Alejandro Aravena is an architect best known for his passion for linking the community to the architecture we create. The designs tend to be contextually rich and reasonable, where the balance between needs and means is carefully identified with communities. A noticeable unbuilt structure of Elementa, the practice founded by Aravena, is the design entry for the National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA Museum), providing a focal point towards the arts. Within this article, this lesser-known project will be discussed as well as how Aravena’s ethos and pursuit for sustainability have ultimately shaped this design. 

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National Center for Contemporary Art by Alejandro Aravena: Catering to All Groups - Sheet1
Alejandro Aravena, founder of Elementa._ ©Manuel Albornoz

His Philosophy  

Alejandro Aravena’s designs are generated by the belief that designs should be seen as solutions. The harder the problem, the simpler the solutions must be. This approach has led to some of his most famous designs, including the Villa Verde Housing in Constitución, where residents receive half of a home and can independently expand the rest of the house. This project is small in scale but large in its impact. 

This poses the question, what determines the thinking behind his designs? He has noted that all variables need to be considered, whether they are social, economic, or political. Thus, the design always takes on different forms, the focus of the project will always vary depending on which problems are more prominent. Rather than imposing architecture with complex concepts and even more complex geometry, the designs become meaningful to those living in the cities. 

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A prominent action that he stresses is communicating designs clearly towards those who will be left to use them. Designing architecture for people is a great responsibility and will impact the users most. A bad design can worsen day to day living, but a great design will be functional, resourceful, and engage the users even after the construction has been completed. 

Asking questions is another thing Aravena emphasises, but he makes a clear distinction that one has to know which questions to ask. He clarifies that “there is nothing worse than answering the wrong question well” making it clear that designs can be done beautifully but should have an overall purpose. (Youtube.com., 2014) If the response doesn’t answer the question, what use does it have? This places the architecture profession in its purest form, problem-solving. 

The Brief  

The National Center for Contemporary Art is meant to cater to all audiences, including those who are involved in the arts and those who are simply visiting. They mention that ‘Muscovites and tourists, children and adults, those with previous experience of such art and of those without’ should be able to engage with ‘the art of the past decades and excite interest in this sphere of world culture’. (Competitions.org., 2013) The design should not only excite but also manifest curiosity within the visitors.

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The entry for the competition became a finalist but did not win the competition. Nevertheless, the design features implemented follow his desire to simplify our problems and stimulate our surroundings. The project uses simple geometry to highlight the design pieces present in the museum. The experience of the user is as important as its sustainability. The brief specified that the design should take the form of an institution that houses a variety of undertakings within the arts. The design should evoke a feeling of being encompassed by both the city of Moscow and the Centre of Contemporary Art. 

His Design for NCCA

National Center for Contemporary Art by Alejandro Aravena: Catering to All Groups - Sheet2
The exterior of the NCCA proposal_ ©Elementa
National Center for Contemporary Art by Alejandro Aravena: Catering to All Groups - Sheet3
The exterior of the NCCA proposal_ ©Elementa

The design is visually captivating, with a lack of glazing around the building. The focus is concentrated within the building rather than its outside. The visitors are placed inside the building simply to observe the art presented to them. The uneven masses were placed in the outer limits of the open space. The scale of the buildings become more and more prominent to the visitors as they approach a building. The courtyard uses varying levels to further evoke curiosity for the users. 

Within this courtyard, an amphitheatre is opposite a stage. The stage was opposite an amphitheatre which once again makes the vastness of the space very prominent. This means that the sounds and interactions are all going towards the outside. Whether the visitors are actively listening or just passing by, they will be engulfed in the music. Furthermore, the design is very practical as the stage is within one of the buildings.   

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National Center for Contemporary Art by Alejandro Aravena: Catering to All Groups - Sheet4
Open air amphitheatre to view the integrated stage_ ©Elementa

Limiting glazing in a building is crucial in developing structures that do not suffer from overheating, which in turn decreases energy in cooling. This same strategy was developed for the Innovation Centre UC, where the energy used for cooling a glass tower is usually 120 kW/m2 per year, but this reinvented design only uses 40 kW/m2 per year. Architects have even called for a ban on glass towers due to energy consumption and, in turn, carbon emissions caused by them. (Youtube.com., 2014) This approach can dramatically alter the world’s carbon emissions.

Aravena has labelled designing in such a manner ‘common sense’ as we are all aware of these design strategies but often neglect them due to our carelessness. As the climate crisis worsens, we will have to place limitations in the way we design; this will force us to innovate within new sets of boundaries. When designs are simplified, and usability is most prominent, the space will naturally take shape towards its users. If only one lesson can be derived from Alejandro Aravena’s architecture, it is that good designs have the means to serve its community, not ourselves.

References 

Competitions.org. 2013. A New Attraction for an Old Airfield: Moscow’s New National Center for Contemporary Arts « Competitions. [online] Available at: <https://competitions.org/2014/06/ncca-design-competition/> [Accessed 20 August 2021].

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Youtube.com. 2014. Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0I0Poe3qlg&ab_channel=TED> [Accessed 21 August 2021].

Author

Halima Mohammed is an architecture student whose passions lie in investigating what makes design connect with us emotionally. She believes that architecture is always worth questioning and discussing, trusting that architecture can be analysed like a piece of literature.

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