Alumni Spotlight: Albert José-Antonio López ‘10
Alumni Spotlight: Albert José-Antonio López ‘10
Albert López is a historian of modern architecture focusing on the theorization of planificación integral (integral planning) and integración plástica (plastic integration) during the late 1930s to mid-1950s.
A Los Angeles native, López graduated from USC with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2010. He went on to receive a Masters of Science in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practice in Architecture from Columbia University in 2012. He is a Ph.D. candidate in History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture at MIT and is currently on a Fulbright García-Robles Fellowship in Mexico City. Lopez recently returned to the USC campus to assist in organizing the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative Conference held on Sept. 29-30, 2017.
I assume that you came to USC to the School of Architecture with some idea of being an architect, so what set you on the path of history/theory?
A couple of things. I come from a family that, though we’re not a family of means, we’ve always had people who have been interested in history. My uncle, my mom’s brother, was fortunate enough to go to college. He wanted to become a historian, and he never did. He passed away early. So there was always an appreciation for history and lots of history books around the house. But I wanted to be an architect, you know, I wanted to design and build buildings.
I came to architecture school [and] realized that architecture is not all LEGOs and Lincoln Logs. Over time, when I began to get the knack of what design really was, I realized that a lot of my designs, whether they were aesthetically pleasing or functional or not, always had a bit of a narrative to them.
A year before graduation, the economy tanked. A lot of people who were about to come out of the School had a great fear about where they were going to go because a lot of firms were closing up. A professor of mine, Erik Mar—he was a studio instructor—said, “Have you considered grad school at all?” I said, “Well, I’ve thought about it.” And he said, “You really should apply for it and look into going down the history/theory path.” So I did. I applied and got into Columbia in a program focusing on critical, curatorial and conceptual practice in architecture; it was a program started by Felicity Scott just a few years ago. I developed a great love for writing and researching and by the end of that year, a professor of mine said, “Are you considering getting a Ph.D.?” and I said, “Yes, I think I am. I see myself entering academia.” I enjoy researching, studying buildings, looking at architectural drawings, plans, and sketches and really understanding more about the architectural process, the design process, and how it intersects with politics, political economy, the stresses of the profession, the professionalization of architecture. All of these are evident in the archives that I use for my research, and these have influenced the project I am working on now.
So now you’re on a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico.
Yes, I’m looking at the professionalization of architects in Mexico during the early 20th century. This includes the entry of architects into the planning bureaucracy, which ties into development and planning in Mexico City, and also into the theorization of what integration meant for the profession in Mexico in the time period. I’m also exploring the integration of plastic arts into architecture, a practice that was ubiquitous in Mexican state architecture of the 1950s.
What do you mean by integration?
I’m referring to an expanded definition of the term, as was done by Mexican architects, planners and related theorists such as Carlos Lazo Barreiro or Mauricio Gomez Mayorga: a sociological integration, political-economic integration, and a geographic integration.
Integration, more specifically, could be considered a synthesis. We could look at that from a sociological, socio-economic standpoint, where synthesis means—frankly, it’s a question of race, as well—a notion of racial synthesization vis-à-vis Mexican theories of the Cosmic Race, which is José Vasconcelos’ idea, or the more commonly utilized ideology Indiginesmo, which is a theory that Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio expanded in his book Forjando Patria, or ‘Forging a Fatherland.’ It basically tries to critique the pre-revolutionary racial, class, and economic divisions in Mexico that had existed at least since the colonization while promoting indigenous cultural assimilation.
You’re talking about the integration between European settlers and the indigenous people?
That’s one question of integration that I look at. I describe a few types of integration in my project that are manifested in this post-war moment when this term is being utilized everywhere by architects and planners. Two very critical architecture and planning theories existed during this time period. One, known as planificación integral, or integral planning, was tied into the previously mentioned economic and socio-racial question and interpretations of what integration is. The other, integración plástica, was an architectural compositional theory and practice with more didactic ends. The planning theory was closely tied into Mexican industrialization and the nationalization of many industries, all of which are linked to the corporate model of political-economic management in Mexico, which becomes a big thing after the late 1930s. Planificación integral was an architecturalized theory of political economy that paralleled and spoke indirectly to the larger question of how the Mexican state intended to integrate a very heterogeneous society. An important form of integration I look at relates to how this mentality was manifested in state architectural projects such as the University City or the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works, and how architecture—a mentality formed by the compulsion to organize, program, and design—was visible in the aesthetics of mid-century planning. The architectural theory—the integration of plastic arts into architecture—was largely concerned with how this nationalist mentality could be made interpretable to passersby and users of these state buildings. Finally, another form of integration that I look at relates to a rather polemical professional collective mobility project, one that stretched the ideas of architectural expertise during that time period, which was the entry of architects, especially those with an interest in planning, into political society.
