Liz Diller

Liz Diller of New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro speaks with Ana Miljački about evaluating the ethics of commissions and translating projects for different audiences.

Recorded on June 21, 2021. Read a transcript of the episode below.

About Liz Diller

Liz Diller is a founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a design studio whose practice has spanned the fields of architecture, urban design, installation, art, multimedia performance, digital media, and print since it was established in 1981.

Alongside cofounder Ricardo Scofidio, Diller was the first architect to be honored by the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as an international Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She is also professor of architecture at Princeton University.

Over the span of more than 30 years, the DSR studio has been responsible for many installations, exhibitions, and buildings, including some for the most visible and important cultural institutions in New York City: the High Line, Lincoln Center, the MoMA expansion and, most recently, The Shed.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački: [00:00] Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I am Ana Miljački, professor of architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusal stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet, the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about, and decisions not to engage, are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily. 

My guest in this episode is Liz Diller. Thank you so much for joining me, Liz.

Liz Diller: [01:09] Hi Ana, I am happy to be here.

Miljački: [01:13] Liz Diller is a founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a design studio whose practice has spanned the fields of architecture, urban design, installation, art, multimedia performance, digital media, and print since it was established in 1981.

Alongside cofounder Ricardo Scofidio, Diller was the first architect to be honored by the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Diller is also fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an international Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, as well as a recipient of many other equivalent international accolades. She is also professor of architecture at Princeton University.

Over the span of over 30 years since its establishment, the DSR studio has been responsible for many installations, exhibitions, and buildings, including some for the most visible and important cultural institutions in New York City: the High Line, the Lincoln Center, MoMA expansion, and, most recently, The Shed. DSR is now also led by Charles Renfro, who became a partner in 2004, and Ben Gilmartin, who joined partner ranks in 2015. Now I counted over 100 employees on the DSR website, working on about 22 projects currently in progress. The firm has been involved with a number of university buildings, including one from my own institution as we speak.

Diller: Yay!

Miljački: Its recent international work includes the Zaryadye Park in Moscow and the Museum of Image and Sound, currently under construction in Rio de Janeiro, and many others.

Now, I hope that we will be able to discuss some aspects of this vast body of work and the principles that drive it, but we will do that, or attempt to do that, today by talking first about the work that is not on the boards in the office or in your portfolio.

I’ve been opening these conversations with a question about the most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission, and we can start there, Liz, as a warm-up of sorts, and then we can zoom out a bit.

Diller: [03:26] Well, thank you for that great introduction. It makes me exhausted just to think about that. We actually did all that stuff, and we keep getting into more and more trouble doing more things. So I’m happy to just think about this, because this is as big a topic, if not bigger, than what we have done, because we’re constantly not doing things. Sometimes not by our choice, but often by choice.

But if you’re asking me for the most memorable that we said no to . . . You know, my brain is not going to take me all the way there, but one thing is a kind of constant is Saudi Arabia, you know? Because the calls come, like, pretty much every three or four months. So it’s not a single time, it’s many times that we have just passed the opportunity to do something in Saudi Arabia. And, I have to say that it has been not the most obvious and easy. It seems like it’s a very black-and-white condition, however . . .

You know, and by the way, I should say, I prepared this little thing. My studio made something that’s called Middle East Project Assessment Criteria Index. It’s a scorecard for every country, you know, in the Middle East, and it has a rating. And the ratings are based on, is the country categorized as authoritarian on the world Democracy Index? OK. And no is plus one, a yes is minus one. Another question: Has the country instituted any significant liberal reforms in the past five years? Another one: Is the client, does the client have a progressive humanitarian reputation? Another: Does the project have a primarily public, cultural, humanitarian program? Another: Does the country have labor protections? Another: Does the country censor art or artists? Another: Does the country systematically persecute minorities and/or political dissidents? And another: Is the project connected to reputable institutions, entities abroad?

So there’s this series of questions which have yes or no answers, and there’s a kind of ultimate score. And so, in this whole thing, you know, which there are like, I don’t know how many countries, Turkey is pretty good. It scores a 4.8 out of 10. And the country that scores the worst is Saudi Arabia, and is 1.9 out of 10. And you could, you know, we know the reasons why. And then there are all these countries in between, you know: You have Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and so forth. And it just goes on.

