July 2, 2019 - From the July, 2019 issue

SCI-Arc’s Hernan Diaz Alonso on Architecture as ‘More than Buildings’

Known for its experimental approach to architecture and design, the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) is housed in a quarter-mile long former freight depot in the Arts District of Los Angeles. SCI-Arc director and principal architect at HDA-x, Hernan Diaz Alonso—who played a foundational role in implementing digital design technologies at the school—spoke to TPR on the school’s curricular transformation and the role of ethics in architecture as new technologies and materials enable limitless possibilities in the built environment.


Hernan Diaz Alonso

“SCI-Arc’s mission is to challenge what architecture is and think about what else it could be.”—Hernan Diaz Alonso

You have been quoted as saying that “architecture is about more than buildings.” Please elaborate on what you mean.

Hernán Díaz Alonso: Architecture is a way to understand and see the world. Buildings are the most obvious representation of how an architect thinks, but understanding cities and the world through the eyes of an architect goes way beyond buildings.

In recent years, there has been a growing demand for architects to operate in other fields. I think this is because we are some of the last few professional generalists. What I mean by this is that we operate with many layers of information. We don’t have a narrow expertise; we look at the whole chessboard at any given time.

As SCI-Arc’s director and CEO, share the current design philosophy of the school.

 SCI-Arc was founded in 1973 as an act of rebellion against the orientation of architectural education at that time. It was founded on the idea that a laboratory for design and practice can take a different form and shape.

In 2019, the world is very different. Technology is very different. And likewise, the school is very different. But that rebellious spirit remains. Our philosophy is to be on the fringe, testing the limits of architecture—and often crossing those limits—in order to figure out what’s next. We aren’t afraid to innovate.

SCI-Arc is an independent school of architecture; we are not part of a university. That gives us the ability to be nimble, move quickly, and try new things. But ultimately, we are a school of speculation about architectural thinking and the culture of design. Our mission is to challenge what architecture is and think about what else it could be. 

The Planning Report recently spoke with architect and writer Gerhard Mayer, who said that the reigning development model in the United States, as distinguished from Europe, is “an intensified suburbia [that] is meeting increasing resistance from a population that doesn’t see it making their lives better.” Does his viewpoint align with your views about city planning and urban architecture? Does the US need a fundamental paradigm shift in how cities are planned and densified? 

In general, I agree with that sentiment. I think the future of the world is going to be somewhere between cities and rural areas.

American cities are not dense enough; we need to build way more density. We need density because it is the best recipe for the sustainable and economical use of resources, but also because it creates better societies—more tolerant, cosmopolitan, multicultural, and multilayered societies.

I’m in total agreement that suburbia is a horrible idea. We have to get rid of the idea that we need so much land for each family or individual. However, I would not necessarily look to Europe as the answer. I think the European model is equally obsolete. There are other ways to think about density, and other places—such as Latin America and Asia— to learn from about how to maximize space and a sense of community.

Mayer also spoke about the need for cities to work toward a cohesive vision, rather than taking a property-by-property approach to density and amenities. Is that a concept SCI-Arc addresses through its curriculum?

It’s not something we work on specifically, but I would argue that everything in our curriculum pushes a metropolitan approach to architecture. Our explorations of every architectural idea favor the idea of metropolitan life and increased density. We don’t work at all on suburbia in a general sense.

The problem of density versus suburbia is not only a problem of architecture or urban planning. It’s a problem of capitalism—of investment, distribution of land, and regulation of profit. It is a market problem that is about financial systems and how we finance cities and buildings.

You taught at SCI-Arc for many years before becoming its director in 2015. Share how your background and experience have shaped the perspective you bring to the school.

I’m originally from Argentina, and I did my undergraduate education at the University of Rosario in Argentina’s second city. Then I lived and worked in Barcelona before getting my master’s degree at Columbia University in the late 1990s.

At that time in New York, architectural education was undergoing a massive change with the eruption of computers and the use of software and technology in design. That completely changed my perspective on how architecture needs to be taught, produced, and thought about.

I was hired at SCI-Arc in the early 2000s as part of a group of young faculty brought on with the mission of integrating some of these changes into the curriculum. Exploration and innovation are at the center of my personal agenda, and that aligns perfectly with the ideals of SCI-Arc as it has evolved. It has been a very symbiotic relationship in that way.

I picture the school as a universe or a cosmos that has multiple planets: industrial design, car design, film, fashion, philosophy, music—it’s all part of the territory in which the architect needs to think and operate. That vison informs what we’re trying to do here in terms of cultivating a multifaceted approach to architecture.

But an institution like this is not the product of one individual. It’s a collective process. I was lucky that my predecessor Eric Owen Moss gave me a lot of opportunities and room to grow before I became director and to learn the logic of how a school operates. His legacy shapes a lot of what we do and how we keep alive the healthy rebellious spirit of Los Angeles.

