What are the challenges people in different parts of the world face today? And as architects, are we capable enough to help the nation by solving them? The recent challenge that came across the world was ‘COVID – 19’. It became a challenge for doctors to treat the patients and save them. For scientists, it was the challenge of developing a new vaccine. Architects have started to think about the spaces we design for humans. Are they good enough for people to stay for months without stepping out of their homes? Apart from this, the other challenges for people today are building houses for low-income (social housing), less availability of land, and climate change. Architects have still not been able to solve them entirely. But the important part is they have to start to think about it. ‘Challenges around the city are relevant and difficult and we want to be part of that challenge.’ (Alejandro Aravena, 2016 Pritzker Prize, 2016)

Alejandro Aravena (born in 1967) is an architect and a Pritzker prize winner of 2016 from Santiago, Chile. He says that there are various complex problems present in the cities today. If we want to solve them, we have to synthesize them. He designed multiple buildings that show how challenges turned into opportunities for architects. Mathematics, Medical, Architecture school in Chile, Santiago (1998-2004), Brazil House (2010-12), St. Antony Winery, Germany (2009-12), Ordos 100 House, Inner Mongolia (2009-11) are a few such examples of his strategic designs where he used his creativity. 

In the early days of his career (between 1998-2004), he got projects of designing school buildings on a low budget. The building in which he faced a vital challenge was the Medical School in Chile, Santiago. He got this project along with architect Fernando Perez Oyarzun. The design of the building started in 2001 and was completed in 2004. Placed in a dense context with an area of 700 sqm (Built area: 4776 sqm.), it should include all types of classrooms, including auditoriums, small seminar cells, anatomy labs, computer lounges, and a new library.

Location

On the North of the site, it had an old hall- 2 stories high built of masonry. On its west, a new building- 6 floors high was at right angles. A hospital built in the thirties was at its south and a blind-facing façade at its east.  There were two challenges in front of the architect. As the building was becoming the 4th side of the existing building facades, it was challenging to choose the architectural language. The second most challenging thing was the lack of space. As the first high rise started to come up during the 1880s, the question was how to deal with massive student occupancy far away from the ground floor.

UC Medical School, Santiago, by Alejandro Aravena - Sheet1
UC Medical College Santiago, Google earth image of 2004_©Google earth

Concept

To resolve this, the architect studied how people move around cloisters and porticos. Based on this study, he thought of creating a ‘vertical cloister’ and decided to have three floors below grade and seven above it. The answer to the second problem also helped to justify the first question – What would the architectural façade look like? ‘Instead of trying to avoid the height of the volume, we developed an architectural language for the façade of the fourth side of the courtyard that could be seen as a multiplication of the ground floor.’ (Anon., 2015)

UC Medical School, Santiago, by Alejandro Aravena - Sheet2
South facing façade of UC Medical College, Santiago_©Roland Halbe

Design

The stacks were placed one above the other, a few introverted to read, flirt, or eat and a few extroverted to chat, discuss and rest. ‘Void shots’ cross the building in different directions to create a sense of place. The challenge was connecting all the rooms with the existing network of circulation. And as the architect felt that the space allotted for different rooms was less, he made the student’s lounge a hanging shelter modifying the south-facing façade. The structure of the building is constructed of reinforced cement concrete with brick, wood, concrete, glass, and perforated metal plates as additional materials.

UC Medical School, Santiago, by Alejandro Aravena - Sheet3
Cross Section of UC Medical College, Santiago_©Elemental – Alejandro Aravena

The architect maintained the integrity of the building by having regular and irregular ceramic coated supports (front free façade) facing the old cloister at North. To respect the climate, he has a smooth glass façade with a 6m high cantilever facing south. Two different facades of a building do not block the air as in the case of many high-rise buildings and allow the inside-outside relationship to occur. 

UC Medical School, Santiago, by Alejandro Aravena - Sheet4
North facing facade of UC Medical College, Santiago_©Roland Halbe

The most vital space of the building is the library, whose bottom is 10m below the ground. Voids created a lightbox where a vast table allows people to come and read. The tree at the center depicts the depth of the library. More public places are near the ground, and the spaces in less demand are on the upper floors. 

Library of UC Medical College, Santiago_©Tadeuz Jalocha

The challenges were turned into design opportunities and proved that architecture doesn’t add extra cost but adds value to the building. ‘Architecture has the power to translate forces into forms.’ (Alejandro Aravena, 2016 Pritzker Prize, 2016) 

References:

  1. Alejandro Aravena, 2016 Pritzker Prize. 2016. [Film] s.l.: ArchDaily.
  2. Anon., 2015. Divisare. [Online]
    Available at: https://divisare.com/projects/280906-elemental-alejandro-aravena-roland-halbe-medical-faculty
    [Accessed 15 July 2022].
  3. Anon., n.d. Arquitectura Viva. [Online]
    Available at: https://arquitecturaviva.com/works/escuela-de-medicina-de-la-uc-5
    [Accessed 16 July 2022].
  4. Anon., n.d. Wikiarquitectura. [Online]
    Available at: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/faculty-of-medicine-at-the-catholic-university-of-chile/
    [Accessed 2022 July 16].
  5. Foundation, T. H., n.d. The Pritzker Architecture Prize. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.pritzkerprize.com/announcement-ale-jan-dro-ara-ve-na
    [Accessed 16 July 2022].
Author

Nisha Dugar is a recently graduated architect from Nirma University (2022). She has an ambition of generating knowledge of architecture among the general public through her words. With an inclination toward urban and historical research, she is interested in architectural journalism and criticism.

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