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Are the Most Famous Firms in Architecture Dueling?

A new design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro strongly resembles a 2007 proposal by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

The David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. (Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

The new design for the David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago fits the campus hand in glove. The project, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, will include a tower that offers views of Lake Michigan and echoes the transept tower of nearby Rockefeller Chapel. As a quasi-convention center for the university, the Rubenstein Forum promises to be a hub of intellectual life in Chicago.

It is not the first time, though, that a design like this has been pitched for the university. However inadvertently, the DS+R design resembles another proposal for the campus—a draft project that was eventually revised. While the resemblance between two draft renderings is hardly consequential, this one comes as a surprise, given the nature of the projects and the history between the firms.

Back in 2007, the University of Chicago picked Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects to design its Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts. The final Logan Center, which was completed in 2012, looks nothing like the Diller Scofidio + Renfro design for the Rubenstein Forum.

But one of the first drafts pitched by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects bears a bunch of the same features: stack-of-boxes concept, tower with cantilevered forum, even the same prioritized views.

Left: David M. Rubenstein Forum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Right: A 2007 design for the Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. (University of Chicago)

Now, it’s important to highlight the many differences that emerge right off the bat. The massing and ratios for the various program spaces (the boxes) don’t match up. The Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects design (on the right), reads like a low-slung center with a perpendicular tower—at least at the angle demonstrated by the rendering. On the other hand, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro (right) emphasizes the jumble of spaces. And, needless to say, the final design for the Logan Center is a totally different creature: built with limestone bricks as a call-out to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, which is also part of the University of Chicago’s campus.

Nevertheless: The preliminary designs do look an awful lot alike. The tortured history between these firms suggests that a resemblance is something that these firms would rather avoid. The firms compete for work, of course: Both are among the handful of the most prominent architecture firms working in New York (and the world). Both firms are centered around architect couples: Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. And the couples used to be friends, according to The New York Times, until DS+R recommended that the Museum of Modern Art take a wrecking ball to the former American Folk Art Museum, a design by Williams and Tsien.

That decision by MoMA and DS+R to demolish the Folk Art Museum—a jewelbox and, at that point, the most important extant work by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects—provoked a stinging response from critics, academics, and architects. “As architects, we must be optimists,” Williams and Tsien said in a statement at the time. “So we look to the future and we move on.” It’s hard to imagine that it’s so simple.

Here is the part of the story where everyone involved in the Rubenstein Forum says that there is nothing to see:

“We developed the design for the Rubenstein Forum from the central program of the building, and which is based on a concept of ‘progressive retreat,’” Marissa Glauberman, spokesperson for Diller Scofidio + Renfro, tells CityLab in an email. “The cantilevered academic conference space at the top of the Rubenstein Forum represents the culmination of this concept, and is designed to take advantage of the views of Lake Michigan and provide a visual connection to the heart of the University of Chicago’s main quad.”

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects did not respond to a request for comment.

“The exciting design for the Rubenstein Forum shows a thorough understanding of the University's need for a flexible space for intellectual and educational exchange, while offering beautiful views of campus, the neighborhood, Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago,” says University of Chicago spokesman Jeremy Manier. “The University is looking forward to continuing our work with DS+R on this important project.”

As the university should be! To this eye, though, the new design pays homage to the past design—and that’s probably the last thing the architects had in mind.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.