I cannot imagine SCI-Arc being anywhere else but Los Angeles. There is a peer relationship between us. It is part of the fundamental equation of SCI-Arc that we are embedded in the Los Angeles tradition of being non-traditional.

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SCI-Arc is embedded not only in Los Angeles, but also specifically in the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District. How do you plan to engage with that unique neighborhood?

We came to the Arts District in 2000, when there was literally nothing around us except some artists living nearby. The school took over a building—the Freight Yard—that had been abandoned for many years. Between students, faculty, and staff, we brought 600 people to the neighborhood. We brought life to this part of town.

In the last 20 years, the whole neighborhood has grown exponentially around us. We like to think we’ve played a role in that growth as the only institute of higher education in the area. And because we are a nonprofit, we are invested in the development of the neighborhood and culture here. We try to be an active participant and to influence our part of the city, and to ensure that architects and architecture are part of any strategic thinking about urban growth. I like to think that people come to us for opinions and advice more often than not about things happening in the area around us.

We are very happy about and proud of what the neighborhood has become. Of course, there are certain things we would like to be different, and hopefully we can play a role in shaping and developing them. Like anything else, gentrification comes with pain. There are some people who unfortunately have been pushed out. There are certain qualities of the neighborhood that have been lost. But hopefully we can learn from this experiment, and as progress and growth keep coming, we can do a better job the next time.

You have spoken in the past about the ethical dimension of architecture. Elaborate on that.

Today, the culture of design thinking is much more sophisticated than the way we actually build cities. Construction companies are still operating with obsolete models. But as technology keeps evolving—as new materials become attainable at a reasonable budget—eventually, it will become difficult to discern what’s appropriate—what we should and shouldn’t build. When our capabilities start to seem unlimited, how will we find the limits of what we should be doing?

It’s not that different from the field of, say, medicine. The development of medical technologies like cloning, stem cells, and artificial embryos bring with them ethical questions that go beyond simply scientific progress. Every field is going to need to rethink these questions as technology advances, including architecture and design. What is going to be the role of artificial intelligence, for example?

I don’t have the answers, but we must keep ethics at the center of conversations about the culture of design and the role of architecture in society. This is a discussion that needs to go beyond efficiency and profit share, which is sometimes a difficult proposition for Americans.

Speak to SCI-Arc’s role as a platform for unpacking challenging policy issues relating to the built environment.

We believe that no subject is sacred, and no subject should be exempt from the ideas of a culture of design. We are aware that design and architecture alone cannot solve a problem like homelessness. But they can certainly contribute imagination and new ideas toward a problem for which other models have already failed.

We often work on subjects that may not have the most obvious alliances with architecture, as in the case of homelessness. SCI-Arc may not be the first place that comes to mind to work with the city and county on this problem. But we did. In January, we launched a homelessness charrette that put the whole school—all 500 students and 50 faculty members—to work on the issue for four days. In the end, we produced a series of documents that we gave to the different agencies and organizations working on the subject.

There is a moral imperative for us to contribute innovative ideas, particularly in the case of homelessness. Los Angeles has the highest rate of homelessness in America, and that affects all of us on a human level. In general, we try to be more than just a school of architecture, but also an active public policy agent.

How does SCI-Arc incorporate technology into its curriculum, such as digital printing of buildings?

We were key in developing digital printing technology for design and have been using it in our curriculum for more than 10 years, along with robots and laser cuts. We also recently incorporated artificial intelligence, as well as augmented and virtual reality.

Digital printing of buildings is already a reality in this country and in many parts of the world. Digitally printed buildings are on the market today. There are lots of other new building technologies coming about; parts of China are already building with concrete prints. There are also biogenetics and biomaterials, as well.

These technologies speak to a series of interrelationships that have to do not only with design but also sustainability. We have a lot of sustainability regulations when it comes to building performance, but very few on the construction side. The pollution produced in construction processes is through the roof, and new means of production can help to eliminate that impact. We have to keep exploring new horizons. 

Lastly, what’s in store for SCI-Arc in the coming years?

Our first goal is to continue innovating in our curriculum until we achieve a full transformation from a school of architecture into a school of architectural thinking.

Our second goal is for the institution to become a much more open system with a greater local and global influence. This can be seen as a transformation from a school of architecture into a cultural agency.

Sometimes we isolate ourselves too much. We need to unleash the power of the imagination of our students and faculty in new territories and be fearless about the power of architecture to contribute to the world. And we want to better integrate SCI-Arc with the culture of Los Angeles, while pushing Los Angeles to become more of what it already is: a place for innovation and creativity.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.