Interview: Charles Renfro

Jul 19, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Above: Charles Renfro in conversation with AR Asia Pacific editor, Michael Holt

Michael Holt: DS+R have a number of projects at different stages of the construction process, both in America and Asia. What are the projects currently under construction and how did they impact upon your presentations for Barangaroo Central?
Charles Renfro: We have a lot of work in the academic realm, which is great because they allow us to take ideas and make them real. We have three museums underway: Broad Museum [Los Angeles], the Museum of Image and Sound [Rio de Janeiro] and the Berkeley Art Museum [California]. Interestingly, we have a project under construction in China: a 92,000sqm factory town in Dongguan [Guangdong]. It’s a classic model for a company town, with 4000 workers living there. We were asked by our client, who’s quite progressive and shrewd, to think about ways to reimagine the living conditions of the worker and, by extension, national labour policy. But it’s problematic to be the outsider coming into a situation – economical, social and policy-driven – to try to offer insights that are meaningful. We also have projects in development: the Culture Shed [New York] – a project relevant to our thinking for Barangaroo – means working with the city and the developer to think about a new kind of cultural institution. We’re working with agencies and organisations to make sure we’re doing something that works in an extant cultural structure.

MH: The High Line in New York acts as a social activator, deriving from and impacting upon the pre-existing urban fabric. Does your work necessarily require context or can you apply similar design strategies to tabula rasa?
CR: Part of what achieves a great project is working within a context, understanding it and adding to it – bringing something new. But it’s a fine line: what is too much? What feels like a top-down overlay that could kill any kind of symbiotic or organic behaviour? The potential of the High Line was the fact that it was already an activator, even in its raw and un-redeveloped form. It was really an active ruin. We always consider projects from a root level. They’re often site-based or responses to the site as a condition. The site is not just a physical location; it’s social, historic and cultural. You have to drill deep into those layers before you construct something. With the High Line, the immediate environment – the urban artefact – gave so much to the project. From the material responses through using existing materials, from the lime, concrete, wood and steel, to the immediate adjacency to architecture and urban vistas. We didn’t have to go much beyond the site in order to form a response. It’s the same at the Lincoln Center [for the Performing Arts], with all of its local set of inputs. It had a strong architectural DNA even if it wasn’t well regarded.

MH: With those projects, was there a certain level of complexity involved from both the client and city side?
CR: The Lincoln Center was more challenging than the High Line because the buildings already existed as a centre – there were a lot of protective agencies. Nobody really knew what it was or what to expect when we started doing the High Line. They thought it would get 400,000 visitors a year, but we’ve already had more than 10 million. The Lincoln Center required a lot of handholding: education, coaxing, prodding, nudging. There were about 400 agencies involved – clients, consultants and constituents. Each of the thirteen constituent organisations had veto power; whether it was The Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] or American Ballet [Theatre], they could each veto any particular thing about the project. We certainly learned a lot about working in that complicated minefield of agencies and clients. We had no idea it would be so delicate.

MH: There is a conceptual subtlety at the High Line though – the placing of something that is already there. Are these kinds of projects reliant on the spontaneity of activating the space along, and almost by default, the space around, as well?
CR: The High Line is a good example of a responsive solution. I never talk about it as a park – it’s a viewing device that you wander down. You’re up there getting all of these crazy experiences you don’t get anywhere else in the world. We brought new things to the place that was working in the same language as those things that we had already discovered. But then in places such as Aberdeen, where we recently won a competition to redevelop the old Victorian city gardens, we were also very keen to understand context. It was also immersed in a neighbourhood, so we had to do some stitching; neighbourhoods that had long been divorced from one another were to be stitched back together. Those stitches never existed before. So it wasn’t that we were bringing something back to life, rather we were seeing an opportunity to make a new kind of space that was about social interaction and collectivity.

MH: Would you say that this idea of collectivity is also present in the scaling of ideologies in DS+R’s work? Concepts attributable to the smallest performance installation can also manifest through to urban scale masterplanning.
CR: We have experience working in spaces that appear to be tabula rasa, but there is always something there. In Sydney, I like to talk about water as the lifeblood of the city. So what is it about water that deserves to be rethought, investigated, frozen, evaporated, jetted… We’ve done quite a few projects on and with water – the Blur Building [Switzerland], the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. To think about water may seem abstract and not really particular to Sydney, but in fact it is. Sydney also has this amazing flora and weather. There’s really no urbanised area that has such a relationship with nature. By combining all of these relatively small things together – the water, the flora and the weather, along with the urban aspects – you’re essentially working contextually. In using the existing elements, you can make something completely unknown. Sometimes developments have to be a part of the city and apart from the city – it’s a ‘both/and’ solution.

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