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.

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]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

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  • Biker 94703

    Props on building (or facade) reuse. I really like that the low structure will not blight the numerous businesses on the south side of the street. I’m ambivalent about the protruding phallus jutting out over the sidewalk. Given the conflicting lighting of the architectural rendering (bizarre sunset background + strong SW sun) I hope someone is thinking about the incoming sunlight. If those weird cell-phone shaped objects are windows, whatever is inside them will likely bake and the reflections may be blinding. I’d suggest doing a mockup with framed mylar.

  • schmarchitect

    The “I/self” (re)discovers disapprobation when engaging lingual schemata as espoused by cultural edifice deconstructors/re-creators. Unless, of course, when (ironically & blobbingly) considered anti-heuristically.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Excellent comment. Only this sort of meaningless, absurd jargon could justify these meaningless, absurd designs.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Maybe the designers should take a moment off from their archi-babble and blob design to think about how to redesign the north facade of this building so it doesn’t become a homeless encampment.

    See my discussion of this issue at

    Sorry to regular readers for repeating this, but I am hoping the designers read this article and start thinking about how their buildings work in urban terms, rather than thinking of them solely as sculptural icons meant to attract attention to themselves.

  • schmarchitect

    I meant to write (ironically + blobbingly). The ampersand is pastiche.

  • Greg

    Personally I find the BAM building attractive, but you’ve thrown the gauntlet:

    “The ampersand is pastiche.”

    Can Diller Scofidio + Renfro collaborate to produce something as relevant as this statement? The portfolio presented here suggests an accomplished trio, but this task may prove difficult.

    Well done ‘schmarchitect’.

  • EricPanzer

    I actually went to see the lecture that Elizabeth Diller presented on the UC campus a couple of weeks ago. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with modern and postmodern architecture, so I went in skeptical, but tried to keep an open mind.

    I became even more skeptical upon seeing the bubble design, but in the end I was won over not only by the bubble, but by the other designs as well. I was not won over because these designs were intriguing or “just trying to be different,” but because Diller presented a compelling case about how their form could serve to create user experiences that are not merely novel, but pleasant and meaningful. Those who attended the lecture will attest that the architects have indeed thought about these buildings in urban terms, trying to imagine how people will interact with them and what they will communicate to their users. One may not agree with their explanations or assessments, but it’s insulting and superficial to take the reactionary stance that the designs are mere vanity.

    The out-of-the-park success of the HighLine in New York is a testament to how, done right, these unconventional spaces and designs can bring incredible value and whimsy to their urban environments. I, for one, am excited about this new design for the BAM and can’t wait to see it built.

  • Anon

    what makes the highline great is the structure that was already there, not what they did to it – the success of the structure is owed to the original architects, not the people who slapped a park on top of it

  • EricPanzer

    If one observes how people use the Highline, it becomes quite clear that the design of the park contributes immensely.

    Granted, this is personal anecdote, but I have had the privilege of visiting the Highline in person. I appreciated the park not just for its incredible location and stunning views, but for its novel design and how that contributed to my conscious and subconscious experience of the space.

    There are plenty of parks in incredible urban locations that don’t experience the massive success of the highline. Union Square and Justin Herman Plaza, in San Francisco, come to mind as examples of urban spaces that are at best merely adequate in their design, and as a consequence fail to be anything particularly special.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I have been to the Highline too, and I like the design of the park very much. But I think they did better than usual there, because the constraint of the existing structure prevented them from doing anything too, too weird.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Yes, they do think about user experiences also, but I think that anyone who looks at the building designs above can see that the buildings have some elements whose main purpose is to attract attention by being different, from the gaping entrance and twisted facade of the Broad Museum to the tilting buildings of the Culture Shed, to the stuck-out tongue and zinc of BAM.

