeff Koons’ enormous shining blue poodle. Broad loves it.

A mile-long opera
Certainly the most well-known work from DS+R is their design for the High Line in New York, with planting by Piet Oudolf. This 1,5-mile long elevated railroad through the Meatpacking District had not been used for decades and was set to be demolished, but now has been turned into a bustling linear park.

The High Line was also the location for the Mile-Long Opera, an ‘opera’ Diller came up with and staged that featured a thousand (!) singers from forty choirs positioned across a 1,5-mile stretch as the audience walks by. A quarter of the singers were professionals, the remaining three quarters amateurs from local church choirs and the like. “The idea came from the High Line’s transformative character”, Diller says. “It had a major impact on the neighbourhood and property prices. There were both winners and losers. The High Line itself is literally the stage for this performance about how the area changed after the High Line came into use”.

The Mile Long Opera was only performed for a week in October of 2018 for three thousand people each evening. “As a visitor, you mixed your own opera, depending on how fast or slow you passed by the singers. It was a wholly novel theatrical experience”.

Deep Blue Sea
The collaboration with choreographer Bill T. Jones on Deep Blue Sea is in a similar vein, as it uses almost a hundred dancers, many of whom are locals. Jones was inspired by the famous 19th century novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. He is less interested in captain Ahab or the white whale than in the youngest servant, the black Pip, who falls overboard and is left behind in the ocean. The piece explores the I and the we – highly topical.

In the piece, Jones dances his first solo in years: “I cast myself as ‘the one’ on a naked stage”. He is then joined by more and more dancers. “Is identifying as the one among the many a problem?” Jones asks. “How does it feel to be a problem?”

As I speak with Diller, the set in The Armory in New York is still being built for its scheduled 14 April premiere. “For a large part, it consists of projections, with the audience seated around all four sides. The floor is an enormous screen on which the texts will be projected like a carpet”. We have to be able to feel Pip’s loneliness in the immeasurable vastness of the ocean. We have to feel this being other, being inside and being excluded. “The piece is of major personal significance to Bill”, she says. “It’s kind of his own story”.

Moveable art tempel
At the end of ‘their’ High Line (which is currently being extended due to its success), the new neighbourhood Hudson Yards has risen. It does not feel like a residential area very much and is foremost a large shopping centre, a climbable sculpture from Thomas Heatherwick called the Vessel, and The Shed, a new cultural centre by DS+R that opened in April last year. Attached to The Shed is a tower, which they designed as well, the bottom ten stories of which are used by The Shed as offices, rehearsal spaces and technical installations.

Most striking about this building, which was five years in the making, is the enormous moveable shell on wheels, which are called ‘bogies’ and are taller than a man. The shell telescopes out to cover the courtyard for large exhibitions and concerts for up to two thousand people. Bjork performed there already, as did Quincy Jones and Steve McQueen with their opening concert Sound of America.

And to think all of this, all of Hudson Yards, is built on a canopy across the Hudson Yards rail yard. It is fascinating to be able to see trains disappear and reappear again below - and this went on throughout its construction. “A city within a city”, said mayor Bloomberg, whose idea it was. His goal was to keep New York on the cutting edge of culture and commerce a 25 billion dollar investment, the most expensive urban development project ever in the US.

“The Shed’s aim”, says Liz Diller, “is to generate new art, not to exhibit existing art”. The building is certainly spectacular and innovative, but was also met with considerable criticism. Does New York really need a new cultural centre costing over half a billion dollars? It was to serve, the tale goes, as a cultural fig leaf for the property developers’ story. Culture lovers also wondered whether this money would not have been better spent on e.g. affordable housing or education. Or on existing museums already struggling to get funding, as the government hardly subsidises culture.

What are white men thinking?
In the evening, I attend a performance in The Shed’s Griffin Theatre, named after one of the sponsors of the 529 billion dollar construction costs. The piece is Help: What Are White Men Thinking by Claudia Rankin, a professor at Yale and also one of the writers of the Mile Long Opera. The piece is amazing, played by a single black woman and twenty white men at an airport and on an airplane.

The following day it turns out I attended the final performance. I was just in time for everything and able to outrun the lockdown – except for the MoMA, which was recently renovated and expanded by DS+R. The evening before the scheduled visit, there was a message: We’re so sorry, but as of this afternoon the museum is closed for an undefined period.

As nearly always with DS+R, this project was controversial as well: much too corporate, it was said. I would have liked to have made up my own mind and see the new steel canopy, the new feather-light floating stairs (“the blade staircase”), the new spaces. Next time then – whenever that may be.