Alejandro Aravena was born in 1967 in Santiago, Chile. After graduating as an architect from Universidad Católica de Chile, he started his firm, Alejandro Aravena Architects, in 1994. He has been leading ELEMENTAL, a “Do Tank,” that works on projects in the public domain to create a social impact. This domain includes housing, infrastructure, public space, and transportation.
Their built-work can be witnessed in Chile, the United States, Mexico, China, and Switzerland. They played a crucial role in restoring the city of Constitucion, Chile after it was hit by an earthquake. Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Prize in 2016 for innovative architectural contributions to society and is renowned as a “socially-minded architect”.
He had adopted the practice of drawing significant connections between the knowledge gained in architecture schools and the reality of the everyday lives of people. His focus area involved raising questions that can be comprehended and related to by laymen as opposed to the conventional question-answer/ problem-solution approach. He dissected the problem to open up new possibilities in the design sphere, purely aimed at solving the targeted issues.
Asking the right questions is of utmost importance. As Alejandro Aravena said, “There’s nothing worse than answering the wrong questions well”. Architecture is the synthesis of political, social, economic, environmental, and other forces at play. He delved deeper into theories of social organization and civic engagement. Apart from building context-specific structures, he built livelihoods. He has always aimed to change lives using his design thinking and establishing a fine balance between human rights and human responsibilities. Architecture, according to him, is an effective tool to bring about social changes and ameliorate livelihoods.
The Chilean educational system prioritized affluent students over students from low-income families. Consequently, the latter received sub-standard education and endured the harsh inequality meted out to them. Hence, Chile is recognized as a country where the quality of education solely depends on one’s economic status. The primary motive behind proposing and designing the Ayelen School in Chile was to provide free access to quality education to children from low-income families.
Alejandro Aravena wanted to deviate from the ordinary notion of schools as “stacked up classrooms” that mostly invited drudgery. ELEMENTAL proposed an idea in 2012 that involved placing the public domain facilities (like the dining hall, cafeteria, library, gymnasium, computer labs) along the exterior public facade and having the classrooms along with the playground on the interior side. Hence, this school could either operate in an education mode or a public mode. This would allow the community to freely use the amenities without having to open the rest of the school.
The infrastructure covered 7000 square meters of land and completed construction in 2015. It is located on a road connected to the highway (H-210), which is slightly away from the heart of Rancagua, a city south of Santiago in central Chile. It was predominantly surrounded by empty plots on the backside and a few commercial buildings across the road on the front side. BAVE, the helicopter and aircraft unit of the Chilean army, is in close vicinity.
Classrooms are situated around a two-story courtyard which is partly covered by a roof. It has a circular opening that creates an open-to-sky playground for children’s outdoor activities. This also creates shaded areas for play depending upon the position of the sun. All in all, design and architecture have been used as effective tools to create a holistic environment for the physical, social, and cognitive growth of children. Integrating community practices into the same infrastructure encourages a sense of safety and strengthens bonds within the community.
No budget was available for surveillance measures like hiring security guards or installing CCTV cameras. Consequently, the courtyard was centrally placed and enveloped by classrooms and other amenities. This eased the process of supervision and eliminated the accidental creation of blind spots and entrapment zones. By moving the fence inwards or outwards the courtyard could be used as a public square after school hours. This courtyard is not merely a flat piece of land but has gentle mounds to ensure level variations for children to play, as life’s best lessons are learned on the field.
Some landscaping dots the playground, and a multipurpose jungle gym is present along one part of its perimeter. The architectural style of this school is minimal. Only the necessary elements have been incorporated. All the needs were cohesively molded to generate this form and are an epitome of “form follows function”. It is a free-flowing space and the skywells establish a harmony between the built structure and the surrounding natural elements..
Through this intervention, Alejandro Aravena has transformed many lives and given people a ray of hope for the future. He did not just devise a solution to the problem by offering free access to education to the indigent, but also extended this solution to provide for the community.
Schools are not standalone units. Exposure to the people in the community and their beliefs help children observe, learn and adopt values. Alejandro Aravena believes in giving people the opportunity they deserve to have. Uninformed biases have torn down several societies. He is attempting to bridge this gap by actively helping his country resolve societal problems and rebuild itself.
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