Berkeley Art Museum’s architect talks

Charles Renfro, Ricardo Scofidio, and Elizabeth Diller. BAM/PFA Building Project News Center

By Preeti Talwai

“Our work started out of a museum wall,” said architect Elizabeth Diller on April 18, beginning the last lecture in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design’s spring series. Addressing an audience that ran the gamut from students to experienced professionals in the field, she spoke that evening of her multifaceted work, including our very own new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.

Leapfrogging across the world with a variety of highly acclaimed projects, ranging from installations to museums, Diller – and her collaborators at their New York based firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro – have now landed in our own backyard with their design for the new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives. The evening’s whirlwind survey of their multifaceted projects – which Diller summarized as “we just do a lot of different things” – shed light on and contextualized the project that is planned as a significant part of downtown Berkeley’s revival.

The BAM/PFA project is planned as a significant part of downtown Berkeley’s revival. The 82,000 sq ft space to be nestled between Center, Oxford, and Addison streets, is an example of the rejuvenation and occupation of existing sites that Diller states is “an important sustainable way to think.” Its $100 million design embraces the existing Art-Deco style printing plant, an “industrial shed”, and a new structure.


Site of the future Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive in downtown Berkeley. Photo: BAM/PFA Building Project News Center

Excavated space under the printing plant will house the galleries, while the PFA will be housed in the 30,000 sq ft new structure floating above, adjacent to the “shed”. This new structure, which Diller jokingly compared to a lamb chop, is “built and born out of its site.” She noted that the firm wanted to create physical distinctiveness, and thus employed a kind of drapery effect, or “slump.”

Summed up, the project is, Diller said, a new view on “architecture in the city.” [Read Berkeleyside’s September 2011 article about the project.]

Rendering of the planned BMA/PFA. Photo: BAM/PFA Building Project News Center

The BAM/PFA project is, of course, one among many on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s books. There are 114 currently listed on the firm’s website. But, while the internet can supply any number of specs, a designer’s statement provides a unique intellectual trajectory. Liz Diller’s talk provided an understanding of the firm’s mission and commitment to the cultural and political issues of design. Her chronicling of the partners’ unique fusion of architecture and the philosophy of an “alternative practice” through five other projects helps the audience to better understand its forthcoming neighbor.

Maps that make themselves

Diller’s lecture began with an overview of the 2008 installation Exit (done in collaboration with a team of animators and other designers), which adapts cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s idea that “home is not what it used to be” to explore six distinct narratives of human migration. Within an immersive space, 35 feet in diameter, an orbiting globe paints and erases information from a panoramic display. Geocoded pixels flock to the appropriate locations, visually charting patterns such as global movement of refugees, population density, sinking cities, and remittances.

Still from Exit installation, showing worldwide carbon emissions. Photo: Stewdio image gallery

Over the static of video footage from the installation, Diller explained that “the message in a lot of this is that the conditions…like the sinking cities…are affecting those people least responsible for creating it.” The installation “interpolates economics, environment, political, and geographic information and exposes otherwise invisible relationships.”

Form and content, site and situation

Speaking about the forthcoming expansion of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, Diller emphasized that the firm’s work “tends toward the political, and each time it is interpreted differently.” Sited at the National Mall which, she argued through a series of historical images, is the “greatest civic stage in the country”, this project seeks to overturn most museums’ passive relationship in which the “museum presents and the audience receives.”

Rendering for the forthcoming expansion of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. Photo: courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Thus the 18,000 square foot expansion, for which there was virtually no room outside of the existing boundaries, became a volume of low pressure air within a silicone-coated plastic, lodged within the inner space of the existing “donut”. Playing a video clip of an assistant inflating a plastic bag, Diller described the project as “basically a giant airbag” and lightheartedly discussed her firm’s creative engagements with the capital’s stringent building and zoning restrictions.

