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Interviews

SCI-Arc Director Hernan Diaz Alonso shares his culture and vision


SCI-Arc Director Hernan Diaz Alonso shares his culture, vision, and books that have influenced his life in architecture.
SCI-Arc Director Hernan Diaz Alonso shares his culture and vision

by Joshua Sanabria

A month ago


In an expansion of our weekly interview series, today we cast a wider net beyond books and into the culture that has influenced an impactful career in architecture.
 
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Hernan Diaz Alonso

Director/CEO of SCI-Arc

Hernan Diaz Alonso assumed the role of SCI-Arc director beginning in the 2015 academic year. He has been a distinguished faculty member since 2001, serving in several leadership roles, including coordinator of the graduate thesis program from 2007–10, and graduate programs chair from 2010–15. He is widely credited with spearheading SCI-Arc’s transition to digital technologies, and he played a key role in shaping the school’s graduate curriculum over the last decade.

In parallel to his role at SCI-Arc, Diaz Alonso is principal of the Los Angeles–based architecture office HDA-X. His multidisciplinary practice is praised for its work at the intersection of design, animation, interactive environments, and radical architectural explorations. 


A Conversation with Hernan Diaz Alonso

By Josh Sanabria, CEO of GoArchitect

Last week I had the pleasure to discuss books, culture, and the purpose of design with Hernan Diaz Alonso, Director of SCI-Arc; one of the most famous architecture schools in the world. This interview did not follow a traditional path, much like the man himself, so I’ve provided selections of quotes mixed in with my opinion of the discussion and lists of resources that were mentioned.

What books have impacted your life in architecture?

“Books, let’s start with the basics, I’m a lover and fan of books. I grew up in a home, with my parents, where we read a lot of books. Not just about architecture but stories at large. I grew up in Argentina, my father had a Jesuit education so he was a very avid reader, so was my mom. So there were all sorts of books - novels, classics - they have always been a big part of my life.

“’Their are books, when you’re younger, that you think are influential but then you reread them 15, 20, 25 years later and wonder why you thought that book was important. It’s kind of like music in that way."

During our interview Hernan quickly mentioned many books from his native country of Argentina. While some of them are hard to come by, I’ve done my best to hunt them down and hopefully give you an insight into the mind of a well-read thinker.

Funes el Memorioso
Jorge Luis Borges

Diary of the War of the Pig
Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1988

The Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka

London Fields
Martin Amis

“When it comes to books about architecture, I have to say there aren’t many of the famous ones that were important or influential to me. I preferred essays, articles, and interviews over books.

“I remember No te Hagas Ilusiones by Josep Quetglas i Riusech as one of the most important essays for me. It was part of a collection that I read when I was younger; learning and studying. I was always into essays that were part of the cultural phase of that time in architecture. Their were many I didn’t understand but that were still part of the cultural discussion.

“I realize as I get older that the books I read when I was young, ones that were part of my culture, are coming back with a vengeance. For example, books from Osvaldo Soriano; I like everything he wrote. My favorite is No Habra mas Penas ni Olvido

It was obvious that Hernan was deeply impacted by his Argentinian heritage and the writers and thinkers that came out of South America in the mid to late 20th century. These books seemed to be a reverie of a different era. 

No te Hagas Ilusiones
Josep Quetglas

Juguete Rabioso (Mad Toy)
Roberto Arlt

No Habra mas Penas ni Olvido (Funny Dirty Little War)
Osvaldo Soriano

El Ojo de La Patria
Osvaldo Soriano

“In more recent times I’ve enjoyed books like Formless by Krauss. It was written around when I was in New York City as a student and it impacted me during that time. Lately, I’ve also been obsessed with biographies. I just finished one about Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, the same author who wrote about Steve Jobs. I thought I knew a lot about da Vinci but it turns out I really didn’t.”


Formless: A User's Guide
Rosalind Krauss

Leonardo da Vinci
Walter Isaacson

The Normal and the Pathological
Georges Canguilhem

 
From speaking with Hernan it is clear that his sources of inspiration and intellectual development in architecture come from an extremely broad selection of work. From very theoretical essays to Moby Dick, he views all valuable work as supporting a philosophy of continual study and possibility. A few of these selections stood out to me as they showed how design was a timeless element that could be influenced by stories from all ages.

What do you encourage students at SCI-Arc to read?

“I encourage them to read things that they find culturally inspiring but not necessarily particular books about theory, even the ones I mentioned. For me it’s about the world of culture that books inspire.

“The books change over time that you find influential. Even now, I know, there are like 30 I could mention but just can’t remember because they’ve spanned so much of my life.

The Stack by Benjamin Bratton is a phenomenal example. He is a good friend of mine and I started to read it, not expecting to understand much, but found it is a fantastic way to understand the geo-political conditions of the world today.

“We have Graham Harman teaching here as a professor at SCI-Arc. He is one of the best philosophers today and one of the most influential. We rely a lot on our talent here but still support the power of the written word.

"I don’t find books on architecture theory that interesting, I still read them, but I wouldn’t say they have a huge impact on my life. Not like stories of Don Quixote or Moby Dick, the classics.” 

The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
Benjamin H. Bratton

Interviews with Francis Bacon
David Sylvester

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters
David Hockney

Don Quixote
Cervantes

Life
Keith Richards 

What is missing from today’s connection between architecture and literature or film?

“I don't think anything is missing, the way culture and society takes in information is different. I would consider film or fashion as more of a source of architectural inspiration to me than books. I look to books for more about my connection to other human beings.

“I’ve always been suspicious of the idea of architecture as a form or writing or meaning. I always look to more visual things for direct influence. Architects are generalists so we search for inspiration from everything. When you look at the greats of today, they are able to do this and translate film, fashion, literature, and art into architecture.

“I think because we have social media there is a lack of time to observe things. This is one of the great things about a book, it requires your attention and has a way of instructing your mind to focus on it. I think in contemporary society we struggle with things that require time.

“This is one element of common ground between architecture and literature, both require time. I want to be sure that I don't sound overly critical of the current culture, I just think there should be a certain balance to immediacy.”

Is that balance something you try to encourage to students at SCI-Arc?

“Yes, in the last few years we have spent a lot of time and money growing the liberal arts program. Some ways we have done this is with history and inviting interesting people to come and discuss with students. Part of it too is expecting and demanding more from students; having it be part of the culture and helping them discuss and articulate their ideas.

“We are navigating this with all the changes within the industry. People from my generation were educated and raised under the idea of a depth of knowledge. Now our young people experience a need for broader density of knowledge.

“We encourage them to understand themselves as cultural practitioners. Not just limited to putting a building together or design but aware of how things fit and operate in the world we live in."


What implications does Alonso's philosophy have and how would you respond to it? Leave a comment below and tell us.

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