In parallel to his professional activities, Alejandro Zaera-Polo has developed a substantial role within academia. Recently named Dean at Princeton University School of Architecture, Zaera-Polo spent some time with AN Contributor Jonathan Louie to discuss opportunities within the current economic environment.
Zaera-Polo is co-founder of London and Barcelona-based Alejandro Zaera-Polo Architecture (AZPA). Prior to being named dean at Princeton he was a visiting professor at Princeton, dean of the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, Berlage Chair at Delft University of Technology, and the first recipient of the Norman R. Foster Visiting Professorship at Yale.
You’ve led a career that has intertwined architecture education, theory, and practice. In this stage of your career, what made you decide to go back into education?
I don’t think that I’ve ever left education. Except for a period of about three years between my retirement at the Berlage Institute and when I started to teach here (at Princeton). The rest of my career has been linked to education or academic practice. It wasn’t that big of a change. What was more of a change was deciding to leave Europe and settle in the United States. The reasons for that are various, some of them are more related to personal life—my office, Foreign Office Architects, split up last year—and also the market collapsed; so it looked like a good opportunity to do something else, live somewhere else, and devote a little more time to academia.
The divide between architectural education and architecture—the academic agenda versus the culture of project management—has never been more magnified than at present. With such massive global unrest and uncertainty what opportunities does architectural education have to bridge the two in the current economic environment?
I think that architectural education now more than ever has to be linked to research. We always say that this is the most incredible crisis ever, but there have been other crises and other moments where practice and education models have had to be reinvented. I think that the most important thing you can teach an architectural student is to investigate, to be inquisitive, to research. This is not something new, but I think now it has become more acute because of the specificity of the moment and the opportunities that are appearing before us in this economy.
In terms of opportunities for investigation and developing new forms of practice, I have concerns with the environmental performance of building. The building industry is possibly the biggest agent in carbon emissions and energy consumption. What would happen if we were able to reduce its emissions by ten percent? The other area where I see opportunities is computation and digital fabrication. The incorporation of sensors into buildings and objects are dramatically changing the way buildings work or could work. These developments have drastically affected other industries, but have not yet been effectively incorporated into the discipline of architecture. There are obviously important opportunities that are based in an entirely new geo-political system; where certain regions of the world are starting to gain importance while others are troubled with enormous political and religious problems. Now that we have the possibility of sitting back and contemplating the situation from a distance, we can start addressing these issues more deliberately.
Can you talk more about architectural research? It seems there are two primary types of research, one in relationship to technique and application and the other stresses an agenda of theory and experimentation.
I don’t think that you should distinguish between architectural theory and practical application. I don’t want to point fingers and name names, but you can imagine the schools in the world where there is no architectural theory, and everything is technology and delivery or training for the market. On the flipside there are those schools where people don’t get to actually think about how a building comes together. I think the idea that theory only applies to the history of architecture or philosophical relationships of the discipline is a mistake. And I think that if you were to talk to people who are important theorists, they will probably tell you that technologies are tinged with political and theoretical content. Maybe you can’t create an efficient theory or history of architecture without having the knowledge of technical processes.
The model of education or model of research that I’m interested in is where there is a certain engagement and investment with the technologies of building. Not only with current construction standards, but exploring technologies that are not yet part of the building industry, for example the exponential growth of digital fabrication. This is a phenomenon that transcends the question of production. This is a cultural phenomenon. This is the definition of the condition of the status of people as consumers versus producers. There are issues within the technology of digital production. To give you an example it will have an ontological, sociological, and political effect—a dramatic political effect, just as social media is having a dramatic effect in the way we inhabit architecture and inhabit cities. That is the kind inquiry that is relevant today.
Earlier in your career you started to write for El Croquis, but since then have shifted your academic interests towards theorizing opportunities in design practice. Can you talk about how your interests changed over time?
This is a difficult thing to answer in a short format because my theoretical and practical interests have grown and expanded since I was a student writing for El Croquis. As a European student I was interested in technology and the technological capacity for the development of buildings. So, for example, I used to know how to calculate the structure of an 11-story-high building and size it for rebar. But if you read the text that I was writing back then you’ll see I was trying to relate architecture to philosophical discourse. I was almost forcing philosophy onto architecture.
But when my practice took off and it became the most important thing, my thinking started shifting back towards the areas of knowledge that I grew up with. So I became interested again in technology and in the problems of the practice of architecture. Then I started to derive questions from that; questions about globalization, about contemporary culture, environmental problems, and also opportunities that may arise from the engagement with the world of social media. So it kind of goes back and forth, between technical performance or considerations and more theoretical or philosophical considerations. I’ve always been an advocate for a seamless application between theory and practice. I’ve had the opportunity to operate on both sides simultaneously, and in my mind it is very important to have a process that can go back and forth between the more abstract and theoretical distance, and the deep engagement of the built environment.
We now find ourselves in a world where both practitioners and students alike have access to a global information network. How do you see the architectural institutions adapting and responding to this non-spatial cultural phenomenon. Or will it?
That was the last experiment that I did here at Princeton (in fall 2011) and am now continuing. How can technologies that are commonly used in everyday life—like social media for example—produce major architectural changes both in terms of the nature of the things that we need to build and the institutions that need to host? What will be the architectural expression of the culture of the web 2.0? Those are the issues I’m interested in developing at Princeton.
Architecture has traditionally been one of the main depositories of public-ness. But now public-ness occurs on different levels and requires different physical infrastructure in order to occur. Or if it doesn’t require different physical infrastructure, it creates the possibility for new infrastructure to be generated. I believe that these issues are really the beauty of institutions like Princeton, with a global reach and very well consolidated intellectual infrastructure that we can hope to develop with neighboring disciplines within the university. That commitment to the next form of architectural knowledge is what an institution like Princeton should be doing now.