The Deans List is an interview series with the leaders of architecture schools, worldwide. The series profiles the school’s programming, as defined by the head honcho – giving an invaluable perspective into the institution’s unique curriculum, faculty and academic environment.
For this issue, we spoke with Hernan Diaz Alonso, upcoming Director at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles.
In SCI-Arc’s forty-two years of existence and counting, the “school without walls” has occupied three different sites across Los Angeles, and been headed by four directors. Nowadays, the school’s reputation often precedes itself, with near-mythological stories of teaching practices and student work that tends to care more for fanciful formalism than functionality. But at this point in its history, the previously nomadic, experimental school has settled down a bit. Started by a band of Cal Poly Pomona defectors in an abandoned Santa Monica warehouse, SCI-Arc is now an accredited institution with a strong legacy for avant-garde design, and has established a stable home in Los Angeles’ burgeoning Arts District, on the literal cusp of downtown’s urban development. In the midst of this relatively new developmental phase, long-time professor and Graduate Programs Chair Hernan Diaz Alonso will take over the Director position in fall of 2015.
Diaz Alonso will succeed Eric Owen Moss, who has headed the school since 2002. Aside from his roles at SCI-Arc, Diaz Alonso is also the founder and principal at Xefirotarch, located just south-east of SCI-Arc opposite the Los Angeles river. As a kind of speculative Deans List, we spoke with Diaz Alonso in his Xefirotarch office, to discuss his plans for the school’s future. What’s clear is that SCI-Arc is changing – by finally being able to purchase its home building in the Arts District, a quarter-mile long former rail-freight depot, it set down not only roots but attempts at a sustainable business model. Diaz Alonso is a ravenous speaker, so this interview has been edited for length.
You've been at SCI-Arc, as a faculty member and graduate programs chair, since 2001, spanning Neil Denari and Eric Owen Moss as directors. Generally, how have you seen the school change in those years? Specifically, how has its programming changed?
I think the transformations in the last thirteen, fourteen years, I think they have been substantial. Eric leads those transformations, which I think started at the institutional level. The first thing that was a major transformation is a step towards financial stability. During that time, the school bought the building, which is a significant change in the forty years of the school’s history; it was the first time that the school has a permanent home. I think everything the whole cloud around us is changing, and I think that makes students make far more innovative decisions.is interrelated in an institution like SCI-Arc, any institution, but especially a school of architecture. So as the institution gains financial stability, that all bleeds into curriculum, content, programs and so on. The moment you have institutional stability and financial stability, you can really plan; you can start to think long-terms and so on.
In terms of programs, content and all that, I think also these fourteen years, not only SCI-Arc, but at large the discipline has seen a gigantic transformation. The whole digital manufactured production design revolution has affected, it has produced major changes in architecture education. I will say on every level at pretty much every school. In some sense this has been going on for twenty years or so, so I will say that SCI-Arc embraced that, but embraced it in the way that SCI-Arc always did. I think SCI-Arc has always been committed to a progressive agenda, a radical and innovative agenda, and I think part of this transformational work is part of that. So program and curriculum, there was a lot of adjustment and massive transformation in that period of time. When I started teaching here, the digital culture was fairly small. I don’t think necessarily because of ideology, I just think it was a sign of the times; all schools were going through that process of transformation. But I would say we accelerated that process, more than any other school I can think of, to really transform that into a discourse problem and not a technological problem.
That is another big umbrella of change, specifically was also that, for example, on the grad level, Ming Fung who was the graduate director before me, there was a whole series of changes that the school was doing. For example, MArch1 and MArch2 became separate programs. In most of the schools, and our school too at that time, the MArch2 program was a different entry level from MArch1. Now we took that opportunity to make them into two independent programs, we started to explore the possibility of having a second professional degree. Also that became the flagship for the school in terms of innovation, technology and experimentation. We started to try and figure out how to do that. The other thing that got revitalized and rethought and reconfigured was thesis in undergrad and grad. I was the thesis coordinator before I became the grad programs chair, and it was a huge, long debate in the school, because most of schools like ours were dropping the thesis programs. Many schools still have thesis, but of the top 10-12 schools in the world, which I think SCI-Arc is one of them, we are one of the two or three that still do thesis. Most of them abandoned that, because part of them say the computation brought to the table a different sense of collaboration that people think is more in-tuned to individual speculation than the thesis is. But in that debate, it was clear that it was a huge part of SCI-Arc’s legacy, a huge part of the school’s DNA. So after a very healthy and long debate, the school and Eric as the director decided we should keep going with that, but we reinvigorated it and made a whole thesis transformation.
