Hernan DIAZ ALONSO speaks on depth versus density, architecture’s engagement with contemporary culture, maintaining originality in a sea of copycatting, tackling the mathematical perfection brought about by the computer, and much more.
images, clockwise from top left: Fernando HERRERA, “Unravelled”; Wilson WU, Nicholas POULOS, & Michael GROSS, “House in 3 Acts”; Ivan BERNAL, “Familiar Primitives”; Keyla HERNANDEZ & Jason ORBE-SMITH, “Bundle House.”
suckerPUNCH: Could you tell us a little bit about your recent studios and seminars?
Hernan DIAZ ALONSO: The work over the last couple of years has been evolving into figuring out ideas of contamination that fall outside the techniques of computation. The last year or year and a half I’ve been focusing on the notion of rituals and the possibility of rituals to be a code for transformation of form. There is also a series of in-between lines about rethinking certain notions of romanticism as a kind of automatic mode to think the part to whole. In the studios that I teach, they all have some kind of project and so on, but mostly I see them as continuous and evolving, as small evolutions and transformations. So there are certain elements that remain present from semester to semester, from year to year, or from school to school, which have to do with, of course, certain notions of “excessive” and “exuberance,” a certain quality of formalism, and cinematic conditions that allow or enhance the possibility of the “grotesque” as an alternative means of theory. But I would argue that the work used to be much more technique driven. It’s always, of course, influenced by the notion of aesthetics and how the notion of form relates to aesthetics. So again, there are certain elements that are very permanent and do not really change. But at the same time, it’s always much more about looking to outside, about possibilities for mutation or for contamination.
sP: What similarities and differences do you see between the various schools where you teach, from the East Coast to the West Coast, to Europe?
HDA: SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) is my home. It’s the place where I spend ninety-five percent of my time; it’s where I’m the Graduate Programs Chair, overseeing M.Arch I, M.Arch II and the two postgraduate masters, ESTm (Emerging Systems and Technologies|Media) and SCIFI; and it’s where I’ve taught for 11 years. In the past I taught at Columbia University and Yale University, and I teach in Vienna at the Angewandte right now as well. But there’s a fundamental difference. Of course there’s a difference in the students at each school, but there’s also a difference for me as a teacher. It has to do with SCI-Arc being a day-to-day activity—you can follow it. And it’s almost more familiar to understand, or the school closest to my own ideology and way of working. In Vienna it’s quite different, because the studio is set up as much more of a laboratory, where I show up every six weeks and people like Steven Ma and Jose Carlos [López Cervantes] run the day-to-day operations. So my role is much more to set up a problem to work on the whole year and show up once and a while to see how things are going. I wouldn’t say that there’s a fundamental difference in the students’ approach, but I would say there’s a fundamental difference on the institutional level, in the sense that the Angewandte, like many European schools, has a much more hardcore tradition of architecture. SCI-Arc, where most of my energy has been focused, has much more to do with a vital experimental, progressive, or radical agenda in which the notion of architecture is challenged everyday. In that sense, I feel very at home there. And there is an interesting quality to the students of SCI-Arc that makes them very unique and different. I would argue that today’s techniques are shared across at least 10 or 12 schools, across the globe, and across multiple institutions. To me, it’s become less about technique, but much more about what kind of intellectual, philosophical position each school or group of students has advanced in relation to it. At least the schools I’m familiar with—the schools that I interact with through lectures, reviews, and so on—they all seem to be on the same page as far as technique. So not only do I think the fundamental differences between schools and their students have much more to do with the ideologies and ambition that they’re producing, but I also think there is a fundamental difference between schools more committed to the discipline and schools more committed to the profession. I think that SCI-Arc, as well as the other schools I like and sympathize with, are the ones committed much more to the problem of the discipline than to the problem of the profession. And, of course, that affects the profession.
sP: One thing that’s interesting, talking about technique being dispersed, is the way that the work itself is dispersed today. In last 10 years, young students have been able to see, through the Internet, not just the work of their professors but the work of other students taking on similar projects. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago there was a certain lag—you had to wait until a monograph was published to see work, and at that point the work was 10 years old. Traditionally there has always been a distance between students and their professors, but now that gap has really collapsed. Is there anything that you see, either positive or negative, with regard to that gap closing and the increase in feedback between students and professors?
