Xefirotarch has been selected the winner of this year's MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program and will be building the pavilion for the 2005 WarmUp. Archinect editors Francisco David Boira and Zoë Coombes met with principal, Hernan Diaz Alonso for breakfast early on a rainy Saturday morning. Francisco David and Zoë both ordered the granola. Hernan ordered steak and eggs.
FDB: Congratulations on winning the MoMA/PS1 Young Architects competition! Were you surprised?
Above: MoMA/PS1 winning entry, 2005.
HDA: [Laughs.] Ha. Yeah, you are always surprised when you win. It's kind of weird to feel you've gotten away with it. So, when we got into the top five, that kind of surprised me because our portfolio was full of these kind of, well... extreme projects.
FDB: But you won...
It wasn't like they call you and just say "You Won." It was more like, "We picked you, but we want you to produce a prototype and when we see the prototype, we will go ahead. They had a lot of questions about the viability of the project.
FDB: Your practice hasn't built much in the past...
HDA: Well, that always has been in one way or another, the intention of the program at PS1. They've always been supportive of people who don't have an extensive 'construction trajectory' lets say. Nevertheless, I have built in the past. Not a lot, but I built in Argentina.
FDB: What did you build?
HDA: A series of stores and a public school. But this was before the computer era. I think they really liked the portfolio. Perhaps part of our mystery was that in the States, the only thing we've built was the installation in Los Angeles.
Above: Emotional Rescue at SCI-Arc, 2002.
ZC: Are you referring to 'Emotional Rescue'?
HDA: Yeah. But we also have another project going on now in L.A which will be built. The client is spectrum3D - the company that normally does our prototyping. They are a peculiar client because they are also fabricating the parts.
FDB: But back to PS1, what is your proposal about?
HDA: The project, like all projects in the office, belongs to a family. This project belongs to a family which began with the competition entry for the Pusan Concert Hall. For Pusan, the design we submitted earned us fourth prize.
Above: Pusan Concert Hall, Korea 2004.
When Archilab and the Venice Biennale asked us to send the Pusan entry to be included in the show, we took the opportunity to develop it further. In the end, we created whole new families of ideas in relation to topology and cellular aggregations and started to work more and more with scripts and particles. The development of that project and the model and some of the renderings and the plans and all the things you have to do for something like the Venice Biennale, were used as a laboratory for where we wanted to go next.
FDB: And this was what the design for PS1 is based on?
HDA: Yes. What we did for PS1 belongs to the family that began with the concert hall. It became more precise and the scale is smaller. But, like Pusan, it operates with a logic that starts with a singular cell that multiplies based on a code. The coding of the cells begin to behave much more like organisms that relate to each other so you create a whole where the parts are not modular. Rather, it is an incremental variation of a singular unit. The other part of the project was the context, in terms of it being a project in a place like New York in the summer, and all those other things.
ZC: Which other things?
HDA: Well, the project had this kind of cross condition between cartoons, and amateur pornography. It tried to restore the notion of play, and ways of creating multiple scales to be discovered and occupied in multiple ways. There is a very conscious development of the problem of the cartoon which is a steady by-product of techniques that explore the grotesque and the horrific, with a kind of childish, playful attitude.
ZC: Are we supposed to feel the design is beautiful?
HDA: I don't know. I used to think that the work we did was about a search for a new definition of beauty. I don't think it is about that any more. I think it is the whole exploration of the problem of 'affect' and I think that affect has to do certainly with an aesthetic condition. Someone could argue that the grotesque is in some sense, a condition of beauty, but for me, the project has much more to do with this moment where the grotesque and the horrific, things that are a little bit unknown, become codified and known. Throughout time every artistic expression couldn't at first be classified in the traditional cannon of aesthetics. No, I don't think this project is beautiful in the traditional sense of beauty. I think it is much more related to the problem of the sublime. It is a different problem, and I think it is what Kipnis is trying to define in this transformation between the work of Bacon and the Koons.
ZC: Speaking of Kipnis, he always says your work has a lot of Tango in it. You are the first Latino architect to win PS1...
HDA: Well, maybe if we trace the blood heritage of some of the other winners there is more Latino blood... But, no, seriously, I've had this conversation with Jeff about the Tango and the 'syncopa' which is a kind of theoretical argument that has the attention of the painter Fabian Marcaccio which has to do with tango and the relationship to his paintings. Kipnis argued that my work has that kind of dynamic movement- that it is topology mixed with tango. I think that in this case, it is fine to say that because the work has a kind of melancholic romantic condition which I think my work always has.
ZC: Does it build upon tradition?
HDA: In the end, what ever you do always belongs to certain traditions. What I like about the project is that I think it is a good syntax of many visual things that interest me, and influences of people who have been important in my career. A lot of childish, playful attitude has come from Enric Miralles and then you have a lot of rules of order and organization which have much more to do with Eisenman .
