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CNT1 ELEMENTAL 17 200Dpi
1 CNT1 ELEMENTAL 17 200Dpi

ELEMENTAL ARCHITECTURE

Interview by Masoud Golsorkhi

Alejandro Aravena is a Chilean architect, known internationally for his socially conscious design. Born in 1967 in Santiago, Aravena has left an indelible mark on the field of architecture through his commitment to addressing pressing societal issues. Aravena is best known for his “incremental housing” approach, which focuses on creating affordable, adaptable and sustainable housing solutions for underserved communities. He gained international recognition for his work on the Half a House project, a groundbreaking social housing initiative that empowers residents to co-create and expand their homes over time, for which he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016. The founder of the architectural firm Elemental, Aravena works on a wide range of projects, from public buildings to educational institutions, all rooted in the belief that architecture can be a tool for social equity and positive change. He spoke to us for the forthcoming documentary on TANK.tv.

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Elemental’s design for the Art Mill Museum in Doha, Qatar. Aravena took inspiration from the site’s original function as a flour mill, retaining several of the original grain silos and adding a group of new ones to act as cooling chimneys. Situated on Doha’s iconic Corniche, the Museum is inspired by the exposed geography of the peninsula and will feature panoramic views of the city’s skyline and bay.

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Masoud Golsorkhi Many years ago I interviewed Rem Koolhaas, who told me that architecture is 95% impotence and 5% omnipotence. You are challenging impotence and omnipotence at the same time, representing a vision of architecture that is against both triumph and disaster. Why did you choose to study architecture?

Alejandro Aravena  I’ve been asked this question many times, but I have never answered it properly because I have no idea why. What do you know when you’re 17? But perhaps that unconsciousness or ignorance was good because I had no expectations, and everything was new to me. In Chile, we’re almost architecture-free; we don’t have former empires, we don’t have a big architectural heritage. Almost all pre-existing architecture has been knocked down by earthquakes. We didn’t have to kill our fathers, architecturally speaking. The other thing was that in the last five years of the Pinochet dictatorship, there was very little information about design in the rest of the world, so we were hungry. I wanted to know absolutely everything and at the same time I wanted to challenge everybody: my professor, my classmates, the system. This strange combination of being nerdy and obedient, taking the unconventional path for the sake of it, proved to be a valuable way to approach problems. Innovation is a consequence of having to come up with new tools for questions that do not have enough knowledge to be answered. When you pay careful attention to questions, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to answer them with clichés.

 

MG  Were there any theoretical frameworks or architectural approaches that were attractive to you at the time?

AA  There were, but I wouldn’t use the word attractive, I would use the word repellent. In Chile, postmodernism was rampant. Even though I knew very little about architecture, I knew intuitively that this was one of the worst periods in its history. Even though it was the preferred approach by my professors, I was going to be contrary.

 

MG  The theories mattered as long as you could smash them.

AA  Absolutely. My real interest was in regarding what a university education had to do with reality. I remember a tipping point in my third year when we designed a private house for a single client of our choosing. There was an unspoken assumption that you would choose an artist so that your house would be artistic, as that was valuable. I was suspicious of that approach, so I proposed the house of a taxi driver. I wanted to see if there was any connection between Architecture with a capital A and a guy who had to park his taxi inside the house because if he didn’t, he could lose his source of income. What does Big Architecture have to do with slum upgrading? Is there any connection? There’s a risk that you’re unable to connect them and then you become impotent. What you learn when trying to connect these two worlds is that you have to live with the good enough. In this tough environment, you’re just a tiny piece of a much bigger machinery.

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Located on the campus of Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, the Innovation Center UC is a building whose imposing facade belies its friendly interior. Designed by Aravena and the team at Elemental, the structure features huge concrete slabs, 14 storeys tall, and including 3 underground floors. The gaps and protrusions produced by the formation of the concrete slabs create natural ventilation that cools the interior communal spaces and as a result, the Center uses half the amount of energy as a glass tower block.

MG  Capital-A Architecture is an accessory for the elite: the question of design only arises if you have the extra money. You have opened up a window to architecture as a solution when in most parts of the world architecture is an obstacle.

AA  The assumption of 95% of society is that the moment you go to an architect, things slow down and become more expensive. That’s the reputation we have, so part of our task is to prove ourselves. If there’s any power in architecture, it’s the power of synthesis, when you identify all the forces at play, often pulling in opposite directions, but you’re still able to understand the priorities. There are two risks here: one is that when you work with slums, social housing, or even cities, the complexity is too great and paralyses you. The other is when you eliminate so much you end up answering only one part of the question. The power of synthesis is to find a way to integrate things that are apparently incompatible. That’s a very powerful form of knowledge that architecture has, the balancing of the tangible and measurable dimensions with symbolic and emotional dimensions.

