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Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Post-Postmodernism of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

As architects and urban designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro are definitely hitting their stride. They have always been innovative and influential, but the recent completion of Alice Tully Hall (the first element in their ongoing Lincoln Center renovation), June 9th's opening of the first stretch of the High Line, and a townhouse in Nolita -- not to mention the ICA in Boston from 2006 -- marks their influence on the city, not just other architects' and designers' minds.

Two of these projects -- the High Line and the Nolita Townhouse -- provoke considerations of what's been called post-postmodernism, an -ism even more vague than the one, in its heyday, it purportedly displaces, particularly when it relies on references to postmodernism and is now in its early stages. While postmodernism in architecture can be defined as a response to modernism -- where the latter's orthodox formalism and big planning was displaced by a pluralism that borrowed and referenced previous architecture styles and relied on infill projects -- post-postmodernism's formal synthesis does not spring so easily to mind, especially if it's seen as a response to postmodernism. I would argue that in architecture the latest -ism takes the means of collage or pastiche and the historical allusions of postmodernism one step further, seeing history and authenticity as subjective and malleable. Two pieces of two projects by DS+R illustrate this hypothesis that straddles a fine line between post-postmodernism and its predecessor.

The High Line is a new linear park that rides on the long unused rail viaduct in Chelsea west of 10th Avenue. Years of blown seeds and growth made the railway a green space of sorts, captured most eloquently by Joel Sternfeld, whose photos helped Friends of the High Line advance its cause in its rails to trails initiative. The rest is history and the first portion of the park opens Tuesday.

[The High Line's "tracks" | image source]

Visitors will see tracks, like the image above, and think they are remnants of the High Line from when it was a working railway for freight on Manhattan's west side. They will be both right and wrong. In order to build the park the High Line needed to be gutted of just about everything but its structure, which then needed to be analyzed and reinforced as necessary. A new concrete slab and then a raised platform that allows room for the new vegetation was built on top. As can be seen in these before and during construction photos, the tracks were removed and then some portions laid back down in a position close to their original location. Of course it's clear their existence in the new park is anything but authentic. They are remnants, but they are merely an image of their former self, removed of function but also of a direct connection to what put them there in the first place.

But do history and authenticity matter in this case? I would say that a post-postmodernist reading would not concern itself with those traits, that the appearance of such is what matters. This sounds kinda like postmodernism, but what I think separates the two is how the earlier movement would either either use a historical element in a different way (a column as a guardrail) or reference something removed from it in time and place (Cape Cod houses in Celebration, Florida). In their appearance here the railroad tracks and ties and the vegetation refer not to the original function of the High Line, but its ruined state between its time as a working railway and its current incarnation as a linear park. On a related note, Wikipedia defines Raoul Eshelman's style of post-postmodernism (performatism) as "closed works of art that force viewers to identify with simple, opaque characters or situations and to experience beauty, love, belief and transcendence under particular, artificial conditions." The artificial conditions here are obvious.

Another Diller Scofidio + Renfro project that provoke considerations of the post-postmodern is their Nolita Townhouse on Mott Street, NOrth of LIttle iTAly. Located in a historic district, according to the architects, this seven-story, three-unit apartment building with retail needed a facade of at least 50% masonry. The architects opted to explore not only the generality of such a condition -- the code does not indicated where or how the masonry is distributed, such as with punched openings like the neighbors -- but also a deconstruction of the term masonry. What exactly is masonry? What is it made of? How is it constructed as a facade?

[Nolita Townhouse's "masonry" wall | image source]

These questions are answered by Stefan Roschert in the 2007 Engineered Transparency conference at Columbia and subsequent book, where the Diller Scofidio + Renfro architect explains the impetus for using the monocoque construction. The decision to use "recycled and optical borosilicate-glass bricks ... shimmed using laser-cut, glass-fiber-filled polycarbonate plates in a prestressed assembly, with embedded duplex-alloy stainless rods woven into an expanded, masonry-bound translucent and flaccid curtain" (quite a mouthful!) was simply based on getting the most light into the deepest sections of the narrow floor plate. The sliding panels sit in front of full-height glazing, allowing direct and filtered light into the full-floor units.

The architects reference Gottfried Semper's Stoffwechsel theory, which uses new materials with traditional techniques. Seeing masonry as what it has become, "a nonstructural skin designed to mimic traditional masonry walls" -- the Nolita Townhouse's neighbors being, I'm guessing, part of the latter -- Roschert explains that their design reintroduces two traits (flaccidity and translucency) into what are basically textiles, if one sees masonry as composed of bricks or other modular units woven together with mortar, silicone or some other binding material. So their argument allows the unconventional design to work within a restriction that shuns such an aesthetic.

What makes this design post-postmodern is how masonry becomes something completely different than what we normally associate as masonry. We do not normally question the authenticity of "new" -- meaning, non-load-bearing -- masonry walls relative to the old, load-bearing ones, because they look the same or similar, even when they are undulating or porous. But translucent? Never, until we rework the definition of masonry's appearance to include its construction, not just its materiality. In a sense this is an inversion of sorts of what Diller Scofidion + Renfro achieved at the High Line: the appearance of authenticity gives way to a change in authenticity's appearance. That these two approaches coexist in one practice is very, well, post-postmodern to me.

