POST-LECTURE FIRESIDE CHAT
After an inspiring lecture at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, the WASH editorial team sits down with guest lecturer Hernan Diaz-Alonso around a warm crackling fire in the main breezeway of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. The desert wind stirs the embers and the air is filled with the electric hum of cicadas. The graduate students look at one another in anticipation, waiting for a confident voice to arise above the din of the Sonoran Desert…
WASH: Do you have any tattoos?
HD-A: A bunch of them.
I will have one. A drawing from my daughters when they were both four years old.
A lot of your work has an animalistic tendency, in its content as well as in its process. Can you tell us about it?
It’s not that many animals. It’s just cows usually. There is something really banal and dumb about cows. Especially in Argentina’s culture—it’s like kale to California. I like the idea of taking an everyday thing like that (cows) and making something out of it. I also like the proportion of cows.
As an example, I once did a studio at SCI-Arc based on dogs in which we studied the proportion of Chihuahuas and German Shepherds. I like animals with a lot of mass on tiny legs. All such things seem to be out of scale. Architecture has always been so anthropocentric, so when we look at other animals, their features seem different and somewhat exaggerated. It seems that the proportions of our eyes and ears as humans seem to be harmonized, but not in animals. Nothing seems to be of a “normal” scale.
I am also fascinated by rituals and the practices of everyday life—butchery of meat for instance. It’s interesting how these banal acts of everyday life can be elevated to something better. Nobody would think of butchery as a super refined craft, yet somehow it is at the center of human evolution along with technique and culture. Cross-culturally, the act of butchering started on some mythologized level of respect towards the animals, whilst simultaneously being a brutal act of killing and eating them, and yet the mechanisms of dismemberment are likewise strangely sophisticated. It is very ritualistic. It seems very far from the cleanliness of the computer.
A lot of the strange proportions of a fat animal with skinny legs has to do with our domestication of the animal. Would your work call for an anti-domestication in a way? Or seeing the ritual again?
I cannot even tell you when I started paying attention to animals. I’m not really into animals at all. People tend to remember them in talks.
Do you have any pets?
I don’t. I grew up with dogs. Right now, I am looking into hair and flowers. But to me they are just agencies to deviate from the norm. Anything that has the value of provocation interests me. I like provocation. To be fair I am not mainstream. I operate in a fairly small office. I always find it interesting that most people find my work beautiful, but they also say it with a tone of horror mixed with playfulness.
Maybe that’s what I like about animals, a high level of playfulness and cuteness. Even when you look at a dangerous animal—well they can kill you—but they are also kind of cute. They have this capacity and there’s something about that. A cow can kill you. I honestly don’t think that deeply about this—what it means or what not. It’s more opportunistic.
But in terms of what it means to food processing an all that… it’s really about a way of working and what the forms do for my work. It also allows me to communicate my intent to people who work in my office. Do you know Rachael McCall? We are working on this competition right now with Wolf Prix in China. It’s an aquatic park so I said to Rachael, “hey, do you remember the coffee cup and bubbles—why don’t you mix some of the cotton ponchos with a little bit of flowers and look at that in the dirty murkiness of the Amazon river.”—And for the love of god she knows what I mean!
So many of these things become visual aids to communicate ideas, which is fairly primitive! Like a kid. I like the idea of playing, but really playing! —like children. It’s really not that deep.
Speaking of Rachael, we texted her to prepare this interview and asked what you’ve been up to lately. She said that you’ve been really “anti-rock”. What did she mean by that?
I am not “anti-rock”. I am trying not to be anti-anything these days. I have lack of interest towards this movement of architects trying to make rocks. I don’t get this mute postmodernist camouflage thing. I find it conservative. I don’t like rocks. I see people doing this work at SCI-ARC; I don’t like it but architecture needs different ideas and points of view. Sometimes it is possible for two people to be right.
That said, I don’t like minimalism either. It’s not a problem of banalities but I just don’t like simple things. I don’t like difficult concepts that become simple things either. I like simple concepts that become complicated things. The rocks are an incredibly convoluted argument that results in something easy. It seems like a lot of work to end up with something simple that can be done with a couple of easy-to-use software programs. At the same time, I admire virtuosity. Like that exhibited by Francis Bacon, Gregory Crewdson, Alexander McQueen, Louise Bourgeois or my favorite fashion designer, Rei Kawakubo. These are people that work with complexities and virtuosity. I don’t have a super intellectual argument as to ‘why’ I think the contribution to work should be complexity. I don’t like doing things that everyone can do.
As I get older, I am also way more tolerant to other points of view.
You’ve talked about butchery and the rituals of everyday life. In a book “The Practice of Everyday Life”, the author, Michel De Certeau, talks about this notion of subversion. For instance, if one is working on an assembly line, one can add something to the line that subverts the whole operation. It’s about taking that which is commonplace and changing it–
Sure, I’m very familiar with great acts of subversion. Do you know the story of Alexander McQueen? He started as an apprentice in Saville Row in London, doing suits. Saville Row makes the pinnacle of suits; they used to do the suits for Prince Charles. What McQueen did, is that he sewed something very vulgar inside the liner. Nobody knew but him. He knew that Prince Charles was wearing a suit that was saying something rather vulgar on the inside. It was subtle, but he was insulting the crown.
Is that an operation that you can do with an ordinary object, like a cow?
In the instance of “my cows”, I believe it’s more about the elevation and celebration of the ordinary object. My most basic instinct is to take a counter intuitive approach. When I want to make something beautiful, I like to start with something disgusting. Technically this could qualify as subversion, but it doesn’t have the political aspiration: I’m not a political activist. It used to be like that—I used to feel that way about the older generation—I’m talking about my teachers who resisted working with computers, like Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser or Farshad Mousavi. They all seemed to be obsessed with being self-critical which is a very Anglo-Saxon thing. They all wrote. My generation on the other hand was manifesto-free. I am about to do my second monograph and I refuse to write a text. There are other people writing. I never write about my work because in a way I try not to be political, but in the end, it is political in its own way.
