The Naughty Architect: Charles Renfro, Mastermind of the Broad Museum

The skyscrapers of Manhattan loom through the glass windows surrounding the studio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Nearly hidden among them is the High Line, one of the architectural firm’s recent triumphs. That reinvigorated relic of old New York is visible through the glass if you look down, weaving through the buildings between 10th and 11th avenues like a snake moving amid grass and sticks. In the office, there were blueprints strewn about worktables and to-scale models made of cardboard and aquafoam scattered next to desk lamps and coffee mugs. The employees stared at their computer screens in attentive quiet. One of them said it was a slow day. A snowstorm was just clearing, the sun breaking through the clouds and shining on all the surrounding buildings.

Charles Renfro, 46, joined the husband-and-wife duo of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, then mostly in the business of building sets for performance-art pieces, in 2000. Since he became a partner, in 2003, the studio has become one of the preeminent architectural firms in New York City, transforming the look of Manhattan and providing the physical space for some of its essential cultural institutions, among them the redesigned Julliard and Alice Tully Hall. Last week, they unveiled their plans for the Broad Museum, across the street from Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, dazzling some and confusing others but doubtless expanding their reputation as provocateurs and structural innovators in the process.

“It was love at first draw,” Mr. Renfro said of his joining Ms. Diller and Mr. Scafidio, who had already been working together for 20 years. The three are equal partners, designing all their buildings together along with a small staff. “As soon as we started working together, we sort of knew it was a good fit. We were equally perverse, anxious, ambitious. We became family almost instantly.”

The Observer asked Mr. Renfro what, exactly, he meant by “perverse.”

“I like to keep it ambiguous,” he said and paused. “Elizabeth and Rick always positioned themselves as outsiders. Not in a bad way, but sort of working outside the standard tactics of the profession, and working outside of polite subject matter. Dealing with issues of gender, quotidian life, drug-enhanced living, sexual duality. They were tackling subjects that architects don’t handle, that were even marginal in other artistic territories. The ‘perversion’ has to do with the perversion of the profession in a certain sense but also them relishing the marginalia of society.” 

Other descriptors that came up in conversation were “naughty,” “pornographic” and “poking and prodding.” “Postmodern” perhaps most of all. His projects are about a site evolving with its context, about people moving and living in a space, interacting with it rather than just looking. The High Line, for instance, makes a kind of live movie of 10th Avenue, with the people elevated above the street, along with the pedestrians below, observing each other in equal measure, an ostensibly endless voyeuristic scene. (This is when the word “pornographic” was tossed around.)

“We’re often in the business of taking institutions, which historically could draw a line between themselves and the place where they exist, and blurring the edges between public and private,” he said. “Delivering the institution to its place of residence.”

He said that for each project, he and his partners carefully establish a problem that the work itself must push through, creating what Mr. Renfro calls the building’s “gentle aggression,” allowing the project both to oppose and complement its surroundings. What was the problem with the Broad?

“Frank Gehry,” Mr. Renfro said, laughing.

The style of the Broad is bold and direct, like all of the studio’s projects. The firm was commissioned by billionaire Eli Broad; it beat out competitors like Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas. Diller Scofidio + Renfro call the three-story museum the veil, a “glorious shed of a structure,” jutting out at strange angles and looking something like a suspended sheet of bubble paper or a lopsided honeycomb. The entire building funnels natural light, rather than just the ceiling (as is the case with many art museums). The gallery space is column free. The walls and ceiling are a single contiguous three-dimensional structure. The Broad is the deceptively minimal answer to Mr. Gehry’s much larger but equally eccentric concert hall. It is experimental and strange, but also strangely accessible, an contradiction that has become somewhat of a trademark for the studio.

“We’re all about the public realm,” he said. “Like taking what has historically been at Lincoln Center an elitist institution and democratizing that institution through the use of architecture and design. Breaking down the physical barriers through glass and transparency, but also digitally and through media, providing glimpses into places that are usually not glimpsable. In that regard, we encourage people to behave badly.”

The Naughty Architect: Charles Renfro, Mastermind of the Broad Museum