Culture

Pritzker prizewinner Alejandro Aravena's social housing proves the value of architects to urban planning. By Dan Stapleton.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Alejandro Aravena

According to Alejandro Aravena, we are all running out of time. The Santiago-based architect may have been awarded this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize in recognition of what he has already achieved in the field of social housing, but when he speaks – and he does so eloquently and with great passion – it becomes clear that the sense of urgency that brought him this far is only intensifying.

“The world is moving towards cities, which in principle is great news because cities represent a concentration of opportunity,” he says. “But that movement is now happening at a scale and speed, and with a scarcity of means, that we haven’t seen before in human history. The kind of creativity that will be required from architects in the coming years is immense.”

In Latin America, in India and China, hundreds of thousands of people are relocating to urban areas. Aravena believes that governments must act now to devise large-scale housing solutions that are affordable, energy efficient and – crucially – durable. “If we don’t, it’s not that people will stop coming to cities,” he says. “They will come anyhow. But they will live in slums and favelas.”

In Chile, across the developing world and, to a lesser extent, in the West, leaders are grappling with the practical implications of the population boom, but until recently Aravena and his like-minded peers found it difficult to get seats at the table. “Generally, an architect is seen as somebody who will only be called on when you have a lot of money,” he says. “Or when you have a problem that is not that tough – let’s say, an artistic problem. I hope the prestige that this prize brings allows us not to spend any more energy explaining why architects should be more involved. Hopefully, it will allow us to spend our energy on the challenges themselves, rather than convincing people why they should have an architect contributing to the problem-solving at all.”

It is just after 9am when Aravena and I speak, but the 48-year-old has already been in his Santiago office for some time. Stacks of paper cover his desk, and behind him there is a whiteboard filled with the barely legible scrawling of someone whose mind works faster than his hands. Aravena once told a reporter that all architects should pay attention to work–life balance, and that he was never at the office after 7pm or on weekends. But since the prizewinner was announced on January 13, many important people have asked to speak with him. I suspect he may have bent his own rules slightly to accommodate them.

“For example, because of this prize, we have a meeting in an hour with the minister of public works,” he tells me. “Normally, each government department will operate in a specific field of knowledge – one will do roads, one will do public space, one will do housing. But the kinds of challenges that we’re facing today are complex; they require those in charge to co-ordinate. There is a need for synthesis, and this is where architecture may make a contribution. The minister of public works understood because of the Pritzker that, well, maybe here is a means of tackling issues that previously no one ever thought could be tackled in an integrated way.”

The assertion that modern urban planners rarely consult with architects about major projects during the conception phase might surprise a layperson. But, as Aravena explains, the fields of architecture and urban planning both became insular during the 20th century as the pace of industrialisation in many parts of the world slowed. Even in developing countries such as Chile, academics followed the lead of their colleagues in the United States and Europe.

“The paradigm under which I was educated meant that you dealt with problems that only interested other architects,” Aravena says. “No one outside our field could understand the jargon that we used or the problems that we were trying to solve – or, more importantly, why they should care about these issues. It was an endogamic, self-referential environment.”

Now, as industrialisation ramps up again – this time on continents with huge populations – and First World countries turn their attention towards the impact of climate change on urban environments, Aravena and his contemporaries are becoming aware that their skills might have much broader applications than their teachers led them to believe. “We’re realising that the kinds of problems we should be dealing with are very far away from the architectural ‘problems’ that we studied,” he says. “Today, every single citizen is worried about insecurity in urban environments: the poverty, or the congestion, or the pollution, or the amount of waste we are producing. You don’t need to be an architect to be worried about these sorts of issues.

“For architects in this new paradigm, the notions of quality and success have to be redefined.”

 

Aravena, the son of two teachers, grew up in Santiago under the Pinochet regime. He trained locally, at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, but always wanted to travel. In the late 1980s, he visited Italy with a tape measure and a sketchbook to study the country’s defining buildings. He graduated in 1992 and, by 1994, had launched his own firm in Santiago.

His early designs for tertiary institutions, including several for his alma mater and a dormitory block for St Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, garnered praise from overseas and led him to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, arguably the world’s pre-eminent school of architecture, where he became a visiting professor in 2000. Aravena found the environment at Harvard hugely stimulating, but soon became aware of the narrowness of his own education. “I was in conversations with engineers and lawyers who had a very clear understanding of housing policies that were delivering hundreds of thousands of units per year,” he remembers. “I was the architect at the table and I had no clue how to contribute to that conversation.”

The experience was both humbling and energising. In 2001, Aravena pooled his resources with several Santiago architects and founded a new firm, Elemental, which focused on housing projects that would help Chile improve the lives of its sizeable population of citizens living below the poverty line.