    I think it is a mistake to conflate politics and architecture by calling critics of the avant-gardists “reactionary” – as if there were something politically progressive about zinc or titanium buildings. In fact, I think the most politically progressive design of recent decades has come from the New Urbanists, who are dedicated to reducing sprawl and auto-dependency – yet the avant-gardists criticize them because they often use traditional architectural styles.

    In fact, I think that the avant-gardists are the ones who are retrograde: they are still promoting the uncritical view of modernization that was typical of the 1950s, while political progressives have moved beyond that and want to be selective about technology.

    This is the point of my essay An Architecture for Our Time, at If you have the time, Eric, I would be interested in what you think about it; you can get the general idea just by scrolling through it and looking at the pictures. You make many thoughtful and intelligent comments here, so I would be interested in what you think of these ideas about architecture.

  • Charles_Siegel

    A note on the same topic: I just noticed an article in the current NY Review of Books about the celebrated avant-gardist architect Rem Koolhaas, which says that his work is totally lacking in progressive political values.

  • Bill N

    I would love to see something modern melding in with the old deco printing building and the horrible garage. In an earlier article it looked like the garage goes away completely. I would be concerned about the large south facing windows and I bet those change because of the direct light issues (I actually like the glass blocks though).
    I doubt that the overhangs will be any less of a home for the homeless than the garage is.

  • erik s

    That NYRB article was great. I think Koolhaas is brilliant but in order to get his incredibly ambitious projects built he has to follow the money. He’ll build for anyone on earth (as will most architects).

  • Bill N

    What’s the matter Winston? You seem pretty angry. Were you chased or harassed out of Berkeley by the police? Did you not find assistance or enough spare change? Berkeley can be a hard town because when you have folks asking for change every 1/2 block every day you sort of run out – of change and sometimes compassion. I think in general
    I think Berkeley and its citizens provides more services to the homeless than any comparably sized city in the East Bay. Not everyone wants to support services like the Food and Housing project or BOSS but they’re still here.

  • erik s

    What an absurd comment. The original structure was a utilitarian decaying elevated train trestle that most people in NYC wanted to rip down. The designers and the photographer who championed re-purposing the structure were visionaries. And they didn’t slap a park on it. The design is brilliantly executed and has revitalized entire neighborhoods.

  • erik s

    Brilliant. A homeless shelter within a museum? What is the point of making mindless comments like this?

  • The Sharkey

    He’s a troll.

    Click on his name to take a look at some of his other comments, about using “Muslim radicals” to “exterminate homosexuals” and other garbage.

  • The Sharkey

    I like the Highline a lot too, but comparing something that is essentially an elevated walking path/park that invites movement and observation of what’s going on below with a 1/4 block square at street level like Union Square is a bit unfair.

    The Ohlone Greenway would be a more fair comparison.

  • Bruce Love

    I’ve noticed a lot of Berkeleyside comments — apparently from otherwise respected people — who post here in cowardly anonymity like you. They describe street people as filth and in other subhuman terms, as one example of how this comment policy lowers peoples standards. They sound like Nazis at times. You yourself attacked my wife once, trying to get at me, for which I shall not soon forgive you. It is nice of you to call out homophobia but let’s recognize that the root cause that brings out this kind of bigotry, hate, stalking, etc. includes the cowardly anonymity in which you yourself wallow.

    Berkeleyside has told some of us that they prefer not to interfere with that (their “light touch” policy) — but would rather discourage people who speak more civilly, unafraid to disclose their identity. In my case, to put an end to one mystery — I am forbidden from posting under my normal name. In another case they have (I am told) entirely banned a respected citizen with whom they had a dispute. Another friend has also been warned away …. and meanwhile they seem to encourage anonymous defamation and hate speech with their administrative policies.

    I think it is worth considering that they accept significant anonymous comments via tips@ and, meanwhile, ban them in comments. I think you are “winning”, Sharkey, and I think we are all the worse for it.