Occasionally a thesis student takes the following advice. They often start their thesis by stating something like, “what architecture got wrong...”. My response to that line of thinking is to always say, “why don’t you start with: What architecture does right is this… and I want to contribute and make it better is…” It’s just a state of mind. So that’s why I don’t think my goal is to be subversive about it.
Would you say that being counter-intuitive is your style?
It’s my modus operandi, I don’t know if it’s my style.
Is it some form of resistance?
It’s a little bit of that but at the same time I’m not successful commercially, so I am very privileged to be the head of one of the most important schools of architecture in the world. I cannot play the anti-system card. At the end of the day I am a designer, and as one, I find tools with which to work. I like to think that the work is incredibly arrogant. At the same time, I’m inclined to think that the way I operate is not. I don’t operate from a big pedestal saying that everyone else is wrong; I prefer to say, “hey let’s do this!”
What made you intolerant of some of those ideas initially? Did it have anything to do with you being an educator?
I’ve always been intolerant of other peoples’ ideas. This is because I am an architect, and I think every architect is intolerant of others. We are always polite but everyone in a lecture is always thinking “this is shit” at heart. You may like some designers and things. There are plenty of architects I admire, but at the end of the day, we are one of the most intolerant and self-destructive disciplines that you can find. Intellectually, I am still highly intolerant of other ideas.
As the head of a school, I am way more tolerant. This is because I understand architecture is a collective construction which must be constructed from multiple points of view. I respect intellectual honesty. So, if you are honest in what you do, and even if I completely disagree with it, hate it, and publicly trash it, I will still respect you. If you are intellectually dishonest, then even if I like the work, I will not tolerate it. I respect people in all camps. Even the camps I really dislike. There are serious people working in many fields, but there are only a few leaders and many followers. As an educator it’s your responsibility to find out what it is you are engendering and what you’re stimulating. Consider for example, Rem Koolhaas, one of the smartest and most important figures of architecture of the last fifty years. I think his discourse and his way of thinking has given a lot of latitude to mediocrity. This deluge of mediocrity uses the same arguments advanced by Rem Koolhaas as camouflage, yet it lacks the same levels of sophistication.
That said, I really believe architecture cannot be anything original or new—but the pursuit of it should be demanded. One should always try to pursue that. So, I do think certain camps tend to abandon that search rather too quickly. One of the most dangerous things is that sometimes through periods of history, and we are in one of them, reactionary conservativism becomes a radical proposition by the opposition. But I believe that this is still dangerous because even if it is radical and reactionary, it is ultimately conservative. And I think the rock or something as such is one of those things that can be made into reactionary quite easily. It’s like taking Derrida or Heidegger and turning their text into a self-help conference thing; a fortune cookie of deep thinking. That is why we must have a dialogue with philosophers who can help us navigate these incredible complex subjects. But you also need to be careful about that.
Espresso Cup, HDA-x
So you talked about some of the individual architects and educators who build their work on a critical project. Speaking of the “critical”, what is the future role of the critic? Is formal criticism possible and even necessary?
I think it is important. It is necessary. It is not like it was and it will never go back to that. It’s no different than any other form of editorial thinking. It is much more difficult to find, and it is quite fragmented. That said, the critics I find interesting are those who are much more like music producers than critics. I like critics and theorists who work with producers to improve what we are doing as a collective discipline. The traditional critic that merely states what is right or wrong is not as interesting anymore. But when combined with production, the critic becomes a communicator, a cultural agent that can propagate ideas for more people to understand—there is a huge necessity for that. Unfortunately, in the Anglo-Saxon system the critic tends to be against design.
There are exceptions of course, there are those critics (Aaron Betsky is one of them) who are really big fans of architecture. Critics that are more like music producers.
Music producers in the last thirty years have become more important than musicians, especially if you find the right ones. If you have say a Brian Eno or a Rick Robin or a Timbaland. The best albums of David Bowie or U2 were produced by Brian Eno. The best work of Johnny Cash was produced by Rick Robin. I really like the critics who are more like this. The more common type are the ones that are more like historians of “gotcha” journalism. There are really none of those types left. Probably Paul Goldberger or Nicolai Ouroussoff were the last ones who operated in mainstream. Herbert Muschamp was probably the last big one. It was a different time when the New York Times was an opinion shaper. Now it is just one voice among many. I think it’s necessary but it does need a massive reinvention. I am not the right guy to tell you how
Do you think we are at the point where architects and architecture critics must fabricate an audience?
I think the audience is there. It’s just more fragmented like everything else. If you take the music scene in the sixties you can name it all. The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, …but today if you want to talk about the music scene there are thousands of bands. That doesn’t mean music doesn’t find an audience, it has just completely changed. We went from albums, to singles on vinyl, to singles on iTunes, to steaming services like Spotify. There is a massive reinvention that needs to happen, and I don’t quite know what the right medium is. But for instance, I’m sure it’s not going to be tweeting, that’s like brain farts.
Continuing our discussion on music, one thing that we are seeing with almost every artist is collaboration. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it seems to hold these audiences together in unique ways. Do you think that’s something we can bring over to architecture?
