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Building his own creature feature

An experimental architect's latest project is more snake than structure.

June 19, 2005|Greg Goldin | Special to The Times

HernAn DIAZ ALONSO is puffing away on a Bolivar cigar, tossing off terms like "augmentation," "gender" and "affect." These aren't words architects generally use, but with his Argentine accent, his mop of black hair, his Salvador Dali mustache and his Don Quixote goatee -- and the blue fumes -- the vaguely romantic lexicon seems right. After all, he is describing a "creature," an otherworldly, snaking Styrofoam-urethane-spandex-aluminum structure, the winning entry in the MoMA/P.S.1 Young Architects Program that he's installing in P.S. 1's Long Island City courtyard.

When it opens, on June 30, people will navigate the undulating red and white "Sur," as Diaz Alonso calls the project, as though picking their way through the insides of an extraterrestrial monster. The skeletal remains look as if the alien got wedged in a passageway and died trying to worm its way out, bones left behind, stranded and bleached in Queens.

"My work is about the beauty of the grotesque," Diaz Alonso says, seated at his immaculate, clutter-free desk in the downtown Los Angeles studios of Xefirotarch, the firm he founded in 1999. Next to the desk, on top of a small side table, are an Alvar Aalto ashtray and eight black glasses cases, "an extravagance, an obsession," Diaz Alonso shamelessly confesses.

"Hernan's piece is from outer space," says Tony Guerrero, director of exhibitions at P.S. 1. Which should come as no surprise, since Diaz Alonso teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where experimentation is the watchword.

The Queens program, begun in 1999, urges architects to take risks, to hang their toes over the edge of the surfboard and offer a vision for an "urban beach," an oasis for those who don't have a beach to visit in summer. Past winners -- like last year's Canopy, by nARCHITECTS, which was built primarily of freshly cut green bamboo -- were made of common materials and constructed by conventional means.

"Usually we dive in, we put people into it, and we help produce it," Guerrero says. "On this one, we took the back seat and enjoyed the ride."

Diaz Alonso, who names all his pieces after songs, chose the Anibal Troilo title "Sur" because he felt it was time to pick a tango. The song evokes excess, sensuality, rhythm and voluptuousness, which attributes to the space beneath the 6,000 square feet of spandex canopies -- "giant condoms," he calls them -- stretched over 1,058 aluminum struts.

Forms born of software

Like earlier works by Xefirotarch (a name that has no meaning and no correct pronunciation), "Sur" is a compilation of single-cell forms, conceived on a computer screen, then twisted and racked using Maya visual effects animation software -- another obsession, born of Diaz Alonso's early ambition to make movies. Unlike most architects, who are sketchers and model-makers, Diaz Alonso, 35, is part of an emerging generation of architects whose work begins -- and, some critics say, ends -- in the computer. For him, the rules are encoded in the software.

There is "a high degree of differentiation," he explains as a series of articulated pieces of "Sur" flashes by on his screen. Each image reveals a weird, rib-like segment of a progression, 3-D geometry in motion. The P.S. 1 project originated with a four-headed cell, an elongated cloverleaf, and emerged a recombinant mutant that sci-fi mastermind H.P. Lovecraft might have dreamed up.

At P.S. 1, Xefirotarch is aiming for a cinematic quality. The single space of the courtyard is broken into multiple spaces, and only by moving through the sequence can any meaning be found. The totally uniform urethane base -- which is sprayed onto the Styrofoam like aerosol paint -- is such an undifferentiated surface that it reinforces the need to keep moving. What is it that lies ahead? More of the same, only slightly different, like the smooth bed of a marble canyon. In fact, the architects pushed their creation to see how much of the space it could occupy, so the unfolding would last that much longer.

Diaz Alonso likens the project to watching a film in which frames have little individual value but together add up. This sense that a work is evolving, he says, comes from the late Spanish architect Enric Miralles, who taught him the power of reiteration -- repeating themes that gain power with slight variations.

"It puts people into an uncomfortable relationship to the object," Diaz Alonso says of the finished installation. "You do not know the whole creature at first. You can only view it -- read it -- in parts. You have to start to build the whole in your mind. The unknown becomes known. This introduces the element of horror, which is more horrible if you don't know it all at once in your mind."

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