Of course, I have all this technique and digital dreaming work that has been a big influence from Greg Lynn, not only for me but on my whole generation. And there is the whole problem of 'affect' which has been the main subject of my exploration which has come from Jeff Kipnis who has been a big influence in my life. And I think the horrific and the grotesque have come from conversations with Eric Owen Moss. But as I was saying, I think you are who you are, and your work starts to relate to your evolution. I never make a serious scientific argument even though I use techniques and methodologies that are very precise and very mathematical and algorithmic. I think my work is much more corrupt in the whole notion of the process.
FDB: Your drawings remind me a lot of Miralles drawings, although he never relied on computers.
FDB: But do you rely on your drawings as a way to indicate how the project should be built? How does his drawing technique influence your work?
HDA: Of course there is a lot of influence from Enric because he had an ability to think about the project without distinction from representational to construction drawings. In addition, people like Peter never made a distinction between design and construction drawings because they are part of the same process.
FDB: How about new techniques?
HDA: One of the things that fascinates me the most about new techniques is the opportunity to compress and collapse time which allows things to happen through coding. It has the potential to be embedded with all forms of information. Now, there have been changes in that as well. When I look at my work from 10 years ago, prior to computers, we used to do everything in plan, models and so on, which produced the three dimensionality as a byproduct of the geometry of the plans. Section never interested me in the past. It still doesn't interest that much actually. In this sense, there's been a 180 degree change over the drawings, because the drawings have become a byproduct of the manipulation of the form.
FDB: And the notion of drawing?
HDA: I think that now the logic of topology and form come first and the drawings are the byproducts. These in turn then start to set up the rules, but they come after. There is a whole series of transformations about what plans and sections mean today, which is just part of a much larger operation.
FDB: Your office is already trying to understand how the canopies will be built and transformed from three dimensional model into a two dimensional working drawing. Is there a specific technique to draw this construction data?
HDA: Basically what we are doing is asking a very simple question, which is: 'How do you transform our 3D geometry into something that can be understood as a 2D element and can then be bent and so on?' So what we are doing is projecting and coding very conventional techniques of digital projection. This is what we do to each expression, which gets printed and allows us to be able to bend the structure. What I hope for is that all this structure will have three dimensional properties that emerge from the three dimensionality. The translation has nothing to do with the possibility of fabricating three dimensions, but it has to do more with understanding the three dimensional geometry to produce, in this case, the structure of the canopies.
HDA: At the same time, I don't want this to sound complicated and so sophisticated because it's just a pavilion! It's not the Guggenheim, Bilbao. I mean I don't want to treat this project like it is a big money fest or anything. We are just trying to have fun and enjoy the ride and be absolutely irresponsible and childish and see what we get. And I think we will succeed in certain aspects and fail miserably in others. If not we'll open a restaurant somewhere.
HDA: No. However, projects do come from the frustration stemming from not being able to become a film director. Instead, I try to be cinematic with my architecture. All the projects explore dynamics and animation in order to develop a project almost like a small film which can be split and recombined. The process is much more corrupt, just as a film is made, so it is never a linear process. It's always edited at the end for multiple sequences.
FDB: Do you make a conscious decision to place your renderings and ideas on a black background?
Canopy unfold surface sample.
HDA: Yes. There is always this kind of science fiction, a sense of unreal. It's a very conscious decision, even though everybody operates within these domains, there seems to be a move towards white backgrounds, but we are going to keep resisting and keep rendering with black backgrounds.
FDB: Does the black background and red accents have anything to do with your period at Columbia?
HDA: At the beginning it was a little bit by default, and then you keep evolving until you kind of start to develop your own in a particular way, so for me it has to do with this extreme parallel reality aspect that I am interested in developing with the work.
FDB: You don't like the color blue. Nevertheless you have a new Alienware laptop which happens to be blue.
HDA: Oh man. I'd rather not talk about that. They didn't have a black one, so when I wanted to return this blue one (which I didn't request,) they said it would take more than a month to send me one in black, so I opted to keep the blue because we needed the machine. So that's that.
FDB: But again, what's the issue with the blue color?
HDA: It is like a neutral thing! It has no commitment or passion to it. When you don't know what to do, you get blue.
ZC: I heard a good audio clip from architectural record from an interview that you gave a couple of years ago.
HDA: Oh, that's very old!
ZC: And in it, the interviewer asked you where you thought you would be in five years. One of the things you said was that you hoped that you wouldn't have to negotiate your deep philosophical convictions about what architecture should be. Have you?
HDA: No. No! I think in that category, we are doing well... Yes, in that category we are doing well. I think so far, so good. America is good because it allows you to teach.
ZC: America? America opposed to where?