I think so. It may sound incredibly simplistic. But we have all been taught that architecture should care about people, when in reality, it should care about building audiences. Which is sort of similar but it’s not the same thing. I am really obsessed with this idea and it is one of my goals. I want to transform SCI-Arc from a school of architecture to a school of architectural thinking. What I mean is that architecture is expanding beyond just buildings, and I think there is a huge amount of opportunity in creating new platforms of operating. I think your generation understands this relationship. There is a lot of darkness in the world right now but there is also a lot of light. Your generation has a larger sense of community and togetherness, despite the isolation of social media and all that.
At the same time, there is a different way to understand things. At the end of the day, architecture can only express the ‘culture of now’. It’s like science fiction, a genre which is never about the future itself but rather about a critique of the present. Architecture can only operate at that level.
I think there is a massive change in the force of creativity and imagination—as it is much more collaborative. And here I do not mean “multidisciplinary” which I don’t believe really means anything. Architecture is already multidisciplinary because our discipline is such a weak discipline. It’s weak in the sense that we borrow from our surroundings and thus it’s in a permanent state of confusion… in a good way. There are a lot of possibilities; what you guys are trying here at The School of Architecture at Taliesin (SOAT) can be applied to many things that aren’t just buildings. More broadly, I think that we are going to see different modes of practice. Things that we don’t even know exist yet. Business models of practice that we cannot even see yet. I am absolutely convinced that in the next twenty years everything is going to be a mixture of computer science, math, and the liberal arts. Architecture is a liberal art. This is going to be a factor in everything. Architects have the ability to network and communicate like no other field. We are in a permanent state of engagement. We have to be smart in how we capitalize on this as a business model. The conventional business model, as well as independent voices, are going to struggle. The big architecture companies are going after everything. There used to be a little unspoken agreement that SOM didn’t go after single family houses. Now such huge companies are going after everything. It is forcing independent thinkers to carve out their own niche. Since the Renaissance (in the West), architecture, unlike law, engineering, or medicine, has been the only professional discipline that didn’t break up into multiples. This is rather interesting because I am an architect and the CEO of a huge company like Gensler is also one.
Art Gensler is our next lecturer!
That is fine! We are both called architects. If we were in law, some of us would be criminal lawyers while others would be civil lawyers. If were doctors, some of us would be surgeons or proctologists, etc. Architecture is the only profession that didn’t go that way (it did not splinter). It could be argued that it’s somewhat fragmented anyway, but we don’t call it that. It happens by the process of self-selection. If you’re a student and you choose to come to Taliesin, you didn’t choose Cornell or Harvard. You are making that decision yourself. It’s not the professional discipline doing it. Cornell has one attitude, SCI-Arc has a different one. If you choose to go to SCI-Arc, clearly you want to be one kind of architect which is different from the one at Cornell. That doesn’t mean that things will not become hardwired or whatever, but it hasn’t been institutionalized as different specializations. Maybe this is something we can explore moving forward.
You see a school of architectural thinking as specialization. If this is so, then do you think that teaching philosophical readings of say Hegel or Kant, would help a certain “specilization” avoid disciplinary pitfalls and make for a cleaner version of the practice?
I say that we are specialists and generalists. Students should read philosophy because it molds the mind into something better. Aaron wrote an article about how I must be into Object Oriented Ontology because we hired Graham Harman at SCI-Arc. The fact of the matter is that I think Graham is an extraordinary philosopher and teacher. His contribution to the field is enormous, but I’ve read his books with the human curiosity not necessarily with the desire to make a direct translation into my work.
Aaron put me in the Triple-O group, but I think he misunderstands me. When I went to Columbia, everyone was reading Deleuze and Guattari. Everyone was doing it. It took me a while to get under my own feet and say, “fuck it!”, there is no way. I am interested in philosophy because it is good to read philosophy, but there is no way I could use philosophy in architecture. Now for sure philosophy affects my brain. And in that sense you should read philosophy, and the newspaper, and watch Netflix, and read novels, and listen to music, and follow fashion, and follow art, and… you should pay attention to everything. Some will be better than others at reading philosophy. But I’ve never met an architect who is really great at reading philosophy. Even the architects that use philosophy more regularly, well when you ask philosophers who are their friends, they will tell you that they don’t understand shit. They shouldn’t! We are architects! What the fuck! There is no way. If you spend forty-five years of your life dedicated to philosophy, you will have an expertise that we don’t have. Our expertise is to misuse and misunderstand things. It will always be like that. It’s okay! I really think people should pay a lot of attention to pop.
You really have to figure out how to build relevance to any density of knowledge. I’m forty-nine I’m going to be fifty in January, I’m a transitional guy. I work from analog and a depth of knowledge. As a student, I spent a lot of hours in the library looking at books and stuff. I come from a culture that ascribes importance to the depth of knowledge. I know every project by Le Corbusier. If you show me one project, I will tell you what it is. I can bring up Enric Miralles or Frank Gehry. I know a depth of things. You guys are all density, you’re all google searching and perusing Instagram. It is a different form of knowledge and you have to figure out the formula for that.
Students now follow students’ work! When I was a student, we would never pay attention to other students—you just didn’t give a fuck. We were all looking at the masters. You guys have a different feel into it. Not better or worse, it’s just different. We in education haven’t figured out how to navigate that yet.
It’s hard to follow art or fashion or anything. Following anything means to be hit over the head with it daily. There is so much information out there. How do you educate and motivate somebody to become their own curator? To
be very harsh about what they can or cannot internalize?
Well one would hope that like everything else, you develop your own way of doing it. No different than playing a sport. It sounds basic and simple. You like certain things. You educate yourself as to why you like it and then you trace its genealogy. Take fashion as an example—if you like Alexander McQueen, you can discover that he was influenced by Martin Marcella and Rei Kawakubo, so go follow them. Find who they follow and look at them. Build intelligence to compliment your instinct. My point is that you have to be selective like with everything else.