HDA: Well, I always think what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger, not that it makes you stronger, and this falls into that category. As far as the horizontality and democracy of information, I have a tendency to be nonnostalgic about things, so in general terms I always think that the present is better than the past. But, at the same time, as you get older you become a little bit critical of certain things. I think there has been a critical shift between the notion of depth and what I call density. I think depth has been replaced by density. Density has the possibility to become depth, but at the same time it has the possibility just to be dense. I think it’s really, really interesting what you guys do, which is sometimes a good thing and is sometimes a curse, because you make all of the work available right away. To a certain extent I think it’s good, because it creates a sense of horizontality. What I don’t think is clear yet is what the implications of that are in terms of how we find knowledge—so, how that information moves into a different kind of knowledge. Right now I think we’re still at the level that produces mostly information and not yet knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I think that smart people have the capacity to produce such density of information into knowledge.
In comparison, it’s not so different than other disciplines. If we think of popular music or rock, in the ’60s it was easy to count the artists: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix. . . . Right now in popular music the groups number in the thousands, right? The palette of options you have is gigantic, so it requires a different way of understanding and a refinement of how we evaluate and judge what is good music.
What I would say is a little bit dangerous is when everything becomes color or eye candy. But that, I would argue, is not the responsibility of the blogs, publications, and so on—the responsibility is still in the eye of the beholder, with whoever uses the information. At the same time, for me it produces a very interesting thing, which is a global dialogue among young architects and young students that is super powerful. The danger is there when a dialogue doesn’t have enough of a cultural or institutional framework, which helps the discussions become sophisticated; then it becomes to easy to copycat. There are two reactions to copycatting: one is to get pissed off when people copy your work, and the other is to say, “Fuck it. It is what it is. I’m going to keep surprising them, I’m going to keep pushing my own work,” so the work becomes almost impossible to copy.
I grew up and was educated in Argentina, and I come from a family with a good financial situation, and at the time I was a student I would still buy magazines like GA, El Croquis, and so on. It was incredibly expensive and, on top of that, some of the magazines were impossibly difficult to find. Japanese magazines wouldn’t have translations, so you would be looking at stuff without knowing what the hell things said—it took me four years to learn that Zaha Hadid was a woman. So I think what we have today is phenomenal. We have this amazing distribution machine, but we don’t yet have an amazing filter machine. But, again, to me it’s better to have a lot of information than not. And I think smart people will make the right call and stupid people will do what they always did, which is copy. Now it’s just that copying is easier. But copying is copying and original is original, and that will always be the case.
sP: For us, having seen all of the work submitted to the Web site, along with what we see from our own students, it’s exactly like you’re saying. There are some students that aren’t able to get beyond copycatting because they only see the surface styling, and so they just keep repeating that. Then there are others who are able to riff on precedents, whether through contaminating that with their own interests or though a doubling back to history or precedent. What do you see as the role of history or precedent in schools today?
HDA: Actually, I had a discussion yesterday with a group of students at SCI-Arc and it was the first time I realized that I was being ambivalent about precedent. At a school like SCI-Arc, which is so driven by design and production, radical thinking, and breaking barriers, we work very hard, for years, to build a sophisticated disciplinary understanding—of precedent, history, and the value of each. Don’t get me wrong; I’m absolutely convinced that architecture is incapable of producing anything new. I think architecture, at best, can be innovative and produce innovation, and as such it is a discipline that can never break from its past or from its memories. What I realized yesterday, when I started to be a little bit ambivalent, is that too much of that can become paralyzing too. Part of looking at history and precedent is the idea not that you don’t recognize the past, but that you have an aggressive attitude to break with it. Even though, like I just said, I think it’s literally impossible make a complete, clean break in architecture, the idea or expectation that you can become great at doing just that is really important.
