BUILDING TOWARDS EQUALITY. Alejandro Aravena is a Chilean architect and executive director of the firm Elemental S.A. In 2016 he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honour, and was the director and curator of the Architecture Section of the 2016 Venice Biennale. From 2000 to 2005 he was a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design. An International Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he was appointed Chair of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury as of March 2021.
Alejandro Aravena, why did you want to become an architect?
I was 17 when I left school. What can you possibly know at 17? When I asked for some orientation the school looked at my subject grades and suggested architecture, but I had no idea what it was. That wasn’t a bad thing as I didn’t have any expectations. During my architectural studies I began to develop why I would like to study it.
Did becoming an architect connect with your social and political interests?
When I studied architecture at Universidad Católica de Chile from 1985 to 91 it was a self-referential profession, as removed as one can possibly imagine from politics and society. It was only when I was invited to teach at Harvard in 2000 that I understood the political dimensions of the profession. I caught up with the potential of architecture to change society rather late, but this was out of ignorance, not out of interest.
How did you react to the self-referential environment of the discipline?
I felt rebellion against the relevance of what we were dealing with at the university. The expectation was that when you were asked to do a house for a client they would be a sculptor, a cinematographer or a philosopher. The assumption was that the quality of the client would create the quality of the architecture. In my third year I decided to do a house for a taxi driver, to test if all these high discourses with philosophers and artists that we were taught in the university had anything to do with the everyday life of a person that wanted to have their refrigerator in their living room because it was a sign of status. I was interested in creating trouble for academia with this disconnection that I felt. Remember, I’m talking about the last years of dictatorship in Chile. Pinochet left in 1990, and in those five years that I was at university your political position was binary. You were either with or against Pinochet. There was no grey area.
You become friends with an engineer called Andres Iacobelli with whom you created the company Elemental and got involved with so-called “half good homes”. How come?
At Harvard I met this Chilean engineer doing his masters at the Kennedy School of Government. He said that apparently Chilean architecture is having a very good moment, but if Chilean architects are so good, why is its social housing so bad? In his engineer’s public policy mind he knew that 60% of what gets built in Chile uses a subsidy, yet Chilean architectural talent was not connected to the majority of those square metres. Out of this very provocative question, we said, okay, let’s do something with social housing.
What did that mean?
In my architect’s mind it meant let’s do a workshop, write a book, put on an exhibition. In my wildest dreams it meant a prototype of one housing unit. In his engineer’s mind was a company that could prove the market wrong, that by following exactly the same rules, using the same public policy and funding, could create something that could change the situation. That meant at least 100 units, built in the same time frames with a subsidy of $7,500 per family to buy the land, provide the infrastructure and build a house. In engineering school they learn to think with constraints from day one. In architecture school constraints are removed from your education so you create a parallel, ideal world.
“We always thought that housing was a tool to overcome poverty, not just to provide a shelter against the environment.”
Villa Verde, Incremental Housing Complex
Villa Verde was after the earthquake in 2010. This was 2001, before any project was even built, when looking at the evidence we could see that the biggest housing that could be delivered by the state with public funding was of 30 to 40 square metres. And when you went to the city and saw these hundreds of thousands of units delivered every year by the government, you could see that they were expanded by families to double the original size. Those tiny units were, of course, insufficient for what a family needs, so families made those units grow. So instead of looking at the $7,500 subsidy as being able to pay for only a small, 40 square metre house, we asked why don’t we look at that money as being able to pay for half of that good 80 square metre middle class standard house that everybody would like to have, but which we cannot deliver with public funding. When you reframe the problem of those 40 square metres not as a small house but as half of a good one, the key question is which half do you do? And the definition of a public policy is you do everything that a family cannot do on their own. It was clear that if public money can’t afford everything on day one, then create an open system that over time, incrementally, can achieve the standard and size that is desirable.
Were you inspired by the French architect Jean Prouvé?
No. There are different ways to proceed, and for a scholar in academia the way to proceed would be to go and study everything that was done before and then see if I can start from there. But I was in a hurry, and wanted to do something right away, starting from the constraints. We knew how to create the frame, so that on day one we could guarantee the success of something that will become double the size, but not knowing exactly how it would look like. Our first project was in Quinta Monroy in the north of Chile in 2003.
You were able to achieve this “half-good” house?