What is your favorite food? I’m asking, really. Let’s pretend you’re starving...
Let’s just say cheeseburgers.
Okay, perfect. So, you know that you like cheeseburgers more than other burgers. There are also certain cheeseburgers which you like more than others. Sometimes we overcomplicate things. In pretty much every aspect of your life you will cultivate preferences. You will sometimes try other things, but you will often go back. And, just because you have more options doesn’t mean you’re going to like every option. Give yourself time to go deeper with certain things you like. Find patterns. I tend to like a lot of art that seems to be a certain type of photography. Fuck it, so I just look more into photography.
I think that architecture students should also have to be a little less comfortable. I am almost certain this doesn’t apply to the students at SOAT; the students that are in this crazy place are sleeping in tents. The students at WASH don’t fit the profile of the contemporary architecture student. Already you really have that going for you. But in general these generations, millennials and generation x/y, tend to have a complex dichotomy between their interest in the collective and their self-absorbed mentality. In a way they are like all architects I guess; what we have to figure it out how to go deeper with these new forms of knowledge. Let’s stop being so picky and go a little deeper.
There are very weird things that are happening right now. There is a book I’m recommending to everyone called, The Coddling of the American Mind. They did some studies to find out what the “norm” is in California. They talked to the new generations about this phenomenon of heightened levels of anxiety and paranoia. As an example, Ben Shapiro went to Ohio State recently. There was an email circulating amongst students about feeling offended and not feeling safe because of the presence of this speaker. My response to this is simply, ‘what the fuck’? —if someone doesn’t make you feel safe then just don’t go to the talk. However, if I’m not feeling safe, I would go to the talk of my intellectual enemies and listen so that I may learn from it. What’s the point of being sensitive when you can’t put up a fight to ideas that you consider wrong? That’s how conservatives keep winning. They are much less afraid to get into a debate. In this information age, debate is extremely important. It is important to go deeper and find patterns.
Are suburbs a form of coddling?
It’s one of them, but not the only one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a leftist and I believe in that mission. But I wonder how we have become so ultra-sensitive that the world we wish to create is full of cushions. It just doesn’t work. Despite our best desires. Maybe the coddling is caused by an overabundance of information that has created these “triggers” at the tip of our fingers.
I grew up in Rosario which is the second largest city in Argentina. There was this painter named Julio Vanzo who wasn’t a great painter, but he was friends with Lucio Fontana who was. Lucio Fontana appears in books as Italian, but he was really from Rosario. Vanzo was friends with my dad.
Marcelo Villfañe, an architect from Rosario, told a story I always liked” He asked Vanzo, “Maestro, how did you learn to paint?”. Vanzo would reply, “I’ll tell you next week, I’ll tell you in a week.” Six months would go by and then he would say, “I’ll tell you how, meet me in the studio tomorrow at 4.00 pm and I will tell you how to paint.” So the next day Vanzo pulls up a chair next to him in the studio with a coffee and says, “Marcelo, so you want to know how to learn to paint?” Marcelo eagerly responds, “yes please!” Then Vanzo says, “well… you have to paint.”
See, you can learn from your teacher about techniques and methodology, but you have to do it many times and then do it all over again. It’s not different from soccer, nor is it different when learning to organize information. You just need to keep doing it to get better.
[WASH stokes the fire]
Does this idea of coddling or protecting come from a view that the past was easier or safer? Are people trying to protect the younger generation?
I think it’s more complicated. Certainly, people my age had parents who screwed them up big time by not giving them enough attention, so perhaps there is a tendency to overcompensate. Also, I think it’s becoming more common to become a parent later in life. You tend to spoil your children more when you’re older. You’re usually in better financial shape, etc. If you’re young, you’re probably working harder and don’t have as much time for your kids. It’s a little bit of that.
Honestly, and I live and die by this, I believe that the present is always better than the past. The world looks very dark now, but there is another book about a thousand things that are far better now than they were fifty years ago. We live longer, less global poverty, etc.
Teatro Colon, HDA-x
Also, there other more fundamental things about the human condition that never change. They are fundamental in nature. For instance, we all have the same capacity for hate and love that we have had before. The world is still full of racists and homophobes. Full of things. Yes, it is true that there is same-sex marriage now but that doesn’t stop homophobes. We now have an equal right to vote but that doesn’t stop people from being racist or sexist. Overall though, things are getting better. Every time you think the past is better, it’s probably a reactionary or conservative impulse. This desire to protect something for fear that it might get lost, is a fundamental attribute of conservatism.
In the last three or five years now, the age gap between myself and the students has been twenty-five years or so. As that gap increases, I want to make sure that we
as a school, our leadership, doesn’t get caught up in this nostalgic mentality of— “oh, remember in our time we used to spend twenty hours in the library a day”—no! It’s important to find new ways of creating knowledge and to work hard without succumbing to nostalgia.
That’s what I find troubling about the Rock Project. It’s like people who love vinyl. You can’t be nostalgic about vinyl if you grew up with CD’s?! They say, “vinyl is the real deal.” No dude! Vinyl is an outdated technology. If you want the real thing, listen to it live. But then even instruments themselves are a technology! Stradivarius was kind of Steve Jobs of his time. You could make the case that there is nothing authentic. It’s just a nostalgic idea of what authenticity is. I rebel against this notion. That doesn’t mean I don’t have romanticism or nostalgia in my work but I try hard not to get trapped by it.
[The crackling of fire is complimented by the sound of a match lighting a cigar]
If architecture can’t do anything completely new or original, but it also shouldn’t be overly nostalgic, what is left?