I remember the whole premise was that I was one of the most vocal opponents to keep doing thesis. Eric says, “If you’re so against, go and fix it”. Which is very much the Eric Moss pedagogical way of thinking. Which is a pretty cool one. So we started to do a whole thesis transformation, in form, format and content, and tried to link from the beginning of the curriculum sequence, in MArch1 and MArch2, to start planting the seeds that this is a thesis-driven program. Many things that maybe the school was doing were maybe not really clear, so to me this was a major transformation. I think this happened too in the undergrad program.
When did this go on exactly?
I started running thesis in 2006, I think, I did it for four or five years. That was a part of the program’s transformation, but along the way, I think post-grad also became a piece of the school. SCI-Fi became an outreach tool, to start working with cities, political problems, with government agencies and so on. But also four or five years ago we started to develop what is the ESTm program, a post-grad based on technology and digital production. The robot house was part of that. We were one of the first schools that built a big robot house, with five robots all working together, so that’s what I think is the direct link between programs, content, institutional stability and so on. The school has grown enormously. When I started teaching, What’s very different now is that many, many disciplines are sharing the same language. The tools that we use are exactly the same if you’re in fashion, architecture, car design, or even medicine.the building was under construction, we were teaching in trailers, there was a tent, and now the school owns the building, we have the Robot House, we are expanding our technology department.. We have a fairly young faculty; we also have some of our people who come from the long story of SCI-Arc, we have a good group of faculty that have been here for twenty, thirty, even forty years. But we have a huge group of young faculty, a big part of that were hired in the last ten years. I’d argue it’s one of the most vibrant set of young faculty you can find. To nurture that individuality in your school is the most important part of its success. So you can have all the right ideas, but if you don’t have the right guys to teach it, it doesn’t really work. So I always think it’s about the right balance about SCI-Arc being very character driven, very individually-driven, but at the same time I think we have a very solid platform. I think there’s a good diversity of voices under one umbrella. I don’t think we are a, what I’d call a buffet school, where you have a little bit of everything. I think we have certain diversity, and certain ideas, under one umbrella having to do with progressive, extreme speculative agenda. I think the combination of all that has been a major transformation in the school. But I like to think also that we are not committed to the product of technology per se, but it’s always to develop a very clear design agenda.
The other thing which I think has been a major transformation is, SCI-Arc has started to become consistently part of the status quo, mainstream, that we’ve started to rank really high in all these things of ranking, which usually we don’t care that much, but then it starts to appear and we think it’s not a bad thing. Because if you start to do that without compromising who you are, and doing what you think you do is great. So I don’t think we changed, I think there’s a whole culture changing society at large, which starts to be much more interested in what SCI-Arc has to offer, and has become a different transformation. [...]
At the purely content wise, particularly in the last 5-6 years, we’ve been doing a lot of conscious effort to start to develop a much more aggressive theoretical discourse, which is something that SCI-Arc, in one way or another, always did, but I think in the last 5 or 6 years we’ve started to build a much more vehement and coherent one. So we’ve started to have a very vibrant critical studies faculty. I think this has been associated with the thesis programs in undergrad and grad, and started to build this idea of discourse. As much as the pure notion … of beauty or design or any other things that maybe sometimes get misconstrued about Los Angeles.
So from the student perspective, charting this arc coming into your position in 2015, who do you feel is the ideal student to coincide with SCI-Arc?
It’s not an easy question to answer because I think our students have always been unique. I think a student who chooses to come to SCI-Arc is already a particular kind of student. They have a serious commitment to architecture in a particular way because we are just a school of architecture. We don’t have the infrastructure or history of a university, so I think the school is becoming more and more known, internationally and locally, so our international population is becoming more and more diverse, and I think our reach is getting bigger and bigger. So I see To me that’s [the students'] biggest challenge, how they handle the almost insanely exponential series of options of information, in terms of knowledge, opportunities, and what you can do.a change there. In the nature of the students, I think they still attract a very peculiar kind… exciting isn’t the right word, but somebody who already has a certain flair of flavor for extravagant approaches to things, to say the least. […]I think there is a whole change in culture at large that makes people to be much more open-minded. I think the students are way more informed and the publications like yours and others have made a kind of global culture that people can access what any school or any student is doing at any given time. So I think people are making much more educated decisions about their education than they did maybe twenty or fifteen years ago, because you have way more information. Now that could also be overwhelming, but I think that is, for me, a major transformation. People are less attracted to pedigrees or trajectories. I think people are much more interested in, for better and worse, the now, or whatever is available to them now.