So the assessment of these projects, you know, really, let’s say, first of all, it starts with a judgment call about an ethical understanding and feeling about participating in a country with a certain regime that we don’t agree with. However, where it becomes more complex is where a call comes from, let’s say, a museum director or a curator or someone from the inside that wants to change the system, and wants to change the culture, and, you know, says, “Well, if everyone that we ask, everyone that’s progressive, says no, we’re never going to change. There’s no one here to make that change unless we get help.” So, you know, I think it’s a . . . It made me really think, again, about, should I say no? Or is it dependent on what is the question asked, but who’s the final authority that accepts a project, or doesn’t.

In the end, we have said no across multiple years to Saudi Arabia for its, you know, humanitarian problem.

Miljački: [08:21] I have a couple of sub-questions to that one that I thought would come in a little bit later, but maybe it’s useful to know sooner, who kind of put together that card? And how did you do that? The scorecard. And two, does it exist for Eastern Europe, or former Eastern Europe, or elsewhere in the world as well?

Diller: [08:44] No, it doesn’t. It probably should, and we probably should have this instrument. I was just talking to James McNally, who’s a person in the studio who does a lot of research. He’s really wonderful. And he put this together, and we’re often, when we’re asked to do projects, we don’t have any objective criteria, and we have these, like, very complicated conversations, and he just took the initiative to do this. And I said, you know, how many times do we really use this? He said, a half, a half of one time, so we haven’t really used it, because it’s very hard to actually do this. But I think it’s a great exercise to just look at this briefly and just get reminded about, you know, how complex these decisions are. And they ultimately, even though you may have a terrific client inside of a very difficult regime, it may be very difficult to pull off, you know, something progressive that you hope to do, you know. And then I reflect back on times when I said yes, where I might have said no, and how did that turn out? But, I think that this is a general, you know, kind of tool that’s part of a kind of internal discourse around, what do we do, and why do we do it?

Miljački: [10:11] I mean, we definitely want to know about the nos that you regretted and the yeses that you regretted, if you’re willing to share them with us.

Diller: [10:22] Well, you know, I was thinking just before we got on, you know, what are the different things that we would say no to—what we would typically say no to. Like, Oh what would make me say no.

The most obvious is, and maybe not very poignant for this discussion, but if the request or the invitation is just not challenging, you know, or it’s not inspirational, then why would we want to do it? If we can’t really do something with that opportunity. So, you know, a lot of architects will take a commission because you have to keep the studio going, you have to feed the machine, you have to earn the income, and it’s part of what you do. And some of your projects are good, and some of them are not so interesting. But that’s always the very first thing, you know, it’s like, what is it? And is it, first of all, is it challenging? Or is it, you know, if it’s commercial project, is there any form of aspiration in it to, you know, take the culture of architecture one more step, and to take us one more step. Is it an opportunity?

Another thing is that, you know, with our competitions . . . we are, primarily, our work comes from competitions, and we’re invited into shortlists or medium lists or long lists into competitions, and we have to evaluate every single competition to see, you know, there should be such a rating system, but we don’t have that. But immediately, we say no to when we feel there’s a kind of exploitation, you know, and that’s very often competitions that have no pay, that have lots of deliverables. And you know, somehow, and you have to read between the lines here and sniff it out. They ask multiple architects to produce things, and then they recombine to rehash something to give to a local architect. And so it’s exploitative. And sometimes these are rigged, and you have to really have a nose to figure out, you know, what is rigged? What are your odds? There’s another whole category of odds, you know, like, when we’re just out-challenged by some others.

But I think, and, also, another exploitative one is when there’s no real promise of a project, where it’s a competition. And maybe, you know, some mayor wants to get reelected, and this is like, really good, you know, it’s press and marketing material for popularity towards an election. And so, you know, if there’s no real promise of a project.

And so, architects are constantly putting themselves on the line, and so much of the work is in competitions, where you, every single time you do one, you fall in love with something, and then most of the time your heart is broken, because it doesn’t happen for some reason or other. So, you know, disappointment is structured into this profession, first of all. So the ones that seem possible and interesting and aspirational sometimes just don’t happen for all sorts of reasons: financial, political. You know, one person, one politician, is voted out, another one comes in. We lost a beautiful competition in . . . that we won, you know, that we’re actually on a project for the London Symphony, and this was, you know, won it fair and square. And because of Brexit, and then COVID, it just didn’t happen.

