Founded in 1972, SCI-Arc has been helmed by five dynamic directors—Ray Kappe, Michael Rotondi, Neil Denari, Eric Owen Moss, and currently Hernan Diaz Alonso—who are architects with distinct approaches to both practice and leadership. The SCI-Arc Channel is releasing a series of interviews with each of the directors, beginning with Kappe and Rotondi. The final three videos will be available in the coming months, culminating with a highlight reel.
Interviewer Todd Gannon, formerly a faculty member and History + Theory Coordinator at SCI-Arc (he recently became a professor and head of the architecture section of the Knowlton School of architecture at The Ohio State University), asked each of the directors about their experiences with the school, the changes they made during their tenures, and their visions for the school’s future. While each of the directors made decisions that were influenced by the guiding issues of their eras, they share the consensus that a focus on the future is essential for both the success of the school and the profession.
Kappe, SCI-Arc’s first director who remained in the role for 15 years, says, “We were always looking to the future, and I thought [it] was not about static [spaces] but should be a little more about emotion.” Summing up the legacy he aimed to establish, Kappe says: “My feeling was to give the school a sense of freedom, both physically and architecturally.”
Rotondi, who graduated as part of SCI-Arc’s first class in 1973, succeeded Kappe as director in 1987. “When you’re young, you don’t have enough experience and memory to be reflective, so you are basically projective, and I think that’s what the school was at that time,” he recalls. “We became more aware of what Los Angeles meant in the context of the United States and the world. We were working on our personal projects, the city, and the school all at the same time.” Rotondi embraced international outreach and oversaw the introduction of a graduate program, which boasted an initial graduating class with a 50/50 balance of men and women. “You find ways to bring people from all over the world here to see what’s possible,” Rotondi says. “And you’re not proprietary about it—it’s open source. Take it back to wherever you’re coming from and make the world better.”
Eric Owen Moss encouraged students to question the status quo and not simply follow a check list of qualities that have become associated with contemporary architecture, such as flat roofs, ribbon windows, piloti, white surfaces, and Helvetica graphics. “What I’m interested in is the point in time before that argument or doctrine becomes an argument or doctrine … a lot of what is considered ‘modern’ is pretty or beautiful but it’s not ideologically, conceptually, or intellectually very inquisitive,” he says. “Part of the obligation of architecture is to give back the culture to the next group, and it’s important to throw things out. I would feel awful if I belonged to a certain time or place only.”
Diaz Alonso, who has been the director and CEO of SCI-Arc since 2015, has an extensive background in academia but also remains a realist. “The job is never what you’d think it would be. I would argue that being the director of SCI-Arc is different than being the dean of other schools. A big part of it has to do with institutional and financial responsibilities,” which include administrative issues, raising and investing funds, and making decisions related to properties and master planning.
While he aims to preserve the school’s long-term mission, Diaz Alonso acknowledges that SCI-Arc is entering a new phase, which involves reexamining the role of the architect in the modern world. “I’m interested in the idea of the architect versus the idea of architecture as a discipline,” he says. “For me, an architect today is someone who understands the world with an architectural order—which can come in the form of a building or a book, app, art installation, video game, or fashion.”
“Being in Los Angeles—and not part of a university but as a standalone institute—allows us to be very flexible, nimble, and dynamic, and it gives us the power to be aggressive and brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t,” Diaz Alonso says. He advocates for architects to be agents of cultural change. “I hate the word ‘experimental.’ We are much more speculative because we have an agenda. The truth is that some of the speculations won’t work and will be discarded, and that’s fine. That is the mission of SCI-Arc—don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”