Spotlight: Alvin Huang

School News

Spotlight: Alvin Huang

November 07, 2016

Alvin Huang, AIA is founder and design principal of Synthesis Design + Architecture and an Assistant Professor at the USC School of Architecture. He is an award-winning architect, designer, and educator specializing in the integrated application of material performance, emergent design technologies and digital fabrication.


His work has been published and exhibited widely and has gained international recognition with over thirty distinctions at local, national, and international levels, including being honored as the Presidential Emerging Practice of the Year by the AIA-LA in 2016, being selected of as one of 50 global innovators under the age of 50 by Images Publishing in 2015, being featured as a "Next Progressive" by Architect Magazine in 2014, and being named one of Time Magazine's “20 Best Inventors” of 2013. He has been an invited critic, guest lecturer, and keynote speaker at various institutions in the US, Canada, Mexico, Chile, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Israel, Japan and China.


Alvin received a Master of Architecture and Urbanism from the Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory (2004) in London and a Bachelor of Architecture from USC (1998).


First, congratulations on getting the Presidential Honor Award from AIA-LA. I notice it’s for being an emerging practice. I’ve always wondered about that. What does it mean now versus fifty years ago when they probably didn’t even use that term?


It’s an interesting question. Part of it is the fact that, particularly in the midst of America’s corporate climate, the field of architecture recognizes new voices that are outside the status quo or the establishment. It’s about those who are beginning to establish themselves, but with a consistency.


So how do you see yourselves fitting into that? I guess this goes back to how your firm came about. It seems to me that you’ve always been pushing innovation. Was it clear in your mind when you started out that this was going to be your direction?


The catalytic moment was studying at the AA. Before that, I had already been practicing in Los Angeles, so I already had a sense of this. But by studying at the AA, I reset myself and refocused on technology. I was part of the graduate Design Research Laboratory, which was focused on being speculative and forward thinking.


What kind of practice were you doing before you attended the AA?


Let’s just say it was a very “normative” office.


What’s really interesting is that even firms like this are now trying to push research and technology more. The bigger firms put little studios in them to act like think tanks and it feels like they’re looking to firms like yours now for how to do this type of “non-normative” work. 


I actually have a book proposal that talks about this trend. I identify three types design researchers: the “rogues” working on the fringes of practice, an alternative practice, outside traditional norms. The “SWAT Teams,” or specialist teams working within the traditionalist practice. And the “mercenary teams,” the spinoffs that started to populate the market in the last five, ten years, where you see specialist computation design technologies like Gehry Technologies. These organizations are a different kind of practice where the deliverables are not products but processes.


So the AA really got me going on this track. Just my entire identity in London after the AA, going to Zaha’s office and working on various forward-thinking projects that were utilizing advanced technologies from the design and fabrication standpoint. I got exposed to this in both academic and practice settings. That crossover between academia and practice really drove me to think about how I wanted to practice.


One thing I’ve always been critical of is academic research that is too focused on the novel. The design research in practice is focused on practicality and efficiency. I try to work in the middle ground, working within the constraints of the material, time, scale, and economy to use these to think about novel approaches.


The constraints give you tensions to work with to define goals and processes. So did you come up with a particular approach or do you have a more evolved process that you’ve honed for the office, or is it different for each project?


It’s different for each project. Going back to the practice question, I like to distinguish myself from my more established peers by not having a formula. We aren’t designing or researching by formula. We’re sitting down each time and thinking about it, questioning each and every thing. I would say that’s the primary thing. It’s about questioning.


In relation to that, are you cautious about having any kind of signature style?


Well, everyone has their own individual aesthetic. I have my own, as well and I couldn’t argue that this isn’t part of what I do. There are some aesthetics to it but those stylistic things are attributed to performative things. I can describe them as performative and expressive traits that I would like each project to have. As opposed to deciding it has to be curved, I would talk about them as relative to a particular project. And I think, very much for the students, my main thing is to push them to think about architecture with a capital “A,” as opposed to building with a lower case “b.” Not everybody is studying architecture to produce the capital “A” and not everybody is even going to follow the design route, but I do know they have to know about it, be exposed to it and think about it. I talk about this all the time, that 85 percent of the buildings in the built environment are not designed by architects. And if you take a look around at the remaining 15 percent, I still think 90 percent of that doesn’t qualify as architecture with a capital “A.” And just because something meets code, has programmatic requirements, does the pragmatic things required, doesn’t qualify it as architecture with a capital “A.” This doesn’t mean those things aren’t important, but those are things have to be there. We can’t even begin talking about the other part. So it’s about a willingness to be brave enough to think beyond the constraints of the technical requirements, and think about how projects position themselves within a legacy, either as a continuation of a body of thinking or as a challenge to a body of thinking.


