Horror show: the architecture of Xefirotarch

June 22, 2009

Hernan Diaz Alonso, Xefirotarch founder, speaks about his MOMA pavilion, his practice and the folly of placing faith in a digitally optimised architectural ideal.

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Hernan Diaz Alonso draws freely from a wide range of visual-art disciplines. He begins each project with a selection of abstract formal elements, which are then altered or combined to create composite, figurative, and sometimes monstrous, structures. His sources include science fiction films, the works of contemporary artist Matthew Barney, and the paintings of Francis Bacon. He combines these influences with digital manipulation and distortion to explore the limits of beauty and scale. Alonso’s process revolves around the evolution of formal genealogies or families of design. Certain characteristics are heightened from one project to the next, like genetic mutations, and these traits develop in form and substance as the designs continuously evolve.

In 2005 he won the competition to build the PS1 MOMA, the New York Young Architects Program Pavilion. When asked what influence this project had on his practice, Alonso states, “For young architects the PS1 MOMA is like the [Holy Grail]. Because of [the connection with] MOMA, the New York Times feature brought a lot of attention to it. It allowed us to prove we could build it for a reasonable budget – and it was a cool experiment in that sense. When we made the proposal, we didn’t know we were going to build it – later we figured it out.”
His home base is a professorship at Sci-Arc in Los Angeles where he also runs his small architectural practice. The office of five staff expanded to a collaboration of some 30 personnel to help create the PS1 pavilion. Alonso prefers to employ a practice model similar to that of industrial designers, whereby a small core staff is retained and then expanded in size through collaboration with experts when necessary.

Alonso has visiting professorial roles at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. At each of these institutions he runs advanced design studios that give him the flexibility to pursue his own design research agendas. His current interests include using computer coding (scripting) as a de-generative tool, as opposed to the majority of current research in generative scripting, which Alonso derides as having “a religious belief that scripting creates optimal ideal solutions”.

“Actually, I am not influenced by technology [animation software]… I am influenced by the way I use it but not so influenced in terms of ideology. I am very sceptical about any religious thinking… we have a very atheist approach to the technology. It is a very corrupt methodology, the way that we work with it. I am influenced in that we try and use the latest thing, but we always use it to the service of an idea of a design and not so much as the justification of the world.”

This grounded sensibility, refreshing within the current regime of digital architecture, may come from Alonso’s pre-digital architectural experiences in Argentina and when he worked in the office of Enric Miralles. One can immediately see the correlation between Alonso’s cellular arrangements and linear fluidity and the roof scapes of Miralles’ New Scottish Parliament building. In his most recent work, Tabakalera, we see the evolution of his early cellular morphologies towards the expressive floral arrangements found in the early 20th century Art Noveau period work of Otto Wagner’s Majolikahaus in Vienna and Victor Horta’s Tassel House in Belgium. It is difficult to discern which has greater influence in his work: the subliminal effects of his travels in Vienna or the NURBS modelling technique found in 3D modelling software; both are evident.

Digital architecture is most interesting when one re-reads it from both a modernist and a post-modernist logic. Alonso’s work errs on the side of the post-modern discourse of language, meaning and expression. If the discourse of post-modernism has moved from a focus on meaning and symbolism to that of performance and Affect, his work seems to have been evolving a precise syntax of the emotive instrument, that of Affect. Far from traditional architectural syntax, Xefirotarch’s biological simulacra might have a hint of the perverse about them, but their effect is the visual transformation of our understanding of the object towards an interiority of the organism, its guts. This is the post-modernity of the cinematic traditions of horror films, not of the reassurance of historicist signs. His work is darkly poetic, drawing on science fiction and cartoons. Ridley Scott’s Alien sequels and Tim Burton’s quirky films (Beetlejuice and Corpse Bride) are a few of the influences he asks his students to engage with as part of their architectural research.

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“My obsession is not to reshape and to reorganise the software but how we can use it in a way that is different [to how] everyone else is using scripting to produce data surfaces and so on. We use particle systems to generate dynamic logics and then we use scripting to contaminate them… I try and figure out how you can move the work out of the default condition… I try to produce new properties of beauty that for me relate with the grotesque.”

One may not be surprised to hear that prior to commencing architectural studies Alonso’s professional intentions originally steered him towards film directing. A serendipitous occasion changed his path: the film school that he was intending to enroll in was temporarily shut due to a funding shortage. He opted to commence an architectural education. Alonso’s tertiary studies included an undergraduate degree from the National University of Rosario in Argentina and a postgraduate master degree from University of Columbia in New York. At Columbia he studied with greats of the digital architectural revolution, including Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid and Jesse Reiser and the theorists Stan Allen, Jeffrey Kipnis and Michael Speaks. Of note is that Lynn and Alonso both worked for Peter Eisenman, the unofficial dean of the American avant-garde, and this influence may justify their willingness to suppress the issues of function and program in the endless search for new form, its interiority. Alonso’s work is a digital equivalent to Eisenman’s axonometric drawings, Hadid’s distorted perspectives and Holl’s translucent watercolours. He is exploring the edges of animation software to develop a new architectural formal language capable of emotional influence.

“We want to produce a work and reveal conditions in people […] that they didn’t know existed before. If you think about the work of Picasso, he was already into the Cubist tradition for 15 years before he painted Guernica. He was the one who had a clear message of anti war for peace… all that went before was pure technique and the logic of painting.”

At first his work is sparkling and pretty – seductive. But very soon our perception changes and the objects morph and begin to seem dark, threatening and sinister. While Alonso uses advanced animation software to develop his language for architecture, the results oscillate from precise computer scripted cellular arrangements towards cinematic techniques.

The irony is that he is using mathematically precise systems (scripting within animation software) to produce monstrosities and grotesque decorative forms. The work is mutant, an autonomous life-form which is beyond human control. This is architecture intentionally without people or scale.

Alonso is very busy. With a forthcoming publication, a 4-month-old daughter, three professorial positions in eminent design schools and ongoing exhibition work, he has little time for built practice. Pressed further about his desire to build his unique architecture, Alonso states, “I’m not interested in what is commonly called in our profession ‘compromise to get it done’; I am interested in building the work on my own terms. I am not desperate to build 40 buildings in my lifetime. That being said I don’t live and die by building [rather I] live and die by design – so we are working today on multiple projects, designs, films and motion graphics or just animations. Fortunately, we get commissioned a lot by museums to do solo shows. Out of the people in my generation, I am by far the architect with the most solo shows in major museums.”

Alonso’s work cannot be ignored. Regardless of whether issues of self-organisation or algorithm-driven self-production are found to be valuable architectural ideas, we should applaud Hernan Diaz Alonso for fuelling this debate, and for fearlessly pushing his ideas towards their ultimate consequences.

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