Diller Scofidio + Renfro has been behind the design of major cultural spaces like Alice Tully Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, The Broad in Los Angeles, the High Line in New York, the future MoMA in New York, and more. It was founded in 1981, and its current partners are Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro, and Benjamin Gilmartin. Their vision has also extended beyond architecture to installation art, performance, interactive media, and even print. Recently, they embarked on a first for the firm—a luxury tower in the newly developed neighborhood of Hudson Yards.
The project, 15 Hudson Yards, joins two others they are responsible for in the area: The Shed and the High Line. The three private, cultural, and public projects form a unique dialogue that ultimately sets the tone for New York’s latest urban expansion. Whitewall spoke with Elizabeth Diller and Benjamin Gilmartin about 15 Hudson Yards’ organic curves and the importance of taking on new challenges.
WHITEWALL: What was the initial brief for 15 Hudson Yards?
ELIZABETH DILLER: Our studio had been designing and developing The Shed for a number of years. The Shed site was changing and moving west, and we found ourselves adjacent to the future residential tower. But these are two totally independent sites. The Shed is on city property.
We were offered the possibility of taking the tower on with Rockwell Group, but our first response was that it wasn’t what we do. It’s not in our wheelhouse. But ultimately, we realized we wanted a good neighbor. We also thought it could be interesting if these two buildings formed a dialogue in some way. Typically, that would mean a cultural building with a tower on top of it. But we thought it was an interesting opportunity to negotiate with ourselves—and with the High Line—to have three projects for three different clients and programs interlock as an urban ensemble.
WW: This was the firm’s first time designing a tower like this, seemingly in contrast to the cultural projects you’re known for. What made the challenge of working outside your wheelhouse compelling?
ED: We always like to try things at least once. It felt very organic to take on the tower and push ourselves to take that challenge. It was a learning experience, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done.
WW: Were there any aspects of designing cultural, public spaces that you brought into this project? Perhaps in some of the communal spaces, to increase resident interactions?
ED: We considered the project within the context of the High Line specifically, and interrogated how we could make an interface between a commercial property and the public realm. And then we considered the project from the point of view of The Shed and considered how we could create a level of transparency and be a good neighbor.
WW: Given that 15 Hudson Yards is part of a completely new, designed- from-the-ground-up neighborhood, what kind of rules could you break?
BENJAMIN GILMARTIN: The master plan embedded 15 Hudson Yards in a dense cluster of tall towers, so it had a natural reason to morph: At the base, it engages the city at the street and locks into the orthogonal logic of the city grid; as it ascends, the views open up across the city and to the water on the diagonal, looking between other towers—and so the living spaces within evolve into four lobes at the top with panoramic views at the corners.
WW: Why was it important for you to create a less brittle, more organic shape with glass?
BG: The use of glass paid tribute to the tradition of modernist towers in the city, but the softness was something that made the building distinctive and more responsive to the contemporary city and its life. Glass is by its nature flexible, pliable—and the cold forming technique of curving the glass works with its natural pliability to create the building’s gentle curves, this softness.
WW: How did you want to play with the shape of a traditional skyscraper? How does 15 Hudson Yards rethink the conventional luxury towers we see going up all over New York?
BG: Because towers traditionally focus on the base and the top, we started with an interest in making something of the middle. There we located the shared amenities of the building, where everyone comes together. And that is where the morph begins, so it becomes a place that your eye is gradually drawn to when looking at the building.
WW: You had been working on The Shed since 2008 before starting on 15 Hudson Yards in 2012. How did that project influence your plans for the tower?
ED: When we started to design 15 Hudson Yards in 2012, we were thinking about the softness of The Shed and the ETFE pillows. It led us to explore a suppleness in the tower. There was also a lot of consideration of acoustics for both projects, and how we could enhance the sound quality for both of the two distinct programs. We were able to look after the best interest for both buildings, both clients, and do it in a way that’s symbiotic.
BG: The Shed and the tower are like Siamese twins—very different, but connected and sharing vital systems. Where The Shed structure docks at the tower expresses the interconnection—the two buildings fit together there, as the tower bends inward to receive the shape of The Shed.
WW: How did you want the two to ultimately interact?
ED: As we were looking at these two buildings from every angle, we wanted them to play nice with each other.
BG: The Shed has many of its critical support spaces in the lower floors of the tower; and because the tower granted these spaces to The Shed, it was permitted by the city to be taller, creating better views for the residents.
WW: How do you see 15 Hudson Yards engaging with the Hudson Yards project overall?
BG: While all of the architects working at Hudson Yards have different approaches, 15 Hudson Yards is part of a dense and diverse new part of the city that brings together culture, living, working, leisure, and public life. We have been fortunate to be the designers of The Shed, 15 Hudson Yards, and the High Line—these three projects work as an ensemble within the larger Hudson Yards development.
WW: You’ve worked on projects that have reshaped the West Side of Manhattan, including the High Line and now Hudson Yards. As architects, what kind of responsibility do you feel reshaping the way we engage with a city and neighborhood?
ED: In a progressively privatized city, the defense of public space, the production of new public space, and saving what is public really for the public is very important for architects, citizens of the city, and activists.
WW: When does new development work best in a city?
ED: When it’s planned, thought through, zoned, and thought of as a neighborhood.