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Q&A: Elizabeth Diller on designing a Hudson Yards high-rise

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15 Hudson Yards is Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s first residential skyscraper in NYC

The Shed and 15 Hudson Yards, both of which were designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group.
Max Touhey

The architecture and design firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro isn’t known as a builder of cloud-piercing, skyline-altering towers, but the firm has made its mark on the built environment of New York City in other—and perhaps more significant—ways.

With its work on educational buildings (Columbia University’s new medical school, the Juilliard expansion at Lincoln Center), cultural centers (MoMA’s expansion, redesigning Lincoln Center), and—most famously—the High Line, DS+R’s work is part of the urban fabric, and engaged with on a deeper level than most high-rise buildings.

But the firm is about to make its mark on the skyline, too: 15 Hudson Yards, the megaroject’s 917-foot-tall condo tower, will welcome its first residents soon; the Shed, the cultural center that abuts it, will debut in April. DS+R designed both in collaboration with Rockwell Group, and despite principal Elizabeth Diller’s previously stated disdain for unbridled supertall development—which she told Dezeen “damage the city fabric” in 2016—she’s pleased with the outcome at Hudson Yards. “I’m really very happy to have contributed to New York in different ways,” she says.

Curbed chatted with Diller at a press preview for 15 Hudson Yards; what follows are her thoughts on knitting together disparate building types, working with developers, and why she wouldn’t rule out another skyscraper for the firm.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Curbed: I read an interview you did with the Guardian recently, in which you said that you never expected DS+R to work on a large commercial building like 15 Hudson Yards. What made you change your mind?

Elizabeth Diller: We were already working on the Shed at the time for a number of years. The Shed site kept morphing and changing and it was moving west, and we found ourselves adjacent the future residential tower. We were offered the possibility of doing it with David [Rockwell] and first we thought, “This is not what we do. This is not in our wheelhouse.” Then we decided, “Hey we really want a good neighbor. We really want a nice building next to us.”

So why not do it? Why would we not do it? Then on top of that we thought it would be really interesting if these two buildings were in dialogue in some way. Sometimes you see projects where you have a cultural building and then a tower on top of it. This is not that. This was two totally independent sites. The Shed is on city property. But we thought if we could negotiate with ourselves to have these buildings interlock, to have them speak to one another—and also the High Line is there.

It’s kind of our context. We made the context. It felt very organic to take it on and push ourselves to take that challenge. Me, when I think about it, it wasn’t an issue of we don’t do commercial work, like a doctrinaire position, but it was more like we had never really contemplated it or thought about it. To think about it was a learning experience and I’m really glad we did it.

How do you see 15 Hudson Yards and the Shed in dialogue? How do they work together?

This building expanded by 15 feet and there was a give and take with the Shed. But our art freight elevator’s right in the footprint of this building. It’s really crazy when you look at our back of house, a lot of our back of house is up there in 10 floors. We have mechanicals and we have our support spaces, which allowed us to not use the space of the footprint of the shed, which was smaller.

We were able to negotiate back and forth and these lower levels were less significant for the developer and it was a really great exchange of space. But also on the exterior when the Shed moves—it moves right into it, it docks right into this building which is really advantageous.

When [15 Hudson Yards] started to get designed, we were thinking about the softness of the Shed and the ETFE pillows and then we had thought that there would be something supple about this building. It’s the way that it morphs, the slow crease that folds into the building and up to the 20-something story, the footprint changes. Every floor is different so that it ends up with a cold relief form.

As we were looking at these two buildings from every angle, we wanted them to play nice next to each other and with each other. Also, just have a logic that is smart and organic and it’s not about you’re over there and we’re over here. It’s not at all like that.

And then you didn’t have to worry about someone putting an unattractive building next to the Shed.

Well, yeah, that was the first motivation. “Oh my god, if somebody else did it, how can we make sure it’s a great neighbor?” I think that was the very first thing. And then it was a lot of discussion about acoustics and what we’ll be doing with the Shed. It was very important to know how to protect this building from the Shed. We were able to look after the best interest for both buildings, both clients, and do it in a way that’s symbiotic.

The curved glass top of 15 Hudson Yards.
Max Touhey

How does having the High Line right here play into that? Did it influence how you designed those two buildings?

The High Line sort of produced the opportunity to have both of these projects, because had the High Line not been successful, there would be less.… Probably there would be a development, but I think just the way that everything grew … there’s a sense sort of the way this area grew is, one thing triggered another triggered another. It was with a consciousness of the High Line maybe as the master plan, as creating the master plan for everything. Which was always there, it was just insignificant before. Now it’s important.

There were a lot of things that were sort of looked at with a master plan in mind, which New York is really not developed that way. So this was a very different kind of logic, and Related and KPF did the master plan, so they really thought through, where should the big buildings be. They ended up being at the corners of the avenues and the streets. There was a lot of thinking about all of that. When we came on board, it was already…they were building logics, and then we engaged in those logics and then customized where we were. But also absolutely with the High Line in mind.

It’s a very, very small strip of property. It just has a lot of significance, you know? There’s not an enormous amount of interaction. We decidedly wanted to have a view as we were in such proximity of the High Line from this lounge. But I think it’s more what happened with the High Line, and this kind of emerging new neighborhood and stepping into it and trying to make something as good as we could possibly do.

