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Elizabeth Diller’s plan for “the Bubble” at the Hirshhorn Museum has died but the spirit that came up with the concept is still alive.DILLER SCOFIDIO + RENFRO

Elizabeth Diller, globally renowned architect, shaper of grand civic projects, has a dream. It is "the Bubble": a balloon of blue latex rubber, inflated in the round courtyard of an art museum on the National Mall in Washington. It would be a place for big thoughts and serious discussion for a few months a year – and then, poof, back in the box.

It's the sort of intervention an artist rather than an architect might conceive: a giant whoopee cushion, blown up in North America's most formal space. "It would be a true marriage of art and politics and architecture," Diller says. "We thought of it poetically: The building itself, right into its core, would inhale the air of the Mall – which is the air of democracy."

It won't happen. Its prospective home, the Hirshhorn Museum, recently parted ways with its ambitious director and scuttled the Bubble plan. But Diller, her partners Ricardo Scofidio – who joins her for a talk at Luminato in Toronto this week – and Charles Renfro are among the world's most influential architects. And they are playing with balloons for a reason. In 2013, high architecture means working with the small and the temporary. Today, big ideas are more powerful than big buildings. "Sometimes, a minimal action can make a tremendous difference," Diller says, "by changing the atmosphere."

Diller Scofidio + Renfro helped prove that theme with the High Line, the park on an old elevated rail line in Manhattan that opened in 2009. It preserved the structure and (with great care) built a facsimile of a wild landscape that had seeded itself on the tracks. Now, the park – which offers a procession through foliage under the eyes of condo dwellers – is a massive tourist attraction in a suddenly wealthy neighbourhood, with a new art museum moving in next door. It is a textbook 21st-century example of how architecture can torque the development of a city.

But it also proves something else – that the myth of the architect as singular genius is dead. Making buildings today demands complex collaborations and offers many constraints. At the High Line, the team of designers, led by DS+R and landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, mostly tried to leave things alone. "We didn't make it," Diller says of the line. "We just didn't screw it up. That was the challenge: how to do a light touch; how to make this magical space accessible without destroying it." It isn't that simple – there are some fussy details, and evidence of some conceptual hobbyhorses, on the High Line – but the park works. And it works because of the elegance of its idea. It is opportunistic, simple (in theory) and public.

This aligns DS+R, to a degree, with "tactical urbanism" – a culture of small-scale, do-it-yourself initiatives that aim to create permanent changes in the fabric of the city. Young activist-architects are using shipping containers to create outdoor cafés, as at Toronto's Market 707; converting parking spaces to parks, as in Vancouver's Parallel Park; building bike lanes and plantings guerrilla-style, all to improve and bring green to urban neighbourhoods.

When DS+R got a commission to renovate Lincoln Center – the early-1960s cultural campus that has been an icon of New York City but a brutal piece of urban design – they adopted various subtle strategies. They lifted up a plaza to make room for a restaurant, carved away the corner of a Brutalist building to liven up a street with public space, moved a driveway below ground to make way for a grand pedestrian entrance. The work (as documented in a book this year) was varied, messy, sometimes too clever, but largely successful at shaking up the stony complex.

Bold, nimble thinking comes naturally to DS+R, who describe themselves as both architects and artists. Diller studied in the 1970s at Cooper Union, a small New York institution that represents the ivory tower of the architecture world. Scofidio was one of her professors; they married and launched a shared life as downtown architects making conceptual art. "We were never really comfortable in the profession of architecture, so we always produced a dissident practice," says Diller, who also teaches at Princeton. Renfro joined them as a partner in the Nineties, just as they made a shift into building. (Or, rather, quasi-building. Their first major work, the Blur Building, was a pavilion at Swiss Expo 2002 that was largely made of water, in an ever-changing, inscrutable mist.)

Some of their peers have become world-famous: Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind (who went to Cooper Union, too) and Zaha Hadid in Britain, each chasing visual and formal ideas as they strive to build grandly and everywhere. Nobody would claim that DS+R's designs match Gehry's in technical refinement or formal beauty, but they have other goals. "Our work is maybe more dirty and full of more kinds of complexity that won't let a pure architecture take place," Diller argues, "but that's what makes every project interesting for us."

"Every project is an experiment in something."

That attitude makes their office of 100 "misfits," as Diller puts it, leaders for the arty wing of contemporary architecture. It also leaves DS+R, long-time provocateurs, in the new position of making big, important buildings. Permanent ones.

They're designing major art museums in Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, and they've proposed a new all-purpose home for the arts: The Culture Shed is a 170,000-square-foot project they've been designing for New York as a part of Hudson Yards, the $15-billion (U.S.) redevelopment project led by Canadian developer Oxford Properties. The Shed would be a new institution: a four-storey gallery building with a retractable second skin. That outer form would wheel outward, on shipyard tracks, to cover a massive public plaza – for markets, shows, concerts. They imagine it as a "paradigm shifter," a place where live performance could meet commercial events such as the city's Fashion Week., temporary exhibitions of all kinds and lucrative private events. Despite its size, it has a provisional quality. Its purpose is open-ended, its details fungible. And it may be needed. The city of New York is backing it aggressively.

But there are limits to the power of an idea. The Bubble is dead, principally because the Hirshhorn couldn't find the money to fund it: A building that disappears three seasons a year is a hard sell to donors. Meanwhile, its conference component – its reason for existence – was not fully explored. The experiment seems idealistic, even naive. But Diller has no problem with that. "Thinking back in our career, we were naive, and the naiveté drove the work. … I hope I still have it. The Hirshhorn had it, and we managed to hold on to the idea until a couple of weeks ago. And who knows, we might still bring it back."

If it finds a solid purpose, it might even be great architecture.