We were the only project in the last five years able to build in that city in the north of Chile for $7,500. Social housing was being built ten kilometers away from the city centre, and we built in a site that was three times more expensive than social housing can normally afford, in the centre of the city. And if you want to buy one of those units today it is $70,000, so multiplied by ten. Understand that housing policy in a developing country like Chile is property oriented. This is different to Europe and the US. In developing countries – and I’m talking about the housing policies for 2 billion people in the world – housing policies transfer the subsidy to the future owner of the house. You become the owner of the house. This is the biggest money transfer of public funds into a family asset, so, the moment you make something whose value multiplies by ten, it’s the family that now has this $70,000 asset. It is not the state, it is the family. That’s why we always thought that housing was a tool to overcome poverty, not just to provide a shelter against the environment.
How many houses of that kind did you build?
With different designs, but with the same approach of allowing it to be completed over time, given that we cannot deliver everything on day one with public money, maybe around 5000. We believed that the role of architecture was to channel people’s own capacity, and that means that you have to let the project go. The moment we deliver the houses to the people is not the day we finish the project but the day when the project starts, and from then on we lose control. Of course, you create some structural control. People can’t do whatever they want. Chile’s is a highly seismic country, and it’s dangerous if you just do whatever you want, so that’s why the structure of this half-good house is for the final scenario, not just for the initial 40 square metres. We build a structure seismically resistant for the final 80 square metres. Had that not been anticipated then there would have been no value gained, because value gain expresses that quality was maintained. That’s what explains ultimately that the family now has an asset worth ten times the cost of the original policy.
This is a tremendous achievement, but you also did many other large scale public works projects, not only in Chile but internationally. Aren’t those a totally different kind of architecture?
Yes, we believe in cross-pollination and have always been very careful to have an array of different projects. Social housing demands an architect to be irreducible. The name Elemental is something that cannot be further decomposed. It has taken out everything that is not strictly necessary, everything that is superfluous. In social housing, that is a must and that is a knowledge that is desirable when you’re dealing with big budget projects because you are trained not to waste resources. The way we enter this conversation is through design. We are there as form makers, and in order to address a difficult question as a designer you have to have your designer muscles trained at the maximum possible capacity. For example, for a museum in Qatar or a building in Portugal your designer skills are fit and able to address the most difficult questions, which arise in social housing. We want to make sure that we always have this cross-pollination of knowledges between the different ends of our practice.
In fact, both ends are concerned with somehow improving people’s lives?
Exactly. If there’s anything in common it is that they’re trying to deal with inequalities. In Chile right now we’re rewriting the Constitution, and it’s a very polarized situation, yet if there’s one single thing that has won agreement it is that we have an issue with inequality. It is not so much poverty. Chile, economically speaking compared to the region, is not the poorest country – yet it is one of the most unequal.
Isn’t inequality a big problem in the whole world today?
It is a relative problem, not an absolute problem. You always compare yourself with others and that’s what creates social tension and anger and resentment and so on and so forth. When trying to deal with inequalities, maybe the only thing that one listens to as a citizen is income redistribution, and that takes an awful lot of time because income redistribution depends on education. The moment you’re better educated you have access to better jobs, and the moment you have better jobs, then you may afford better housing or better transportation or a better city. As architects we can look at the city as a shortcut towards equality. If you identify projects of housing, infrastructure, public space and public transportation, you can correct inequalities and improve quality of life without having to touch income. Look at the power of public space, for example. Cities are measured for what you can do in them for free. I was recently in London because of the Pritzker prize. You can go to a park in London for free and have a moment of just enjoying life. If you go to a poor periphery in Santiago there’s not one square metre of public space per inhabitant. International recommendations say it should be around nine or ten square metres per person. A rich neighbourhood in Santiago has 18 square metres of public space per person. London has 44. If you invest in public space you are creating a moment of the day for people that cannot afford to have holidays when they can experience a good quality of life for free.
“Being able to open a window may have huge consequences on the paradigm of the workplace.”
Alejandro Aravena, is London a kind of ideal city?