  • Charles_Siegel

    No one has talked about the overhang as a home for the homeless. Many people have agreed with me that the dead space on Addison St. will turn into a homeless camp. It is a lawn with no entrance to the building to attract people to walk by it.
    They could make the building work much better as urban design by locating the entrance to the PFA there, so people will walk up Addison St., helping to revitalize a dead block that now features underused and vacant storefronts. The current design does nothing for this block.

  • The Sharkey

    It was an attack on you, “Bruce,” not on your wife. But wow, thanks for proving Goodwin’s Law in such a weirdly incongruous way. Taking a moment where we actually agree on something for once as an opportunity to take jabs at me seems like a strange choice, but it’s yours to make I guess.

    Interesting to know that you’re forbidden from posting under your given name. Perhaps if you hadn’t harassed the writers and editors of Berkeleyside so much in the early years of the site you might not be in such a situation.

  • Bruce Love

    Perhaps if you hadn’t harassed the writers and editors of Berkeleyside
    so much in the early years of the site you might not be in such a

    To be specific, I remarked openly — after BS pressed me to do — that I thought an obituary written by Lance was so close to another article that it bordered on plagiarism, and around the the same time Ms. Menard was complaining about me.

    I became curious whether it was possible to work around that. I made, as I recall, something like two (2) posts as Bruce, love, and then sent them (BS) email. In my email I explained that I had tried that out of curiosity. That the results were interesting. That I was interested in taking the experiment further but I wanted to make sure they were fully informed and knew that I meant no harm. I maintained an open channel.

    You sussed me out fairly early, based on writing style I guess. I gave you transparent pseudo-evasions like “I prefer bruce”. You pressed further, piling up the defamations and so forth.

    Now we are boring lots of people with this “back and forth”. I don’t intend to continue it but I do appreciate a brief opportunity to recap from *my* perspective.

    Meanwhile, I stand strongly behind my view that Berkeleyside’s comment moderation polices aren’t working. They are protecting anonymized demation, hate speech, and stalking — while they have chased away honest and otherwise respected community members. There is a “function/form” problem in the technology. I’d like to raise that topic, if you don’t mind.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    Bruce, you were banned for awhile but that allowed back in. If you prefer to post as Thomas Lord, you are free to do so. As for your suggestion that Berkeleyside bans people with whom the editors disagree, that is untrue. Even you say in your comment that that is just a rumor you have heard.

    Moderating comments is tricky. First of all, we spend much of our time out in the community gathering information for stories, not at our desks constantly monitoring comments. So threads with objectionable comments can develop that we do not see immediately.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    Part 2 of message: Why would we “encourage anonymous defamation and hate speech with (our)administrative policies.” We allow anonymous comments because we think people feel freer to comment that way. We would love it if more people used their real names. But people do criticize one another harshly at times on Berkeleyside, so I understand why people don’t want to state their names.
    Yes we are imperfect in our comment moderation.

  • Bruce Love

    If you prefer to post as Thomas Lord, you are free to do so.

    Not the last time I checked or asked you. Glad to know.

    Even you say in your comment that that is just a rumor you have heard.

    Perhaps we should take this up off-line to reconcile our views if you it is important to you. I would appreciate hearing your side. I wouldn’t describe my understanding as “rumor — just limited by a cut-off when the lawyers brokered a deal that included some NDA-ish stuff (is my understanding – – what I’ve been told by a source I think credible).

    Moderating comments is tricky.

    It doesn’t have to be, if you give up on hosting the anonymous s–t storm, in my opinion. There’s a few decades of history here wherein the “social networking” stuff has become very profoundly “gamed”. As I said to you a couple of weeks back: I don’t think you guys fully appreciate what you walked into (on multiple levels).

  • The Sharkey

    I agree that we’re back into the tiresome back and forth, but please don’t downplay what you did. You harassed the writers and editors across multiple articles, accusing them of plagiarism and attacking their writing and the content of their articles. Instead of discussing the subjects of the articles, you just used the comments as a space to whine about how Berkeleyside wasn’t meeting your personal journalistic standards.

