Born in 1967 in Santiago de Chile, the Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena is a leading advocate of sustainable development in contemporary architecture. He graduated from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in 1992 and then continued his studies at the University IUAV and the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice.
With his office ELEMENTAL, the architect realises projects on a wide range of scales, from infrastructures and social housing to urban structures. At the same time, each scale requires its respective strategy but instead of understanding each discipline exclusively, Aravena recognises the potential to apply each scale’s learnings to other challenges.
His thorough approach goes together with the architecture firm’s attitude of only realising projects that are of significance. One has a limited number of heartbeats in this life, and Aravena is selective in choosing which project to devote his time to. The relevance of the project is the decisive factor in this equation. It results from a detailed, unbiased analysis of the problem that may well lead to the conclusion that no one architecture can add value to the task at hand.
“The war on the cliché”
When it comes to the fundamental approach to a task, it is essential to counter the instinct to be efficient and save energy by answering hastily. To grasp the question in its entirety requires time and patience. This perception, freed from mental and intellectual prejudices, results in projects like the Building/Bridge in Buenos Aires. Initially, a headquarters for the Southern Cone of the Inter-American Development Bank Group was supposed to emerge in the city’s more inferior part, the Villa 31.
Since the architectural office approached the matter with no preconception and illuminated the framework conditions thoroughly, it quickly became apparent that the site did not call for a headquarters. Since infrastructure was not guaranteed, the design became the infrastructure: A bridge that would connect both parts of the city and at the same time create a national meeting place.
In his architectural understanding, Aravena emphasises the importance of scarcity of means to fight arbitrariness. Following the minimalism style, but with a unique understanding of it, he argues for a reduction to the most “elemental”. Breaking the task down to the most necessary recourses is a pioneering design methodology. Through this approach, each component of his proposals acquires a heightened significance since this breaking down makes everything indispensable.
The challenge to be met is the efficient use of the least available means in urban space—which is not money but coordination. Because the very essence of an architectural project lies in combining and coordinating different conditions and factors, architecture should not just be understood in terms of the scale of the building but mainly as a means of coordinating various urban forces.
With the structure of the proposed Innovation Centre UC, the architect demonstrates the sustainability of questioning given automatisms. The competition asked for an environment for knowledge creation. According to the office proposal, a place that aims to stimulate the exchange and creation of knowledge requires meeting points and the right climatic conditions. These are not provided by the building type of an office tower. As it consists of a steel skeleton and a glass skin, the structure would be divided into floors, and the glass skin would create a greenhouse effect.
By folding the structure from the inside to the outside, an interior atrium allows for visual and haptic contact. Simultaneously, the thermal mass is located on the outside, preventing direct solar radiation. The author describes this attitude towards his designs as “unspeakable certainties”. He defines this as situations that create an amicable consensus. These solutions create a convincing architecture, as they are based on a sustainable understanding of “archaic, primitive common sense”.
Aravena describes the different levels of architectural practice as “architecture with a capital A and architecture with a normal a”. His motivation to deal with architecture for populations in need comes with the realisation that the means and operations of execution are identical in both high-end execution and hands-on execution. Only the desired tasks vary.
However, the fact that no utopian means are available in social housing creates an exciting task for him, which refers to the relationship between arbitrariness and scarcity and thus has both architectural and social potential in his eyes. Many successful, exemplary and innovative social housing buildings were created to improve the quality of life of underprivileged sections of the population.
As a measure of his success, the architect considers the relative added value his architecture has given to the location. If the project has given an advantage to the inhabitant compared to its non-existence, he considers the task a success. This attitude goes in tandem with the challenge of creating value-adding architecture with a minimum of resources. With the help of participative design, he succeeds in crystallising the right question instead of providing an answering proposal.
The current conditions in slums, favelas or informal settlements demonstrate what happens if the trend of rapid urbanisation is not counteracted. However, those urban situations offer problem-solving potential through an unbiased approach to the task at hand. Having realised that population size, time, money and living space all play a role in social housing, the architect’s proposal of the Villa Verde, among other similar projects, ensures a dense housing structure. Simultaneously, the design allows for future living space expansion by providing a framework to be filled by future inhabitants.
Design is a tool that works best based on the principle of synthesis. The three parameters that need to be coordinated, especially in the current global challenges, are scale, speed and scarcity of means. This significant task can only be accomplished if not only the authorities but above all the people make their contribution and are allowed to do so.
For this reason, the architect has made his incremental projects available as an open knowledge source, his contribution to counteract the emerging housing crisis that future cities will face.