The architect Elizabeth Diller typically works with pen on paper, bringing sketches to her West 26th Street studio, where she and her team at Diller Scofidio + Renfro puzzle over how best to realize those plans.
Since that kind of in-person brainstorming is no longer possible, Ms. Diller — and the firm she leads with her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro and Ben Gilmartin — is taking a crash course in what it means to practice architecture in a pandemic, without being able to communicate or collaborate in the presence of colleagues.
“Usually we work, we draw, we look in each other’s eyes, we argue, we throw things around the room, we make models and break them apart, and somehow stuff gets made,” said Ms. Diller, who has been working from the couple’s weekend home in upstate New York.
“With this platform, it’s very sanitized, you have to be very organized,” she continued. “We’re sending each other drawings and sketches, we’re responding through digital means and then having virtual meetings. Communication is slower. But we’re working harder. We’re figuring it out.”
Like every profession, architecture is trying to find its way in the quarantined world. The pandemic has forced clients to delay some projects and jettison others. While certain types of construction have been deemed essential, other ventures are frozen. Demand for design services in April saw its steepest month-to-month decline on record, according to a the index from the American Institute of Architects.
“I hope that our discipline is still vital at the end of this,” Ms. Diller said. “I think it will be.”
The Diller operation is in a stronger position than many, having solidified its reputation as one of the go-to architecture firms in the world. Ever since designing its widely acclaimed Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2006 and the redevelopment of Lincoln Center in New York, completed in 2012, Diller Scofidio + Renfro has been tapped for major commissions like the High Line park on the West Side of Manhattan (2009-2019) and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles (2015).
Instead, both are temporarily closed. And “Deep Blue Sea” at the Park Avenue Armory, a new work by Bill T. Jones for which Ms. Diller and Peter Nigrini designed the visual environment, was canceled before its premiere.
The firm, which laid off or furloughed 10 percent of its 110-person staff, is trying to keep moving forward on projects, despite inevitable setbacks brought on by the coronavirus.
The United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs, Colo., was to be ready for ribbon-cutting this month. Now the building’s opening date is yet to be determined.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro is also rethinking projects for clients who are newly sensitive to the needs of social distancing. The University of Toronto, for which the firm is designing an interdisciplinary center, is now prioritizing “sufficient public space in and around shared facilities,” said Bo Liu, an intermediate architect at the firm.
Other projects in the early stages are on pause, among them the restoration of the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. M.I.T.’s new School of Architecture and Planning only recently resumed.
But those further along have managed to continue, including the London Center for Music, a permanent home for the London Symphony Orchestra, and a new Collection and Research Center for the Victoria and Albert Museum there.
In working on the V & A project — which involves putting on view thousands of objects now in storage — Ms. Diller immersed herself in the museum’s holdings. “She is as much a curator as she is an architect; she gets really excited by the collection,” said Tim Reeve, the deputy director and chief operating officer of the V & A. “She is very laid back, but at the same time very passionate about what she’s doing and uncompromising.”
Though Ms. Diller, 65, comes across as calm and low-key, her propulsive career speaks to her ambition and tenacity. It isn’t easy for women to advance in the field of architecture and few have managed to achieve a position of power. Although she shares top billing with her partners — and started as her husband’s student — Ms. Diller is the face of her firm.
Mr. Scofidio, 85, said he defers to Ms. Diller’s ability “to clearly articulate what we should be doing and why we should be doing it,” adding, “I’m more the silent partner.”
While known for her intellectual rigor — she has long taught architecture at Princeton — Ms. Diller is also clearly adept at navigating the internal politics that often accompany major public projects. She has managed the egos and temperaments of demanding — and sometimes difficult — clients like the philanthropist Eli Broad; the MoMA board; and the constituent groups that comprise Lincoln Center.
“Indefatigable,” said Reynold Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center, in describing Ms. Diller. The architect and designer David Rockwell, who worked with her on the Shed, used the word “relentless.”
Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director, said Ms. Diller pushed the museum to take risks in creating new spaces for artists and the public, like a soaring projects room with a second-floor overlook. “She does not give up,” he said.
If there was any proof of Ms. Diller’s mental toughness, it was in the way she weathered the attacks brought on by her settling on a design for the MoMA expansion that called for demolishing the American Folk Art Museum, designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (damaging their longtime friendship).
The sense that Ms. Diller betrayed her compatriots still lingers among some architects. (Robert A.M. Stern, then dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, pronounced himself “very disappointed.”) And the resulting new MoMA has not been uniformly well-received (Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times, called it “smart, surgical, sprawling and slightly soulless.”)
“In the profession of architecture you have to have thick skin,” said Mr. Gilmartin, who joined the firm in 2004 and became a partner in 2015. “She needs to be able to stand up and be a voice that’s heard and can command consensus in a room full of men who are generally inclined to be skeptical.”
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated May 28, 2020
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?
There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.
Ms. Diller’s intensity permeates her practice. Sit next to the architect (dressed in her signature black) while she presents a project — if you can get time on her jammed calendar — and it’s as if she were talking about one of her kids. Perhaps because Ms. Diller and Mr. Scofidio do not have children, boundaries between office and home don’t seem to exist. Ms. Diller travels constantly and works at all hours (she emailed her response to one question for this article at 4:10 a.m.).
She brought that singular focus to her epic opera on the High Line, seeking to present “a creative contemplation on gentrification.” She was turned down by several performing arts institutions that deemed the project too big, expensive and risky, particularly since Ms. Diller is not an opera producer or director.
So she independently raised the money, produced and co-directed the work (composed by David Lang with lyrics by Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine), which ultimately included 1,000 singers from various choirs, and 250 professional singers.
“It was a logistical nightmare and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Ms. Diller said, “but it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done, seeing thousands of New Yorkers every night for seven nights, promenading through the park at their chosen pace, leaning in to hear the words of hundreds of individual voices in unusually intimate proximity between strangers, almost unthinkable since Covid-19.”
The pandemic is a challenge of another order. Among the projects Ms. Diller hopes will stay on track are the University of Chicago’s David M. Rubenstein Forum for intellectual exchange, with occupancy scheduled for September, and a new home for the Columbia Business School in Upper Manhattan, where construction work has been deemed essential.
Universities “are fairly well-endowed,” Ms. Diller said. “The cultural projects are the ones that are the most fragile.”
Juilliard is still planning to welcome the first class to its new campus in Tianjian, China, in September. Although the firm is currently barred from China because of quarantine restrictions, the architects are trying to find a way to return.
“I give them credit,” said Joseph W. Polisi, Juilliard’s chief China officer. “They’re going back into the fight.”
Perhaps most essentially, the firm is having to change the creative process itself. “Our studio is quite intimate,” Ms. Diller said. “Of course something is lost. It’s the grimace on someone’s face, it’s the eye popping out of someone’s head, it’s the nuance and the gesture.”
Ms. Diller has also grown more keenly aware of the generational divide. Working on the computer comes naturally to younger staff members, whereas she and her fellow partners “are used to thinking through drawing,” Ms. Diller said. “That’s the direct route from an idea in your brain to a spatial proposition.”
Nevertheless, she is now learning online formats, like Apple Pencil, though she finds the process less efficient. “We’re getting printers and scanners and lots and lots of paper,” she said, “and figuring out how to supplement the digital means so we can still easily draw.”
“I’d love to see the end of this and things getting back to normal,” Ms. Diller said, adding of this moment’s larger sense of the unknown, “We’re in the dark together.”
At the same time, the strain of this period has not made her question a bedrock faith in the importance of the built environment and the power of design. “Nothing changes my belief in elevating architecture to the status of an art form,” Ms. Diller said. “Nothing has changed about that.”