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.

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.”

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