Charles Renfro

TEXT Lian Chikako Chang

“In 1987, we were trying to break out of the Postmodern era that had plagued us for most of the decade,” explains Charles Renfro, partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. So when he was assigned to Bob Venturi for a preceptorship at the Rice School of Architecture, he was upset. “But then I got there, and I realized what great thinkers Bob and Denise were. Wow!” he recalls. “The ‘style’ that was perceived in their work was not at all what it was about. It was really thoughtful, provocative work. I learned from them a kind of giddy energy and enthusiasm to look at the cultural factors in life, which was really infectious in that office.” 

That energy, combined with experience in the nuts and bolts of architecture at Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects–“we would cobble things together from the hardware stores and junk shops on Canal Street”–prepared Renfro for his work with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. Soon after joining the firm in 1997, Renfro became what Diller has described as a destabilizing force in the power bloc that characterized her relationship with working partner and husband Scofidio. Renfro was made partner in 2004, on the heels of the breakthrough Blur Building, and a heady series of successes followed, including Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Manhattan High Line. 

From the beginning, Renfro was undaunted working with bosses that were also a married couple, and today he expects the same steel from the younger members of the firm’s growing staff. “We bring the entire team around the table and everybody is required to contribute. It may be intimidating at first but they witness the partners’ back-and-forth–our disagreements, our silliness, the way that we approach design.” The table becomes a stage for high drama: “Our favorite tool in the office is a big fat red Sharpie for giant, fast and dirty sketches. When we come away from the table, we’re usually covered in red marks. We like to think we’ve been bloodied in battle, and the more red marks you have on you when you leave a design session, the more productive it has been.” 

I asked Renfro whether these sessions were deliberately a form of mentorship. “Mentoring goes with the territory,” he replied. “For a lot of people this is their first job out of school. We have no doubt that these experiences will live with them for some time.” He adds that the demographics of the office are actively shifting. “Recently we’ve taken on the role of executive architect on some of our larger jobs, and it’s changing the dynamic in the studio. We’ve been hiring older and more experienced people to supplement our staff, which has generally been quite fresh and eager–super-talented, but not so experienced that we could put together a million-square-foot building ourselves.” 

As much as the firm’s projects are increasingly complex and often heavy on technology–digital media is seamlessly embedded in many of their buildings–the end goal lies in bodily and social engagement. For instance, the focal point of the ICA’s mediathèque is a horizontal window at the bottom of the room. “It eliminates all the visual noise of adjacent buildings and the horizon, framing only the water in a three-by-four format, which is a traditional computer or television screen size,” says Renfro. “So there’s a reference that takes you into a space that is typically mediated, but it is analog–a kind of pseudo-digital situation.”

“I was in Israel the other day and my boyfriend posted something on Facebook and within 35 minutes it had 79 ‘likes.’ I was flabbergasted! What are these people doing all day–sitting on their Facebook accounts?” Renfro laughs. “We’re not asking you to make a public proclamation about your participation. It’s about bringing participation back to real life.” CA 

Lian Chikako Chang, Director of Research and Information at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, holds a MArch from Harvard University and a PhD from McGill University. Charles Renfro will deliver the architectural keynote address at IIDEX Canada in Toronto on September 27, 2013 at 11:00am. For more information, please visit