My sense is that, I think the nature of the characters is probably similar. I just think our audience is bigger than it was. And it is not necessarily because of us; the whole cloud around us is changing, and I think that makes students make far more innovative decisions.
What do you think, in the position of administration, the incoming students will have the most difficulty with?
I think that places like SCI-Arc, our main problem is to keep rethinking the discipline, and eventually, the discipline has a direct relation with the profession. Sometimes it’s close, sometimes it’s not. We try always to anticipate what other possibilities will be professionally, we live in a different culture in which I don’t think anything is radical anymore, I don’t think there’s resistance. To be radical, avant-garde, there has to be resistance.so we try to produce students or graduates that can be equipped for the very dynamic changes in the profession. [...] when I was a student in ’98 doing my masters in New York, there was internet, but nowhere near where it is now. You’d still go down to the library and it’d be full of students with books in there studying. There was a notion of depth of knowledge: you’d read stuff. I think all these guys come into a completely different culture, based now on what I call, “density of knowledge”. The knowledge is there, but it gets acquired in a different manner. I think that’s a challenge for the school and the students; how we adapt to that and how we produce a sophisticated body of knowledge with that. I think the main challenge for them is: they have too much information. They have too many options, too many things. I think it’s our job to clarify their options a bit, to make clear within that density of knowledge where SCI-Arc’s parcel is. How we can contribute to them and being very clear about what kind of architects we’re trying to produce.
My personal take, and I’m not speaking for the school at large, is that architecture as a field is expanding. What an architect can do has started to go beyond. It has been going for a long time, but more than ever, we’re going beyond buildings. Many factors have to do with the way we share knowledge and information is very different. I think, as I said, this is not new. Our field, for many, many years, you can go to the Renaissance, the architects do art, and write, and whatever. It’s been going on for a long time. What’s very different now is that many, many disciplines are sharing the same language. The tools that we use are exactly the same if you’re in fashion, architecture, car design, or even medicine. A lot of the language is very interchangeable. There is a whole series of territories that is becoming much more dynamic in terms of what an architect is and what architecture can be. The other thing which I always find fascinating is if you look at the main professions, at least for someone from Argentina, where I grew up, engineering, law, medicine, architecture — architecture is the only one that still remains architecture as a singular thing. If you’re an engineer, you can be an electrical engineer, bioengineer, and civil engineer, whatever. If you go into medicine, you can be a neurosurgeon, a dermatologist, a proctologist. It’s the same with law. Architecture is still the only field, if you’re a CEO of a corporate architecture firm, you have the same education and background than somebody who runs a speculative radical practice. Architecture doesn’t have specialties; it comes by agenda and discourse. If you go to SCI-Arc, it’d be one kind, Cornell another, etc. Architects now are doing architecture, whereas there are also a lot of architects in computing, advertising, in Apple or car design or film, entertainment. I think architecture is a way to see and understand the world. I think the challenge for these guys is how to navigate this world wherein all the options are opening in a way. Financially and so on, If you see the transformation of the industrial part of downtown Los Angeles, I would argue with no hesitation that SCI-Arc has been a major player in reactivating that part of the city.yes the profession is suffering, but there’s also whole new other opportunities for people who study architecture to do things that relate to the field. To me that’s their biggest challenge, how they handle the almost insanely exponential series of options of information, in terms of knowledge, opportunities, and what you can do.
At the same time we know that certain things don’t change. There’s a human condition, humanism in the discipline that’s the same forever. It’s not like everything is different. That to me, is one thing I see the most. I was talking to my students in the studio and I asked them, “Who’s your favorite architect?” No one will tell you one. They’ll all tell you I don’t have one, I have many, because they are part of what I call the playlist, the iTunes playlist culture vs. the album culture. People of my generation we have a favorite architect, we know their work up-and-down. We can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s modern, it is what it is. It’s a sign of a completely different approach. To me that’s a challenge, how students build knowledge, how we keep the holistic point of view that an architect needs to have.
