Plenty of architecture’s biggest names have been laid low by the Great Recession, as I wrote recently in Bloomberg Businessweek. One partnership has never had it better, however: New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
On Monday, the 60-person shop was named chief architect of billionaire Eli Broad’s $80 million-plus art museum in downtown Los Angeles, beating out a collaboration by starchitects Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. The commission came just two months after the boutique was chosen to design an arts and film center for the University of California in Berkeley.
DS+R had a dizzying 2009 as well, completing two high-profile projects in New York: the High Line elevated park, which was created from a long-abandoned railway line, and the redesign of Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The studio’s partners—Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, who founded it in 1979, and Charles Renfro, who joined in 1997—may busy again in 2011. DS+R, which got its first big assignment with the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which opened in 2006, is completing a museum on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach and a media studio in Abu Dhabi. It is also in the running for three projects, including a factory in China. (Yes, that’s right, a factory.)
The firm’s payroll has grown from 25 six years ago, with plans to expand at least another 15 percent next year. Revenue should surge 150% this year. “We have to wonder that if there wasn’t a building bust, would we be winning even more?” Renfro says. “We’re thankful that we are bucking the trend. We’re not getting rich, nor are we starving.”
I caught up with Renfro, 46, as he took a train from his office on Tuesday. Here’s an edited transcript of what else he had to say:
Q: How do you explain your winning streak?
A: The obvious answer is that we finally created several major commissions and people have heard of us and they hadn’t before. Not until the last four years have we worked on complex jobs and proven that we could pull them off.
Q: The firm has been around more than 30 years, though. Is this an example of perseverance? Or is it just good luck?
A: I wish I could provide you with a silver-bullet answer, but I think it’s a combination of all that. I also think our approach toward building and design is much more sympathetic to the economy. It’s no longer the go-go ’90s or even the 2000s. We’re operating at the crossroads of making an icon and a very thoughtful response to clients’ problems.
Q: Is it harder to do architecture in 2010?
A: It’s probably harder for some people. There are many architects who are used to working on high-profile jobs, making iconic architecture. I think you will find them getting fewer commissions in this day and age. Maybe we’re reaping the benefit of the downturn in this way. It’s not harder for us.
Q: How would you describe the firm’s design philosophy?
A: We take our inspiration from the context of the project. Having said that, we’re very interested in pushing the limit of technology, of form-making, of structure.
Q: Has it become a challenge to manage the firm as it has grown so fast?
A: It goes without saying that anytime there’s a quick jump in the staff of any business, there will be growing pains. We operate like a family. I think we’re going to continue to operate on a similar manner.
Q: What would advice would you give to a student who is thinking of becoming an architect?
A: Go into law.
Q: And if he doesn’t listen?
A: There are many other kinds of outlets that have become available to architects, from making shows to getting into museum and exhibit design to getting into writing online. Hope is not lost. The money is down, however. We were never a well-paid profession, much to a lot of other people’s surprise. Definitely, there’s less money out there to build buidlings. So we all have to be more creative.
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