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 émigré) 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?”
He adds: “I’m probably gayer than I’ve ever been. And it’s exciting to learn that, oh boy, my work is inspired by that side of my personality.”
Talking about the High Line, Renfro plunges into discussion of its potential as a cruising ground. DS+R is one of 18 firms working on a “queer” retirement community in Palm Springs (see p. 48). Last fall, when the legendary Fire Island Pines nightclub, the Pavilion, burned down, he offered to help design its replacement. Renfro, who has spent many summers there, showed Diller a photo of the Pines with “everybody
shirtless, probably on ecstasy, a sea of pink muscle,” knowing the “extreme condition” would inspire her. He promises the new buildings (which he is designing with the young, gay-owned firm HWKN) will be provocative and distinctive enough for a spot that’s been a gay playground for decades. The buildings that burned down, he says, were “straight” -- meaning conventional—neither fabulous enough for the Pines, nor intriguing enough for Renfro.
It may be difficult for anyone under 40 -- or outside the architecture world -- to understand what a breakthrough Renfro’s ascent represents. For most of the 20th century, architects were more or less required to be straight. To design buildings, you had to want to seduce women with your phallic edifices; otherwise, you could become a decorator. If you were gay, the future was sofas and drapes. Closets were, inevitably, the best-designed rooms in the house.
Renfro himself has known his share of closets since his childhood in Baytown, Texas, 30 miles east of Houston. “It was not a cakewalk,” he recalls. “I had no mentors or role models, and my biggest fear was being outed.” He avoided social situations by devoting himself to clarinet practice—eventually becoming the top-seated clarinetist in the state. He credits being gay, which made him want to throw himself into solitary pursuits, with helping him discover what he could accomplish through hard work.
His first day at Rice University was also the first time he kissed a boy, he says. He planned to major in music, but switched to architecture, a profession that tends to reward workaholism. During his final semester in architecture school, his future firm partners, Diller and Scofidio, gave a lecture there. Renfro says he found it pretentious, but also enthralling. Liz and Ric (as everybody called them) were transgressive in both their personal lives (he had left his family for her, his almost-two-decades-younger student) and their work, which focused on such subjects as “how architecture has become complicit in controlling our bodies,” in the words of Betsky. (The fact that the firm has become so successful, Betsky added, “is a mark that transgression is now an accepted mode of behavior.”)
After graduating from Rice, Renfro moved to New York City (“L.A. seemed too nice”) and became omnipresent on the architecture scene. He dressed as a “Williamsburg indie-rock fag.” Given his recent success, the thrift shop look, he adds, “is slowly molting to reveal something that costs a lot more but probably doesn’t look all that different.”
Henry Urbach, who helped curate Queer Space -- the groundbreaking 1994 show at the Storefront Center for Art and Architecture, in which Renfro participated -- remembers him as “kind of nerdy, a bit introverted but sharp-witted.” He worked on his own, taking on small design projects, and found that his personality was well suited to working with clients. “Feeling like an outsider, including being gay,” says Renfro, “has made me more self-conscious, more insecure, more introspective. It gives me a degree of empathy that serves me well as an architect.”
In 1997, he got a call from Diller and Scofidio, who needed help redesigning the Brasserie, a restaurant in Manhattan’s landmark Seagram Building. With Renfro, they created a much-talked-about interior that explores themes of surveillance (video cameras project images of people walking in the door). Next, came the Blur Building, hundreds of nozzles spraying water to create a man-made cloud over a lake in Switzerland, which received worldwide attention in 2002. Bigger jobs started coming in—the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, an arts center at Brown University—and the firm moved out of Diller and Scofidio’s Greenwich Village loft to a Chelsea building with views of the High Line. DS+R has already designed the final, unbuilt section of the park, sweeping north to West 34th Street.
According to Renfro, he was stunned -- and humbled -- in 2004, when the couple offered to make him a named partner. He was also shocked when Diller, quoted in a New York Times article, described the firm’s resulting power structure as “kind of a couple and a gay guy” and added that Renfro “created a destabilizing condition that is actually good for the work.”
When asked if he felt like he’d been outed in the Times, Renfro explains, “I was already plenty out before that.”
For Diller, the decision to elevate Renfro in the firm was simple. “He has a supple mind,” she says. “I find him fun to play with, architecturally.” She says they also fight, and “whoever ends up least bloody wins.”
According to Urbach, “Charles has articulated a kind of independent point of view, among the three, that’s really impressive when you consider that they’re the founding partners and have been together for decades.” But they’re anything if complacent. Diller says that the fact that she sometimes has to “apologize for Charles in the morning” helps keep things interesting around the office.
But if Renfro is known as the firm’s social butterfly, he says his personal life has often been sacrificed to his work. It didn’t help that, in 2004, he was badly shaken by a break-up, which made him skittish about relationships. “I would certainly like to have a serious boy in my life,” he explains, “in case everything comes crashing down. Growing old alone is not a happy thought.”
For the last few months, he has been dating the Israeli-born pianist Daniel Gortler, whom he met at a Manhattan gym. “No, not in the steam room, but quite respectably, at the pull-down machine,” he says.
Although he’s finding time for a personal life, working in the architecture studio remains where he finds much of his excitement. “Conjuring up alternate environments is easy and fun. It’s when I’m most relaxed and most giddy,” he says. “Maybe being an architect is also about escaping the harsh, homophobic world and making a space of elation, a space that’s gay by virtue of being a space I want to be in.”