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Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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Thursday
May162013

Book Review: From Art to Architecture

By Michael Webb

Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Architecture After Images. Edward Dimendberg. (The University of Chicago Press, $65).

A timely and penetrating study of a firm that has surged to prominence on the strength of two headline projects in New York: its imaginative transformation of Lincoln Center and the High Line (in association with Field Operations). In both, the architects were highly respectful of existing structures and that augers well for an even greater challenge: extending the Museum of Modern Art without destroying the American Museum of Folk Art. MoMA outraged the architectural establishment by threatening to demolish its next-door neighbor. It will require all of DS+R’s skill to integrate Tod Williams & Billie Tsien’s unique building into the new structure, and convince an overbearing institution to reconsider its threatened act of vandalism.

Established in 1979 by Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, the practice created a succession of playful, subversive art works and installations, which culminated in Blur—a cloud of water vapor hovering over a lake—a major draw for the 2002 Swiss National Exhibition. An innovative apartment block in Japan went largely unnoticed, and their daring design for the Eyebeam Museum in Chelsea was dropped after 9/11.  Not until 2006, with the Institute of Contemporary Art on the Boston waterfront, did they win widespread acclaim.

Edward Dimendberg, a professor of film at UC Irvine, has been tracking DS+R for nine years and he provides an enlightening chronicle of their varied projects and ideas. He quotes historian Siegfried Giedion who wrote, in 1928, that “only film can make the new architecture intelligible.” That’s a questionable assertion: you have to experience a building with all your senses to appreciate its quality--still and moving images can offer no more than a simulacrum. Beguiling as photos of Blur undoubtedly were, they paled beside the experience of walking through that cloud and feeling its wetness.

Dimendberg occasionally lapses into the academic jargon of media studies. “If Diller and Scofidio had early on recognized the utility of the semiological logic of binary oppositions between signifiers and signifieds, the components of the sign for Saussure, they never became enslaved to this model.” Architecture jargon can be just as obfuscatory, but it both cases it’s unnecessary, and these foggy passages are mercifully brief. Dimendberg likens their art pieces to those of Duchamp and Matta-Clark, and he explores their influence as radical teachers at Cooper Union and Princeton. As practitioners and teachers, Diller and Scofidio questioned the premises and assumptions that guide most architects, and in doing so laid the foundation for their later large-scale projects.

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