Interviewed by Benjamin Smith

Xefirot Shenzhen 1
  • Shenzhen Art Museum and Library Competition 2015, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso
Xefirot Shenzhen 2
  • Shenzhen Art Museum and Library Competition 2015, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso
Xefirot Shenzhen 3
  • Shenzhen Art Museum and Library Competition 2015, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso
Xefirot Shenzhen 4
  • Shenzhen Art Museum and Library Competition 2015, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

September 9, 2015

Benjamin: The theme of this issue is “useless.” On occasion you've said that the best architecture is often useless. I was interested if you could extrapolate on this position. How can architecture jettison the Vitruvian principle of utilitas, or utility? Why is this desirable and how can architecture exceed use?

Hernan: I think some of the most important architecture is useless, or rather the most important quality for architecture is uselessness. I'm referring to the idea of practicality of use. I'm not saying this is like "a work of art is useless." There's nothing you can do with it, in practical terms. It's not useless in the sense that it won't contribute to society, culture, the human condition, and so on. The argument to me is that some of the best historical or contemporary architecture is not necessarily associated with a practical application.

Architecture should be able to be used, but I don't think that the use is what defines the quality of architecture. Don't get me wrong, I think there are plenty of examples in history where the practical aspect and the esoteric aspect, for a lack of better word, come together. If you ask a group of people in a room what the Parthenon was used for, most people would have a vague sense of what that was, but nobody would really define it in absolute terms. Of course, every piece of architecture has some use, and it is done with a reason for use, but a remarkable work has never been defined by its use alone. I really believe that extraordinary architecture is a genius solution to a non-existing problem. Not that I'm against the idea of utility or I'm against the idea that architecture shouldn't be able to be used, I just don't think it's the most important thing to define.

Benjamin: Where do you see architecture offering its greatest value? One might assume that you would argue for a formal approach. What is the use value of form?

Hernan: The notion of aesthetics and the production of beauty is one of the most important things any creative field can aspire to produce. When you are in the presence of a phenomenal piece of music, or a great film, or a good book, the use is the use for your soul, for your humanity. I am completely biased toward form and aesthetics. I don't think it's the only intangible quality architecture can have, but if you ask me, that's the most important contribution. The idea that somebody will diminish the condition of beauty as something secondary, I find insulting.

Xefirot Budapest 1

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Xefirot Budapest 2

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Xefirot Budapest 3

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Xefirot Budapest 4

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Xefirot Budapest 5

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Xefirot Budapest 6

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Benjamin: I remember interviewing Coy Howard a number of years ago, and I asked him if he was a formalist. He had a great response. He said, quite simply, "Well, what else is there?"

Hernan: Exactly. I would agree with that. Even the architects who were not defined as formalists, they are formalists, because architecture at any given time has to take some sort of form. The idea that an architect would not declare themself as a formalist, I find it similar to declaring yourself as a non-human.

Benjamin: If form has a strong value in architecture, are there specific ways to elevate that aspiration of beauty? How should architects and designers reach toward that aspiration?

Hernan: I don't think there is a singular way. I think everybody who operates in our field tries to find their own ways to communicate. One of the most powerful, and the weakest, qualities of architecture is that it is a subjective discipline. It's very difficult to quantify. It's very difficult to qualify what it constitutes. You will find as many ways to do that as there are architects. Everybody finds different methods. I would never claim that the more individual takes are automatically SCI-Arc takes. My individual take has to do with new forms of virtuosity and a certain notion of obsessive compulsive behavior in relation to the production of form.

I tend to pay attention to things that everybody considers to be the opposite of beauty and I find mechanisms for working on that. I am always interested in the relationship between beauty and originality. I know that originality never is the exclusive focus in architecture discussions, but I think it's something that everybody aspires to, understanding that it will never be reached. From my point of view, architecture is incapable of producing newness. You go through your own body of work developing your own logics. My own ideology is rooted in making and the notion of discovering—the adventure of making it. I've never been committed to a pre-theoretical determination of architecture. I have a complete commitment to technology and new mechanisms. Technology has been a great partner and ally for my own work. I have a commitment to and curiousity regarding contemporary tools and I consider them and their affiliated techniques to be crucial.

Benjamin: Who decides what has value and significance in architecture?

Hernan: It depends on what architecture we are talking about and it depends on what circles we are talking about.

Benjamin: Let's say at SCI-Arc.

Hernan: I really think that architecture is a collective construction. You are equal part author and audience. We don't come to a pre-agreement, but there are emerging agreements at any given time that define values. It depends on the constituency that you're talking to. In the context of a school like SCI-Arc, the audience or the authorship defines values in different ways than, let's say, a developer would, or any other school of architecture would. It is a very subjective discipline. You construct values. You try to be as objective as you can, but at the same time, you know that it's an absolutely subjective thing. I really believe that architecture is a humanist endeavor, and as such, we always operate on a very individualistic and emotional level.

That being said, you have to be able to articulate some sort of discourse to communicate. It's one of the fundamental differences between architecture and pure art. Art has different rules of engagement. Architecture tends to be much more focused on the construction of discourse, at least in the context of SCI-Arc. Architecture is a cultural seismograph, no different than fashion. It just moves in different speeds. Fashion moves faster.

