interview by ALEPH MOLINARI
photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
shot at the amalia hernández house, mexico city
a visit to the legendary 97-year-old mexican architect agustín hernández in the house he designed in 1973 for his sister amalia hernández. mixing brutalism and post- modernism, he incorporates elements of pre-hispanic heritage and plays with elementary geometrical forms to develop his singular style of tectonic architecture. his iconic projects include a zapotec-inspired military academy and his brutalist studio called praxis in mexico city.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you see architecture as a form of art or sculpture?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — For me, architecture has to arrive at the level of art. By being elevated to the level of aesthetics, it becomes a work of art, not just a construction.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And how do you achieve this?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — By thinking. I don’t have a particular style. Each work that I make has its own different style, in a way that is unique and unrepeatable.
ALEPH MOLINARI — In what way does your architecture fit within the Mexican national identity?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — I’ve always been inspired by the plastic sense present in pre-Hispanic cultures, especially in their ceremonial centers. The Heroico Colegio Militar [Heroic Military College] that I designed in Mexico City is based on the ceremonial center in Monte Albán in Oaxaca. Its design is a conjugation of empty and built spaces. It is expressed by looking and by modulating, through a reticle, in the space. It almost becomes a musical rhythm expressed through architecture and space.
ALEPH MOLINARI — In which music do you find this rhythm that you express in architecture?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — In Bach, especially. It’s all about a play of volumes, a continuous rhythm in order to achieve the affinity of one body to another, and it has an organization similar to a musical symphony.
ALEPH MOLINARI — When you made the proposal for the military academy, you told the secretary of defense, “My general, this is not an architectural work — this is a historical epic.”
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Yes. The proposal was for a national contest, with over 30 architects participating. It was a great challenge to design the urban planning for 400,000 square meters [4.3 million square feet] of construction. The proposal was a massive tome comprising all the necessities of the academy. There was everything you might want inside this space, from a small commercial area to a cinema, a hospital, a church.
ALEPH MOLINARI — The facade of the academy features what appears to be the face of a god — possibly Tlaloc? Are the social and power structures of the Zapotec culture in Monte Albán reflected in the military academy?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Yes. In order to give the military academy a character of discipline and command, it had to exude strength and represent military organization. But the face on the facade is just forms that came out of my mind, which did not directly represent gods, but rather represented power. I don’t have a religion, not even the pre-Hispanic gods that I adore.
ALEPH MOLINARI — What are the references that inform your architecture?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — My influences are Kenzō Tange, the Japanese architect; Santiago Calatrava; and Frank Lloyd Wright, who to me was a genius. Although, in reality, I don’t necessarily look toward foreign styles as a source of inspiration. My architecture is national — it’s very Mexican. I also took a lot of influence from colonial architecture but adapted it to a modern sensibility.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you like the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — I am fascinated by his work and went to Brazil just to see it. He is a man who, even at my age, was still a creative being. His architecture was always very organic, and I admired him a lot. I feel a touch of influence from his work.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Did you meet him?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Unfortunately not. When I went to Brazil, he had already died.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And Le Corbusier?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Ah, for me, he was the master of masters. A grand architect.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Tell us about Praxis, the modern brutalist house that you built in 1972 as the nucleus of your creative practice. In Latin, praxis means “to do,” as in the process of creating. What was the ideology behind Praxis?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — My idea was to build a structure on an inclined terrain that would resemble a tree. The early sketches of Praxis represented a human profile situated on the inclined terrain. The cranium — the center of my studio — balanced the visual equilibrium of the landscape. In essence, Praxis is a tree made of concrete; its foundation is like the roots of a tree made of anchored cables that go down 22 meters [72 feet] in depth. There are four elements of cables that are conjugated, some in compression and others in tension. I always look for unity and plasticity. There is difficulty in creating a structure that appears light but is held together through tension and cables. This technology is what allowed this construction to happen. And when there’s an earthquake, the studio oscillates and dances the twist.
