2019 proved to be an especially busy year for Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The interdisciplinary design firm’s co-founding partner, Liz Diller repeatedly garnered headlines; first in the spring with the highly anticipated opening of The Shed, and then in the autumn with the eagerly awaited revamp of the Museum of Modern Art – both high-profile projects on home turf whose influence extends far beyond the physical architecture. 

The Shed is housed in an innovative eight-level building and features state-of-the-art gallery, rehearsal and performance spaces, and an already-iconic telescoping outer shell that can be deployed to transform the adjoining outdoor plaza into a mammoth performance hall. It supports the non-profit cultural organisation’s mission to integrate the arts, but also asks what a contemporary cultural institution should look like. A welcome counterpoint to Hudson Yards’ more shamelessly commercial developments, The Shed presents a more egalitarian way of experiencing culture – made possible by its architecture.

‘Architecture must play a role in giving audiences the much-needed agency to determine their own experience’ 

While The Shed pioneers a new vision for the arts, the expansion of MoMA saw DS+R use architecture to re-energise an existing institution. Despite the project’s controversial beginnings – early plans called for the demolition of the neighbouring American Folk Art Museum – the end result has been a much-welcomed net gain of gallery space, studio space, a new creativity lab, an expanded store, and a new café and outdoor terrace that fortifies the museum’s standing and future plans.

Inside the new MoMA by DS+R in 2019
DS+R’s eagerly awaited revamp of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photography: Iwan Baan

‘The two projects couldn’t be more different: one tweaks the inherited institution; the other is a start-up that tests a new paradigm,’ Diller reflects. ‘On the one side, we worked with MoMA, a well-established institution with a great legacy that carries the weight of the history of modernism on its shoulders. We helped them expose their vast collection in new ways that challenge the way the history of the last century was told.’

‘In contrast, we also worked on The Shed, a new platform that breaks down disciplinary barriers and the distinction between high/low culture,’ she adds. ‘This new organism is infrastructure responsive to the changing needs of artists, and less dependent on philanthropic dollars.’

Having played such a significant role in shaping the contemporary cultural landscape in New York – our Best City for 2020, Diller has unique insights into the evolution of public institutions. ‘Museums are not just repositories for art; they must act as civic entities that engage diverse audiences, offerings and activities,’ she says. ‘The authority of the museum has broken down and museums can no longer tell single narratives that carry the truth. The one-way monologue from the authoritative museum to the audience has broken down and architecture must play a role in giving audiences the much-needed agency to determine their own experience.’ §