I think Architecture is a discipline in which you cannot get away with not understanding and knowing its history. And that’s probably true of any other discipline, but it’s certainly evident in architecture, where more often that not you will realize that the work you or your students are doing has similarities with work which was produced before. So it’s much better to have history and precedent in your repertoire than to not. At the same time, when you overplay that you risk revisiting some of the nightmares of postmodernism. And architects are always revolving in their own crap. My sense is that architecture is always like a game: you have to keep moving the finish line all the time. I’m all for excess and extremes, so I think it’s good to go to an extreme and then say, “Forget history, let’s do that.” Okay, now “Forget contemporary technology, let’s look into this.” I like going between blacks and whites more than keeping a balance.
sP: It’s interesting when you talk about that kind of back and forth, but not quite a reset. One thing we have been curious about, especially over the last semester—and we were talking to Marcelo Spina about this yesterday—is the reemergence of primitives. In Tom Wiscombe’s Spring semester studio at SCI-Arc, as part of the ESTm program, there were a number of projects that used the cube as their primitive; in Marcelo’s studio students piled a number of simple, six- or eight-sided polyhedrons; and I know some of your recent studios in Vienna have seen the reemergence of the sphere. It’s interesting to see primitives coming back into play, but then being pushed forward to a level of refinement that wasn’t there before.
HDA: To an extent, I honestly think it’s all part of a certain boredom with one’s own work and one’s own explorations as a designer. So you look to the root of things. In my particular case, the sphere, as a moment, was an interesting opportunity to introduce certain Platonic geometry to in a sense create a familiarity with the awkward and weird things that we were producing. The work was becoming so out of control that I thought it would be more awkward and weird if it included the familiarity of Platonic geometries. What I teach at SCI-Arc is usually where I’m interested in going. In Vienna, because I’m not there all the time, it becomes a more catalogue, taxonomic way of teaching. But at SCI-Arc is where I feel it’s a much more explorational platform. What they’ve been working on in the last year there has nothing to do with any kind of preconception of primitives. Instead, it has almost gone back to a certain power of the line, almost like going to rethink the power of the spline—but all driven by external factors. As I said, I was looking a lot into rituals, into a lot of ancient notions about how to mutilate, carve, and cut animals and carcasses. The work has been going back to certain kinds of mechanisms—geometry mechanisms—but they produce very imprecise things. So actually, I would argue that right now my interests have zero to do with primitives, zero to do with anything that is recognizable. As I’m saying it, I realize it’s almost impossible to do that because, again, part of all the work being out there is it’s difficult to control. It’s also difficult to push your students to do stuff different than what you’ve done in the past. There’s always a kind of natural tendency to go for a stylistic thing, which we all say we don’t like, but in one way or another we all develop our own taxonomy, vocabulary, or whatever you want to call it. And it’s difficult to get out of that. That’s why teaching at SCI-Arc is really interesting. I would also say, in the last year and a half since I took over as Graduate Programs Chair, being chair has helped to change the way in which I teach. I think it’s very different than when you’re a professor and you teach. The big picture includes 250 students and a big group of faculty; you’re obviously not only involved in your own interests, but also in the larger problem. For example, some of the experiments I’m interested in doing with students I no longer see just as studios, but as part of a series of paths or part of a much larger idea. So it’s really interesting, because it starts to become more like a jam session, where you not only try to push your work in a certain direction, but also think of how it compliments well with certain dialogues or conversations covered in the work in the office and the school. I also think we’ve already achieved a certain level of virtuosity with the techniques, so that it seems like they’re a given. Whether it’s primitives, lines, or whatever it is, it seems like it’s a little bit reductive just to focus on those things, because I think the possibilities today are infinite. I’m much more interested in how you enable systems and introduce certain possibilities.
sP: Relating that to the difficulties of getting students out of a certain style, do you see any baggage that the students bring to the table, either positive or negative, in terms of formal qualities, techniques, or even attitudes?
HDA: Sure. I’m lucky enough that when the students come to me at SCI-Arc, they are taking advanced studios—I don’t teach at the core studios. So these are students who come with a huge range of techniques, knowledge, and a very sophisticated understanding of contemporary culture or conditions of design, primarily because they have terrific professors before they get to me. So they all bring a certain series of preconceptions, because, again, a place like SCI-Arc has such a powerful group of professors. The students all come embedded with a lot of preconditions or techniques. I would say that in the past I was much more obsessed with repressing that, and with being much more dogmatic with the studio. But right now I’m actually much more interested to let that be and to see it play out. And the students all bring their own preconceptions about what the studios are, right? The work is out there and exists on the blogs, and also I’ve been at SCI-Arc 11 years, in Vienna for four or five, and was teaching at Columbia for six years before that. So you create a certain pedigree and a certain kind of vocabulary. But I think you have to challenge yourself. You have, every time you start a semester, almost on a regular basis, to challenge the preconceptions about what you do. At the same time, you also have to accept that the work has a certain trajectory and you have to absorb it. So you start to manipulate your own teaching based on a larger picture and start to figure out what you hope for, how you can create new possibilities, and in a way find out how you can help to expand that variation.
