Diller Scofidio + Renfro Goes on Damage Control

Some final thoughts on the Moma/Folk Art controversy.

Courtesy Dan Nguyen via Flickr

A few weeks ago, in the wake of MoMA’s decision to raze the Folk Art Museum, the estimable Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times asked why Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR) didn’t simply resign the commission, rather than recommend the demolition of a building designed by their (former?) friends. At the time, I was skeptical of the suggestion. But with the onslaught of negative publicity—which will continue up until the demolition of the building and perhaps well beyond—I’m beginning to think Hawthorne was right. And right not just from a moral, ethical and historic perspective.

Given the outrage surrounding the decision and MoMA’s damaged credibility as a cultural institution, it’s hard to see how this won’t inflict real harm on the architects’ reputations. The whole sorry episode has been extremely damaging to the DSR brand, which was once arty, innovative and culturally hip. It’s what now, exactly?

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I know it is difficult for architects, especially architects who run firms of a certain size, to turn down work. They have to meet a payroll and feel a real obligation to employees to keep work coming in the door. And the MoMA commission was likely to be a big one, both in terms of dollars and possible prestige. Still, at the end of day, it is just one job. DSR have reached an enviable point in their careers where the loss of a single commission, even one as juicy and enticing as MoMA, would not spell doom for them.

Now imagine, instead, if they had resigned from the job. They would be heroes in the architecture community. The move would have immediately branded them as “principled” and “courageous.” I’m not sure those are the word associations people are making with DSR right now, even from those with no love lost for the Folk Art Museum.

On Tuesday night, some 650 people turned out for a panel discussion that gave the architects a chance to explain themselves. Lee Rosenbaum, at her Culture Grrl blog, reported that Elizabeth Diller ended her town hall presentation with “a long round of applause ringing in her ears.” Rosenbaum seemed to imply that Diller had won over a hostile crowd. The Times was less convinced that hearts had been swayed, but I’m willing to take Rosenbaum at her word, because I’ve seen Liz Diller present. She is a gifted public speaker: witty, smart, charming. Her stage presence and considerable powers of persuasion have played a huge role in DSR’s success.

Diller, in sales parlance, can close. Which brings us back to Hawthorne’s original question: why DSR didn’t just step away? I’m now convinced that resigning from the commission would have both elevated their already exalted status and perhaps brought in additional work. And even if their principled stand didn’t directly result in more commissions, Diller’s ability to sway a crowd and woo clients wasn’t likely to diminish any time soon. There will always be another job. But you have only one reputation.

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