Barry Diller is one of New York’s great patrons of architecture. A denizen of “lower West Chelsea,” he looks out on the High Line, as well as Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue, from the Frank Gehry–designed office of his media company, IAC. That building—an iceberg, cloud or sailing ship, depending on your point of view and how the light is hitting it—opened in 2007, becoming the architect’s first freestanding building in New York. Meanwhile, with his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, Diller was one of the first, and earliest, supporters of the High Line.
Photo © Michele Asselin

With the High Line firmly established as one of the world’s great parks, Diller is determined to build another one: An artificial island, called Pier 55, designed by British polymath Thomas Heatherwick. Diller and von Furstenberg spent years working with Heatherwick lining up support from city officials, and pledging more than $100 million  before the plan was made public in November. The reaction was mixed: many found the idea enticing, but also wondered whether the money couldn’t be better spent on improving existing parks, particularly in the outer boroughs. But, speaking with Diller, it’s clear that, like many philanthropists, he is less likely to give money for routine upkeep than for a ground-up (or in this case, water-up) project. He took RECORD’s phone call in his Manhattan office.

Architectural Record: You’ve loved architecture for a long time?

Barry Diller: I once wanted to be an architect. I can’t pinpoint the exact age. But around 13, 14, or 15, I started doing drafting. And I loved it. But I never pursued it. It just dropped off my life until I could build things other than mud castles. And then it reawakened.

It’s a difficult profession.

Really? With so much building all over the world, I would assume being an architect is a very good job.

Most architects are underpaid.

Not the architects I deal with.

You work with the ones at the top of the profession.

I guess they might be saying, “Oh, my God, can’t we get out of this?” But, to me, it seems so joyful to build things. Not only to conceptualize them, but to take them from an idea, whimsical or not, into an actual thing. You know we’re building this island . . .

You’re talking as if it’s been approved.

Let’s say this: it’s not been disapproved.

Aren’t there more approvals needed?

In the course of the project, we will need other approvals, including one from the Army Corps of Engineers, but we’ve done an awful lot of advance work, so we don’t anticipate any problems.

A lot of people say it would be better to spend the money on parks that need improvements.

My answer to that is, of course I would like all parks to be funded nicely. But, as was the High Line, this was elective. It’s not something that was demanded. A pier needed to be torn down, and rather than not do anything in its place, we thought this would be something really appealing. That doesn’t negate anybody else’s work—it doesn’t have anything to do with anybody else’s work.

How did you choose Heatherwick?

I had been dazzled by the British Pavilion in Shanghai, so we invited him to present. We considered others, but he was the best.

So how’s it going?

Yesterday, Turner Construction sent over six big pieces of paper on which are drawn each stage of construction: the barges that have to go in the river, the cranes that go on top of them, and the layers that will develop over the next two or three years. We’re now into really final plans and trying to sort through the actual “how are you going to build this island?” To participate in that, if you’re an architect, what a joy!

Before working with Heather­wick on the island, you worked with Frank Gehry on your office building. How was that?

Frank is a joy to work with. He said to me, at the very beginning, “If I’m going to do it, you’re going to have to be in it with me. Truthfully, all my best work is when I have had a client who really collaborated with me.” But we didn’t agree on everything, for sure.

When you disagreed, who won?

Sometimes he, sometimes me.

Doesn’t the client have the last word?

You have the ability to say no, but then nothing happens.

It’s great that you built that party space on the ground floor.

It wasn’t truly planned, the party space. We thought endlessly about what should go there. We were thinking a restaurant. We were thinking a garden with fountains. But the first week we were there, we had a lunch in the space, for 60 or 80 people, and I said, “People will want to use the space. Why don’t we let anybody use it who’s decent and God-fearing?” What’s great is, it makes millions of dollars a year. We had two bar mitzvahs there, and one of them, the guy insisted on showing the party decor to me. It must have cost at least a million dollars, turning it into an arcade. It keeps the place alive.

How do you feel about some of the other buildings that have gone up around it?

I thought the Nouvel was going to be okay, but I truly despise it. And I look at it all day.

Is that on the record?

I don’t care. I don’t know Nouvel. It’s just so unattractive.

I worry that there are too many glass and steel buildings in that part of the city. When you have one new building after another, you start to lose a sense of place.

I never thought about it before, but I think you’re probably right. It’s like you go to any new city, like Shanghai, across from the Bund, and you see all new buildings, and you literally think you’re on another planet.

So I guess you won’t be hiring Nouvel anytime soon. What architects do you like?

Mark Rios [of Rios Clementi Hale Studios], in Los Angeles, has just finished redoing one of our buildings. I think he’s really interesting, really talented. He worked on one of our houses, and now he’s doing larger projects for us, which is great.

And of course you were an early backer of the High Line.

Yes. We thought we were going to have maybe 400,000 people the first year. We had 4 million; now we’re up to 6. It’s a testament to the work Robbie [Hammond] and Josh [David] do.

You’re so involved in creating public spaces. And yet, as a prominent figure, isn’t it hard for you to spend time out in public?

I didn’t say I go in them.

I know you go in them. But aren’t you recognized?

If I go with my wife, definitely. But it doesn’t bother me. I find people on the street—as   opposed to people on the Internet—are really nice.

There’s no question that public spaces can be civilizing. I guess that’s why you supported the High Line and why you are going to build Pier 55.

We do them for the future, and for New York. And because I like being part of the process.