We'd like to think that values are completely stable, and I would say the ethos and ethical notions are stable. I want to emphasize the difference between ethics and morals. I'm interested in ethics. I'm not interested in morals. Ethics is not doing something ethical, to do the right thing. Sometimes the right thing is not necessarily a good thing.

Benjamin: That's a really important distinction. It's interesting to think about the role of subjectivity and how architecture is one of the amazing fields where we can do nearly anything. There's a lot of opportunity to test, experiment, and think critically about the subject matter we find valuable and relevant within our discourse. Then it goes back to the designer and the critic, or whoever it is, to speak about that, or produce that, or visually communicate that.

Hernan: Also, we live in a capitalist society. Money and power also assign value, whether we like it or not. As much as we try, in places like this one, to create a battle for purity about the idea, you'll never escape from that. As an institution, we are part of the system of values defined by the field and the profession.

Benjamin: It's a reading of culture, in a sense, and understanding how we fit relative to that cultural reading.

Hernan: How you provoke and how you choose the context; where you want to define the other side of the relationship.


Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso

Benjamin: What makes something architecture?

Hernan: This is a quote that many people use, “You know it when you see it.” I hear smart people who say, “Architecture is a material expression of the cultural forces at any given time.” I like that one, but that would be to surrender to the idea that architecture is only architecture because of the building. There are people who subscribe to that. I don't. To me, architecture is a way to understand an ecosystem of variables. I don't want to box in what constitutes architecture in only one way. I think the work of Le Corbusier, Boullée, and Lebbeus Woods all constitute different types of architecture, but I would also say a David Fincher film can be made into an argument that constitutes architecture. Architecture is a way to understand relationships and put together mechanisms of order that sometimes produce disorder.

Benjamin: Again, it's probably relative to the cultural context within which you're operating.

Hernan: I don't think you are ever exempt from contamination. Architecture is a permanent negotiation of boundaries. How you push the boundary is a fascinating thing. It's one of the things that makes us hate being an architect sometimes, but it's also what allows passion to rise. It is a practice defined by constraints, not defined by its pure freedom.

Benjamin: I find there can be productive value in the use of dogma in architecture. As long as the architect, or the designer understands how they are being dogmatic and can change that; to change course as necessary. Without that caveat, architects can easily fall into solipsism. I'm curious if you think SCI-Arc has any dogma, and if so, how does it avoid becoming solipsistic? In other words, how can designers obsess over the nuances of their work, while still engaging the discipline more broadly?

Hernan: One of the beautiful aspects of architecture, as I was saying before, is that it is highly individual and highly humanistic. We like to think that we are very diverse. The reality is probably that we are not as diverse as we think we are. Neither are we the geniuses that the world perceives. Like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between. I'm not opposed to dogma. I don't like the idea of a singular dogma. I think SCI-Arc allows multiple dogmas to fight and conflict at any given time.

I think the job of a school like ours is to create an umbrella of agreement that there are certain values that we all share, that we always explore the extreme and always explore the new possibilities. Always produce. Always move forward. There are many ways to do it, but schools should not be generalists. As a collective construction, I think SCI-Arc has a role to play. SCI-Arc is one piece of the collective construction of architecture. The schools I admire historically were the schools with a clear idea about where they were coming from, but within that, each teacher and each student will have a different take.

Benjamin: Is there a SCI-Arc pedagogy?

Hernan: If we are doing our job right, experimentation has to move into speculation. Of course there are still experiments going on in the school, but I think the school has reached a maturity where we are much more in the phase of speculation. I think with experimentation you still have to have a sense of not knowing what you're doing. We speculate because we engage. I don't think the notion of speculation defines pedagogy by itself, but at least it's a good North to follow in which pedagogy is built.

Benjamin: How should SCI-Arc cultivate and perpetuate architecture's relevance?

Hernan: To try to remain as pure as we can as a center for speculation and thinking. That's the best thing we can do. To develop a need so that everybody feels like they are on an elevated mission. Higher education in architecture is a privilege and people need to earn it every day. We need to be grateful that we get to be part of something like this. It's an extraordinary way to make a living. It's a fantastic opportunity. The way that you protect it is by not compromising. Don't sell out. Remain a judge of character and remain a critic. Remain agitators and commit to who we are and why we want and do it. Things take care of themselves if you do that in the right way with the right attitude.

Project Credits
Shenzhen Art Museum and Library Competition 2015, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso
Lead Designer: Ivan Bernal
Team: Andrew Cheu, William Virgil, Homayoun Zaryuni, Polina Alexeeva, Ana Derby, Junjie Guo, Cunhao Li, Huijin Zheng, Ben Cheng, and Jiajun Tan

New National Gallery & Ludwig Museum Design Competition, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso
Lead Designer: Ivan Bernal
Team: Andrew Cheu, Diego Wu-Law, Adrian Cortez, Rebekah Bukhbinder, Bosen Li, Patricia Joseph, Yunyu Zhang, Amanda Stjernstrom

Chair, Xefirotarch/Hernan Diaz Alonso
Lead Designer: Ivan Bernal
Team: William Virgil