Hernan Diaz Alonso’s Critical Architecture

By winning this year’s MoMA/P.S. 1’s Young Architect Program, Hernan Diaz Alonso has joined a small group of artists, including nArchitects and Tom Wiscombe/Emergent, who have been invited to design a temporary pavilion for Queens, NY-based P.S. 1. Called Sur, Alonso’s structure—which opens to the public on June 26 and will remain on view through September—is a snaking skeleton that weaves its way through the museum’s courtyard, offering pockets of seating and points of shelter. Sur’s base is composite fiberglass and rubber, while its freestanding aluminum armature is covered with latex and polyurethane-sprayed spandex. Its form was generated from a single cell Alonso morphed and mutated using film-animation software.

Born in Argentina and a graduate of Columbia University’s AAD program, Alonso is principal of Xefirotarch, a Los Angeles-based architecture, product, and motion-design firm. His work is best described as narrative and image-driven, which hints at his onetime interest in becoming a filmmaker. His inspirations—science fiction, cartoons, and the darker side of alternate worlds—are also classic movie material.

Alonso recently spoke to Metropolis about his fondness for Ridley Scott’s Alien, computer design, and the sly presence of seventies porn. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

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Can you explain Sur’s genesis?

There were a whole series of aesthetic issues that were happening. On another project we were doing, there was a grotesque/horrific aesthetic coming out. It was never super-specific, but we wanted to work with that. We also wanted to embrace cinematic behavior. We wanted to develop the project more like a film sequence rather than an architecture piece—with these ideas of a singular cell and then a series of resulting transformations, all from the same origin.

With this project, you never get to see the whole thing until the end, when you walk away, so it has this kind of science fiction/alien character. But it has a playful attitude; it’s kind of cartoonish.

But at the same time grotesque?

I always joke that it’s a crossover between cartoons and amateur porn of the seventies. Porn then was trying to be serious, and at the end it was just about sex. It’s the same with this project: it doesn’t mean anything, it’s a frame for experimentation.

[…] We did [Sur] to try an experimental, research-based approach. We wanted to see if we could produce an architecture that behaved differently than traditional architecture. Most architects always take the premise of the client or the boundaries in that they operate; on this project, we worked more like a musician or filmmaker, who operates within a territory of his own agenda and wants to produce a critical reading of it. We had a high level of autonomy, which I know is a polemical statement in relation to architecture, because architecture is supposed to be about a larger environment beyond. That’s why I had such a strong emphasis on technique in the project: we had to have the ability to explore the autonomy of the discipline and have it communicate without us.

Are there any ideas that you found in working on Sur that you think you’re going to use again?

Absolutely. One of the things that we were pushing was to solve more architectural problems and less sculptural ones. We know that this project is a crossover between the two, but whenever possible we pushed to make it an architectonic problem. We used [Sur] as an opportunity to see how far we can push a certain kind of structure.

You’re out at the site every day, helping get it ready for its June 26 debut. Are there a lot of last-minute changes you’re making?

Not really. All the systems of drawing and construction we used were very sophisticated—even though some of the fabrication is very conventional—because of the complexity of Sur’s geometry. There are more than 200 pieces of aluminum tubes, straight and curved, each unique. We have a complex system for double-checking everything. We have elevations, plans, and rotation angles. We have a couple of computers on the site all the time, but fortunately, 85-90% is in line with the drawings.

So a lot of Sur’s design happened on computers?

My whole design process is always computer-based, but not necessarily the fabrication. The design process and construction documents are 85% done by computer, while fabrication is 80% human, 20% computer-controlled.

Sur is very skeletal. Is there any sort of imagery that you were trying to evoke?

All my work looks like that; I’m a big fan of science-fiction movies and comic books, but also of artists like Matthew Barney. I have a more intuitional approach. I think my work is driven by images: that’s what I mean when I say it’s very cinematic.

How do you feel about having the computer control so much of the structure’s design?

I think it’s no different than any other creative production. I don’t think it’s a lack of authorship, but a transfer of power. At the end of the day I believe that architecture is driven by technique, it’s like using a triangle or French curve or compass.

Could you explain more about how computers are shifting design’s power balance?

The generation of people like Peter Eisenman or Thom Mayne or Eric Moss, they look at the computer and think, “What can it do for me?” I think my generation has a more “What can I do for you?” attitude. I think we are more willing to explore what the tool can give us.

For example, the movie Alien by Ridley Scott was done in 1979, before computers, so it’s done with maquettes. He never shows the creature, he just shows parts. When you look at the third David Fincher movie, the creature swims in the water because the computer allows it to do that. There’s an emerging aesthetic—like in The Matrix—that comes with the technique and use of the computer.

For a full list of Alonso’s Sur crew and collaborators, click here.

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