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.

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.”

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