Alejandro Aravena is a Chilean architect and recipient of the 2016 Pritzker Prize. Educated at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, he was a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design between 2000 and 2005, directed the 2014 Venice Biennale, and was a member of the Pritzker Prize Jury from 2010-2015. As co-founder of the self-described for-profit ‘Do Tank’ ELEMENTAL – renowned for their dedication to participatory design and humanitarian concerns, his oeuvre spans the fields of affordable housing, infrastructure, transportation, public space, and institutions.
Aravena’s buildings exude a measured simplicity that might seem counterintuitive at first—concealing innovative, socially aware solutions that are contextually and environmentally sensitive.
During a presentation given at TEDGlobal, Rio de Janeiro in October 2014, Alejandro Aravena touched upon three pressing dilemmas that human civilization will face in the near future. He subsequently elucidated potential solutions through case studies of three projects undertaken by ELEMENTAL – with each one corresponding to a particular problem. In the presentation, which ran for just under 16 minutes, he stressed his belief that :
“If there is any power in design, that is the power of synthesis. The more complex the problem, the more the need for simplicity.”
Aravena depicted the first challenge—that of unrestrained urban migration, through a simple yet ominous mathematical equation that emphasized the pressing need for its resolution, to prevent billions of future urban migrants from residing in poverty within slums, favelas, and other informal settlements by the next decade. He then drew a parallel between this problem and the question ELEMENTAL was posed in 2003 to house families illegally settled in Quinta Monroy – a neighbourhood in the heart of the Chilean city of Iquique.
Despite the limited available budget and the high cost of urban land, Aravena and his team employed a participatory design process to ascertain the families’ needs and compared them to the standards of locally available housing stock. He proceeded to explain how ELEMENTAL’s now-famous incremental housing schemes were developed through this process—taking inspiration from slums and favelas themselves.
The next issue dealt with the potential contribution of design towards making buildings more sustainable, habitable, and energy-conscious. He called upon the example of the Anacleto Angelini Innovation Center design competition held by the Universidad Católica de Chile—where the brief was to create an environment that would foster knowledge creation through collaboration and interaction.
For this purpose, Alejandro Aravena and his team investigated the merits of conventional office building design, realizing that the core and curtain wall scheme commonly employed in local offices, carelessly consumed energy and hindered interactions between users.
ELEMENTAL’s proposal inverted this scheme to provide a working space with the requisite illumination, openness, and ventilation to satisfy the brief. In doing so, Aravena and his team managed to significantly reduce energy demands below those for a similar glass building. Furthermore, they steered clear of the preoccupation with trendiness that characterized most offices, to create a space capable of achieving timelessness.
The final case study examined the role of design in protecting human settlements from natural disasters. For this purpose, Alejandro Aravena alluded to reconstruction efforts for the city of Constitución in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami. This massive urban planning project entailed rebuilding most of the city’s infrastructure, housing, and public buildings while also determining measures to safeguard the area against future disasters of a similar scale.
Participatory design again played a fundamental role in these efforts, with clips from the interactions between architects and local residents showcased in the presentation. The tense, confrontational, and emotionally charged nature of these discussions – bred by the people’s frustration at the loss of their homes and distrust of regional authorities, led Aravena to remark:
“Participatory design is not some hippie, romantic ‘let’s all dream together about the future of the city’ kind of thing. It’s not even about trying with the help of families to find the right answer.”
Instead, the main objective was the precise identification of appropriate questions. According to Alejandro Aravena, there is nothing worse than answering the wrong question well. It required a great deal of patience, courage, and dedication to persevere in engaging with stakeholders while ascertaining steps towards improving their urban environment.
The architects’ persistence eventually paid off, enabling them to identify and address additional issues such as flooding and deficits in public space—that had plagued the community even before the tsunami. This helped formulate new, cost-effective planning strategies that would protect the city against future calamities and reinvigorate urban public spaces.
Throughout the presentation, Alejandro Aravena delved into detailed quantitative and qualitative analyses of the challenges posed by each issue, doing so in a manner that was easy to grasp and follow. He dubbed his team’s achievements in resolving them as the triumph of simple, archaic common sense and stressed the need for architecture to serve its users first.
The presentation also shed light on the socio-economic and humanitarian domains of architectural practice—aspects of design that are not given adequate attention in the public sphere, where other interests dominate the limelight. Architecture does not simply give form to buildings and cities but shapes life itself. The complexities of prevalent issues in the built environment have grown to be almost unfathomable for the common man, but Aravena’s statements have helped define them more clearly.
Hence, this presentation is an essential watch for those intrigued by such concerns. Design’s power of synthesis has and will always be embodied in the endeavour to place life at the centre of architecture.