What I’m saying is that it’s an emotional wrangling all the time to try to figure out what to take a chance on and what not to.

Miljački: [14:58] I love this conversation about the criteria that you employ and the way in which the process itself sort of produces a psychology within the office, or the production itself. But maybe, can we talk about whether and how the criteria for thinking about projects might have changed over time in the office?

Diller: [15:26] Yes, I think that there was, um, that we matured in many ways, where the initial … because we come from a kind of critical practice, and we were, you know, I was educated in the period of the institutional critique. You know, I was and also it was the early ’70s and just coming off the late ’60s, there was always a kind of political consciousness in the work and a criticality that, just, you know, by virtue of a big institution or an institutional voice—like, “Why would we speak in the voice of an institution, where we’re critics,” you know?

But there was a point of maturation, I think, when we were asked to do the Boston ICA. And the invitation came from a woman that was my age, and she was the director, Jill Medvedow. And then I thought, “Well, what’s the point of the institutional critique if I have nothing to critique! My voice is being requested.” So it’s speaking for the institution, speaking for myself, and in concert with the institution.

So I started to think differently then, and that was back in like, 2000, I think, or, yeah, something like 2001.

And there was a big flip, I think, for the Zaryadye project. That was like a whole decade and a quarter later, in 2013, when we were invited to an international competition to do a park, a giant park, outside of the Kremlin, right in the middle of Moscow and right, you know, next to Red Square and St. Basil’s. And this was a period of time when the relationship between the US and Russia was really cold. And it was . . . Well, now it’s like, totally . . .

Miljački: We’re back to Cold War now.

Diller: This was the Edward Snowden time, when Russia gave Snowden, you know, a kind of clemency, or whatever it’s called, you know, to come to live there, and America wanted to prosecute him. So it was a kind of weird time, and everyone, everyone was telling us not to participate in this competition, there is no chance for an American to win.

And yet, I was really, you know, there were some very interesting jurors, international jurors, and I thought, “Well, if it’s legitimate for them, you know, then it’s, they’re legitimizing it, potentially, for me, and it means there’s something, there’s someone behind this.” And in any case, feeling that we had no chance, but also breaking many of the rules of the competition, which basically said, you cannot make a place for people to gather, for the public to gather. [laughs] This is in a, like a 13-hectare site, right in front of the Kremlin, where you know that protesters are going to be, and that’s the whole point of them saying, “No congregations of people.” We of course made a place where you can all, where many people can come and convene. And we decided to just break the rules. We up-ended all of the sort of conventions of how, what makes a normal park, which is usually, you know, straight paths and axes with monuments at the end of them, and keep off the grass, with very specific kinds of plants that can only be chosen from a list, you know, an approved list, and so forth. And all of this, we just decided, “Well, it’s only worth doing if we can undo this and if we could critique it.”

And we did it, and lo and behold, we won. And it was a totally, it, we couldn’t have predicted it, and we were shocked. And ultimately the project was really embraced, you know, by the, by the general public. And as we were designing it, you know, we were . . . It’s the site of the old Hotel Rossiya, which was the largest hotel anywhere, it’s like 3,000 rooms, Khrushchev-era hotel. So that was all cleared out. And in order to even understand . . . just so that you understand the context, we wanted to have all the underground, we wanted to know what was under there, the soils and the foundations that might be there. Well, we weren’t allowed to know anything beyond two feet under, because all the KGB tunnels were under there.

So this was a hostile history and a very weird and hostile regime, but at the same time, there was a city architect that really wanted to change and make Moscow very cosmopolitan and really, you know, totally transform the city to be open with lots of freedoms, you know, and brought into the twenty-first century, also. And still, with its monuments, and paying homage to many of the very important buildings around, all the churches. And, you know, we were pretty much protected and sheltered from political pressures, but all the time, I kept thinking, would this project be politicized, ever? And we opened the project to great fanfare. A million people came the first month. And then, sure enough, Putin inaugurated it and called it The People’s Park, and somehow just, you know, claimed it. And we were, of course, Charles and I were there for the inauguration, but we went half a mile away, because we didn’t want to actually be associated with Putin.

