Anti-icon architecture in Boston: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

When Elizabeth Diller – Liz to those who know her – starts telling me I’m sitting in the wrong place in her building, I’m taken aback. There’s a pleasant corner there, she designed it, I’m sitting in it looking out through the large window she so thoughtfully provided. It’s a good view – right across Boston Harbour. The building is Boston’s new $65m Institute of Contemporary Arts. It’s good, better than good. But Ms. Diller is cross because I’m looking at the view from a steeply sloping room specifically designed for contemplation of the water. I’m doing the wrong kind of looking.

In fact she ticks me off twice – once when she sees me sitting there, and again when I talk to her later, and she remembers what she caught me doing. She does come across as a slightly bossy schoolmistress, though of the sort you secretly rather like. So I find myself making feeble excuses as one does in those circumstances. Sorry Miss, I wasn’t really looking out. I was, er, seeing what the room looked like from over there.

Plenty of architects like to think they can control how people use their buildings – and they can’t, of course, people will always be untidy. This is all part of the strange naivety, call it optimism if you like, that top architects seem to share. As is Diller’s next observation: that she wanted to make it a timeless building. “This is a museum of contemporary art – it’s always in flux. But the moment the doors opened here, it’s fixed in time. It’s a scary challenge. How do you make your building not age?”

That’s impossible of course. Any designed object is of its time, and this is as true of the in-demand high-concept American firm of architects known as Diller, Scofidio and Renfro (or Liz, Ric and Charles as everyone at the Boston ICA addresses them) as it is of the most ephemerally fashionable of interior designers. Some things date faster than others, but they all date. It has to be that way, or we would not be able to understand our own cities. Buildings are frozen style statements, like it or not. Go to Boston’s great university campuses – Harvard and MIT – and you find a tick-list of instantly obsolescent architectural styles, all produced by leading architects who probably thought they were doing something timeless.

Diller is no exception, but she and her colleagues have thought long and hard to produce a calm, considered, object. It does some clever things, but it does not flaunt its cleverness in the way of too many “signature” buildings. You know what this place could have been in the hands of a Rem Koolhaas or a Frank Gehry, a Daniel Libeskind or a Zaha Hadid. Liz, Ric and Charles are not showy like that. When Diller says, “The building is like a control valve – it turns the view on and off. The big challenge has been not to submit to the touristic” – you understand. It frames the view in all kinds of ways – full-on wide-angle from the front of the gallery level, or glimpsed from just inside the entrance through a slot carved for the purpose, or wrapping round two sides of the auditorium. It’s brave, making a theatre with glass sides. Though the view can be filtered, or cut out altogether, with electric blinds. What performers choose to do with it – for instance the Mark Morris dance company will be making a piece specifically for the building – is up to them.

So what is the Boston ICA, stylistically? Well, it’s post-millennial, anti-blob, very Noughties. The right angle, which had been banished by the blobmeisters around the time of the Millennium, is back with a vengeance, but there’s a bit of fluidity in there as well. The steel girder framing the big auditorium at one side, and the office floors on the other, snakes around as if it was a rubber band. Plus, there is the structural-virtuosity thing. The top-floor art galleries jut forward, unsupported by columns, just hanging in the air above the building’s broad tiered seafront boardwalk. It’s a medieval way of getting yourself more space, as interpreted for the 21st century by British-based structural engineering wizards Arup. Four giant concealed trusses carry this huge overhang, like blunt crane jibs. To make everything look even more effortless, a flap drops down from the underside of those hovering galleries like an outdoor projection booth. This is the building’s “mediatheque”, stuffed with computer screens, and it includes that downward-sloping window designed to focus on the water.

It is a strange thing to find there on the waterfront because until recently Boston was an internalised city which did its best to ignore its once-thriving docklands. The warehouses and fishing sheds and goods yards got cleared away to be replaced by the ubiquitious American edge-city parking lots. An elevated freeway divorced the waterside from the rest. But now the freeway has gone, the road put underground in the city’s massively expensive and disruptive “big dig”. Suddenly the waterside connects again and the pieces are slowly starting to be filled in. Hotels and shops and apartments will soon crowd in all round the ICA but for now, it stands in splendid isolation and you have to pick your way across wide open spaces and past chainlink fences to get to it.

For years Diller, Scofidio and Renfro were seen as niche architects, wannabe artists. “Their “Blur” building at the 2002 Expo in Switzerland was a very beautiful cloud-producing flying saucer on stilts in a lake. Now, with the revamp of New York’s Lincoln Center in hand along with the creation of Manhattan’s “High Line” elevated park, they have made it to the sunlit uplands of wider acceptability.

The Boston ICA shows that they can handle a sizeable all-new public building. But they haven’t lost their edge. Just ask them about their cancelled project for Trafalgar Square. The one where they were going to put a tower with a giant lift right next to Nelson’s column, counterbalanced with an equally giant screen. Lottery winners would have got the chance to ride up in the lift and see Nelson face to face. Meanwhile the screen would descend, showing the punters in the square the view from the top. It would have been a great one-year installation. They seem genuinely baffled that the Establishment didn’t take to the idea. “We got so close,” sighs Liz. “Somebody got cold feet,” remarks Ric. Well, maybe now their time has come. There are one or two forgettable American commercial architects I would happily ship home from the UK. And at the top of my list to invite over in their place would be the formidable triumvirate of Liz, Ric and Charles. It’s easy: just start ‘em off with one of the annual Serpentine Gallery pavilions.

Institute of Contemporary Art Boston:

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