In a sloped roof interior with clinically white walls and sparse modernist furniture, leaning towards the glass backdrop overlooking the beach is Alejandro Aravena. The Pritzker Prize-winning Chilean architect sits down with Marc-Christoph Wagner at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art for an intimate interview that will serve as a guiding light for unorthodox architects globally. The interview offers critical insight into the essential working processes of his socially conscious and highly innovative architectural office, Elemental.
Alejandro Aravena views architectural design as an elaborate process of constant decision-making; and with every decision, there is the larger possibility that you make the wrong choice. Architecture, a vast body of interdisciplinary knowledge, makes decision making increasingly complex through every phase of the design. Aravena believes overcoming this requires a designer who consistently makes choices and can live with their outcomes; to him, the only opinion that matters is that of the user, an active participant in all of Elemental’s works. This freedom to choose with clarity and confidence comes from embracing the fundamentals – or adhering to the elemental.
Aravena’s firm, Elemental derives its innovative prowess by bringing to life his core philosophy – or as he prefers to call it, an essential attitude to life. Familiar with an environment of scarcity and raised in an earthquake-prone country, he understands the significance of prioritising your desires. Instead of speaking of absence as a root of social evil in disadvantaged people, he views it as a powerful force to improve insight. Rather than waiting for an earthquake to make you realise what is truly important in your home, he encourages design with foresight. The real challenge, he presumes, is to design with this prioritised insight in private buildings, or well-funded infrastructure. By fighting the fundamentals, we pretend that our designs are something they are not.
Aravena describes the outcome of this perceptive approach to design as an “irreducible existence that will stand the test of time”. He understands that a scarcity of meaning often accompanies a surplus of resources. Social housing allows you to focus on cultural, social, and emotional impacts, but that is a luxury that does not come with superfluous architecture. When asked to choose for himself, Aravena prefers to spend his time or as he describes it, “his finite heartbeats”, on a design that matters and makes a difference rather than acquire another aesthetically pleasing creation to add to his portfolio. By prioritising his work, Aravena ventures into fields most designers shy away from and creates lasting social impacts.
His clarity stems from an endless battle with the cliché; when an architect is as renowned and well-reputed as Aravena, it is easy to fall into the trap of expertise. Expertise gives you the illusion of knowing all there is to know about a field of design and closes the door to innovation. By liberating himself mentally, intellectually, and professionally, Aravena is free to observe familiar questions with a fresh perspective and resist a conventional approach. This openness allows him to understand nuances in problems, their added complexities and how they cut across disciplines. He outlines this process entirely by calling it the active process of resisting the convention of thinking that you know.
Another outcome of his gift of clarity is understanding often overlooked principles elemental to architectural design. One among his many significant observations is that “innovation is a consequence of not having enough knowledge.” Aravena describes this approach as leveraging ignorance; the more ignorant you are about something, the more reason you have to accept it as a challenge. By practising conventional wisdom and trite processes, you disallow the possibility of discovering new problems and doing something original, thereby cementing another renowned design flaw into a new building. Resisting the urge to fall back to ritualistic design practices allows for the creation of new mistakes that lead to better solutions.
While faced with the challenge of designing the American Development Bank in an impoverished neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, Elemental was quick to realise the impacts this would have in gentrifying the neighbourhood. The community’s indicators of income, employment, education, health and safety are, unfortunately, inferior to the indicators in the rest of the city. Additional design challenges would extend to an absence of essential resources for the building itself such as road networks, public space, sanitation and security. To bridge the in-equity gap between this community and its surrounding neighbourhoods, Elemental designed the Bank as a literal bridge that would address all the presented concerns. In Aravena’s world, unfamiliarity and complexity is a gift that leads to unique design solutions.
Today, Elemental’s diverse design portfolio ranges from social housing to corporate infrastructure, and this is a direct result of their desire to invent a unique approach for each project. Being an environmentalist, Aravena understands that design that respects the natural environment doesn’t essentially mimic it. Designing for people involves considering cultural, social, and emotional forces along with those of nature. Aravena’s humble beginnings have allowed him greater insight into architectural practice than most prestigious schools can afford to teach their students. His work is a testament to architecture’s ability to reshape the fabric of our existence.