In the end, the park is there, and it is very democratic, and it’s . . . Now, in these days, since the Ukraine war, everything has changed, but up until then, it was just, like, it felt like many places in Europe, where people would come out, and it was festive, and there were all sorts of great activities. And there was a moment at which there was some bad press on it, because teenagers were having sex, you know, at night there, and they were starting to get fined. [laughs] And so there was this perception that these Westerners had totally ruined the Russian youth, and made them, you know . . .

Miljački: A badge of honor. A badge of honor.

Diller: I think it’s a badge of honor that people feel so liberated and feel so at home and at ease that they would have sex, you know, in our park—fabulous. So anyway, that’s the story of that. And I keep flipping . . .

Miljački: [23:35] So I was going to offer a couple of different things as that turning point in the practice, maybe the Whitney show or the Blur Building, but it’s interesting to me that you sort of see the ICA as important, and then the park itself also as some other kind of marker. And to me, the question around that that I still would like to maybe get at is the extent to which you planned that transformation.

But let me zoom out first, back to the beginning, in a way, which you touched on a little bit. But for me, if we consider the arc of the practice, which you’ve suggested elsewhere has multiplied and splintered in many directions since ‘81. So if we go back to the beginning, the time that was encapsulated, maybe, in Flesh, which was, you know, my generation of architecture students grew up on that book in the ’90s. It was, in that work there was, there was a certain kind of maybe even wholesale refusal, and certainly resistance to the status quo, that was implicit and explicit in that work. And so, I’m wondering how you would articulate it now, retroactively, and maybe, you know, now that you’re not working on things that are guerilla-temporary, on credit cards, that end up in New Jersey landfill, which is also sort of your description of some of that work? How does that work continue and where does it register? And I feel like you’ve begun answering this with these two examples, but . . .

Diller: [25:10] You know, I think that part of the, sort of maturing, I think I realized that rather than lobbing grenades over the wall, that you just enter through the front door and accept an invitation, but act stealthily within. And so the, you know, the objectives are still maybe not that different. It’s not resistance, and it’s not just saying no—it’s, like, figuring out how to say yes, but I’m going to say what I want to say, and I’m going to launch my critique inside.

And you know, like, MoMA is actually also a good example, that MoMA, you know, was . . . In the early days, when we were asked to do the first installation and the project series, it was back in the ’90s, it was the first architects to be asked to do an independent project. And it was a question: “Do we want to enter the Museum of Modern Art? It stands for the things that we were resisting.” On the other hand, I spent lots of time roaming the collection when I was a high school student, and even in college—like, there’s so much there. But it’s the notion of the institutional walls; it’s the notion of who supports them and the power structures and the social structures.

And I think that, you know, we accepted MoMA’s invitation at that point, and the project was called Parasite, and it was a way of looking very, very closely at the museum and sort of gnawing our way into its walls and into its structures, and looking at these moments of translation very, very closely between municipal space and institutional space, between a space of mobility and all of a sudden a gallery where we were told how to look at something. And I think that for us that, you know, was, in a way, a moment of realization that, why not have a big audience for a critical project? Like, we have more of a chance of being seen and acknowledged.

And then fast forward to, like, 2000 whatever, ’13, ’14, I think, when we were invited to expand MoMA. So all of a sudden, it’s not like being an artist inside of its walls, it’s making the walls themselves. It’s kind of graduating from the ICA, in a sense, to an institution that is incredibly powerful in, on the planet. And we began our interview—and we were interviewed among maybe six other architects—we began the interview by critiquing MoMA. Like, really leveling it. And, it was, because it failed in so many different ways. It failed in connecting the public to the city. It failed in bringing art in front of the public. It was, you know, elitist and confusing. And, you know, all the things that . . . and so how could we . . . and I think it was that critique that they liked. They liked to hear . . . I think they felt maybe the same, or it made them think auto-critically, and there came the invitation.