Does that factor into the theory that SCI-Arc teaches?
It factors in a lot. It’s a bit like medicine; we have to push it on them. When they realize the opportunities, it becomes an interesting thing. When I say this it sounds crazy, because of the perception that people have about me and my own work, don’t always align with what I’m going to say. To me, I think the notion of ethics, and the ethical dimension of the discipline is going to be an interesting problem to see unravel in the next years. We’re moving more and more towards a way that basically, you’re going to be able to build anything. Right now you can build pretty much everything. Steel is too expensive, but it’s getting cheaper and cheaper as we go by, so we can see in the next 20-30 years, complete transformation of that. If you get to the point that you can build anything, you can build anything for a reasonable price, how do you know right from wrong?
We also have a reputation of doing what we think is right to do.So you’re saying we’re going to reach an architectural singularity, and the only way to retain our humanity at that point is to be taught theory classes?
Not only theory, but I think the notion of ethics is going to be more and more present. Honestly I don’t think this is only an architectural problem. If you’re a young student coming into medicine now, with stem cells and synthetic organs and so on, and they’re anticipating that in this century we’ll see people live to 150-160. We have people with their life extended by a bunch of chemicals and so on, we have to ask ourselves: When is enough? How many synthetic organs should we replace in the human body? Of course architecture is different, it’s not the same metaphysical problem, but it’s the same problem of the humanism of things. To me there’s going to be a fascinating problem, that isn’t only a challenge for students but the schools and the profession, for everybody. When you see what’s going on in China or Dubai or Abu Dhabi and so on, there’s a certain sense of “Everything goes”. To me, that’s a fascinating challenge, how do you build that? And again, you have to be very careful that you don’t become moralistic about ethics. It’s very dangerous to think that your ethics can be deployed on everybody. But I think you have to build a partial-collective ethics. To me that’s a fascinating problem. […] When you look at people like the founders of SCI-Arc like Mayne and Kappe or Eric Moss, these were people who were part of a very progressive radical agenda, but also were very clearly defined by the May ’68 events and the 60s in general… There was a very clear sense of “right or wrong”, a very clear dimension which today is very different. So you have radical architecture being sponsored by major corporations, which in ’68 or ’72 would be unthinkable, that a radical architect would do something for Apple or BMW. Today we don’t see a conflict with that. Or working for certain governments, like totalitarian regimes. [...] I think we need to drop the radical word, because we live in a different culture in which I don’t think anything is radical anymore, I don’t think there’s resistance. To be radical, avant-garde, there has to be resistance. Today we live in a much more permeable society, but to me that is a fascinating thing, because all the lines are a bit more blurred and require readjustment.
A lot of schools are thinking now, in terms of program and directive, around cities. They're forming satellites in cities around the world. And architecture schools are responding to your ideas of ethics and morals in terms of civics. How should an ethical architect continue to practice and exist in a globalized society, while retaining sensitivity to the civics of a different area? I'd like to hear about how you conceptualize SCI-Arc’s relationship to Los Angeles, and what potential partnerships exist there, in terms of putting students to work.