ALEPH MOLINARI — In your theory, you say that architecture is part of the real dialectic of history. Is your architecture revolutionary?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — It is unique and unrepeatable. I don’t really think about being revolutionary. Sometimes, my ideas come to me while I’m driving. And when I arrive, I do a sketch or a drawing. This primary sketch is the seed of my creativity. Everything, no matter how revolutionary, has a story that spawns from a sketch.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Is architecture a way of transforming society — not from an aesthetic point of view, but from a social point of view?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — We have to create an architecture that is in agreement with the social and histori- cal movements of the time. It can transform with the evolution of that society, but there should be harmo- ny between the person who inhabits that architecture and feels that it is part of him, in the same way that he is part of Mexico.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Is this “Mexicanness” always pres- ent in your work?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Since I was young, I have felt indigenous in many ways. And for this reason, I want my roots to flourish as such. My practice is close to my ideology and is rooted in pre-Hispanic memory. This is something that has been expressed since my professional exam for architecture school.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And you had the confidence and the nerve to send your thesis to Diego Rivera.
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Yes, and Diego loved my thesis and wrote an article about it. He talked about the national expression in my work, which he himself sought out. Dr. Atl [pseudonym of the artist and writer Gerardo Murillo Cornado] also gave a very favorable opinion of my architecture.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Where do you see modernity in architecture today?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — There are a few sparks of modernity in architecture today. The Japanese are astounding, as well as some English architects, like Norman Foster. And if you go to New York, there are a few buildings that are marvelous and that are true works of art, like Lever House, a wonder of its time.
ALEPH MOLINARI — You are 97 years old and still working. How do you maintain the energy and spirit to keep on going and reinventing?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — By trying to avoid repetition and by not looking at foreign architecture. I look for what is Mexican and what will represent a true architectural work rooted in our history. It is vital to keep looking into what is part of our cultural heritage, which will ultimately flourish in architecture.
ALEPH MOLINARI — What projects are you working on right now?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — I am redesigning, quite belatedly, a new entrance to the military academy. At the time when it was built, the government wanted a school that was open to the public, but with time, they imposed limitations as part of radical changes to the structure of the army. Now they want controlled access because many people come to visit the academy.
ALEPH MOLINARI — I know that you like literature so I wanted to ask you about Jorge Luis Borges. Was your architecture partly influenced by his The Circular Ruins and the Library of Babel?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — I haven’t had much influence from literature, but more from my living experiences. Like exploring Monte Albán or Teotihuacan and trying to understand their spirit at the time. And the continuous search for form as you can see in this house [Amalia Hernández House]. I was always obsessed with pushing the boundaries of the possible, so in the entrance to the military academy, there are inclined pillars that challenge gravity. They are inclined at more than 60 degrees, maybe even more than Praxis. And that’s what I am doing now.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Are you inspired by nature, particularly in Mexico? Do you feel that there’s an antagonism between the brutality of man-made environments and natural landscapes?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Yes, of course, I’m inspired by nature. You can see it in Praxis as a tree and in [Casa] Neckelmann, which is based on the form of a snail. What I really like about nature is cacti because they have symmetry and a sensational geometrical order. One day, I would like to make a building inspired by cacti. As a child, I would build architectural models with shoeboxes. I made an entire city and the landscape around it, with trains and all. I took an entire sack of sugar in my house to make the hills and the landscapes around it. I was heavily reprimanded for wasting all the sugar, but I already felt an interest in architecture.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Which Mexican architects do you like today?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Well, many have died. But Luis Barragán, Teodoro González de León, Abraham Zabludovsky, and Enrique Norten are good architects from my time.I admire them, and some were good friends of mine.
ALEPH MOLINARI — What about Mathias Goeritz — were you friends with him?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Mathias Goeritz came to this house several times and loved it. He was a very charming person and an incredible creator. He didn’t do much architecture but made many beautiful sculptures. A true genius and a great teacher. I admired him alot.
ALEPH MOLINARI — You still do most of your sketches by hand. What’s the difference between designing by hand and the new technologies for architectural design?
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — I couldn’t have designed most of my projects with a computer. Geometry is my religion. It is the most important thing to me. Everything is made of modulated geometric strokes. Take this house [the Amalia Hernández House]: the entire structure is done with triangles. It’s the trinity. The repeating geometric forms make the whole.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And you can see the golden ratio everywhere.
AGUSTÍN HERNÁNDEZ — Yes, the section aurea. I designed several buildings with the golden ratio as modulation, but it became a great challenge because the materials — wood, mosaic, and beams — are not in proportion. And so, I had to adapt everything.
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