Speculation and innovation. Small steps. Have you ever listened to the Rolling Stones? Keith Richard is the guitar player. Keith Richard tried to play like Chuck Berry. But he couldn’t play like Chuck Berry. But in trying to play like Chuck, he discovered a sound. An evolution on Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. It’s both but it’s also neither. There is a before and an after of such a major disruption. That’s what you need to do. Disrupt the trajectory of something. It’s not going to be a completely different trajectory, but it will be a big change. It’s not nostalgic but it won’t be completely original either.
That said, occasionally there is a disruption that is so big that it is almost original. For example, Le Corbusier was a massive disruption. You can trace Le Corbusier through Adolf Loos and even Palladio. There was a big disturbance in the linearity of it. I would argue that in contemporary architecture, Frank Gehry is like that. There wasn’t anything that came before Frank Gehry, that looked like the architecture as we know it today. You can make an argument going back to Frederick John Kiesler, or you can go back even farther to Hans Scharoun. You can talk about Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, the painters. There are always ways to trace it. But it was a massive disruption. I think disruption is cool. I like disruption. I like speculation and I like innovation. Thinking this way also alleviates some of the pressure of trying to be completely original. Original means it’s the origin of something. Jeff Kipnis always says, “when you work on a project or a thesis subject in which no one else is working, abandon it. Because there is a reason why nobody else is working on it.”
Yes he told us that when he visited. He said, “if you’re thinking of something, google it, and if nothing comes up, it’s a bad idea!”
If he keeps saying that, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
So back to disruption. We’ve talked about nostalgia and how a lot of theorists talk about the contemporary situation as one that is seemingly without time, because there is so much style available as a commodity. Whereas in the seventies, eighties or nineties, style devolved into a type of product. And now, you can live inside any one of these genres. How can you be disruptive in that timeless circle? Is disruption a thing in itself where “you know it when you see it”?
I think it’s a lot of that, “you know it when you see it”, but also like everything, there is a method to it. It’s like the first rule of Fight Club. If you want to break a rule, you must know the rule. That’s why I still believe that knowing history and theory matters, because the only way you can be disruptive, is if you understand what it is you are trying to disrupt. My main criticism of today would be that there is a lot of naiveté; a lot of young students/practitioners know that they want to do something, but because they are ignorant, they often don’t see that it has already been done before. Therefore, the more you know, the more you can find out where to stage the disruption. Again, it is no different than say boxing. You have to know where to hit the opponent, to do what you need to do. You know it when you see it, but you have to educate yourself on the basics. Then, you will know which rules are worth breaking and where to break them.
Also, I don’t think everyone needs to be setting up to be disruptive. Some people don’t want to disrupt anything, and that’s totally fine too.
The hottest young firms are really producing serious disruptors, but it’s hard to see that because a lot of the built work around the world goes to pretty established firms. Firms have to be really established in order to get any major works at all. There are very few independent architectural offices established by individuals in their forties.
In America, China, or in Europe there are plenty of people in their forties that are doing stuff. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but there are plenty of people.
But look, this has always been a problem in architecture. Somehow, I am acutely aware of the fact that I have a lot of grey hair. I still do the work that I do but I know that people listen to me more, because I am older. Usually clients prefer architects who are as old as they. It provides a sense of security. It’s difficult for people to trust—which is a stupid thing. However, architecture is one of the few professions that you can pick later in life. Pretty much any great architect that you know didn’t do anything relevant before they were fifty-five or sixty. There are exceptions to every rule; there is Enric Miralles or glitches like Alejandro Aravena. Bjarke Ingels is doing a lot of work right now. I personally don’t think his work is interesting at all, but the fact is that he is young and successful as hell. That said, the vast majority of big-name architects became huge once they were fifty-five or sixty: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, and even Herzog and DeMeuron. Now if you’re a surgeon,
a stockbroker, a musician, or an athlete, you’ll probably peak earlier in life. I don’t think that architects get better with age. It’s just the nature of how the business works. I have no idea. For some reason people just trust you more when you’re older.
It’s interesting that your advice, ‘to be like a sponge’, hasn’t changed in a way since you were a student. Is there an age factor or a point at which we are just no longer that sponge?
You know, I certainly hope not! I’ll tell you something, last week I was in Frank Gehry’s office and I had lunch with him. He showed me the two newest projects that
he is working on. The guy is going to be eighty-nine in February, and I’m telling you, he is doing the most ‘out there’ work he has ever done. He never stops. He never stopped. You should never stop. You know? If you’re good that is! This is also the case in other disciplines; look at the Rolling Stones! They still play on tour in arenas all over the world. They have to be good too. But yeah, you never stop learning. Because you’re always reacting to the culture of which you’re a part. Now, you can be Richard Meier and you can do the same project all your fucking life and go around raping women—ehrm… which I don’t recommend. But he is a horrible human being, and as an architect he is also horrible! He has basically been doing the same project his whole fucking life. So hopefully not like him.
On a different note, when I started working for Miralles in Barcelona, I always thought Alvar Aalto was an influence on him because of all the curves and shit. But after working for Enric, I realized that everything he did came from Le Corbusier. Everything. I don’t know how familiar you are with the work of Enric Miralles, but if you show me any project from him, I can show you the corresponding project of Le Corbusier that he was referencing. And once I even asked him about Alvar Aalto and he said, “Nah, Aalto is okay, but the problem is that he stopped thinking too early in the projects.” And so, it all ends up looking the same! You cannot stop thinking. Don’t stop being a sponge. Especially if you are interested in teaching and all that. One advantage is that as you get older, you get savvier. You have more tricks. There is this old saying in Spanish. I’m not sure that it translates well into English but here it goes, “the devil knows more not because he is the devil but because he is old.” It’s just nature. When you are young you are full of energy, and you can do a lot of things, but often times you don’t know what to do with it. When you get older, you can do fewer things, but you know how to do them better. It’s like watching an aging professional athlete. I like football. Do you know Tom Brady? Tom Brady’s arm certainly isn’t as good as it was, but the guy has been playing for twenty years. In a recent press conference, they kept asking him whether he wants to retire. His response— “it’s like I’m a student and you keep giving me an exam to which I know all the answers, why would I want to quit now?” So, my point here, is that you are never going to stop learning. There is a moment at which you will just know more. You will know your own tricks as well as your shortcomings. But if you’re good, you’ll keep putting yourself in an uncomfortable position.
