Hernan Diaz Alonso

News Q&A

Hernan Diaz Alonso.
Michal Czerwonka / Courtesy SCI-Arc
SCI-Arc’s Board of Directors recently announced that Hernan Diaz Alonso, long-standing professor and founder of the firm Xefirotarch, will be taking the helm of the school after Eric Owen Moss’ tenure is up in September, 2015. Diaz Alonso, born in Argentina, has worn many hats at the school over the past 14 years, including Distinguished Professor of Architecture, Graduate Thesis Coordinator, and, most recently, Graduate Programs Chair. In 2012, the American Institute of Architects named him Educator of the Year.

Though not known for built work, since emerging from Columbia University in the early 2000s Diaz Alonso has been not-so-quietly tracing new formal territories in architecture and scooping up awards for provocative installations and proposals. On a quiet morning in the Arts District, before the board had made its formal announcement, Diaz Alonso talked with AN contributor Guy Horton about the importance of being open minded, the ethical mission of architectural education, and what he calls “radical continuity.”

Guy Horton: What are you looking forward to most about being director?

Hernan Diaz Alonso: I’m excited about the possibilities of moving the school forward. It’s a huge challenge because SCI-Arc is in great shape, so Eric (Owen Moss) is making my job exciting. In a way it would be easier if there were lots of crises to deal with. For me it’s also a generational thing. I’m representing a generation of architects that operate in a different way, so I’m interested to see how I can help position the school.

How do you view the role of director at SCI-Arc? What should the aims of a director be?

I’ve always thought the director at SCI-Arc is like a quarterback. I’ll be the guy with the ball, but I’m part of a team of characters. The school has a lot of characters. The director has to be very open-minded and allow different voices to coexist. Particularly at SCI-Arc because of all the strong positions and voices that make up the school. The school doesn’t need a friendly dictator, it needs a team player with a vision.

pitch-black show at mak museum vienna
xefirotarch
 

How should SCI-Arc be positioned in relation to other schools both globally and locally?

The beauty of SCI-Arc is that it’s individualistic. It doesn’t pay too much attention to what other schools are doing. SCI-Arc plays a role in the discipline and that role will always be to exist on the fringe. Radical isn’t the proper word. It’s progressive and this is good for the discipline. I see it as part of a group of 10-12 schools globally that occupy this position. Locally, we are the independent one. That being said, we have a strong on-going dialog with UCLA and play a role in the city. We have a progressive agenda and challenge the discourse. This means something different in 2014 than it did when the school started. There is a fundamental ethical mission to the school.

Where should architectural pedagogy be headed and what do you think are the most critical issues facing architectural education?

In my view, number one would be ethics. We have moved into the territory where anything can be designed and built, but how do you distinguish between what should and shouldn’t be done? This is the main problem. This goes beyond designing buildings. Architecture is not just about buildings. So, I think one of the goals of education is to push the boundaries of the field and expand what architecture can do.

Should we expect radical shifts at the school or do you see your role more in terms of continuity?

Radical continuity. Don’t anticipate any radical shifts. SCI-Arc itself is already a radical shift. The radical agenda is to continue a sense of radical continuity and leave possibilities open. The school is in a good place.

budapest museum of fine arts competition
xefirotarch
 

Given your long history with the school and having worked closely with students, are there issues and initiatives you have been thinking about for a long time that you anticipate trying to implement? New programs?

In the next three-to-four years I’m interested in starting post-graduate programs, crossover programs that have the potential for growth. I’ve been thinking about starting a landscape program and to have us dangle our feet in the theory world. I’ve also been interested in relating the school to the entertainment industry. Maybe even a post-grad in real estate.

With new directors often come new faculty. Are there people you would like to bring to the school?

LA has an amazing pool of talent. Within the first three years I’d like to get two or three provocateurs from different generations. All I can say at this point is that they would be powerful names.

The school has really grown since establishing itself in the freight depot and has been a significant catalyst for changing the neighborhood. What are your thoughts on the school’s role in the neighborhood and the city?

This wouldn’t have happened without SCI-Arc as a cultural institution. It’s always been interested in public policy and relations with the city, and the city council. It’s a major player in the development of the area. I’m looking forward to continuing this and hope to keep influencing what happens in the neighborhood. This area has always been about a different way of approaching life. Eric has always been fantastic about connecting with this.

What are the biggest challenges facing the school?

Institutional expansion. It’s not so well known to the mainstream. In the architecture field people know it, but people outside don’t know. Building a solid, sustainable endowment is also critical. How we keep the fire alive, the provocation alive. Another challenge is how to keep the faculty interested and retain them so they don’t leave when their practices start taking off. Attracting new students. Development of scholarships, fellowships, fundraising; these are all important things. We are more agile than a university. We can move faster and create easy partnerships. I’d like to capitalize on this.

Alessi silverware
xefirotarch
 

NCARB is talking about licensing upon graduation. Will you incorporate issues of professional practice and licensing into the curriculum? Is this important?

We already do this. I’m for it. It’s like Argentina, where I’m from, and Europe. I was licensed upon graduation after a six-year program. The licensing system in the U.S. is not quite working. If it were it wouldn’t constantly be a topic of debate. I think the schools should have more responsibility and should be willing to help students. This doesn’t mean we will compromise our attitude. Innovation in everything, even business and professional practice is what we’re interested in. We have a free spirit but also a serious commitment to producing stronger graduates.

You are perhaps best known for your distinctive digital designs, but what other aspects of Hernan informs your new role?

I like to think I understand the difference between my work as a designer and as a director. I’m not interested in extending my design aesthetic into the realm of this responsibility, projecting it upon the school. I like to think I’m part of a lineage, but I don’t impose my vision. You have to keep in mind, I was educated in a hard-core modernist vein. My current design agenda is not the same as my agenda as an educator. I appreciate all kinds of architecture as long as it is serious and takes on extreme ambitions.

What would you like to say to people who are critical about you succeeding Eric for whatever reason?

Opposition is healthy. There shouldn’t be 100 percent consensus. But an anonymous group of students? It would be nice if they could show themselves, come out into the open rather than hide behind anonymity. I’m right here. They can talk to me. I hope over the years they will come around, but for now, have a little bit of trust. I’ve been here for 14 years. I haven’t built much, this is true, but the school is a cultural problem, not a craft problem. Practice and being director are not necessarily interrelated. It’s important to have debate and accountability.

Ten years from now, what would you like to be known for as a director, educator, and architect?

One of my heroes, Enric Miralles, once said, “As an architect the least you can do is to leave a place better than when you started.”

You are going to be a busy guy. Will you still teach?

Yes. It’s important to me. When I was directing graduate thesis I always had my own students, and as graduate chair I still teach. It’s how you stay in the center of things.

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