ULI Toronto News

Architect Elizabeth Diller showcases her firm’s work on the High Line

By Janani Mahendran, Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Ministry of Housing







This post is part of a series covering ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities Spring 2017 Symposium which took place on April 24 and 25 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. ULI Toronto’s second city building symposium saw over 1,000 industry professionals gather to learn and engage on topics revolving around placemaking, mobility and technology.

“Cities will remain perpetually unfinished and we are just a small piece of that change.” – Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

As part of the 2017 ULI Toronto Electric Cities Symposium, the City of Toronto invited Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro to speak about her experience working on the studio’s transformative civic and cultural projects in New York City, including the High Line, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and The Shed.

As cities grow and intensify, tensions between public and private spaces amplify as residents search for green space to provide them refuge from the bustle of the city. In New York City, the disused High Line, which formerly carried goods to and from Manhattan’s largest industrial district, presented an opportunity to not only provide the city with a unique piece of natural infrastructure, but was also a catalyst for the regeneration of the Chelsea neighbourhood.


The High Line was a grassroots initiative driven by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who founded the Friends of the High Line, with investment from the City and private interests. The initiative transformed this unique piece infrastructure, which was slated for demolition in the 1980s, to the high-profile tourist destination it is today.

At the event held at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Diller spoke about her experience walking along the railway prior to redevelopment, witnessing an “alternative space” that had developed an “accidental ecosystem” created by seeds that had flown in to create a landscape that looked like a Pollock painting.

She noted that the studio’s approach to the design of the linear park was to pay homage to the existing structure and landscape, while creating a dynamic experience as one walks through the park.

“It’s a matter of turning up and down the architectural voice of what was already there,” she said.

The success of the High Line was measured through the emergence of the “High Line effect,” where other cities were inspired to rethink their urban infrastructure, including Paris (which is the home of the inspiration for the High Line, La Promenade Plantée).

On the other side of spectrum, the High Line was criticized as a catalyst for gentrification, as the transformation of the railway spurred the redevelopment of the surrounding area, providing developers with the opportunity the “sell” the High Line as part of their sales packages.

The High Line is by no means finished. Diller noted that as more funding becomes available, expansions and further improvements are being made to the linear park. The continuing evolution of the park reflects the ever changing and evolving nature of our cities, she said.

Diller also described her experiences with The Shed, a Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed independent non-profit cultural centre that is part of the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project in New York City.

The 200,000 square-foot, six-level centre is located on City-owned land adjacent to the northern section of the High Line. Currently under construction, the extremely flexible design of the performance structure will be able to physically and operationally accommodate a broad range of performance, visual art, music and multi-disciplinary work. The building is designed to expand and contract by rolling a telescoping shell on rails. When expanded out over the adjoining plaza, the shell provides a 120-foot, light-, sound- and temperature-controlled hall that would serve a variety of uses.

Working in collaboration with the Rockwell Group, Diller notes that The Shed is a prime example of an architect taking on a different role — transitioning from receiving and designing a project within the client’s constraints, to being more creative and driving the change that the designer wants to see. In the case of The Shed, Diller and her collaborators determined that in a City where there were institutes and buildings for specific art forms, there was a need for a multi-disciplinary performance and workspace that was flexible enough to meet the changing needs of the arts and culture as a whole.


The innovative and flexible nature of the projects Diller spoke of provided Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner of the City of Toronto, with the perfect segue to plug the launch of new renderings for the proposed Rail Deck Park in the City during her closing remarks.


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