The whole ethic thing is a tricky territory, it’s a big issue and I think sometimes we associate ethical only with what is “Doing good”. I think architecture is a big world, it requires people doing shelters and super high-end architectures. I’m not talking about ethics in terms of doing farms in houses; I’m not saying that, I’m talking about the whole discipline. But specifically, I think this is something Eric Moss has been incredibly proactive with and put the school in terms of the position, in particular with downtown Los Angeles. If you see the transformation of the industrial part of downtown Los Angeles, I would argue with no hesitation that SCI-Arc has been a major player in reactivating that part of the city. I think over the years, the school has been doing a lot of outreach programs with the government and the city and homeless community. Right now we just started a project this semester for Habitat for Humanity. The school has been committed to the city in many ways, in every aspect. Doing things, very that's the nature of SCI-Arc, it was set up by practitioners to create a different way to education that has a very symbiotic, dynamic relation between discipline and profession, teaching and practicingstraightforward, being in an area that was like Neverland in 2007. Where the school is now, there was literally nothing. But also working with our Councilwoman Jan Perry and Councilman Jose Huizar and now I think we have a new mayor who seems to have an interest in architecture. He’s already been in conversation with SCI-Arc; he did our graduation commencement speech for the first time in SCI-Arc history. […]
To produce the work we want to produce we have to change how cities relate on the political level, how we can empower the political power in the cities to control developers. I think it’s a challenge for us, we’re on the way to doing that, I think the school has made many inroads but there’s a lot more that we can be doing. I think it’s one of the interesting possible scenarios for SCI-Arc, but for schools of architecture at large to get engaged more and more in work, in the “Real world”, and not to only work in a speculative way inside the academic doors. Which, by the way, happens in pretty much every other field. If you look at pretty much any medical advance, it really happens first in universities in collaboration with private things, and so on. I think there’s a venue we can exploit and develop more; I think there’s a whole notion of civic responsibility but I think SCI-Arc’s approach to civic responsibility must be unique. I think it’s our job to reach to the community at large, the city at large. […] We’re also doing things with other cities; we have a very close relationship with the city of Barcelona right now and we’ve been doing things with them. They have a beautiful model of private and civic and government responsibility that I think that maybe we can convey to Los Angeles the value of that. That institution and academies and government and private money can all get together to figure out what is better for cities and so on. [...]
We don’t anticipate doing mini SCI-Arcs all over the world. I think it’s fine, it’s a good model, I think it works, but I don’t think it’s our role. SCI-Arc, to me, has to be an advanced, elite unit, we have to always be at the forefront and to be at the forefront, you have to concentrate your energies and your efforts. SCI-Arc is committed to LA and a way to understand the world, what I call the “Los Angeles way of doing things”, which I feel a part of and I think SCI-Arc is too.
We can help the city of Los Angeles, particularly downtown, to be more of a laboratory. These are things that Los Angeles historically did, but for some reason in the last 10-15 years, maybe we became too much like other cities, and we’ve allowed codes and bureaucracy to limit that. But we have SCI-Arc, and we have the architects, and we have Los Angeles, which at the moment is a city completely committed to being a laboratory for civic experimentation. Downtown is a giant civic experiment, the way it’s been repopulated and reconquered and so on. For sure we’re going into that hybrid model.
You mentioned a few corporate sponsorships that you'd like to work with in your candidate presentation. How do you imagine partnering with such large entities, and what would you like to get out of it?
That has to do with a larger agenda of how you grow an institution, from development, to patrons to so on. It's probably known that schools of architecture always struggle with that, all schools struggle raising money, but architecture is particularly complicated. My personal view is to create partnerships with certain companies that already have an interest in design. It's a good vehicle for the school to interact with reality, but also an interesting way to work with endowments and sponsorships and so on. For me the rule is simple: SCI-Arc has to remain being SCI-Arc, so we're open to talk with everybody as long as we can control what we're doing. If it aligns with the agenda of the school. The beauty of our school is that we're independent; we still are mainly run by tuition, which gives us a huge amount of autonomy and gave us freedom when the recession hit. […] Even though we're a small school of architecture, I think we have a very good, solid reputation, a very honest reputation. We also have a reputation of doing what we think is right to do. So anything that aligns with that interest… I really think it's an important aspect of development and reaching out, of explaining our ethos to a larger audience. Our job is to expand our audience.
So without showing your cards, what would be an ideal collaboration? Can you give me a name?
I would say three scales of collaboration are interesting, and in no particular order, and we are not in conversation with any of them, but I would say companies committed to innovation and design, these companies that are always at the forefront of technology and materials, aesthetics and so on, but also to work with governments about rethinking their cities. In Latin America, or Africa, or India, and even much more outside the box things like biotech companies. So I don't see it as a singular thing, I see it as different territories of what we can do, to the city level to small objects, to buildings, pure material. The way I see it, it has to be with companies that I think have a very innovative, progressive agenda in what they do. I think new materials is a fascinating territory, so I think that's something that already we're doing, already in Eric's years there have been many inroads on that front. I think that is a huge territory to be explored, the use of new materials and the whole issue of sustainability. But in a way that's much more interesting than just LEED certification which seems to be another kind of generic thing that applies to everything. I think … to keep rethinking what the city is, the problem of density. I think any partnership that allows us to explore incremental density. So maybe the right developers also are interesting people to partner with.