What are plastic arts?
Plastic arts, at least during the 1940s and ‘50s, included mural painting, and we see the involvement of many of the great Mexican muralists of the time period. Mural painting could utilize many mediums, not only paint, but sometimes a mosaic of stone or glass. Sometimes these murals were also three-dimensional, such as in the work of Siquieros, which can be found at the University City. Other mediums were sculpture. We also have cases of more temporary projects of plastic integration where photo muralism comes into the picture. Basically, whatever the fine artists were producing in Mexico at the time period, there was a concerted effort to integrate these into Modernist rational buildings as a means of achieving what many architects hoped would be an authentic expression of modern Mexican culture.
So that was the project that I offered to the Fulbright. I applied for the Fulbright García-Robles award. I moved to Mexico a month ago. Now busy working—researching and writing. I’m hoping to finish my dissertation in the next year, year-and-a-half.
What does your day look like as a researcher?
My life as a historian and researcher is very fluid. It changes according to where I am in the world. When I’m at MIT, where I’m currently doing my doctorate, it’s a balance between early-morning remedial tasks and finding a little bit of inner peace before I go into campus to work with my advisors or to work on my dissertation. From mid-day to early afternoon, I will be engaged in TA-ing, grading, sometimes teaching. Late afternoon and evenings are devoted to reading and writing. And dinner.
When I’m in Mexico City, a significant portion of the time goes into researching in archives and being stuck in traffic jams. When you become a researcher, your biggest challenge is maintaining order of life and a schedule. Because once you’re out of coursework, and you’re no longer committed to an institutional schedule, you become your own planner and organizer. It’s about setting alarms and making small rules for yourself. How much time are you going to devote to this and sticking to it. That’s definitely the way to finish a dissertation. I’m in my sixth year. Most people finish between six and seven years. There are a lot of things that one does in their Ph.D. that are career-building, professional-building, network building; you’re expected to write and teach and research, and it’d better be original research, which for me meant going to archives. There are those who want to go down the theoretical path, which isn’t necessarily its own thing apart from history. At the moment, I’m more historian than theorist, but I recognize the tremendous value of balancing both the speculative and creative with the more empirical as a means of achieving a well-rounded architectural education.
Obviously, you have an interest in Latin-American history and architecture, and I’m sure that’s of a very personal origin for you.
It is very personal. I am Latin-American and born in the United States, but my mother’s family has very close connections with Latin America. My grandmother and grandfather came to Cuba [from Spain] following the Spanish Civil War and they decided to have a family there. They didn’t stay in Cuba, because the political situations during the 1930s to 1950s were difficult, so they spent time in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, a variety of republics in Central America, and were able to really engage with the broader region as a whole. So as a result, I was always offered a very broad picture of what Latin America was, and there was always a sense of a larger American culture that I was raised with and grew to appreciate. The whole region has always interested me and in particular, within the region’s history, there are moments of dreaming of a Pan-America. What is a Pan-American culture or a larger continental cooperation or exchange? The very construct of Latin America is something that fascinates me because it does speak to a higher ideal—one of exchange, one perhaps of mobility. It is a dream that hasn’t been made possible for the vast majority of people there. However, I can at least imagine that my family has lived according to an interpretation of that ideal, due to its mobile nature during a particular global moment when it was difficult to stay put. I hope to continue my investigations into the region for the rest of my life. If I could work with other people interested in this topic and others related to it, and if I could encourage other colleagues and future students to look into architectural, planning and urbanistic questions in that region, I’d be very happy. I think that’s my mission in life.
Do you have any advice for current students?
Advice for students, I think, varies upon what program they’re in and what level of education they have attained or wish to complete. Part of me wants to tell first-year design students to work hard, because the competition is very intense in first year—it’s the make-or-break year—but not to take themselves so seriously that they put their own health at risk.
Follow what you have a passion for and don’t think necessarily that there is only one sort of architecture that you have to do. Don’t let the job opportunities of your immediate region restrict you and realize that by going to an institution such as USC, which is rooted in the local but also increasingly global, you will attain skills that will be useful around the world and on many different levels.
There are many paths one can take out of an architecture school—some that are even far removed from architecture. I know people that have come out of architecture school and they’re now baking bread and cooking, and they find themselves very, very happy with life. Does their architectural training somehow manifest in what they’re doing now? I think so. If you’re in architecture school, you’ve done well. You’ve chosen a field that gives you a very large toolset of skills, and no matter what the economic conditions may be, know that you are versatile and you’re problem-solvers.
Don’t limit yourself just to what’s in studio. The School of Architecture has more to offer and sometimes you can be the person who brings something to the table by starting a new journal, creating a small collaborative of teammates, joining competitions or organizing people to go to conferences. Those are really important things you’ll be doing in your professional lives as well. I encourage students to look outside the studio walls.