For many of these studios it’s kind of an autopsy process—you’re doing it, and the truth is, until you’re dead, you don’t know what to do with it. But the moment it’s done you produce the autopsy, figure out what you can, and move on to the next one. It’s not that what you did becomes totally useless, but to an extent it needs to become useless. Let me put it this way: I’m much more interested in how than what, in how you evolve to a developed thing. I always think it’s really important to not fall in love with initial ideas—students need to keep moving and changing, and not have any sense of nostalgia. Architectural history is a very long one—at least, the one that interests me is 500 years old, beginning with the Renaissance, when architecture became a cultural practice. So I’m much more interested in talking in those terms. And I think part of the challenge in relation to baggage, whether the students bring it or not, is that no matter how great the fascination with current technologies is, architecture is and should remain an existential problem. It has to remain a humanist problem and it always needs to reclaim a kind of artistic problem. I’m beginning to understand that in order to be all that, architecture cannot be only certain things. So that’s why we use scripts, we use robots, or we use whatever is available. But in any event, I’m not interested in reclaiming a kind of religious canon, because I think then we become paralyzed.
sP: You touched on this a little bit, but how do you see pop culture playing into contamination?
HDA: I like the low end more than the high end. I like the idea of looking for popular phenomena that have very little to do with “high” quality. The films that interest me, to use for inspiration, aren’t really the artistic, sophisticated, or intellectual films; they’re usually “popcorn” films. And this goes back to the problem we were talking about, depth and density. I think today’s students have access to a huge density of information, so to try to use that is obviously worthwhile and it’s an interesting idea. Architecture has to engage contemporary culture and contemporary conditions. I don’t think you can separate popular culture and high-end culture anymore. Culture is culture, and there’s good culture and bad culture. When you look at the films of somebody like Christopher Nolan, for me that’s masterful work. Or the films of David Fincher—that’s masterful work, it’s cinema on the same level as Michelangelo Antonioni and Akira Kurosawa. Each operates on different mechanisms, but that doesn’t make one the lesser. The same goes for music. A discipline that I look to a lot today is fashion—it’s probably the one I look to the most. Not in the sense of superficiality and all that—though it could be that—but because I think it has the capacity to change society, cities, and culture faster than any other art. I love that they have to do four collections a year; I love that they have that pressure. I love that its practitioners are completely immoral about how they do the things they do. My nostalgic fascination has to do with film, because I originally wanted to be filmmaker and not an architect, so film is always close to my heart. That said, I honestly think that film is neither the most current nor the most interesting popular culture example today. It has been for a long time—and yes, you have a lot of CGI, new technologies, and so on—but as a format film has become stable. Fashion is more interesting because they use a lot of new technologies of production.
But, again, I also think it’s good to look back. I’ve been looking a lot at gauchos and very primitive forms of cooking and butchery in 19th-century Argentina. I think all those things are good agents for to create a certain level of dissatisfaction with the fake perfection the computer produces for us. In the Renaissance period, for example—for Bernini, Palladio, and so on—everyone was trying to produce, and of course it was religious to understand, a sense of perfection out of the imperfect. Right now we have techniques that are perfect, mathematically perfect in terms of the geometry that the computer is producing. So I think there is a growing desire to produce a certain level of imperfection out of these perfect techniques. And I think everybody is trying to find different mechanisms for how to do that. I like to encourage the students to bring their own individual interests, to make them a part of the agenda. Because I think, at the end, we’re always kids. One of the reasons I think we like to be architects is because we’re very childish and immature people. And there’s a reason in that, there’s a kind of fascination with simplicity, that we like certain things or will enjoy certain things. And they’re usually things that were taken from popular music, movies, fashion, art, and so on. We should be completely unapologetic when bringing that to the table. To me, it’s not so important if that’s rational or not. I think it’s just part of humanity’s existential thing, that we all go about as individuals. And at the end of the day you realize we’re all fascinated by the same things. We all think that we discovered something. So the question is how can we make it part of our altruistic, high-cultural-is-enough production. And I think architecture should do that. It needs to be sophisticated to understand its job. I know a lot of people don’t like that, but I like that. I don’t think we should do what people want, I think we should do what people would want if they knew what they wanted. Our job is to challenge the public, to provoke. To have your work in line with popular culture helps with that, because it creates a certain sense of familiarity. For somebody like me, who is so interested in the grotesque, the horrific, and the weird, familiarity makes all of that worse. Nothing is more horrific than the familiar thing; nothing is more grotesque than the familiar thing. In that sense, popular culture is super useful to mutate and tweak familiarity into something much more sophisticated.