 

MG  In Elemental’s practice, how do you deal with these forces and put your vision to work?

AA  Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live. The question is, what informs that form? There are many forces at play – political, social, environmental, legal, economical, aesthetic – and some of those forces are measurable and binary: budgets, building codes, et cetera. Part of the work we do in our participatory design approach is to explain the constraints to people. If you don’t start with constraints, the chances of being unable to fulfil their expectations become very high. The question of form is this array of layers and forces that have to be very clearly addressed.

 

MG  Does this form of engagement require a partner on the other side of the table who also understands you?

AA  You have to find a way to explain, in simple terms, issues that are rather complex. We have two billion people in the world who don’t have access to adequate housing. They move into cities, but because they lack the knowledge, they stay segregated from networks of opportunity. The equation that we have to respond to is how to house one million people per week with $10,000 per family. If we don’t find the solution to that equation, people will not stop coming to cities, but they will live in awful conditions and cities will accumulate social pressure. Yet, if we find a way to build for one million per week with these scarce resources, the carbon footprint of the building methods will end the planet. It’s a catch-22: if we don’t solve the problem, we’re in deep shit; if we solve it, we’re in it too. The role of design is to create the conditions that allow for individual actions to contribute to the common good. The scarcest resource in cities is not money, not time, but coordination. One of the main purposes of participatory design is for people’s knowledge and resources to be part of the solution. If there’s anything people who have been trying to get milk out of a stone know, it is how to organise priorities and define hierarchies. The right approach is not a paternalistic top-down one, nor is it bottom-up; it’s a horizontal conversation. People may not know how to write and read, but there’s strategic wisdom in being able to make the most out of a difficult environment. You have to say no a lot. But given that a project takes so long – even the fastest one will be a couple of years – you need to create trust. People see that you’re serious because you didn’t promise to be friends on day one. If people or officials don’t see our practice as a contribution, we leave.

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The triad of conditions Elemental have set out for the practice of incremental housing.

MG In planning, there are so-called public meetings, when architects are brought in to sell their ideas to the group of people who happen to be around on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. The famous architect comes in, he sounds amazing, people look at his diagrams, there is time for questions at the end and the policy is decided – though everybody knows that the decisions have already been made long before. It is a form of ritualised democratic pretence or just cynical PR.

AA We learned that the hard way. When I started working in social housing, I didn’t know what a subsidy was, in a country where 60% of what gets built uses subsidies. We had no idea how to resolve our first project [Quinta Monroy] in the desert in Chile because the task was almost impossible, to provide a housing solution on a piece of land that cost three times more than what social housing could afford. The budget per family was $7,500, with 150 families to house, in a total area of 5,000 square metres. With that, we had to provide infrastructure for water and electricity and build the house. It was very important to share the constraints with the residents, and they immediately understood them. When we were testing what the market was providing, a building block was the only idea that could meet the efficiency we needed. When we proposed this during the first meeting, one family said, “If you even dare to offer this as the solution, we will go on hunger strike.” You learn quickly that this is no joke.

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The equation upon which solving the world’s housing crisis must operate.

MGDo you think it’s possible to develop and systematise the Elemental form of architecture, or are its applications always very specific?

AA On one hand, in architecture as in art, value comes from uniqueness. On the other, if something cannot be repeated, its value is close to zero. Maybe the central goal with Elemental now is achieving huge quantities of repeatable solutions. The human condition is not that different across the world: every single family needs to go to the restroom, to cook, to be safe. The differences come from the different ways that you can substitute scarcity of resources with incrementality. If you don’t have the time or money to do everything on day one, allow an open system to develop over time. We’re working with different institutions, like the Inter-American Development Bank Lab, to create prefab solutions for slum upgrading, so that it can be multiplied by the thousands, then hopefully, by the millions, because that’s the size of the challenge.

 

MG I’d love you to expand on incrementality a little bit more, the foundation stone of your practice. How does it impact how you process a brief?

AA Every single project in our practice starts from facts, it never starts from a desired outcome. Before you design, you shut up, listen, swallow information, understand the constraints and identify the forces at play. In publicly funded housing, you can build around 40 square metres, in the best cases. This is the case in Chile and much of the world. But evidence shows that we need around 80 square metres to live reasonably well. It’s a fact that governments and markets have just half of the resources to provide adequate housing. It’s another fact that families will make those initial units grow. So, from that starting point, we do two things. First, design has to understand that that growth will happen. Second, the key question is where housing is, not how big it is. If the first half of a house has a middle-class DNA – a kitchen, bathroom, stairs, partition, fireproof wall, seismic resistant wall, a roof that doesn’t leak – we can expect that the second half will evolve from a social housing starting point to a middle-class outcome. Incrementality, as an antidote against scarcity is based on understanding how the built environment behaves. Growth happens anyhow, in spite of the design. The biggest complaint about social housing historically is that in order to ensure efficient uses of resources, governments and markets tend to produce monotonous, repetitive units incapable of hosting the diversity of different families.

