Three's Company

3.20.2012

By Fred A. Bernstein

One of the biggest moments of Charles Renfro's career was becoming the missing third to an architectural power-couple.

Photography by Ofer Wolberger

As a partner in one of the world’s most acclaimed architecture firms and a partier in the city of New York, Charles Renfro is often out until the early morning. “These events can tend to carry on and on, and I find myself going from one to the next,” he says sheepishly, adding, “My sleep schedule is not exactly doctor-recommended.”

But missing sleep, in Renfro’s view, is his professional duty. As he explains it, it’s important to keep stimulating one’s senses. “If we don’t bring new ideas into the office, the work will suffer,” he says.

The astonishing creativity of his architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro -- he became a partner in 2004 -- proves that the creative formula is working. Over the last three years, DS+R completed the High Line, easily the most praised park of the last 100 years, and recreated Manhattan’s Lincoln Center as a 21st-century performing-arts playground. Plus, it’s taken on commissions -- including projects for Columbia and Stanford universities -- for which the world’s best-known architects competed.

Yet, the work is anything but pedestrian. Rooted in conceptual art, the buildings are complex riffs on voyeurism, confinement, even perversity (a word that comes up at DS+R as much as “floor plan” might in a typical architecture office). “Each of us carries an outsider story,” says Renfro of himself and partners Elizabeth Diller (a Polish-Jewish √©migr√©) and Ricardo Scofidio (who has African-American heritage). “That lets us look at culture with a little bit of distance.”

To Aaron Betsky, a well-known architecture critic and curator, Renfro’s rise is proof that, in today’s society, “it doesn’t matter anymore if you’re gay or straight.” But Renfro, 47, doesn’t exactly see it that way. “Our work is influenced by who we are,” he says. “I live in Chelsea, I have a house on Fire Island, I’m redesigning the Pines -- how much more faggy can you get?”

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