An early test came in 2003, when Elemental was tasked with designing homes for 100 families in northern Chile with just $US7500 in government subsidies per house. The experiment was a success. By 2010, the firm was tackling ambitious projects that incorporated architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture, such as the reconstruction of Constitución, a city devastated by Chile’s earthquake and tsunami that year. In consultation with residents, the Elemental team drew up a master plan for the city that incorporated both low-cost housing solutions and smart landscaping projects, including a forest designed to absorb large amounts of rainfall and prevent flooding. The centrepiece of the project was a development of 484 low-cost terrace houses (pictured above) with only half of their walls and rooms completed – the adjacent half of each house was left as empty space with a roof. Each dwelling could accommodate a family in its half-finished state; the empty space was to be filled in later, when the city’s inhabitants got back on their feet.

Elemental is not the first group to tackle large-scale urban problems such as this in a holistic manner. But the firm has proved that architects are up to the challenge, and, perhaps, that they are better equipped to deal with these issues than bureaucrats or professionals from other disciplines.

By awarding him the prize, the Pritzker committee seems to be signalling a priority shift and acknowledging Aravena for helping to bring it about. “He shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives,” said philanthropist Thomas Pritzker in a statement. “[His work] gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space.”

It is also significant that an architect in his 40s was awarded the prize. The previous laureate, Frei Otto, was 89 when he was recognised by the committee. He died two weeks later.

“It is not said, but I guess that the younger generation, even if it was not trained to face these new issues, at least has less baggage to throw away,” says Aravena. What he and his contemporaries must do now is move into what he considers to be “a completely new field”.

 

Although Aravena himself served on the Pritzker committee between 2009 and 2015, no prominent architect or journalist has questioned the current jury’s impartiality since this year’s prize was announced. There is a near consensus within the community that Elemental is doing fundamentally important work, and that Aravena’s designs are both innovative and elegant.

But Aravena has endured criticism in the past, primarily because of Elemental’s ties to Chile’s largest oil company, COPEC. Elemental received start-up money from COPEC in 2001, and two of the oil giant’s senior executives currently sit on the firm’s board. Moreover, Elemental is – and has always been – openly for-profit. When some socially progressive people discover these details, they question the company’s motives.

Aravena admits that he and his colleagues were driven by more than a desire to help others when they started Elemental. “We thought, without any false modesty, that we were very good designers,” he says, “and, if you think of yourself as being a skilled professional, you naturally would like to test your knowledge in the most challenging area of your field. For us, that was social housing. Not for a second, when we started Elemental, did we claim any kind of moral superiority.”

Aravena casts himself as a realist who understands that pure charity is often less impactful than a worthy deed motivated, in part, by profit. “This kind of assumption that if you’re working for the poor you have to make it pro bono... I think this is very, very unsustainable,” he says.

When he founded Elemental, there was little financial incentive for top architects to work on social-housing problems. Now, Aravena and his co-workers have created a profitable practice that has a good chance of being emulated by more of the field’s best and brightest, thereby improving social outcomes. “And [architects] must do these projects well,” he stresses. “I mean, whenever you do something with social housing, you’re multiplying it by hundreds of thousands of units. If you make a mistake, it will last for generations. Generations of people will be condemned to live in very bad urban environments.”

As for the COPEC connection, Aravena argues that without initial funding from the oil company, Elemental would not have had the means to become a self-sustaining, for-profit business. Moreover, the oil executives currently on the board offer valuable advice on operating effectively in the Chilean free market. Fundamentally, their presence “allows us to engage in conversations that may interest society in a broader sense, not just from a specific, artistic point of view,” Aravena says.

There is a trace of impatience in Aravena’s voice when he discusses these issues. Justifying his methods for outsiders’ benefit is time-consuming, and he firmly believes that time is of the essence. He would rather expend energy on the projects themselves, and on spreading his message.

Already, Aravena’s views on the role of architecture in the 21st century are gaining traction with the mainstream. His TED Talk from 2014 has been viewed more than 1.3 million times and Vanity Fair and The Guardian have recently run features. In May, he is curating the architecture component of the Venice Biennale, which will allow him to share his ideas with a large audience of sophisticated consumers and noted creatives. Not surprisingly, his goal is to foster discussion. “Participatory processes, whether in social housing or in city design, start by trying to identify what the question is,” he says. “I would like the biennale to start the same way.”

Like his lecture for TED, the biennale is an opportunity for Aravena to speak to an audience that may have only a cursory understanding of architectural principles. The Pritzker nod proves that the architectural establishment is on his side; now, he needs to persuade the rest of us.

“It’s simply about letting the general public know that architecture might be able to make a contribution to issues that matter,” he says. “I hope that the biennale will put architecture on the radar, so to speak, so that when societies are facing complex issues, they might look to an architect to contribute something.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Safe as houses". Subscribe here.

Dan Stapleton
is a Sydney-based feature writer.

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