When Wolf D. Prix visited Taliesin, he expressed a similar idea. When he was young, he was pissed off at everyone who told him that he would understand more when he got older. Now that he’s older, he says that he realized that they were right, and that he tells his students this—
Sorry, I want to do is clarify one thing. You must be patient about money, but don’t be patient about going after projects and commissions. Don’t let your teachers tell you to be patient because its architecture. Frank Gehry can be extremely encouraging in this regard. And Wolf is like that too. Out of all the big names in architecture, Wolf Prix, Eric Moss, and Thom Mayne are my closest friends. But Wolf… well he is the one who cracks me up. I treasure my relationship with him. I’m working on a competition with him right now. He has a phenomenal sense of humor. I love Wolf with all my heart. But as I said, Frank Gehry is so incredibly encouraging. When I started becoming good friends with Frank, I would show him a couple of my projects and he would ask, “are you building this?”, and I would say, “no, I don’t know… but I’m patient Frank.” To this Frank would say, “Hernan, fuck patience. Fuck patience. Never be patient.”
So, I say be patient in the sense that it may take a while for you to find your voice, but don’t be patient about going after things. You want to go work for Herzog and DeMeuron. Great, go now. You want to go and live in China? Go now, don’t wait. Don’t wait. Don’t go afterwards. You don’t know when you’re going to die!
That’s one of the main reasons why I’m an atheist. I don’t like the idea that there is something after life. I find it insulting to life. I respect religious people but the idea that this is just something that comes before an afterlife—fuck that! Life is fantastic! How long are you going to be here? Who the fuck knows? Today my flight had trouble landing and I thought, “I can’t believe I’m going to die flying to fucking Taliesin.” That could’ve been it. I’ve flown through hurricanes and yet I’m going to die on this fifty-five-minute flight! Nothing happened of course, but for a fraction of a second I thought, “what a way to go, going to fucking Taliesin.”
But also… relax! Have fun! It’s going to be okay. Enjoy yourself.
Just to elaborate on our earlier question regarding ‘being like a sponge’. Is this sponge-like quality the key mode of operating as an architect?
It’s not going to be the same for everybody. I used the sponge as a metaphor because it’s so open. The key is to look around and pay attention. I have a visual memory.
I remember everything when I see it. I don’t remember names sometimes. I find things, little things, maybe a James Bond quote or whatever that may trigger something. That’s what I mean by being a sponge. There is this woman who is phenomenal; she is the artistic director and editor of Vogue Magazine: Anna Wintour. There is a documentary about her in the “The September Issue”. She is a total nutcase, insane workaholic, but the insane part of the documentary is the story about her art director, and about a car ride in Paris, when as young model, she became friends with a French photographer who advised her to never be asleep when traveling. So, imagine, you get in the car as you get picked up from the airport. Then you stay awake until you get to the hotel. You look around. You pay attention. That’s what I mean by being like a sponge. And now every time I travel, I remember that stupid documentary; now every time I am getting on a plane in Beijing, Shenzhen, Kyoto or wherever the fuck I am, I’m tired but I consciously resist sleeping, especially during the one hour car ride from the airport. I am looking around. I am going to check my email, but apart from that, I’m not going to be watching my phone in the one hour that I am in the car. I remember that. Just looking out through the window. That’s what I mean by being a sponge, not that you have to be a student all your life. At some point, it’s preferable to stop being a student. Because at some point in time, your brain cannot absorb things fast enough. For instance, I’m still decent with software but everyone in my office is ten-times faster than I am. I can get in the way sometimes. How old are you?
We are all around twenty-five or twenty-six.
Try to remember that when you are thirty-five, you will no longer be able to absorb new music. You can listen to a lot of new music because it is interesting. I listen to a lot of hip-hop and electronic music out of cultural curiosity. But I don’t like it. The music I like is whatever I absorbed when I was between ten and twenty-five years old. That’s it. That’s the music for the rest of my life.
But really, that’s the music that is going to motivate you as well. When you’ll be in your car, you’re going to listen to the same stuff. I like trying food all over the world, and I’ve tried a lot of food, but when I’m hungry, I want a steak. Or I want some pasta or a pizza. Because those are my childhood foods. My comfort foods. No matter how sophisticated you get, that’s how it goes. That’s how you are wired. At some point in time, we stop absorbing information. You keep receiving it, but you can’t internalize it anymore. It’s the same with books. When you get older, you’re going to prefer re-reading books you like, rather than trying new books. Or you will re-watch older movies that you like. It happens with Netflix. I often prefer re-watching something I like rather than trying a new show.
And what about the disciplines that we overlook, the ones that are actually at a cultural high right now?
Television shows and dancing.
Dancing I can’t get into but yes, I agree.
Budapest Museum of Fine Art, HDA-x
It’s not really a question, but sometimes when the pendulum is swinging, we feel like it’s easy to feel like if it’s dark here in architecture, then it must be dark everywhere. But this is simply not true. There are disciplines out there right now that are having their best moment ever.
