Representing the suppleness of democracy: Liz Diller at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Liz Diller notes that we divide space into private and public realms: “We know the legal distinctions well, and have become experts in protecting our private space, but we’re less in tune with the public.”

Diller is a designer, one of the first to win a MacArthur “genius” grant in the field of architecture. Her design studio, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is working with the notion of public space. In collaboration with a large team of experts and consultants, they revitalized an industrial site into a park (The High Line in New York City), and redesigned Lincoln Center in New York to democratize the campus for a public that doesn’t have $300 to spend on opera tickets. From this, they learned one thing: To make good public space, you have to erase the distinctions between architecture, landscape, urban design, media and other fields.

Now, they’re working on the National Mall. It’s a symbol of American democracy. It’s the site of so many important events, synonymous with free speech. But: “There is a huge disconnect between the communicative space of the Mall and the museums that line it.” Those are passive. You can see things, but you’re not involved, you’re being talked to.

Diller is now working with Richard Koshalek, director of the Hirshhorn Museum, and a man who is determined to change that dynamic. In Washington D.C. there are a multitude of embassies and think tanks, and he wondered if there was a way to bring in the energy from those institutions and the power of the Mall. “Art and politics are connected, but is there a more special relationship? Could the museum be an agent of cultural diplomacy?”

In effect, the Hirshhorn will become a public forum, a place for discourse around art, politics and public policy. It will “have the reach of the World Economic Forum, the interdisciplinarity of TED, and the informality of Times Square.”

The Hirshhorn is a building that architects love to hate. It’s circular (a bit like a prison), and is lifted off the ground and has a giant hole in the center. The question is how to take the space there and build something that will reflect the principles of free speech and also become iconic. The buildings on the Mall are largely neo-classical and made of stone, but, “This has to be air, it has to be light, and it has to be free.”

So: they’re going to fill it with a bubble. A big volume of air that oozes out in every direction, translucent and made of a silicone-coated glass fiber fabric. It’s inflated once a year for two months at a time. (It will take a week to erect the first installation.) At 1.2 million cubic feet of compressed air, “It’s a combination of iconoclasm and adoration.”

Inside, it’s a flexible and reconfigurable space. It could be used for performances, discussions, or art installations. “It’s an anti-monument…. Democracy is represented through suppleness rather than rigidity.”

If all goes well, the project (to be dubbed the “Bloomberg Balloon”) will be inflated for the first time at the end of 2013.