My Work Is Like Salt
Hernan Diaz-Alonso is one of many young architects who design exclusively with advanced digital modeling software. Of those in the under-40 age set, his work is among the most visible in the US. He received the high-profile PS-1 / MOMA 2005 Young Architects Program commission to design an outdoor installation at PS-1. In the context of the polite conversations in US schools of architecture, the Argentinean-born architect is one of the most outspoken pedagogues. He’s not one for mincing words about himself (‘I used to be arrogant, but now I’m perfect’), or about others (‘I mean, I think the guy is very smart, but his work sucks’). Known for offering up frank machismo commentary, he is not only one of the most controversial figures in North American schools, but also one of the most influential. Conscious of the history of architectural education, Diaz-Alonso often situates his work and those of others in terms of generational influences and values. Volume spoke to him about advanced modeling, academia, and his ‘generation’ in San Francisco, where he recently had a show, ‘Xefirotarch’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
JI: [To two visitors] What do you think of the models?
Kid 1: Well, they do have something tangible. They are smooth and slick like a drawing but there is something tangible in them, you can almost feel them because they’re 3D.
JI: And do you think other people would like this work?
Kid 2: It depends on their age. If they are around my age or younger I think they’ll like it, but if you’re older, like 30 or 40… well, a bit less.
JI: How old are you?
Kid 1: I’m eleven.
Kid 2: Fourteen. It probably depends what purpose it serves. I would like this as a decoration.
JI: And what about as furniture? Or what about as a car or as a motorcycle, or…
Kid 1: A bumper car.
Kid 2: Maybe a toilet.
Kid 1: Maybe a shoe?
HDA: I really like it when the three or four-year-olds see the show. There was one who was trying to lick a piece. He had this total playful attitude. I have tried to indicate this playful, very laid back attitude as in a Tim Burton cinematic logic, like B-movies, or almost like porn from the 70s when they tried to be serious and have a narrative, but nobody took it seriously.
JI: [To kids] So what kind of film would you envision this in?
Kid 1: Um, a stunt movie.
JI: And do you imagine this being a house or a city?
Kid 2: More a city than a house.
HDA: Cities don’t interest me. They interest me as a human, not as an architect, because I don’t think there is anything you can do to improve them. Anything you do fucks them up even more than they already are. They can take care of themselves without me.
JI: And what do you think about what architects do to try to address cities?
HDA: I think it is a novel thing to do, but I cannot think of any example since Baron Haussmann of someone who did anything to improve a city. I think all the attempts usually end in crap and usually the interesting ideas are those that never get done. So they are good experiments, but not good projects. I don’t trust my work enough or think it is exciting enough to have a lot of it. So I think it is a lot like salt: it is bad to eat food without salt, but much worse to eat just salt. So I think it would be a fucking nightmare if every city were done with my work.
HDA: There is starting to be a proliferation of people who go back and forth between institutions. At the end of the day, there is some kind of an alliance in architecture, like the G8. There are certain schools that belong to a circuit where we lecture or are on reviews or interact. So there is a certain shared knowledge. I think that it’s great. This sharing of knowledge will force architects to keep being innovative. I also believe that collective projects are more interesting than individual ones.
I have a common ground with Francois Roche, Greg Lynn, Lars Spuybroek, and David Erdman. We don’t work together on projects, but we share knowledge and this is important. First of all, it forces you to go back to the essence. Technology and techniques are not terribly relevant. You still have to make your case because everybody is using the same tools. That doesn’t mean that everybody is interesting, however.
Even with this shared knowledge it seems to me that right now everyone is in a valley period. No one seems to be doing anything really outrageous, really ‘out there’. There has been too much of the same old thing for a while already. I’m not sure anybody knows exactly where to go. Schools will need to get sharp and keep reaching out.
Columbia is trying to produce a new format I call the UN of architecture in which it becomes less and less of a school and more like a gigantic lab for debate. It is a really interesting way to go. Maybe the dangerous side is that it makes it more complicated for students to figure out how to navigate.
JI: Wouldn’t it be a false expectation for a student in school now to get a coherent picture of the profession? It’s a much more contemporary situation to enter a graduate school and know that the profession is beyond some empty notion of pluralism. There are many things going on and it is interesting that you have these to explore.
HDA: Yes, but one tendency with students is that they have this a ‘little bit of everything’ mentality which in my view is idiotic. It is the worst thing you can do as a human being. Where did this idea come from that you need to try everything to define who you want to be? I think it’s stupid. I’m much more interested in focused work.
What I’m trying to do at Columbia is to maximize the notion of aesthetics, the intellectual discourse of aesthetics. I am interested in redefining the horrific and the grotesque. At SCI-Arc, I am trying to take to the extreme the notion of the autonomy of the form as a vehicle for the production of architecture. For example, how you assemble, how you put it together. Even though they look very similar, the root of each is very different. Instead of doing the same project at both schools, I decided to isolate the variables at each. The crossover and the feedback are fantastic. It is great to see how information allows students to look at each other. My Columbia students check what my SCI-Arc students are doing and vice versa. They start to understand the difference and I think that’s a great thing.