 

MG  I don’t know if you’re familiar with Grenfell Tower in the UK, which burned down, resulting in 72 deaths. It was placed in a bourgeois neighbourhood and the middle classes demanded that the tower look cleaner. The council who covered it in the material, which turned it into a chamber of death, knew it was flammable, as did the people who lived in the tower, who fought against the coverage to no effect. It was applied for the people who pass by, not the inhabitants. It seems to me the vital ingredient that’s missing in housing is the empowerment of the end user.

AA  One of the things that we’re against is only putting social housing where other social housing already is. In developing countries, housing policies tend to be property-oriented. That’s not the case in the UK, in Europe or in the US, where the state owns protected rent. For the majority of the world, when a family gets a subsidy, they end up becoming the owner of the house, meaning that housing is the biggest transfer of money that they will ever receive. For all of us, buying a house is almost a guaranteed investment that grows its value over time. Social housing is not just a shelter against the environment, but a tool against poverty. The more access the location provides to jobs, education, health care, transportation or recreation, the higher the value of the land. That’s why “where” matters. We design in a way that we’re able to pay for more expensive land, and we normally bring social housing into middle-class neighbourhoods. There’s initial resistance, but that’s the way it is. In the environments in which we work, the difference between middle class and social housing is an antibiotic a month. The notion of who is privileged and who is not is a really thin line in Chile. When we constructed Quinta Monroy in 2004 the houses had an anti-seismic, fireproof, solid structure, and could grow to double their initial size. Some middle-class housing looks worse than our social housing. There was a moment when Quinta Monroy residents, former slum dwellers who now owned their property, complained about their middle-class neighbours across the street because the lack of quality of their houses was bringing their property value down. There’s a Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, who said that in the jungle, the only thing that can defeat the rhinoceros is a cloud of mosquitoes. The coordination of a lot of tiny actions – that’s the role of architecture. The rhinoceros is the housing deficit of two billion people in the world. Well, let’s channel the capacity of those two billion people. You must understand that your position in the field is not the striker, not the goalkeeper, but somewhere in the middle, passing the ball and allowing the rest to play.

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MG I’m fascinated by your Künü – Koyaüwe1 project. The experience of Chile is traumatic in so many ways, and the Mapuche people have the double trauma of being a minority inside it. Normally, you need peace in order to build: in this scenario, peace doesn’t exist, and building itself is contributing to the conflict. How did the project respond to that?

1. The name Koyaüwe comes from koyak, “to speak”, and üwe, “place”.

AA The conflict between the state of Chile and the Mapuche has interested us in the office for a long time, but it’s such a charged issue. Depending on who you talk to, you never know what the reality is. A forest company at the core of the conflict called us because the state had been unable to deal with the Mapuche. It was an opportunity for us to visit and try to learn firsthand why there was no peace. We quickly understood that we had to unlearn whatever we thought we knew about the issue. In principle, the first project was low-hanging fruit because there were already negotiations occurring regarding the return of land for ceremonial and ritual spaces. We arrived and the road was blocked: the community said, “It’s ours, we’re not talking to you anymore.” The physical body language was so angry. At one of the last projects, Loncoche, they already had a project for a very big building that had everything: a hotel, market, cultural centre, meeting space, a health facility. They wanted us to sign the documents because we were licensed architects. In principle, that was our job: go to the municipality and get the building permission. But in the conversation we said, there’s something here that doesn’t make sense. It was maybe the most challenging project we have ever done because we went into it without a clue as to what we could do, starting with the fact that Mapuche don’t have civic architecture. They’re not nomadic but they live in such balance with nature that their footprint is very subtle. They have some private housing constructions but not a city. To deal with foreign powers, first with the Inca Empire, then with the Spanish crown, and then with Chile’s independence in 1810, the Mapuche had an institution called parlamento – gatherings over a couple of days where you would agree on how to live together, the rules of coexistence. We thought: what if we recover this old tradition that never had an architecture and incorporate that? We came back to the Mapuche community and said, more than a big building, what you have here is a small city. Any city requires a foundational act. We cannot follow that of the Spaniards, the square, as the Mapuche world is about the circle; it’s a different cosmogony. How do you design something that never existed, but had to feel as if it had always been there? These ideas were done partly in collaboration with the Mapuche, and partly internally, in the office. In one of the meetings, we brought a model of a crown of trees that followed the footprint of the ritual Mapuche spaces. 