Yes, this is true, but this also shows how things change. Ten to fifteen years ago, it was unthinkable to talk about fashion in higher educational architectural institutions. Now, I am having this conversation all the time. For instance, with people like Eric Owen Moss. I said to him, “Dude! Nothing is shaping culture in the world right now like fashion!” You can agree or disagree with that, but like it or not, that is the reality. It’s the industry that can move with the speed of the times faster than anyone else. So to ignore would be stupid.
And why are people moving over to television now? Because they get twelve to fifteen episodes of a story instead of an hour and a half in film.
Mark Foster Gage talks about TV shows in terms of parafiction.
Because Mark is very in tune with pop culture. Also, Mark is a great editor. Actually, Mark is a phenomenal editor. He is not obsessed with being original and he is a great editor. He observes a lot of what is going on and he manages to comment on it in a super clever way. I think he is a great designer, but he is an even better writer. I think Mark writes like very few people can write.
His new book is called Aesthetics Are Politics. What does that mean for your work?
I’ll leave that to people like Mark.
Since we are talking about TV and films, I’ll tell you the reason why I prefer films. TV is a writer’s medium—the script is everything. Film is a director’s medium. I’m not a writer. I’m a filmmaker. I am more visual. When I got invited to go to that ‘aesthetics and politics thing’ at Yale, everybody there got pissed off at me, because I basically I don’t give a fuck about the script. What is interesting today will not matter five years from now, and we are going to be talking about something else. As architects, we are like that. I think everyone got offended, especially Graham Harmon. I wasn’t criticizing him, but I was criticizing us. When I introduced him at SCI-Arc, I said, “it’s like what Bill Clinton said about Monica Lewinski when he said that ‘I’m responsible but not guilty’. In the same way, he is responsible for himself and Deleuze and Guattari, because we take philosophy. I mean we are not guilty of it, but it’s our own fault. I leave it up to people like Mark and David Ruy…
That’s another thing we’ve been talking about; how to find your own voice. Well my father was a great businessman. He taught me a lot of things. There were four or five things that really stuck with me for life. One is that he always measured people. When he would look to hire them, he would make sure that they were aware of what they were not capable of doing. If you know your limitations, or what you’re good at and what you are bad at, then what you can do, is get a good measure. People like Mark, David Ruy, Greg Lynn, they are all thinkers. They can write and design whatever. I cannot do that. I can design and I can think that I am good at it, so that’s what I do. I don’t try to write, and I don’t try to theorize. I do the thing. I think I am a good dean. That’s the first thing.
You see, you have to understand two things: first, you have to know what you like, and second, whether you are any good at it. It’s better to understand your own limitations, so if a client comes to me and asks, “hey will you do a glass box”. My response will be, “I don’t know how to do a glass box”. I truly don’t. I mean of course
I can do it, but I don’t know how to do it well. It is an extraordinary thing; to really know what you’re good at. That’s why I like people like David and Mark. I like to talk with them and listen and learn from them. I don’t know if I truly don’t care about writing or if I trained my brain to think that I don’t care.
[The fire has burned low into coals]
What Heath Ledger says as the Joker in Batman, “If you’re good at something don’t do it for free.”
This fire is amazing.
In a sense, this is a place where the lifestyle overcame the mission of experimental architecture. How do we at SOAT, or SCI-Arc, avoid doing this? How do we keep the fires lit? Do many leaders of institutions secretly not want their institutions to succeed after they leave? To affirm their legacy.
I always encourage chairs and faculty to change things up when things are going well. The most common mistake that institutions and people make, is to change the personnel when things are going poorly. So firstly, you have to change a school when things are going great. Second, you have to accept that any successful story will lead to some form of institutionalization. SCI-Arc is now an institution. It’s an independent place compared to larger schools—we are a little shit thing. But the truth is that we are a powerhouse. We are no longer a small thing in a garage with fifteen or twenty people. We are a big place with a lot of people, money, and families. That doesn’t mean that the mission cannot keep changing. You do this by pushing people to do better things. To keep the students in a place, it’s important to create a culture in which failure is okay. You can fail and such. I don’t know if you can completely avoid the institutionalization of things.
Modernity became Modernism which in turn became Dwell Magazine. It’s funny how people ‘out there’ think that being contemporary, is 1925 Modernism! It’s a hundred years old already. I say that because Taliesin is sort of going through the same thing. The idea of protecting all of this. If Wright were alive, he would probably fucking hate all the protectionism. This is a place that was built to change, to be manipulated and so on. At the same time, I suppose it is also a success. Who knew that the Ramones would become a seminal, historical thing? This is often unavoidable. That’s why I think the best thing an institution can do is to renovate, and to not allow leaders to linger for too long. It is vital to push and be generous with the next generation.
It is also important to understand, that there is a moment during which the students can go at a speed that professors can’t handle. Because younger people see the world in
a way that we cannot grasp. To be a good institution, you have to have the generosity to allow those things to happen. This is not an easy task. Success comes with a price which is fear. Success creates a fear of failure. What makes you successful can be the same recipe that makes you fear failure. The only way to move forward is to burn it down and rebuild it. Burn it down and rebuild it, burn it down and rebuild it. This is no easy task. I don’t know, it’s difficult. Maybe, maybe, maybe… the only silver lining about Donald Trump—forgive me if any of you are Trump supporters—is that the presidency may be so fucked up that it may burn down a lot of things in this country, perhaps to the point that we really need to rebuild it. It may also allow us to confront a lot of things that we suspected but which were not so readily available. Maybe Donald Trump is a natural progression for this country; it may help us revisit what this country is and what it means. There is however always the possibility that you might burn something down to the point that it cannot be rebuilt. Every institution has that problem. Every school of architecture has a great moment in the spotlight and then it dissipates away. Sometimes the school does come back, but it’s very difficult. It’s not an easy thing to do. Architecture is fucking subjective. If you do research to cure cancer, you either cure it or not. In architecture, how the fuck do you know? How do you measure whether a school is successful in its mission? Is it how many students become employed? Should it be based on how many students go on to win a Pritzker?