It has other problems, but from the standards of public space that is definitely a thing, but it is also important not to be dogmatic. The weather of London allows for those parks to grow almost by themselves. That amount of green space in Santiago, almost a desert area, maybe would be a disaster, so it’s not just a formula that you take from one place to another. But definitely the way to look at cities is how you can do what you can do in them for free. In Copenhagen you can take bathe in the sea, that’s how clean the water is. In Basel, in Switzerland, you can swim in the river. In Rio de Janeiro you go to the beach and once you are there in a swimsuit and flip flops, it’s hard to tell whether a person comes from a penthouse in Ipanema or from the favela in Vidigal. You are in the moment of the day when everybody’s the same. You don’t have that so much in other places and that’s why we are looking for opportunities to try to make the city become this shortcut towards equality.
Some architects defend the concept of skyscrapers, building up, others prefer building on a lower, expanded scale. What about you?
It depends on the circumstances of the citizens. Let me give you one number. What London and Manhattan share is a similar density, so it’s not necessarily a question of height or expansion. In Manhattan, for every square metre of private land where you can build high as many square metres as you want, there’s one square metre of public space, if you take the streets, the squares, and of course Central Park and the promenade around. The ratio is 1 to 1. In a slum, that ratio between public and private space drops to less than 1 to 10. The moment you can guarantee a ratio between public space, which is where we all ultimately have to co-exist together, and are able to maintain a ratio that is close to 1 to 1, then different forms can serve the same purpose. It is not a single recipe. It depends on the climate. It depends on income. It depends on culture. If I had an idea in advance of should I go that way or that way, dense, high, or horizontal sprawl, then I would have known the answer before understanding the question. Our professional responsibility is to wait to understand the circumstances. Shut up, listen and ingest what is out there, and only then propose something. Ideology knows the answer before the question.
It seems more and more people want to live in cities, even in very bad conditions?
In May 2007 The Economist had the title The World Goes to Town on the cover. That was the moment when, for the first time in human history, we had more people living in cities than in the countryside. There’s a very powerful reason for that to be so. Cities are concentrations of opportunities. People come into cities with an expectation of improving their education, access to jobs, health care, even recreation and transportation. If we’re not able to provide decent conditions, it’s not that people will stop coming. They will come anyhow, but they will live in awful conditions. In fact, evidence shows that from a public policy point of view, it’s more efficient to have people concentrated in a space in order to deliver running water, electricity, gas, the basic services. The more concentrated in space people are, the more you are able to address sanitation issues, for example.
What do you think about the recent changes in working practices, and people not going to the office so much?
Some people will work remotely and some office space is going to remain vacant, but that’s a reality for, let’s say, 500 million people in the world. 5 billion don’t work in an office, they work physically, doing something, exchanging stuff and don’t have the choice of working remotely at home. If I’m selling something on the street or if I’m I am a builder in a construction site that’s not a possibility. In our field, in architecture, construction is not necessarily a skill, it’s mainly an antidote against unemployment. People go into the construction sector because that’s how the economy keeps unemployment rates low, and that requires physical presence. In any case, for those that have a choice to be able to work here and there, there’s still a very powerful reason for meeting. I recently went to London after two years for the Pritzker Prize, and we still needed to meet there, to give the award to Frances Kere, for the first time to an African architect. Business still needs you to pay attention to the nonverbal dimensions of human communication. You look at somebody close to you; they look you straight in the face when you throw an idea on the table; you understand right away if you are talking crap or not.
With Covid fresh air became a necessity?
The pandemic and the viruses is a problem of interiors. The moment you are outside, it becomes less of a problem. Opening windows, for example, is apparently the most banal thing to do. That’s something that you can do at home, but you can barely do that in an office space. That has a huge consequence on the way you deal with air conditioning, with heating, because at home I can decide myself if I can open a window. The moment you can do that, things become so reasonable, but you can’t do that normally in working spaces. That apparently inoffensive change, being able to open a window, may have huge consequences on the paradigm of the workplace.
Skyscrapers where you cannot open the windows become dangerous places.
Or something will have to be created, because in a plane you can still be safe yet it’s an interior. Metaphorically speaking, the challenge is how to transform interiors back into exteriors again and still have the levels of comfort that are required.
Villa Verde, Incremental Housing Complex
Monterrey, Incremental Housing Complex
Monterrey, Incremental Housing Complex
Innovation Center – Anacleto Angelini
Innovation Center – Anacleto Angelini
Bicentennial Children’s Park, Santiago, Chile
“The most important projects that we have done deal with unspeakable certainties.”