And it’s the same thing we did when we were interviewing for Lincoln Center, back in 2003. We told them everything that’s wrong about Lincoln Center, you know—but it could be saved, but there was so much wrong.

And so, I think that rather just saying no, because, it’s like how do you actually use the opportunity to do something generative, something positive. And I think that’s, you know, these series of opportunities, we never, ever spoke in the voice of the client. We spoke in our own voice. We were never told what to do. But we assisted, you know, teams of people to do good things for these institutions. And I’m really proud of these projects, all of them.

And so, I don’t, I feel like, and I just remember when, you know, because I had, back in the days of Flesh, there was a big academic following. Although, you know, that’s it. And when we did our first house, when we were designing the Slow House, and it was published on the cover of Progressive Architecture, Peter Eisenman said to me, “You sold out. I’m really disappointed in you, you sold out.” I said “Why? This house? We’re really proud of it, it’s on the cover of a magazine, that’s a good thing.” And, you know, Peter tried everything he could to get on the cover of magazines, of course. But it made me realize that, this, like, it’s like a false, It’s a false binary—that it’s like, yes or no, there’s a lot of gray in between yes and no. And that’s where things become really interesting, and when you can use resistance, coercion, criticism, in a positive, forward way.

Miljački: [31:23] Productive, yeah. I mean, I do like the notion of maturity. I’ve been thinking about it as a kind of concept that’s like . . . Because I wanted to ask you if you planned the transformation of the discipline, did you anticipate it? Did the early work anticipate it somehow, right? But the idea that, in a way, it is a growing up of sorts, and that you encounter new circumstances in which you have to respond tactically with the tools you have.

Diller: [31:50] That’s exactly right. I could never have planned it, because the course is so twisted, and when you have to come to a kind of crossroads, it’s sometimes a real struggle: emotional, you know, struggle, and intellectual struggle.

Another one that I could bring up where the answer was yes, but a very reluctant yes, was when we had done so much for The Shed. We had invented this new institution. We had started to get a lot of momentum on doing this project from scratch—a new institution, really, from nothing. Also some great people around the project, in the orbit of the project, that we were able to collaborate with, and the project really sort of, you know, it wasn’t just us.

But we were asked, at a certain point . . . There was a site . . . And so you have to understand, The Shed is on city property inside of a huge commercial development. And the city had the forethought of reserving a very small plot of land for cultural use, you know? And it wasn’t for Hudson Yards, it was just for the city. But that portion of it, just like it had some rules about how much public space had to be open to the sky, you know, so there were some things that the city did to restrict just this commercial growth that was very profit-oriented. So when we, somehow, you know, we respond to this RFP, we started the project, we were embraced by the city, but there was no money, there was no client, there was no fee, there was no budget, there was no nothing. It was just like, “Keep going! That’s interesting!” And so we kept going for another couple of years until things really sort of started and some people emerged who were behind the scenes that were propelling it, unbeknownst to us. But, you know, there was a question that came . . . there’s a site right next door. So the whole theory of The Shed is that it expands and contracts onto an open public space next to us and doubles its footprint. It makes it possible to make a new institution for contemporary art, because it needed bigger space than we had that was allotted for. But there’s a space next door that was going to be a high-rise condominium tower. And we were asked if we wanted to do it, and we said, “No, we don’t do commercial towers. No way.” And the commissioner of cultural affairs said, “I think you should do it, because that’s the only way you can protect yourself from your neighbor.” Because if it was some other architect, we would have no . . . we wouldn’t, it would be . . .

Miljački: The Shed would be done.

Diller: Yeah. Well, it would be, kind of.

So what we did, by agreeing to do something that was . . . it didn’t sit so comfortably, both as a project and as an alliance with a developer and so forth, is we agreed to work with a totally different client, with a commercial client, on their objectives for this tower. But we were able to negotiate the base of that tower, which was the extension of The Shed, in the other direction that it didn’t expand. So we were able to capture the lower eight floors for our back of house, our core, our mechanicals, and so forth. So we were able to effectively triple the size of our footprint by agreeing to do it. And so, you know, because the lower part of a tower is not that glamorous for a condo building—it’s where a lot of the garbage goes anyway—we’re able to use that, you know, for our offices and everything. And with agreement with the city, that tower went up a couple of more stories. So, you know, it was seventy stories high, but with another seven or eight, is there a big difference? There were bigger buildings around it.