    I admit that I certainly hounded you more than I ought to have when you first started posting with this account, but I originally thought that you had simply changed screen names in an effort to fool other posters into thinking you were someone else. I still strongly disagree with many of your opinions, but I doubt I would have been as harsh had I known the full context.

    What I find really hilarious about your current very strong opinions on anonymous/pseudonymous commenting is that you yourself were posting with another foul, cowardly, anonymous handle before you adopted this one. That is, unless you’re going to claim that “dasht” is your legally recognized name?

  • Bruce Love

    I’m not sure exactly what you refer to but I use “dasht” as a handle because I customarily sign my email “-t”.

  • Bruce Love

    I think it (“dasht”) puns (roughly) as “desert” in some semitic language(s) — that’s unintended but also fun.

  • The Sharkey

    I’m just pointing out that you’re a bit of a hypocrite for complaining about other people not using their “real names” here on Berkeleyside since that’s what you’ve been doing as long as you’ve been posting here.

    Oh, I know, I know, you’ll fall back on saying that hep cats who are “in the know” could find out who you really are if they want to. But to internet detective who you are they’d have to do some of that “stalking” that you also decry. Tisk.

  • Bruce Love

    But people do criticize one another harshly at times on Berkeleyside, so
    I understand why people don’t want to state their names.

    I think it is unkind to the community, and exploitative of the community, for you to host that.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I can’t resist posting this recent criticism of Diller, Scofidio and Renfro (sorry, I should say “+ Renfro”): 

    even Mayne cannot match Diller Scofidio + Renfro in relying on the
    old ways. Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, remember, were Muschamp’s
    favorite favorites, in part because they operated, as he did, with one
    foot in the world of art. That is a place architects often retreat to
    when their ideas are insufficiently robust to survive on builderly merit
    alone. Though they were given a retrospective at the Whitney in 2003
    (SCANNING: the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio), they
    weren’t fooling everyone. Consider Jerry Saltz’s classic review of the
    show in the Village Voice: “Diller and Scofidio aren’t especially bad
    architects in a jazzy, pseudo-intellectual, quasi-Rem Koolhaas kind of
    way,” he wrote. They “spice things up and toss in brainy bits of theory.
    Architecture and design critics eat it up, as do wealthy clients.
    Things could be worse.” What couldn’t be worse, he concluded, was “their
    imitation art.”

    It was an epic calling-out; it might have led to a decisive shaming,
    exile from their haven. But, we’ve often seen, it is not the quality of
    an architect’s dabbling in art but the fact of it, the gloss it gives to
    boring old architecture that wows critics and clients of buildings. In
    the decade since the firm has thrived. Theirs is a well-designed
    machine—Liz Diller talks theory, works long-standing connections; Ric
    Scofidio provides gravitas, a link to Hejdukian depth; Charles Renfro
    draws and burns up the night—but it is fragile. The firm can only
    sustain its reputation by the grace of starstruck observers.

    The firm’s first major building, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art
    (ICA), was disappointing to say the least: sloppy, pretentious,
    derivative. The critics loved it.

    … In its stillborn 2002 design for the Eyebeam Museum of Art and
    Technology, Diller Scofidio carted out that blob-era standby—floors
    turning up into interior walls, into ceilings, into exterior walls and
    the next level’s floors as continuous ribbons. The move was an empty
    decorative effect there, as it was at the ICA, as it will be tomorrow.
    Theft aside, the worldsheet must always be a structural lie, as Koolhaas
    discovered in 1997 when he had to use stucco and steel to fake-up the
    long turn between the concrete floor and roof at his Educatorium in
    Utrecht. The worldsheet signifies nothing but the fear of thinking like a
    real architect. It is a flashy gesture, and easy: the notional cupping
    of space. That’s why students have always loved it. Over and over again.