04/26/19 Faculty Spotlight: Jose Sanchez


Jose Sanchez is an assistant professor at USC Architecture as well as an architect, programmer and game designer. He recently won an ASCA Architectural Education Award in Faculty Design for Block’hood, an architecture video game designed for engaging non-expert audiences and communities into the ecological challenges of architecture.

Can you tell us about your background?

I’m a Chilean architect from Santiago. I graduated from Universidad de Chile, and after 3 years of running a practice developing architecture projects and media, I migrated to London to obtain an M.Arch from the Architectural Association. My studies in Chile gave me a strong sense of social responsibility that I was able to address in my research position at USC, allowing for video game projects to innovate in forms of citizen participation.

What are you teaching at USC Architecture?

In 2013, I started a research agenda called ‘Gamescapes.’ I had the intuition that games could provide a different approach to the use of technology in the field. I wanted to create software that would help the architect take decisions, a form of intelligence augmentation, as opposed to replacing decision making with artificial intelligence. I realized that games are an excellent vehicle for understanding systems, the complex networks, and dependencies that define our contemporary cities. I have used the methodology of games, and a new approach to modularity which I call discrete design, to address economic issues of production and customization. Students can design systems of buildings that could address a series of spatial conditions as opposed to a one-off proposal. This work is inspired by architects like Jean Prouve and Konrad Wachsmann, who utilized a strong sense of manufacturing to engage in a vision of prefabrication. I invite students to rethink these issues with current technologies and being aware of the contemporary challenges of the discipline.

What drew you to the USC School of Architecture?

USC is a large university with a vast array of research departments. My interests have always been interdisciplinary in nature, interfacing with computer science, interactive media, and communication. I was excited to come to USC and be able to interface with other disciplines, connecting to the Cinema School and the Annenberg Innovation Lab. USC received me with open arms, allowing me to participate in cross-disciplinary conversations and encouraging my research agenda to grow and face a wide range of challenges. Those conversations have continued inside the School of Architecture, where a series of amazing colleagues have continuously established avenues for the discussion of architecture and its role in society.

What excites you about your faculty role?

As a faculty at USC, I get to work with great students from many different backgrounds. I have the opportunity to discuss ideas with them and speculate on the future of the profession. I look forward to the moments in which students surprise you with their contributions and design. I learn from them as much as they learn from me.

What do you focus on in your research? How did you become interested in this?

For the last past seven years, I have been researching the possibility of developing ethical, social networks for the production of architecture through the medium of video games. I believe that games can become vehicles for participation, becoming a form of scaffold or literacy infrastructure for non-expert users. I have been able to develop ecological video games like Block’hood, and I’m currently developing a new video game called Common’hood that addresses the ecology of labor through the stories of communities at the edge of homelessness.

What are you currently working on?

Together with the Common’hood video game described above, I have been working on a book entitled ‘Architecture for the Commons; Participatory systems in the age of Platforms’ currently under contract with Routledge. The book presents a critique of the economics that underlines parametric design and suggests that a discrete approach to building tectonics provides the affordance for cooperation and a more equitable economic model for the practice of architecture. I suggest that the notion of the Commons, understood not only as shared resources but also the social systems that manage such repositories of resources, are currently under attack by our current economic system. I advocate and provide guidelines of how can architecture contribute to a global resistance to this trend by the protection and reconstruction of the commons.

What are your thoughts on the current state of architecture across the globe?

For several years I have contributed to a conversation that is putting forward a critique towards architectural competitions. I lament that architects are forced to work for free and waste time and effort in speculative commissions. I believe that this is a common practice in the field, that forces the existence of free internships or underpaid positions. I think that there needs to be a recalibration of our disciplinary values; progressive architecture cannot be synonymous with regressive social practices. I believe that USC can be at the forefront of the social ethics of practice, backing these concerns with design practices that offer different models for the production of architectural value.

Who or what inspires you?

I have always been inspired by individuals that have seen through the deficits and challenges of the systems in play, and have dedicated their lives to activism and to the resistance of forms of oppression. In recent years, the contributions of Aaron Swartz are very close to my own concerns regarding the liberation of access to knowledge. Attempts that try to provide an even playfield for those that have been dispossessed are demonstrated in his leadership in the fight for net neutrality. Swartz’s passing was not only a terrible tragedy but a demonstration of how controversial the issue of access to public knowledge can really be. While I do not agree on developing schemes outside the law, I believe that the development of infrastructures for literacy needs to counteract a system that hardly provides opportunities for those at the bottom.

Why is now such an exciting time to study urbanism and architecture?

Architecture is going through a major housing crisis. At the same time, the construction industry is one of the most significant contributors to global warming. I don’t want to sound negative, on the contrary, architecture is being called to address some of the most critical challenges of our time. This needs to be done by educating new generations of architects that can think beyond the recipes we have established in the past. The innovation brought by new materials and technologies, while has enriched some, it needs to start being implemented towards a social agenda. The stakes are high for the discipline or architecture, and there is a growing population of architects with the urgency to address these global challenges through creative projects.

Any advice to current students?

My advice to students is to strive to develop a sense of integrity and self-worth that can guide you through your career. There will be many people that will doubt the ideas you are putting in the table, but perseverance and hard work are the only way to voice and give shape to our own intuition. The faculty here at USC will always be supportive and help you materialize your vision, especially when you are passionate about your work.

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