But that was a real, that was a real puzzle, you know: “Do we do this or do we not? This is totally out of our wheelhouse.” But in the end, we decided to do it.

Miljački: [36:54] So in a conversation with Tony Vidler for Log, and then later with Sylvia Lavin, you describe the architect as a director, or as a negotiator, respectively, qualifying, I thought, importantly, that work of negotiation and persuasion as creative work: Specifically, working the network, speaking in different voices and garnering support for architectural ideas. And I was excited by this sort of expanded definition of the architectural work, and wonder what you think it suggests for pedagogy and for its own critical evaluation?

Diller: [37:37] Well, it is something that I learned. It’s not something I started with: the notion of speaking in multiple tongues, in knowing the difference between pitching something to a potential donor, or a city, or a community, or a different kind of client. It’s . . . Or even explaining a project to any one of those entities, or to a journalist, or to an academic audience. It’s like a completely different thing. And I did a lecture once on Lincoln Center where I did the same 15 slides in six different voices. It’s probably, like, the most interesting lecture. It was very repetitive, but by twisting some words and some thoughts, I could say the exact same thing with the exact same objective and ambition, but . . .

Miljački: And evidence.

Diller: Yeah, by editing and by emphasizing certain things, I was able to get different kinds of groups on board. And so I put that into a lecture, like basically, Lincoln Center six ways.

And that came into pedagogy, too. Because, look, my education was Cooper Union, and that’s a school where you said no to everything. You know, everything was on the blacklist there. Hardly anybody was welcome to teach there, let alone what books you could read or not read, you know? Let alone, you know, the notion of doing professional work within a corrupt profession. So, you know, I come from that. So making the leap into engaging into work on an urban level, you know, permanent, and working with politicians and with communities and all of that, you really learn all that stuff. So I’m bringing . . .

So Sylvia and I work on thesis together, we teach the thesis at Princeton, and we, as an exercise in the preparation for thesis, we have the students actually think about their hypothesis, very short hypothesis, but you have to speak it in different ways, in different tongues, and you have to persuade a whole host of different types of audiences to believe in that, you know, to persuade that that is a brilliant idea that merits a grant, or merits approvals, or whatever. And it’s actually . . . And sometimes, we’ve had people represent voices that are not very popular, and some very, very difficult voices that students don’t want to touch. Like, “I’m not going to speak in the voice of Donald Trump, I’m not going to be speaking in the voice of some fascistic leader,” or something like that. However, this year, we’re going to have, you know, Thom, we’re going to sort of roleplay: like, Thom Mayne, how is he going to explain The Line? How is he going to explain that? You know, how is he pitching that to an audience of, you know, his students, or journalists? Or someone other.

Miljački: [41:12] Will you actually bring him to hear?

Diller: [41:14] We’re thinking about . . . Well, first we’re going to try to imagine his voice, you know, because we’re going to take liberties with it. And then I think that we want . . . It would be good to put him on the spot.

Miljački: [41:29] I have two more questions and not a lot of minutes, or at least two that I would like to . . . One is, well, let me let me ask you these, and then we’ll just see how long. So even at over 100 employees, you call your office a studio, and I’m wondering what this means operationally and across that varied body of work. And maybe just to tack on to it the question of kind of how we make decisions, or how you make decisions about running the office. To what extent are there any procedures in place by which you both expose the studio to the realities of running the office and you invite your team to think collectively about the commissions that you will and you will not take?

Diller: [42:13] Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So we have four partners, and we have, like, a group that is sort of in the business development. We . . . it’s not really business development, it’s like responding to invitations, because we don’t really need to do that, we don’t knock on doors. Although there are projects we want to do that we don’t get invited to do, we have to be much more proactive toward those.

And, you know, we’re opening up that conversation, definitely, to seniors here. It would be everyone’s choice to do nothing but social housing. But, you know, you almost have to do social housing pro bono in order to do it.

So I think that in the studio, we have probably many, many positions about what constitutes important work. I feel that everything that we take on, you know, has an importance, but very often the choices are really complex, and they’re multifaceted, and they have to do with the sort of probability of happening and the expense of doing the work.