In a more serious vein, the project adds to the existing domes of the mall a new language, materiality, and complex engineering system, creating a flexible interior for social gathering that “inhales the democratic air of the mall.” It is an anti-monument, she declared, whereby form and content, site and situation come together to create an inside-out project.

 “We couldn’t compete with Disney, so why not be different?”

Sited at Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, the upcoming Broad Museum is a “veil and a vault” – a five-sided veil which spans 4,000 square feet and functions simultaneously as structure and sunlight-transfer medium, combined with a vault that contains the art collection. In occupying a challenging site next to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, this design is its diametric opposite – eroded instead of smooth, and absorptive rather than reflective. Diller again highlighted the political, asking how the museum can engage public space within what she terms Grand Avenue’s gentrified “spatial apartheid.”

The forthcoming Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Photo: courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

“Open joints encourage open growth”

Among the many ways that one can experience the High Line in New York, one of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s most well-known projects, is listening to its architect trace the history of the site until the time when Joel Sternfeld’s photography “lighted the popular imagination”. Diller highlighted her firm’s inspiration in the cycles of nature and culture, a dialectic enabled formally by the open-jointed changeable units of hardscape and greenscape.

A section of the High Line in New York. Photo: courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

“I think the great success has been introducing New Yorkers to doing nothing,” Diller joked, flipping through slides of people doing…nothing. Along with the expected activity that the now $153 million net worth project has generated, Diller illustrated its more informal side – audiences watching spectacles ranging from clothes-changing to evening singing solos, performed by the residents of adjacent tenements with the High Line as a backdrop.

And she offered proof that the High Line has entered pop culture: it was featured in Sex and the City, and has spawned numerous bags and clothing lines, as well as a premier “railroad” High Line fragrance.

“Everything comes full circle”

The Culture Shed at Hudson Yards, bordering the High Line, is a multi-use museum, exhibition site, and performance space. Marked by the usage of ETFE pillows and gantry crane technologies, its deployable units glide along tracks and can expand the structure’s footprint from 21,000 to over 55,000 square feet.

The intent, Diller said, was accommodating a “heavy institution” in a structure that’s “very light on its feet.” The resulting airy design is entirely financially self-sustainable and, as she strongly stressed, unbranded. “It brings our alternative practice full circle. Declining architecture as autonomous, declining architecture as a service profession, and advocating a new agency for architects.”

A model for the Culture Shed, a multi-use museum bordering New York's High Line. Photo: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Though short of two hours in duration, Elizabeth Diller’s talk was perhaps imbued with different meanings for those who attended. For those to whom she was an instructor and a boss, such as the young architecture professor who introduced her Wednesday night, it was her remarkable commitment to education and mentorship. For me, it was the uncanny satisfaction of hearing an architect discuss projects which I have repeatedly studied as “precedent studies” for my own work. And so on – to each his or her interpretation.

So whether or not inflatable bubbles, veils, and lambchops are to one’s personal taste, the lecture both clarified and complexified the history of politically charged architecture and unorthodox design with which her firm is approaching downtown Berkeley’s Arts District.

As for the BAM/PFA, we can hope that Diller’s thoughts about the High Line will be applicable in the near future: “We knew it’d be successful, we just never knew just how much.”

Preeti Talwai is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. Read her previous article for Berkeleyside, “Room with a view: Designer charts new Berkeley buildings”, in which she chronicles the rise of two of the city’s newest buildings: the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences and the Helios Energy Research Facility.

Related:
Palpable possibilities: Berkeley Art Museum’s home awaits [01.25.12]
New Berkeley Art Museum mixes old with eye-catching new [09.16.11]
Berkeley Art Museum selects architects for new home [06.24.11]
Berkeley Art Museum seeks architect, again [05.20.11]
UC Berkeley stands by pledge to fund new art museum [11.25.10]
Berkeley Art Museum plans to revamp printing plant [01.27.10]
What might have been [11.24.09]

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