Also there's a whole thing about our relation to Latin America. It's not clear what it means in terms of companies, but I see our relationship with Latin America as a possibility for partnerships and collaborations. I think Los Angeles is very much a part of Latino culture, and I would like Los Angeles to get more and more involved with Latin America and see if we can put up a good fight with Miami as the center of business for it. I think SCI-Arc could contribute well to that, that it would be a good territory.
There has to be some constant connection, that intuitiveness towards the market, or else things won't work out. How important do you think it is for the Head to be (or have been) a practicing architect?
I think it's crucial. I think the school never had a director that was not an architect who had a practice. Now, we can argue that each of those directors had different successes in their practices, and each of those directors served in different stages in their lives. Obviously I don't have the most commercially successful practice, but I have a practice, we are engaging with clients and competitions and exhibitions. I think it's absolutely crucial, because that's the nature of SCI-Arc, it was set up by practitioners to create a different way to education that has a very symbiotic, dynamic relation between discipline and profession, teaching and practicing, and I think not only myself but pretty much everybody who teaches at SCI-Arc feels that way. I can say with absolute pride, 100% of our design faculty are practicing architects. We don't have professional teachers, people who just teach. Now not all of them have super commercially successful practices, some of us have more speculative or commercial practices, but I think it's absolutely crucial for our school. I'm not saying it's crucial for architecture education at large, I think it's crucial for the people in the leadership, that pretty much anyone who teaches is committed to the outside world, and not only the Obviously I don't have the most commercially successful practice, but I have a practice, we are engaging with clients and competitions and exhibitions. I think it's absolutely crucial [to have a practice], because that's the nature of SCI-Arc...internal world. I think that's the mission of SCI-Arc, that's the role of SCI-Arc, to have that interaction, I think it's absolutely crucial. And I don't' think we should be afraid of the market; in the end of the day it's a profession. We are training people to become professionals. Now we want them to be a certain kind of professional, and hopefully to aspire to be a certain kind of architect. But we want them to be successful; I don't think anybody starts a career with the hope of not being successful. The questions are: What are the terms of success and what are the terms to be interacting with? But I find it's absolutely crucial that you have that presence outside of the world. We've always said to our faculty, when we do the contract renovations, when we do the evaluations of faculty and so on, the people like myself, Eric, Ming Fung, John Enright who are in the leadership positions of the school, and when we talk with our colleagues and faculty, we know what they are teaching. We see it, so we know they’re competent teachers, so those conversations usually go, "What are you doing outside? How's your office doing? How's your work?" and a big chunk of progress in your role and status in the school comes from what you do outside the school, not only what you do inside. It comes with a description of the school to do that. Particularly in my case, and I'm going to be following in the steps of someone like Eric, who is a major, major figure in architecture world, so we have to remain committed to that. Whoever comes after me will probably be in the same bay. I think now, as I said, Ray Kappe, Michael Rotondi, Neil Denari, Eric Moss, me as the next guy, we all have different practices and we all have different ethos about the work and different ideologies, but I think each of them were committed to the practice and the real world. So I think it's absolutely crucial for the survival of SCI-Arc. Personally if you ask me, every school of architecture in the world should have people that do that. But that's their problem, not ours.
What trends in digital design have you felt, both in the profession and academia, and how have they clashed or interacted?
I think right now we see a very seamless relation between them. The question to me is what are the agencies of contamination that you allow to happen? If you look at corporate architecture practices, they're pretty much using the same tools and mechanisms that they use in the school. My sense is that they see it as tools and in the schools we try not to see it as tools but we try to see them as techniques, or discourses, a critical and methodological way of thinking about the problem of architecture. I speak for myself on this; I don't see digital tools as tools. I see digital as a completely different conceptual and cultural domain that's completely changing the way we produce. It's a bit like when the electric guitar came to play, it was not just louder guitars, it completely changed the sound, and it created a whole music that didn't exist before. When you think of the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones, or the Blues guys, which really are the beginning, like with Muddy Waters and Robert Jones and so on, it completely creates a whole new thing. So I think there's a fundamental difference between what that means, Britney Spears sampling a guitar song. Not the same thing. If we see them as tools, yeah it's seamless, they're the same, but I think there's a techno-rationality that the profession sometimes applies to it, that I don't think is the way to go in academia. Don't get me wrong, I think a school like SCI-Arc should be committed to the profession, but I think we have to be committed to the profession to rethink the discipline, how the discipline changes the profession. I think the best moments of history in architecture are when the discipline and the profession, why we are still so keen and trapped in modernism or some other paradigm, because there was a time when the profession and the discipline were very tight. Right now we are in a much more difficult place, in which profession and discipline play that they are the same, but sometimes they grow very apart, and I think it's our job to figure out how close and how distant from the profession we need to be at any given time. I really see digital technology inside the school as a speculation, as a cultural speculative problem, and I think in the profession, certain professions, they use it just as a problem solver. I see the school as a problem creator. If that makes any sense.