So how do you do this with students, like in your studio with Ma Yansong? What are the things you do to guide students down this path?


The beauty of academia is that it’s speculative and the students have the opportunity to think about the larger potentials and effects of the projects rather than be concerned about their egress strategy or something. We can even make pointed social critiques. And that’s one of the ways I like to look at these projects because obviously you couldn’t do this as a real project. From a social standpoint this is hugely fascinating. There is one project that is nothing but cores and penthouses. The team talks about it as a vertical gated community.


I encourage the students to push these types of ideas, from the cultural standpoint, that form and technology are cultural artifacts and that technology informs form. And culture informs technology.


So who are some of the people who have influenced you in studios, or in practice, who have informed your thinking?


The three direct influences are Patrick Shumacher, Tom Verebes, and Brett Steel. All three were my instructors at the AA. In an indirect way, Frei Otto and Pierre Luigi Nervi. I’m very much inspired by great design engineers of the past. At the Monterey Design Conference last year, my talk was technology is the answer but what is the question. And then Bernard Tschumi came up and his talk was architecture should question not answer. I freaked out because I thought, everyone’s going think I copied him. As I listened to his talk, however, I realized how much I’ve been influenced by him, and how much he’s influenced others.


Who are you reading now? Is Tschumi someone you recommend to students?


Lately, I’ve been getting reacquainted with Stan Allen and a lot of his writings about field conditions and objects within fields. Last year, my students were doing a habitable bridge project by the First Street bridge. I wanted to push that a bridge wasn’t just infrastructure that was dropped onto the site but the result of landscape manipulations and formal manipulations of the context. I wanted the vertical movement of the bridge to be about its occupation, not just about an elevator. So I wanted to push the idea of architecture that was coming out of a field condition.


I’ve also been thinking a lot about Paul Virilio and Claude Parent. Last year I went to the library to find his book, but it was all in French and so I just flipped through it and took pictures. I thought it was awesome that an original copy was there, in French, on the architecture of the oblique.


Another one is Allen’s book on land form. There’s also a new book that just came out that I want to get called Manual of Section by Paul Lewis, David Lewis and Marc Tsurumaki. I’m looking for a topic for a studio, how vertical movement and sectional conditions are key components to how we experience architecture.


It’s a heavy responsibility to be a studio instructor and professor. Aside from pedagogical advice, what kind of advice do you have for students for starting out in the profession?


My advice is to remember that architecture is more than a career, more than a discipline. Potentially, it’s a lifestyle. If they choose to, they can approach it in this way.


The other thing I talk a lot about with students is about being brave. Academia and education is their one opportunity to be brave. You have no requirements, no budget, your only restriction is yourself. So go for it.


One thing I asked Ma Yansong is how he developed his sense of identity as a designer. It seems increasingly difficult these days if you’re a student. Everybody’s using the same software, there’s this saturation of approaches. How can we help students find their identities? Is this an issue for students, to break out and find their own way of approaching architecture, and how important is that when you’re in studio?


Obviously I’m super interested in technology and technique as something that can inform a body of research. What I really push is the idea that technology and technique are not tools. They are instruments rather than tools. The difference between them is the difference between a whistle and a saxophone. A whistle helps you automate the process of whistling but you’re not doing a lot more than whistling. CAD is a tool. You’re drawing more precisely than by hand but you’re not changing the way you draw. A saxophone is an instrument that has a complexity that allows you to do things you couldn’t do before. Once you start to master it, it allows you to think through the instrument. So jazz is about improvisation and people are literally performing and thinking through that instrument. They’re reacting and responding. I think that is more the way students should embrace these tools and techniques.


That’s an interesting notion, that eventually everyone could be playing jazz, right?


In the end it still comes down to the point that there’s good music and there’s bad music. But the major thing is the paradigm shift to think with and through these things. Anybody who is trying the art of architecture, they think through drawing. And drawing is the production of thinking. And that is exactly the way I feel about computation. ◼