Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect who celebrated his 49th birthday last week, is currently in the middle of a personal annus mirabilis. In January he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the architectural community’s answer to the Nobel, and shortly afterwards was selected to curate the Venice Biennale, an architectural exhibition in the Italian city where countries submit pavilions exploring abstract themes and theories.
Prior winners of the Pritzker include, in recent years, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel, SANAA, and Frei Otto; all of them are certainly brilliant architects, but their expertise lies in crafting masterful individual designs through which they may channel an aesthetic philosophy. Aravena and his firm Elemental, on the other hand, are better known for their big-picture ideas and overarching concepts applied on a multi-project scale.
In addition, where other high-profile architects are best known for their work on projects with huge budgets and private clients, Aravena’s most famous work has been social housing built on behalf of the Chilean government on an incredibly tight budget. A series of natural disasters in the South American country- an earthquake in Iquique, a tsunami in Constitución, for instance- and a general epidemic of illegal squatting in the nation’s cities has led to a social housing crisis and a headache for the politicians in Santiago.
Aravena’s housing in Iquique, then and now
The hallmark of Aravena’s design process, as he details in a TED Talk, is community participation and feedback. When he reached out to the poor communities for which he was to build his early social housing, he learned that people were strongly opposed to living in rows of exactly identical houses. They also prioritized a large floor area and hoped, ideally, the houses would have a high market value after a number of years. Aravena could have built the bare minimum to meet the government budget and demands, but instead he addressed the community’s concerns and came up with an ingenious solution: build half of a large house rather than a cheap small house. Each structure would contain vital elements of a house, such as a kitchen and bathrooms, and an empty space for expansion. This expansion, done on the occupant’s dime, allowed value inflation and personalization. It allowed the residents to grant their neighborhoods identities, identities that would have been smothered by identical row housing.
Aravena’s housing in Constitución, then and now
Contrast this method with, for instance, this failed social housing in Winnipeg, Canada. The bright and vibrant design, though conceived with the best intentions, does not compensate for the small houses, inability for the residents to personalize their homes, and probability of only deteriorating over time. The sacrifice Aravena makes with his philosophy is personal aesthetic- he cedes control of the design’s details to the occupants. This manifestation of architecture- suggesting and subtly guiding construction rather than micromanaging it- is a mature and healthy method of urbanization in poor areas.
The Constitución Cultural Center
Some of Elemental’s social housing schemes are so large-scale that urban planning becomes as huge a part of Aravena’s job as design. Even in this field Aravena remains committed to utilizing community involvement and feedback. One of his greatest achievements in this area has been the reconstruction of Constitución after a tsunami hit the city. He took a more restrained approach to future tsunami protection than the government-favoured seawall; having learned that the city’s residents considered the riverbank a key part of their local identity, he planned the regeneration so that between the river and the housing there was a large swathe of forested park that served both as a public space/cultural hub and a means of breaking up waves in the case of a future tsunami.
The Santiago UC Innovation Center
Though Aravena’s fame, and the cause of his recent praise, lies in his social housing, he is as skilled as any modern architect in designing individual projects. Some go hand in hand (and tight budget in tight budget) with the housing project, such as his Constitución Cultural Center, and others have proved groundbreaking in terms of their sustainability, like his Santiago Innovation Center. However, his built work remains confined to Chile; hopefully his recent publicity allows him to spread his ideas and theories globally.
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