JI: Some readers will find it interesting that you teach full-time at two schools. You teach a studio both fall and spring terms at both Columbia and SCI-Arc. If the traditional model of the architect has been to either teach full-time, work in an office full-time or start your own practice and teach part time, then this is no longer the case today. Many people we know teach ‘full-time’ at two or three places. They’ll teach a studio at several schools in one given semester. Or they will have a practice with more than one set of partners, plus teach. What do you think of this new condition in terms of the sharing of knowledge?
HDA: I think you can have one wife and one mistress. It seems like that is something you can manage. It’s like an old friend of mine used to joke, ‘Do you like women with a lot of boobs?’ ‘No, I find more than two disturbing.’ For me teaching is a fundamental part of my own practice. So to spread it across more than two places would be too complicated. Also, I’m fairly stupid. I don’t have more than two variables, so if I were to add a third school I would start to repeat myself. Two I can handle and can produce a level of differentiation in the research that is productive and useful.
HDA: I think architecture is about discourse: it’s about ideas, about the intellectual project. Any idiot can build, but not everybody can produce an interesting argument for it. In that sense, I think my work is romantic because I am also an advocate of technique. My work is very radical and extreme in the virtuosity and manipulation of form, but in many regards it remains an extremely conventional formalism which is at the core of being an architect. I live with that sort of dichotomy.
The idea of romanticism implies a notion of tradition and respect for certain rules. This is why I think everyone interested in form, geometry, technique, and aesthetics, like me, has a certain respect for a notion of rules and the need for a certain pedigree of virtuosity. Virtuosity for me is extremely important. All the artists that I like are virtuosi. People like Francis Bacon, John Coltrane, Tim Burton, Johnny Depp. I like to see work by people who can do things I cannot. I don’t find pleasure in looking at someone’s work and feeling like I can do it. I know its very snobby, but its fine. I think as architects we should be snobs. The demagogy of populism in architecture is awful. I think everybody who plays music should want to be Tom Waits, not Justin Timberlake.
JI: Why are you opposed to the idea of a manifesto?
HDA: I am still young. I love and admire Greg [Lynn] to death. He’s such a seminal figure. His innovation is amazing. I’m already fat, but guys like Greg are getting older and fatter and more nervous that they need to do buildings. I think my generation has less ambition in that sense. I think our ambition is more about virtuosity and techniques, how to refine and take what Greg did on those levels to the extreme.
That generation is a manifesto generation; they came with a strategy and an overall theory about what they were trying to do. They have a master plan to take over the world, while we just try to enjoy it. I’m trying to create my own discourse. This is different from a manifesto, because I don’t think that it has any predetermination. I don’t care about that.
The most typically asked questions at my lectures are, ‘Where do your forms come from?’ and ‘How do you know when to stop?’ The latter question I always answer in a very rude way, ‘How do you know when you’re done fucking? You just know.’ It’s like trying to explain to a friend why I’m in love with, in my case, with my wife. I can give you a series of reasons why I’m in love with my wife, but the deep reason, the deep, deep motivation, I cannot describe. So for me, the notion of a manifesto has always been very complicated, because I want to be much more liberated from that notion, that kind of statement about what I am supposed to be doing. I’m much more interested in riding the wave and seeing where it goes. Especially since I think one of the most interesting things about the new technologies and computers is that there is a critical shift in the power of the manifesto. People of an older generation, like Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, or Jacques Herzog, look at the computer as a tool, as a vehicle, and say, ‘Okay, what can this thing do for me?’ I think the younger generation, or least those in my position, say, ‘What can I do for you?’ There is a relational shift in there and I don’t know how you can sustain a manifesto when so much that is embedded in what you are doing comes from the mutation and evolution of the technique and the technology you are using.
There is another thing. I remember that Mick Jagger used to say: ‘I cannot imagine myself being 45 and singing Satisfaction.’ He’s 63 and still doing it – so I don’t take myself so seriously as to be trapped in the notion of manifesto. Having a manifesto also means that you know what you’re doing and 75% of the time I don’t have a clue what I’m doing or where I’m going. So it’s not a super-intellectual attack on manifesto. I think it is great if you have the balls, the clarity, and the intelligence to be able to write a manifesto. I am not ideologically opposed to a manifesto. I just don’t care. It’s a little like religion – it’s not that I don’t believe in god, it’s just that I really don’t care.
Let’s put this in context. I talk about these things because this is what I do every day of my life. This is what you do. Let’s be a little bit lighter about all this. I hate how pompous we are about architecture. It’s just a game. We talk about all these things we’re serious about because, yeah, it’s what we do, but the truth is architecture is fairly irrelevant for society at large. We are like a decoration on a cake. I mean, we are not the cake. So I like to take what I do very seriously, but not myself. Because in the end, what does it mean to be famous as an architect? That a bunch of people will know you at a school? That’s about it. I flew once with David Bowie. That’s famous, when you take the entire first class section of an airplane for yourself and your entourage. All of us are just idiots, pretending to be famous.