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An initial sketch from the development of Künü–Koyaüwe.

We were really scared because we knew it was not what they were asking for. After a couple of seconds of silence that felt like an eternity, they said, “We don’t know what this is.” The approach towards the Mapuche in Chile has always been economical: you’re impoverished, so we bring economic and financial aid; whereas we felt that the conversation had to start from a symbolic point. For the Mapuche, dreaming is very important: part of their knowledge is revealed through dreams. When the project was already built, we were working in a cultural centre: during one of those visits, one of the older community leaders said that he had a dream where he remembered something that he had forgotten and the whole community had forgotten, but once he said it, everybody remembered. It was connected to the name of the place. Mapu is earth, che is people. At Loncoche, the place where we were building, lonco is head, che is people. The assumption was that this is a territory where many of the most prominent, charismatic, important leaders of the community came. In history, he said, it was revealed to him that the name Loncoche came from a meeting that took place years ago, where in the process of pacification, many of the leaders were beheaded, their heads put on top of sticks. The project we had was these vertical sticks in a round shape, so he said that this project reminded him of that act of extreme violence, but formed into a memorial to their ancestors. I’m very agnostic, but the moment they called it a memorial to a piece of shared knowledge that even they had forgotten, it became very hard for me to explain. Now, the conflict is about land: who owns land and who gets land back. Mapuche have to accept getting land back into ownership, because those are the terms of the negotiation, but for them, it doesn’t make sense. They say, “How can I own land if the land doesn’t have rain or light or the right animals? The land owns me.” The notion of ownership doesn’t make any sense. We had a conversation with an academic of Mapuche origin talking about the project, and we mentioned the parleys. She said, “Ah, interesting, the parleys, this forgotten institution. There was one condition for the parleys: a symmetry of knowledge between parties. You didn’t go into the peace negotiations unless you knew each other. We Mapuche know what Chile is about, but you Chileans have no clue what we’re about.” We thought the project could work as a bridge, to level the field and create some symmetry of knowledge, so that we could go to the peace negotiation table with an understanding of what the core values of each society are. Otherwise, we will never, ever arrive at any kind of agreement.

 

MG So much of what you spoken about has to do with conflict. What do you understand it as being for?

AA When I studied in Italy in 1992 and 1993, I did a course on tragic thought. The first lesson was to understand that tragedy is not a literary form, but a way to be in the world where non-negotiable opposites, that have an equal right to coexist, collide. Fertility comes out of that conflict. The moment you understand conflict as a way to be in the world, accepting that tension without trying to find one answer or one outcome, you’re not afraid. Of course, we then need to negotiate and find a way out: you don’t just leave the conflict intact. It’s important to resist having a guaranteed outcome at the very beginning and having a smooth, clean, beautiful design in the end. In general, problems don’t come from a lack of housing, cultures in a clash, or forces pulling in opposite directions. What worries me the most is the cities that were created in these underserved peripheries, where too many people have lived for decades in survival mode. There, the codes for coexistence are completely different. We’re trying to work with some neighbourhoods in Santiago where life expectancy is 24 years old. When you think you will die at 24, your core values change. We have a society that tells us you’re valuable if you have things, but if you’re not going to have a career or profession, and you don’t have the time, why wait? If you can die for stealing a flag from your rival football team, why work? The value of life as we know it doesn’t make sense. I have no idea how we will deal with that, but it has consequences for how we live together. The thread of common existence is now at risk. I’m very interested in trying first to understand, and then to ask what we can do. The cities we have created have contributed to the problem, so at least we should know not to repeat that. But I’m not sure if just by making another type of city, we could prevent it from happening. It’s a cultural issue. What are the messages that are being transmitted? What is valuable?

 

MGThe solutions you’ve pointed out are incrementality and empathy, two superpowers we can deploy. There’s an expression, “Thank Heaven for small mercies, as we can’t expect any large ones.”  ◉

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Mapuche are the largest indigenous group in Chile, comprising about 84% of the total indigenous population of roughly 1.3 million people. The Mapuche remained independent of the state until the 1880s, when the Chilean army invaded and occupied their territory. Mapuche people were relocated to reservations and were continually subject to division and expropriation; this treatment only worsened under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990), a time in which many Mapuche leaders were murdered, threatened or exiled. While the passing of an Indigenous Law in 1993 recognized Mapuche collective land rights, the Machupe people continue to be discriminated against, and police brutality remains a persistent issue. Today, with the support of international human rights groups, Mapuche organizations continue to fight for constitutional recognition and equality.