"Building culture is always a human endeavor."

Charles Renfro Builds This City

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New York City’s an ever-changing organism. And queer architect Charles Renfro’s keeping it healthy.

With his colleagues at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which he joined in 1997, Renfro has worked or continues to work on some of fair city’s most exciting projects the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District, Lincoln Center and the High Line: a once-abandoned train track known for eye-popping interaction between industry and nature.

Our editor recently sit down with Renfro in his firm’s 11th Avenue office. Read what Renfro has to say about New York’s fluid cultural identity, eco living and how he uses gentrification for good – after the jump, of course.

Andrew Belonsky: What is home for you?

Charles Renfro: My office.

AB: So home is a very specific location.

CR: Yeah, well, no – what is home to me? Hmm, home I think is where you feel like you can have people over.

AB: Entertainment?

CR: Kind of. It’s where you feel comfortable enough with yourself that you can invite people in to share it with you. It could be your office. And it could be your home. And it could almost be a friend’s home, for that matter, but very few friends…

AB: Comfortable enough to share with others – that seems indicative of the projects you and your colleagues have chosen: your architectural mission. You’re not from New York, are you?

CR: No. I’m from Texas.

AB: There are a lot of Texans around these parts. And when did you come here?

CR: In 1989. I came for a job and have been here ever since.

AB: So you’ve seen New York change dramatically?

CR: Oh, yeah.

AB: How do you feel about that?

CR: Most of the changes are upsetting. Some of them are good. I would just be sounding the same alarm that everybody else is sounding about gentrification and the loss of individual identity in the city and its edginess. We all miss that. On the other hand, it’s great that there’s so much opportunity for architects. When I first moved here, there was no opportunity for architects. Now you can actually be a young architect and get a building built. It’s the first time that’s happened since I’ve been here.

AB: Do you feel that gentrification is removing the familiarity that makes it comfortable enough to invite them? Is it taking away people’s homes?

CR: I think it’s taking away the unique qualities of people’s homes. When you bring people to New York City from other places and they look around and say, “Oh, I have this Sephora there,” it’s just window dressing. It’s old cast iron buildings with the same institutions and the same people that everybody else has. Yeah, there’s a little unhominess about it. And you know from people here – the people who are really making the stuff are living in Brooklyn and Queens because they can’t afford to be here. But if you go out, it’s – that stuff is there: that gritty, fly by boot straps, fly by night ad hoc experimentation is still here, it’s just in other boroughs, not in Manhattan.

AB: You guys work specifically to integrate the buildings with the space around them – it’s an invitation to the people. Can you talk a little about that?

CR: We’re really interested in having all of our work be about place: about the place that it’s made, about the history of the place, the cultural identity of the place. Everything is drawn out of that milieu and, because of that, our work is very porous, very open: provocative, easily engaged, I hope. The moves are very transparent and big. When you see a theater with glass walls that you can walk onto the stage on the outside – that’s pretty straightforward stuff. You don’t need a degree in architecture to figure out what we’re doing there. It’s really about this institutionalized glass wall splitting the public and the private sector.