I'll admit my understanding of what's called post-postmodernism is rudimentary at best; if anything the above is just my take on one potential avenue of it, not something culled from any lengthy exploration of reputable writing on the subject. But I think if there exist architects who would exhibit a post-postmodernist technique and/or formalism it would be Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Correction 06/10: A comment by James reminded me that Field Operations is the lead designer on the High Line, so credit should be given James Corner for the ideas he generated that shape the interaction of the natural and the artificial/historical on the High Line. The tracks are most likely outside the purview of DS+R, though I don't think this changes my argument. It merely widens it to involve other players. Perhaps a future post looking at Fresh Kills through the lens of the above might be worthwhile.


  1. To me there is something comical about organization and labor on a grand scale in an effort to create a neglected landscape. Some of the photos of the plantings being painstakingly laid out to look like nature randomly taking over remind me of a movie set. Joel Sternfeld's photographs, while beautiful, conjure up a forbidding New York, the kind of urban landscape that might have appeared in "The Last Exit to Brooklyn" and where terrible things happen. All in all this project makes me feel sad for a city so far removed from nature that it has to hire the best minds in architecture and landscape design to stage this "natural" setting. This is something Woody Allen might have poked fun at in "Sleeper" So there you have it, this project makes me laugh, makes me sad, and scares me.

  2. Interesting post, John. Picking up on JetFan's comment, I have my own mixed emotions. Early criticism of saving the high line centered around the the issue of authenticity that John discusses in the post. If saving the high line means deconstructing its existing condition and installing a similar although entirely new and different condition, what exactly has been saved?

    On the other hand, I'm more reluctant to cry foul. It's an under used asset, at least from a human perspective. Which raises this question: does saving a potential asset require the degree of human engagement that the high line is receiving? Over on Riverside Park, there are signs posted, "Wild Forever," implying that these areas are saved from our tendency to tamper.

    Is there an obligation or benefit to saving urban places in this manner, with the least possible human influence? Such an approach would have left the high line as is, with its unique emergent micro-environment intact, a sort of wild urban cyborg. That potential is equally exciting to me, but these are tough options with a particular validity each in their own right.

    Saving the high line in the current manner is not a new development in the renewal of urban and industrial places. On a related topic, I'll be posting my interview with industrial photographer Harald Finster this week. We discuss this very issue.

  3. A point of clarification--the High Line design team is headed by James Corner Field Operations, a Landscape Architecture firm. Corner brought Diller Scofidio + Renfro onto the team, but the design concept originated with Corner.

  4. to further clarify, DS+R were responsible only for the so called "interventions" of the highline (read staircases.) It is kind of frustrating to see them continually receive and take credit for the design of the High Line, when it actually belongs to Field Operations.

  5. James & Bucca,

    You're absolutely right! Thanks for clarifying. I've seen this project discussed by DS+R at GSAPP and it was a bit vague even then what role they were playing.

  6. JetFan - Yes, it is quite amazing that so much effort needs to go into native planting, reminding me of some folks I knew near Chicago that expended so much more energy on having a prairie landscape instead of a lawn. I would guess this all has something to do with human-nature interaction, where what is most "natural" changes when we're "in charge."

    Tommy - Unfortunately I don't see preservation of "the wild" in New York working unless it serves to stimulate development. It wouldn't work here, but Friends of the High Line managed to show that taxes would increase with a park created. The spurred development (aided by the city's rezoning, no less than the park itself) shows how well it's worked. Here's a link to your interview; thanks for letting everybody know about it.

    James - Thanks for pointing that out. I probably should have noted that in the post, as I was aware of Field Operations' role in the project. A correction may be in order. Maybe the title should be The Post-Postmodernism of DS+R and Field Operations, given the latter's importance in shaping the positions that strike me as post-postmodernist.

  7. John,

    Oh, I never imagined that it would. Of course, the line of thinking you're referring to is more of the status quo in which environmental costs associated with development are all but ignored. I'm certainly not taking your comment as a defense, rather as an observation. In which case, beating the same drum isn't very useful in developing new paradigms for urban spaces. I'd be the first to admit the complexities of actively preserving a wilderness while at the same time maximizing its access to the public, but its a question that is very different from the default position of, "Let's make it into a park."

    I'm glad you posted. It's an interesting issue and I hope it gets more attention. Cheers!

  8. Tommy - I'm guessing that having to deal with the "real" costs of development and its apparent inverse is only a matter of time, as economic indicators morph to reflect new priorities. I'm not gonna sit around or hold my breath for that to happen, but for a developer or the City to determine a project's ecological footprint would go far beyond what's done today, that's for sure.

    What the High Line shows is that we're more interested in preserving artificial constructs than natural phenomena. The latter can apparently be remade very easily to then take human use into account. This is kinda cynical, but it gets back to what you're saying, in terms of associated costs. People can easily see the dollar signs when considering the tear-down or rebuilding of infrastructure, but there isn't an equivalent to sympathize with the destruction of something natural, even if it sprang upon that same bit of infrastructure. Maybe "nature bucks" (like Disney Dollars) will do the trick! ;)

  9. I think we're in agreement here on the feasibility of such an alternative. It's one of the issues that Finster raised in his interview. Referring to his argument, wouldn't it be interesting to actually preserve the ruin and reclamation of those industrial places? Sure. Practical? Not likely. It's a conundrum I've been back an forth on many times. A more vernacular example I'm familiar with is the work of A. Hays Town. His insistence that time, weathering, even decay, be respected as critical partners in the design of his projects in Louisiana set me thinking about this a long time ago. In any event I'll go, enjoy, lament, and enjoy. Such is making a place in the world. Oh, and thanks for posting the link to the interview. Best.


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