A constructive problematizer.
Yes. But one of the things I really enjoy about SCI-Arc, is that we really don't talk about digital or anything like that; we take it as a given, it's the landscape, and the question is: "How do we build a discourse around what's available?" A fact about technology is that it changes all the time. If you link your discourse, your cultural attitude, towards whatever sets of tools are available at any given time, you're doomed, because it's going to change. No matter what. I used to be pretty good, now any one of these guys are better than I am with software. My own office is changing like that. So you have to have a very clear sense of what you do with it. You also have to be very smart, it opened a whole new set of possibilities that didn't exist before, it completely changed. […]I always give the same example. If you think of someone like Jimi Hendrix, "Voodoo Child", if you do that with a classical, Spanish guitar, it doesn't work, right? You need an electric guitar and a wobble pedal. Now I have an electric guitar and a pedal, and I am not Jimi Hendrix. That song was great because Jimi Hendrix had a very clear sensibility, a very clear attitude towards what he was interested in doing as a musician, as a guitar problem.
The tools don't have their own agency, you have to give them that.
And one of the things I like about SCI-Arc is we don't talk about digital architecture; we don't separate about it. If somebody comes in and invites me to be part of a digital architecture program I say no, that's so uninteresting. You have digital architecture and then what, pencil and pen architecture? It doesn't work like that. In the 90s, digital architecture was by itself a theoretical discourse. It's not anymore, it's just the canon. The profession is much more fascinated with the conversation of digital, as some kind of a magic trick. For me, I Jimi Hendrix, "Voodoo Child", if you do that with a classical, Spanish guitar, it doesn't work, right? You need an electric guitar and a wobble pedal. Now I have an electric guitar and a pedal, and I am not Jimi Hendrix.always say it's like the difference between a wizard and a magician. Harry Potter is a wizard, right? Now David Copperfield is a magician, David Copperfield doesn't do magic. He does the professional act of deceiving, and he's very perfectly orchestrated, organized, rehearsed. He's never going to tell you his magic. It's very methodical, he's never going to talk about it in terms of magic. There's a bit of that that I think is interesting, but as I said, we don't think in those terms. The school, at least not now, maybe 10-14 years ago, we're talking about that. We don't think of robot architecture. We think architecture. Some people use robots, some people use computers, some people use machines, some people use 3D printers, some people use animations. It's all architecture; it's all about, what does it mean interns of your discourse, your sensibility, cultural behavior at large.
Those concerns seem like something that large research universities can afford to specialize in, actually attacking those questions separately from any concept of practice or professional architecture.
I think we do architecture design, research and speculation, but I don't think we're a research institute. We are a school of architecture. In the more traditional sense, we think of architecture as a humanistic, holistic problem. We try to deal with all the faces of the problem. Now in a way, each of our faculty gives different priorities to it, but I personally don't believe in the separation of research and practice, I don't believe in the separation of speculation and reality, to me it's all intertwined. And I like to think that SCI-Arc tries to operate in that territory. I don't think our faculty teach different things from what they practice, I think they see everything as part of the same symbiotic relationships. Of course what that you do in your teaching isn't exactly the same thing that you do in your office, but there is a very high percentage of shared DNA, and that's how it should be. It's different from a research institute, where people only choose to research and most of them don't operate outside that research, and the other way around. Then there is a professionalist kind of school of architecture which is all driven by rules of regulations of the school in the most mundane and flat way. We aren't that either. We are a school of architecture.
Former Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Currently freelancing. Be in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org