HDA: Opposed to Europe or Latin America. Academia here supports your research, your investigations, and your work with students but also, it gives you a lot of freedom because it pays you well so you don't have to comprise your work. In the end you have to compromise, but I think the issue is where you choose to compromise. The compromise I do is in moving from the digital to the real world. In that, there is a reduction that needs to happen, but that compromise should occur under your own rules. On that part, I have to say I am still pretty happy and proud of the practice we've developed. Anyways, we haven't had that many clients who have tried to corrupt us, so I don't know how solid my ethics are. Nobody has offered me a 60 million dollar project, so the truth is: I've never been tested deeply as to how strong my moral values are.
FDB: You also said in that interview that you hoped to be involved with new technologies of manufacturing while finding new possibilities of producing singular work. Does the PS1 project seem like the right challenge for this stage of your career?
HDA: It is, but due to the time frame, it forces you to improvise. Let me put is this way. I always hate when architects defend their base in the limitation of the budget. Everyone knows the rules of the PS1: its tight a schedule and a limited budget and I don't want to argue over those terms. All the way along, we are trying to apply as much innovation as we can. Nevertheless, we are going to be using a lot of conventional techniques. I always like that part of the problem where there is a negotiation between 19th century technology and 21st century technology. I think we are still trapped in that, because I don't believe the discipline has made a total transition. This project is not going to be either 100% new technologies, nor 100% traditional ones so there is going to be some kind of a bridge.
FDB: Is this a digital project?
HDA: Yeah sure absolutely!
FDB: Is it digitally produced?
HDA: It will have some digital production, but it will involve a lot of analog production too. It is a digital project in the way it was conceived, in the way that it was thought about from the conceptual point of view, and in the way we thought about the problem of geometry and form. It is also digital in terms of form in relation to topology. Here I think digital technology or digital techniques give you much more precision. They allow you to be more precise in the relation to that concept. We are seeing a generational shift in that sense. I think people of older generation see digital technology as what it can do for me?
People of my generation think more like "Ok what can I do for you?" The transfer of power is slightly different.
ZC: You really work in two different cities, teaching in LA at SCI-Arc all year, and in New York at Columbia in the spring. Maybe you are a little unusual because you really are in studio for all the scheduled days.
HDA: Yeah, I am still not in the Diva category where I am a total star and don't show up for studio.
ZC: Is it tiring or energizing?
HDA: No, it's energizing in every aspect. But you do start to wonder when you look at your flight as your moment to rest and you realize there is something wrong with your life. On the other hand, I don't want to be a cliché like everyone who complains about so much traveling. I like it. Let me put it this way: SCI-Arc and LA are my wife and NYC and Columbia University is my mistress. SCI-Arc has been my house and is the place that offered me all the chances, the people that understood and so on. Columbia is the place I enjoy visiting and being a visiting professor. My role here in New York is more peripheral. The laboratory where I developed all this stuff is in LA., at SCI-Arc. Actually my wife seems to be very happy that I get out of the house so she doesn't need to suffer me everyday of the week. It seems like it's working for everybody.
FDB: We heard that students really appreciate your studios because you also know how to use and operate the same tools that they use everyday in studio. Do you learn a lot from your students?
HDA: Oh yes. I mean, that is the whole point of teaching. My studios and seminars are always centered around exploring something that I don't know. I never base the studios on things that I have done in the past. For me, teaching has become the first line in the laboratory where we explore the ideas of where we are going. PS1 has been enormously influenced by the work we have been doing with students throughout the years. The whole notion of scripting, coding and particles is the by-product of all the explorations we have done in studios. Again, it sounds like a cliché, but I think that what makes America so unique is the possibility of the Academy. It is the kind of conditions that you find at SCI-Arc that become a true laboratory where you can research. And also, I try to revendicate this notion of fun. Architecture should be fun. I like to have fun with the students and like the students to have fun with me. To play like children who play very seriously, is the concept that I always try to follow. My studios are very brutal in terms of the rhythm, but at the same time, we have to try to not be dramatic or stressed. Architecture is important but we are not curing cancer. It's just a kind of a game.
ZC: Do you ever check Archinect?
HDA: No. I used to love it when it was this kind pirate, clandestine, bitching territory. To tell you the truth, I liked it because it was anonymous and everyone was trashing each other. I got trashed a couple of times on Archinect. I got supporters too.
ZC: Do you have a screen name?
HDA: No, I don't have a screen name. I don't log in anymore. I still check the news but I don't look at the discussions. I think it is a thing you do at a certain moment in your life and then you have to let it go. When your work starts to become more known, and you start to get discussed, (and I say this without arrogance!) the best thing to do is to not pay attention to what the people think of you, and focus on what you need to do. So I try not to look that much at what people say about my work. Some people like it. A lot of people hate it, and that's fine. Basically, I used to enjoy Archinect more when it was all about gossiping and now it has become more serious. Everybody is growing up, I guess...
FDB: Hernan, thank you very much and once again, congratulations.
HDA: Thank you.
Xefirotarch - Hernan Diaz Alonso
Principal in charge
Hernan Diaz Alonso
Francisco David Boira
Arup New York
Fiberglass Fabrication + molding
Advance Architecture group