Alejandro Aravena, has there been a lot of change since you started your job of architect?
Yes. Technological change, cultural change, mental change. In my practice I apply nothing of what I studied, I was trained in other things. I was never taught how to split tasks or talk to people. You have to intuitively try to understand how you create participatory processes. That was not part of the education of the time.
Do you draw with a computer?
I draw by hand. I entered university too early to be digitally natural. Yet I have to coexist in the office with the latest software because that’s the common language for the world and that’s the tension that has to be kept together simultaneously in the practice.
What about the changes in environmental concerns?
When I studied architecture, not that long ago, to do a glass skyscraper in a city was a sign of modernity, it looked cool, it was desirable, developers went for that. But now these are huge greenhouse generators and that’s simply unacceptable. That changed rather recently. Of course, it depends on the environment, but in weather like that of Santiago we’re still building glass skyscrapers that consume 120 kilowatts per square metre per year in air conditioning. If we avoid direct sun radiation on glass, then the energy consumption drops to 40 kilowatts per square metre per year. That’s a huge change that the market and developers and even the people of what is cool have not yet integrated. I am in a hurry to make a change in the carbon footprint of the building sector.
Are these vast new cathedrals that architects build going to last like the pyramids of Egypt? Or they are going to decay quickly and soon look even older than older buildings?
It depends on what originated that cathedral. If you’re celebrating ego, of course that won’t last. But sometimes, not always, the question for the architect is to capture something intangible, let’s say the identity of a nation or a society, and when that is the question of course the answer has to be able to deliver and not fall short. Some projects are very hard to explain in functional terms, they are symbolic. The project we presented at the Venice Biennale for the Mapuche – Chilean relationship, which is another of the conflicts that we’re dealing with now in the country, is mainly a symbolic act. A practical solution was not the first thing that needed to be done. If you are truthful and careful with the nature of the question, then the intangible dimension of architecture that addresses the mystery of the human condition is still part of our array of tools, but not always.
Is there a kind of religious sentiment?
I’m very agnostic. Religion is not even close to being one of my interests. Yet, let me try to find the right words but maybe I will not be able to: The most important projects that we have done deal with unspeakable certainties, the things that you know but can’t put words on. You just know. From that point of view, it’s a mix between intuition and the sacred – even though I’m agnostic. Something happens when you’re able to connect to those unspeakable certainties. There’s no other way I can explain that the project for the Mapuche worked, had it not been for that capacity to go out of the rational and connect with this archaic intuition. For that you don’t need a church.
Chile is going through a big political change. What kind of country is it? Is it a Latin American laboratory for ideas?
I, and maybe every single Chilean, we are all very involved in this new constitution. We’re debating the rules of the game for mutual co-existence. Last year I was invited by the Constitutional Convention to give a talk, that was the first time they opened up to civil society, and the title that I used for that presentation was the same one that the Venice Biennale has: How Will We Live Together? We have that question as a society, and it’s exactly the same question we have as architects in front of a blank page. That’s why architecture is not only the crystallization, but maybe also the way to translate and transfer the discussion into very concrete terms. We are not only discussing a political system. What led to this crisis is a cultural question. By cultural I mean that basis, mainly the Western world, or the world in general, that value put on having, on belongings. If you have belongings then you are valuable and that happens at the top of the pyramid with a neoliberal system. You create enough wealth so that you can show off. But it also happens at the bottom of the pyramid. Part of the security crisis and criminality that we’re suffering is that people are stealing cars, not because they want to sell the cars but because they’re hungry just to show off in social media: “Look, I also have a car.” In general our society places that notion of value in belongings, and there are other cultures, like the Mapuche culture, for example, or Eastern cultures, where the notion of value is not in belongings, but in belonging. A verb, not a noun. We are in the tipping point for being able to create an alternative cultural value system that is not just the economic neoliberal system or the political system. If we’re able to agree on a different cultural value system, then we may have a chance to answer the question of how we will live together. The role of artists and musicians is to show the world what is desirable, instead of the latest jewel of I don’t know how many million dollars. Also the movie stars or the sports stars, all the role models. If they’re able to shift culture from belongings to belonging, then we may have a chance to answer the question: How Will We Live Together?
Thank you very much Alejandro.
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