Hudson Yards is being sold as this sort of “new neighborhood” being built on the west side of Manhattan, but as an architect, you obviously think about place. How did you ensure that you’re creating that sense of place in something that didn’t exist previously?

I think that’s the issue of the master plan, because the way it was planned was that thre’s open space, this public space in the middle, and the buildings would line the periphery. This building plays well on that. There were a lot of rules. We worked with City Planning a lot, especially on the shed, about how to keep a distance, let’s say, between the High Line and the Shed so that there would be more space in the master plan for that cross street that hooks into the High Line.

We were very active from the High Line point of view of, how do you make that connection, that interface between the commercial properties and the High Line. And then from the Shed point of view, how do we open up visually and become transparent and be a good neighbor. Even in the way we designed these windows—from the High Line you could look in, it’s not just entirely private space in the way that typically towers are. There was a lot of give and take. We worked within a lot of stringent rules all over the place, but we were trying to be very conscious of where we were.

What was the relationship with Rockwell Group like, to collaborate on these two buildings?

We met all the time. We were, let’s say, the prime in doing the building form, and the logic of the structure and the form of the building. David was collaborating on it and working with us, but we led that effort, whereas David led the effort of the interiors and we supported David in that. It was very collaborative, but we each did something that’s a little bit more our specialization, but we marched together and it was a really, really good collaboration.

The Shed was a little bit…I would say that we both worked together. We were the prime on that in terms of the development of the building and the development design and David collaborated with us, but it’s a building that’s more program-oriented and support functions for cultural institutions, and structure and all of that. It’s a very different kind of building, a little bit more like our work in cultural institutions. We started together on everything and came up with the idea together and then sort of worked in the capacities that we were the best at.

This is the first big, commercial condo building that DS+R has worked on—what were the challenges of tackling this sort of project?

I think it’s challenging to work with a developer. [Ed. note: Related’s Bruce A. Beal approached Diller to chat at this exact moment, and asked for their conversation to be off the record.] Okay, challenges. A building like this has a huge amount of mechanical space, so how do you express that, what do you do? We found a way of doing a curtain wall that can breathe and has the ability to have the mechanicals in certain areas where we needed it to be. We had to figure out to do something that we didn’t know how to do.

I think how to make a building whose footprint changes constantly as you go up, that was not easy on every level. Typically you just pour a slab and then you just do another form and you pour another slab and it’s very easy, but now it has to be very precise—for that effect of the folding is a very, very precise. And to make the glass do what it’s doing, it was like this warping and curving slightly to be able to take these forms, so that was kind of an experiment or a learning curve to do that. It’s very unique to the building.

There’s this kind of framework in which developers work, which is very different than my typical way that I work with museums or cultural institutions. Very, very different. And I think we found [Related was] very sympathetic. We kept pushing to make things better and I think that it worked out. When [Beal] said, “You’re never happy,” it’s because I kept pushing to do things and they were saying, “Okay, how far can we be pushed?” And so I think for them it’s very different, working with someone like our studio. It was kind of like an experiment on both sides.

Of course, because the other firms working on Hudson Yards—like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or KPF—work on these types of projects all the time.

So they said, “Oh, Liz is going to be really hard to work with.” [Laughs] But it worked.

How do you see this building fitting in with DS+R’s other New York City work? Would you do something like this again?

We’ve been so damn lucky to work all over city, it doesn’t really happen to most architects. We were able to do a public park, we were able to do a ground-up new cultural institution, we’re expanding MoMA right now. We were able to do three educational buildings for Columbia University. What else? It’s a lot of major projects—oh, and Lincoln Center, by the way.

Don’t forget that!

And the High Line. I mean, I have to pinch myself that we were able to make a dent in Manhattan, in our own city where we can never get away from like, oh, the punch list, every part of the city has a punch list that’s incomplete. That’s what happens when you’re building in your own city. I’m really very happy to have contributed to New York in different ways. And so if there is something that we haven’t done, I would like to do something different. I’m not sure that we want to just do the same thing again, you know?

It’s really nice to be able to contribute to the skyline of New York, but probably it isn’t immediately moving onto another tall building. I think that we learned a lot and maybe sometime in the future there will be the right thing to do for us. But if the project is right and it’s an interesting client and an interesting site, I probably will eat my words tomorrow if an opportunity comes that I really feel like our work could do justice. I don’t wanna make any rules.

But we do our best, where I feel the most comfort, is in cultural projects, educational projects, very much in our wheelhouse. As we think forward, our institutions are being devastated these days but it’s very important to think about institutions again. And to not only protect them but to allow them to change in a graceful way. A lot of our thinking of our studios is there, education and culture.

But we’re also urbanists and also think about cities and how to contribute, the perfect project contribute to the city in a different way. I could see this building from New Jersey and that’s…my God, you know? I teach at Princeton and whether I’m coming in George Washington Bridge or the Holland Tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel, from a little bit further away you can see this—that’s my building.

That has to be an incredible feeling.

It’s an incredible feeling. It was really like an out of body experience and something that you don’t get when you do one building some place or the other kinds of cultural projects that we do. They’re very localized but this is something else. It’s a very powerful experience.