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One On 1: Husband & Wife Architecture Team Still Have Avant-Garde Edge

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Some of the city's most intriguing construction projects are being created by a pair of architects who are both business partners and husband and wife. In their One on 1 with Budd Mishkin, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio describe a life spent living and working together.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.

It's serious business, creating buildings that will alter the landscape of New York. So how does the architect know it's all going to work?

"A little math and a little voodoo together will make it happen," said Elizabeth Diller.

A little math and a little voodoo, plus years of experience and a propensity for testing conventions may be the formula for success.

Husband and wife architect team Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio were once known for their avant-garde work. Now, along with partner Charles Renfro, they are responsible for some of the biggest projects in New York, like the High Line makeover and the Lincoln Center renovations.

"All the things we did when it was really just the two of us working together and doing kind of weird, quirky projects," said Scofidio. "They really filter in and help us make decisions that we make now on larger projects."

At the School of American Ballet, they've created two studios in one, sharing light but thanks to the glass not sound.

"One of the things that we did here that got our clients a little freaked out was we mounted the ballet bars on the glass," said Diller. "It's not something that's typically done. The idea comes from the perversity of gravity, force, our expectations of what glass does, how fragile it is, how susceptible to breakage, and we wanted to really marry those things that really don't belong together. That's really what we do all the time."

Diller and Scofidio have been together as a couple and architects for almost 30 years. There seems to be little differentiation between the talk at home and at work.

"When we leave and walk down the hall or get in elevator, we're living in architecture," said Scofidio. "We can't escape architecture."

"I don't know the difference between work and home," added Diller. "I don't think I ever did and I still don't. So, for me, work is 24/7."

Despite a large office space and work on different projects, the two are together -- a lot. Why has it worked?

"I think the secret is we're able to have really brutal, violent fights over issues where one of us is lying on the floor bloodied and five minutes later we're the best of friends," said Scofidio.

Diller says as architects, they disagree often -- on subjects like the origin of an architectural idea.



"Some things just come out of nowhere, out of thin air," said Diller.

"They can't come out of thin air," countered Scofidio.

"Totally," argued Diller.

"But they can't come out of nowhere because you are what you are and the history you have," said Scofidio.

"But it's not necessarily traceable," rebutted Diller.

After years defying convention by employing art and film and photography in their projects, at the end of the day, there is often agreement, especially on why they do what they do, and why they dream what they dream.

"Everything is up for rethinking, as far as I'm concerned, and we shouldn't take anything for granted," said Diller. "So every kind of spatial convention, so every kind of convention about behavior, I like to test the limits of everything and that's what keeps me going."

The two are serious people, with projects in New York, Boston and around the world.

So in their preparation, they obviously concern themselves with only the biggest of questions.

"Where would you have a concession? Where would you need that electrical outlet?" said Diller of the questioned that need to be asked. "There's no distinction between the banal and sublime on a project like this; it's all the same."

In their work, Diller and Scofidio are known to break down barriers, go against type. But personally, Diller is comfortable being the public face of the firm, while Scofidio is more subdued. Perhaps it's because he grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

"I was pretty independent as a child. I would jsut get books and go off in the corner and read," he said. "I wasn't really part of the family in many ways. I really don't know what my ethnic backgrounds are. My parents would never talk about it, so there's kind of a mystery for me in that and I was fairly shy."

Diller was born in Poland, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She describes her family as overly protective, perhaps because they'd lost family in the war. As a result of their protectiveness, she rebelled.

"I wanted to do everything that my parents didn't want me to do," she said. "My parents wanted me to be an architect and I wanted to be an artist and filmmaker."

But she liked the architecture education at Cooper Union. She also liked the professor.

At the time, Scofidio was married with four children.

"Slowly we started to drift together while I was still in school," she said. "One had to be careful about letting such a thing out, so we kept it a secret."

They say they only started a personal relationship after he finished teaching her.

"It was such a clichŽ, the professor and student, and I wanted to find how do we avoid that and work around that," he said.

They eventually moved in together and started working together.

Long before they would oversee monumental projects like Lincoln Center and the High Line, Diller and Scofidio indulged their love of art and film, photography and music, creating works in small spaces around the city.

"We found money, we stole sites, we borrowed sites, we did a lot of grant work, and we also taught, and that paid for our habit of doing experimental work," she explained.

It led to more work in galleries and museums, and a reputation as dissident artists. That avant-garde spirit still lives, perhaps best exemplified by an exhibit they built for an expo in Switzerland called the Blur Building.

"It was basically the experience of being in a cloud as you came off these two bridges that came off the expo site, which was the size of football field," said Scofidio.

For many of their years together, Diller and Scofidio lived and ran their firm out of the same space. It was a nice commute, but there were other problems.

"When you share your bathroom with 12 people and then 18 people and then the Fed Ex guy comes with a big package, then asks were the bathroom is, then you realize your sharing your bathroom with perfect strangers, that was the sign to leave," said Diller.

Now their office with wraparound windows in Chelsea affords them beautiful views of the city and a better understanding of its architecture.

"You really understand the infrastructure and you understand that architecture is not about isolating yourself within the particular confines of the problem, but really requires a horizontal slice through cultures, through ideas, through what's happening," said Scofidio.

In 1999, Diller and Scofidio became the first architects to win the MacArthur Foundation award, the so-called genius award.



Gone are the days of borrowing sites, seeking grants, and working on temporary projects.

"I think that what we've proved is you don't have to be a corporate architect in order to do larger projects, that you can still keep your identity and the ideas that you've worked on for so long and not abandoned them," said Scofidio. "So, that's very important for us."

Yet the work that Diller and Scofidio produce now, on Lincoln Center and the High Line, will have an imprint on New York for a long time to come.

"Thinking about longevity and next generations and how our work is going to be appreciated and looked at and used is a big responsibility," said Diller.

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

  PART 4

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