And just to give you an example, because this is something that people don’t realize. We have wonderful requests for competitions, and everyone wants to do everything: like, “We have to do this, we have to do this, we have to do this, they’re all fabulous.” And we do four or five competitions at the same time. It kills you. Even if you do five competitions in a year and you win one—20 percent success rate—you will have spent your entire profit for that one commission. At 20 percent, then you will have spent all of that doing these competitions. But actually the success rate is more like maybe 10 percent. So, if you, you’re always in the red doing competitions. You can never, when you’re successful winning them, the amount—because architects actually don’t charge a lot in the end. Except, I guess, if you’re a certain kind of architect—Frank Gehry, you might be able to charge an enormous amount. But our studio, and many others like us, are trying to just do good work, we’re not doing this for profit or anything. But the analysis is that you just lose money, you continue to lose money off of these things. So, if you open up the question to an entire studio, you will not necessarily get a kind of balance that keeps the office going and keeps the doors open. So there’s a lot of, like, complexity to this.


Diller: [45:43] You know, after the High Line, and the success of the High Line, and coming to terms with, you know, that not everybody loves the way that the city got reshaped by it. And that, many, um—yes, yes, that it gentrified that part of the city very, very quickly.

And The Mile-Long Opera . . . I just, I had this desire to do it, but there was no institutional, you know, sponsor. You know, I looked high and low, like, someone had to help, because I didn’t know how to how to do this, I just had this idea of, you know, and with David Lang, together, to do this, you know, gigantic mile, mile-and-a-half long opera, on the High Line, on the scene, where it happened, in this urban space, with the city as its backdrop, and with the voices of New Yorkers that might have something to say about it. And that was part of the content of the opera, of the words. But there was no institutional backer for it, because it was just too weird, and it didn’t fit, you know? “It doesn’t fit on a stage.” “It doesn’t fit in my festival time.” “It’s not near Lincoln Center.” “It’s not in Brooklyn”—you know. I mean, whatever. There were many reasons why no one wanted to back it.

So I became the producer, and I raised all the money for it, and I got all the approvals. And, you know, went through, like, every learning curve that you could imagine. Like how you ticket something like that, how you queue it, how you release people, how you keep everyone safe in case somebody has a heart attack, you know, like, on 28th Street. You know, like, everything, including, obviously, the creative part, which is, I thought . . . well, actually, I think all of it was creative. Learning how to do all of this is really a kind of, it’s . . . learning is what I love to do. And that’s why I love to do things that I’m not qualified to do, and making an opera is one of those things, and making it outdoors, and making it a mile and a half with 1,000 singers, you know, is like totally nuts.

But it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, the success of that. And you know, that the, there’s a kind of conversation you have with yourself at a certain point, where it’s you and your work, and you see, even those small things, like seven days of this euphoric experience, of an exchange between citizens of New York, citizens singing, citizens listening, and having this intimate relationship and walking at your own pace and looking at these towers around you. I mean, that was, you know, gave me as much joy as doing the High Line in its best, at its best.

For me, it’s not about size, it’s not about duration, it’s not about planting something permanently. It’s, like, it’s a kind of impact thing, it’s an impact on me, and even the short-term impact on some of the singers. It made a huge impression on some of those singers that had never had an audience member in front of their face. Like someone like Renée Fleming [laughs] or Stephen Sondheim. I mean, the emails that I got, like, it was, it was amazing. But just to have, you know, 3,000 listeners, one at a time coming next to you.

And, anyway, it was a great experience. But what all of this taught me is that you don’t wait for invitations. You just sort of do things if you are compelled to do them. Just do them, and then you’ll find the support. You’ll figure it out, if you’re passionate enough about things, and if the cause is right, you’ll get . . . you’ll figure it out, and I firmly believe that.

So I kind of live in this perpetual optimism that, you know, you don’t ever have to really sell out. You can just keep going, and not all your decisions necessarily are perfect, but they’re strategic, you know, and they got you to another place, and that place could be very good, which got you to another place.

Miljački: [50:13] Liz, thank you for talking to me so candidly today, and listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To

Diller: [50:24] Thank you, Ana, for provoking me to say all those things. [laughs]

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.