sP: The last thing we wanted to ask is do you see any tendencies in academia right now, both positive and negative, that you’d like to see either change or come into greater focus.
HDA: I think there’s a very strong sense of control of production. Young architects and students have much more interest in controlling all the areas of production, from critical thinking to manufacturing. I think that’s really, really interesting. There’s also a very strong desire for a certain level of originality and individualization with the collective work, which is something I would say was less evident six years ago. And I think there’s a much stronger sense of criticality coming from the young architects and students than there was six years ago. The student seems to be challenging way more the status quo of the state of the discipline and the profession. And there’s a kind of renewed sense of optimism, a kind of renewed desire to change the world that I think is fantastic. That’s one of the things that I wasn’t so happy about over the last 20 years, that architecture was becoming a much too cynical, individualistic discipline. Today I think there’s a renaissance of certain romanticism, coming in a completely different way with a completely different logic. So I think that’s a positive as well.
The level of understanding of students today is also different. Most of them have a unique sense of contemporary culture, and I think that’s phenomenal. And I think they are developing a sense of depth, or discipline of knowledge, so I haven’t much complaint on that. There’s also a certain fascination with the “true” nature of things. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a certain kind of superficiality to not being able to reread and to reunderstand the degrees of variation that the discipline is producing right now. And that’s not only a criticism of the students, but of the critics. There tends to be an oversimplification of the problem. For example, there’s often an oversimplification with technique—techniques alone aren’t important, but are only important in the service to some kind of ideological stance. The main critique I will say is that there’s a kind of resistance by students to develop an ideological and an aesthetic take—not aesthetic as a space, but aesthetic as a philosophical problem in relation to the work. I would say that’s something to be worked on. Today has a different ideology and a different philosophy, but nevertheless there is one, and I think it’s important for the young architects and the students to take a position in relation to that. Because if not, I think the work becomes just a gimmick, and you have to be careful of that. In every lecture that I give I always say that Jimi Hendrix, when he played “Voodoo Child” [hums opening guitar riff], of course he did that because he had an electric guitar and a wah-wah pedal, because the technology and the techniques allowed him to do that. And if he did that with a Spanish guitar, of course it doesn’t work the same. But it had to be Jimi Hendrix—it’s not enough to have an electric guitar and a wah-wah pedal. There are a lot of people who have those things and they’re not Jimi Hendrix. Not that every student can be or wants to be Jimi Hendrix, but at least we should aspire to be, should try to be Jimi Hendrix. I think there’s also a complacency about carrying too much of the consulting work. One of the downsides of computation, I would say, particularly scripting and that front, is that it’s creating a whole body of guys who are doing consulting work. It’s interesting, but at the same time it seems limited. So that, I would say, is another downside that I see. That’s something that goes back to what I think is a fundamental problem with architecture in the last 50 years, which is when architecture became hijacked as a service industry over architectural practice. And I would say that, over all the explosion of techniques and other things right now, there is a kind of mentality that service imports a certain hip, contemporary coolness, which I find potentially complicated. But at the end of the day, it’s architecture and we shouldn’t be dramatic about these things. It’s a big discipline and everybody should try to figure what he or she wants to do. I don’t want to sound too moralistic about it, but I think architecture provokes and inspires. And I think everybody should aspire to do that, but if young architects or students don’t want to do that, that’s fine too. I don’t know, I don’t want to sound like a preacher. I think there’s only one kind of architecture that matters and it’s the only one which interests me, and it’s the only one I think people should spend time on. We have to be our own proponents; we have to stand for something; we have to be aggressive and polemical; and, yes, along the way we have to create enemies. But that’s just my take.