We like the idea that art is a technology that helps us understand new knowledge. But in architecture, anything that is a measurable improvement on one’s life becomes code. In that same vein, does all successful architectural experimentation become institutionalized when we know it works?
What gives me hope, is that at the end of the day, such things always come down to people and individuals. That’s why the disruptors are important. The reason why Apple is not disruptive anymore, is because Steve Jobs isn’t there anymore. He was a fucking disruptor. Of course, we can think, “well he was a dick or whatever”, and he probably was. That doesn’t change the fact that he was a disruptor. He wanted to disrupt everything at the time. He had a chip on his shoulder or whatever.
The good news is that it comes down to individuals. Take for instance this place. Taliesin was asleep or even dead. Then along comes someone like Aaron, who is a fucking ambitious guy with the energy to push it, bring people here, and put it back on the map. It’s a remarkable thing; he does it out of friendship and network and desire. I don’t go anywhere without getting paid anymore. I came here without getting paid. I mean it’s easy, I’m from LA. But for someone like Wolf D. Prix, it was not easy, and yet he came. My hope and belief is that at the end of the day, everything comes down to the individual. You can have all the technology in the world, and all the shit, but even the most sophisticated surgery machine still needs a surgeon to understand what to do. An institution is no different. That’s the good news. Institutions flourish because of individuals. If you find yourself running one, you can only hope that you are doing it the right way. It’s difficult to know. That’s why the chairman thing is pretty cool about the French revolution: it’s just “too early to say”. We will know whether I am doing a good job at SCI-Arc only later. We cannot know now. Whatever you think is successful right now, may turn out to be a total disaster.
So it might be that if Daniel Libeskind had stayed at Cranbrook, it would have become a disaster?
Possibly, but conversely, when the people were there with Libeskind, they didn’t then know that it would become such an interesting place.
No they did not!
You can only do what you can do. Your desires, etc. It’s the same to be a student here. For whatever reason, you ended up here. Maybe it was your first choice, and maybe it was not but you’re here. What do you get out of this? —you probably don’t know yet. I didn’t know what I was getting out of Columbia as a student, until about three or four years later. And sometimes you have to be opportunistic. A great example from my life, was when Columbia’s paperless studio came out. It had absolutely nothing to do with Bernard’s view of what architecture is. But he saw that the computer was a disruptive change. He was brilliant enough to allow those things to happen, even though it was not in line with what he set up to do. He made it his project. That is what makes a great leader.
Daniel Libeskind was merely thirty-three when he got hired to be the director of Cranbrook. Do you think more institutions should take risks with younger directors?
Yes and no. I really believe that teaching is a young peoples’ game. You need energy and so on. But there are exceptions to every rule, as there are extraordinary older teachers as well. But honestly great things happen when no one is paying attention. If you were to ask me where the next big thing is going to happen, I’d say that it’s probably going to be from a place we don’t know. We don’t think it’s a famous school and so on. Because ultimately, I don’t think it’s a matter of age, it’s a matter of attitude. I think institutions should take risks. If that means a young director so be it. The truth is that no one was looking at Cranbrook. No one was paying attention. People forget that it was Bernard at Columbia. At that time, Columbia was the least important Ivy League School in architecture by a mile. No one was paying attention to Columbia. Bernard managed to get in, kill everything, and build a new thing. Because basically nobody was paying attention. It’s very difficult to succeed in a place that is already successful. It is possible of course—the AA always manages to remain themselves. And remain an interesting place. Bartlett too since Peter Cook.
On that note, is there is any chance that a part of the future of architecture could be something that emerges out of the Midwest? That perhaps the coasts become oversaturated by capital and old ways?
It could be. But I have to say one thing, it’s not so much a coastal thing. And this may go against this place, but I really believe it is very difficult to build a vibrant school that is about creativity if you are not in a city that fuels you. I won’t say it’s impossible, but I will say that the nature of the beast is different. It could happen, but it is the same reason why New York is struggling right now. New York has become a completely domesticated post-imperial city, in which they still think that they are at the center of the universe. I don’t think they are any more. I don’t think LA is either. It’s up to LA to figure out how to keep itself going but I believe LA can suffer from the same syndrome. If I had to gamble and invest stock in Midwest, I wouldn’t invest. It could still happen. Depends on what you expect from it. Also I really don’t think we are going to see any new super schools emerge. That era of the AA’s under Boyarsky or Cooper is over. I think we are going to see a much more fragmented thing.
There are a lot of interesting people in multiple places doing interesting stuff. Right now, you can go to fucking Calgary, Canada, and see Josh Taron doing really interesting shit. You can also go to a robotics lab in a school in China and they are doing fantastic work, incredibly weird shit. But it’s usually a single person. The rest of the school is not so interesting. It’s full of pockets. So that would be my advice to you. If you are interested in teaching, get the fuck out of the big cities and big places and go and find a small school where no one is paying attention. That gives you an incredible platform to do whatever you want to do. Something marginal. In that sense, why not the US? I’m not sure it will happen in America. It’s exciting… waiting as different pockets are aligning.
You guys need to sleep. Don’t let me keep you up. If you keep this fire going, I can stay up all night.
[Fire crackles into the night]
Hernan Diaz Alonso assumed the role of SCI-Arc director in 2015. He is widely credited with spearheading SCI-Arc’s transition to digital technologies, and he played a key role in shaping the school’s graduate curriculum over the last decade. In parallel to his role at SCI-Arc, Diaz Alonso is principal of the Los Angeles–based architecture office HDA-x.