Getting Beyond the Surface

In urban architecture, how much can a structure's surface say? Sometimes, not much—but at other times, its meanings run far below skin deep, as revealed in a recent AIGA/NY talk, “Personal Spaces/Public Visions,” featuring Elizabeth Diller, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), and Michael Rock, of 2x4.

DS+R is transforming the High Line from an abandoned railway (above) into a lush, elevated public park (top). (design: Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations, courtesy City of New York; photo: Joel Sternfeld © 2000)

In her thought-provoking and often soul-searching remarks, Diller covered some recent high-profile projects in New York by her architecture studio, DS+R, including a redesign of Lincoln Center and the transformation of the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway on the city's West Side, into a public park. Diller explained that the High Line was a rather poignant project, for the place's original charm and mystery depended on its untamed quality, as an industrial ruin that had given birth to a profusion of wild vegetation. As captured in the photos of Joel Sternfeld, the place evoked a feeling that was “incredibly melancholic,” she said. “It was a kind of final revenge of nature over industrial culture.” She went on to explain, “When the Friends of the High Line decided to do their [design] competition and we submitted our names, and we came up with the project, we also had a lot of self-doubt about—do we really want to do something there and destroy this?”

Created in collaboration with landscape architects Field Operations, DS+R's winning entry was a sort of anti-design, in which a permeable surface formed the defining aesthetic. The designers took inspiration from the random patterns of plants pushing up through a broken sidewalk. Instead of imposing bold pathways upon the narrow space, they formed thin strips of concrete shaped like the prongs of a comb, allowing for walking areas while still preserving a wild look for the plants that would spring up between the fragments of concrete. Thus, the park is conceived as an “interesting mineral-vegetal blend,” she said. At an entrance spot where the High Line was once sliced off at Gansevoort Street, they kept the raw-looking appearance of that slice, using it to display the layers of the plant life. All in all, with its hybrid blend of the natural and the unnatural, the park design might recall another DS+R project for the 2002 Swiss Expo: Blur, a building constructed of technologically produced fog.

As for the Lincoln Center redesign, a collaborative project with other firms that is also currently underway, Diller spoke more about the arduous process involved in negotiating the politics of such a massive, city-involved project than on the design. But in other forums she has revealed how at this site, too, surfaces have played a huge role in transforming and updating the dated institution's structures, to bring a welcoming sense of openness and transparency. Once-forbidding buildings on West 65th Street will gain windows to open them up to the public eye, while a public lawn will add softness to a place that's often perceived to have a hard, elitist look. A sleek wood-veneer “intelligent skin” coating the interior of the Alice Tully Hall will be able to glow from within, in a gesture that's both warm and theatrical.

2x4's lightbox-like visuals on the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Prada store in Tokyo. (courtesy 2x4)

In his presentation, Michael Rock, of graphic design studio 2x4, revealed an equal fascination with surface, though for far different architectural effects. His studio frequently uses large-scale digital displays to enhance or, sometimes, subvert the architectural forms that they cover. Using a whirlwind tour through sci-fi movies as a jumping-off point, he concluded that while there's considerable cultural anxiety about ubiquitous video advertising (as exemplified in Minority Report), the seamless and elegant melding of architecture and technology (as in Blade Runner) represents a tantalizing challenge for designers. (In fact, Blade Runner must have launched “10,000 architecture graduate program theses,” he quipped.)

2x4 delights in transcending the inherent flatness of the surfaces it works with, often using soft forms to create the illusion of depth and, thus, “a very ambiguous space between the surface that we're working on and the depth of the architectural space,” Rock continued. For a Chanel store in Hong Kong, the studio used a four-story low-res LED screen to display video of drifting bubbles, their organic, three-dimensional forms seeming almost to dissolve the building's rectilinear edges. In a lightbox-like design that enveloped the façade of a Herzog & de Meuron-designed Prada store in Tokyo, a verdant fairytale-like landscape conforms to the building's structural grid to a certain extent, but also breaks out of it with gentle curves. Perhaps most intriguing, in a project for a Prada Beverly Hills store, the designers used video-game software to create human figures composed of images of information. The figures were projected into the building's window, so they seemed to “float around the space itself” like ghosts.

In the end, 2x4's exercises in architectural embellishment might be beautiful and technically impressive (winning a rousing round of applause from the audience), but Rock's presentation could have benefited from a deeper examination of their broader meaning, especially in a talk intended to cover the issues around bringing a personal design vision to the public. He commented little about his and Diller's shared project, Lincoln Center, though that would have been a natural point of interest for his local audience.

Questions such as how 2x4's video displays have impacted their viewers—and even how they have contributed to the clients' brands—were given short thrift. But perhaps a focus on aesthetic and technological innovation is enough, sometimes, in a design form that's often called upon to be showy, that should grab a passersby's attention for a brief moment of branding or visual pleasure as they stroll by—or as they fly by, if the vision of Blade Runner does, one day, come true.