Interview

Alejandro Aravena

CLAD editor Liz Terry put a question about leisure to 2016 Pritzker Prize laureate, Alejandro Aravena, at a press conference at the UN in New York, held to celebrate his inauguration


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Terry: You’re known for your work in social housing, which is enabling people to aspire to a better life and not just to exist.

We know the built environment has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing. So is it all about subsistence or can you also build in joy? Is it possible to enable people to have increased wellbeing, to be able to be in nature, to have community spaces and to be able to exercise, for example. Can you aspire that high?

Aravena: Absolutely.

Terry: What are your ideas?

Aravena: Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live. It’s no more complicated than that, but it’s no easier than that either, because of the range of places that we have to deal with: houses, schools, offices, institutions, the street, the sidewalk, the park; everything.  

All buildings have a form, somebody has to give that form, and with those choices you improve or ruin the lives of people for generations. And these decisions tend to be irreversible. They last a long time. If you do it well, that’s fantastic, but if you do it badly, it can be a huge issue.  

The starting point is sustaining life itself and its basic needs: you need to breathe, you need to eat and not die outside from the cold or the heat, so on one side of the spectrum it involves very concrete, physical, down to earth problem solving.  

But even if you’ve solved all these challenges, that’s not yet life, because life must include the more intangible dimensions of the human condition, from everyday life experiences to extraordinary events; from a personal perspective to collective living. The spectrum ranges from needs that must be satisfied to desires that have to be fulfilled.  So we have to find a balance between needs and desires. And it must be both, not one or the other.  

Architecture has proven it can make a contribution to both ends of the spectrum and although it’s sometimes tempting to think we need to be more responsible and only focus on the practical issues, I would say that would be a mistake; instead, we should be widening the range and trying to integrate the two. If there’s any power in architecture, it’s the power of synthesis. Instead of one or the other, it should be one and the other.  

With the right design you can save money by coordinating the use of resources wisely and you can achieve results for both.

Rebuilding Constitución
As an example, in 2010, Chile was hit by an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake and tsunami which devastated the city of Constitución. We were called to work on the masterplan for the rebuilding and were given 100 days to come up with possible solutions.

When you have 80 per cent of a city destroyed by nature, it gives you a window of opportunity that you don’t want to miss to make changes that could never happen under normal circumstances.  

The main question to be addressed was, how do we protect the city against future tsunamis?  There were a couple of alternatives. The first idea was to prohibit any construction in the tsunami danger zone – this is something which is being discussed in Japan right now.

If you have a disciplined population like the Japanese, this might work. We know in Chile this area would be occupied illegally the next day, so we thought it was an irresponsible option. It would have cost US$30m  – mainly in paying for land expropriation.  

Alternative two was to build heavy infrastructure to resist the energy of nature. This was lobbied for by the big building companies because it would have meant big contracts and cost US$42m. Also with no requirements for land expropriation, we could have just built a big wall and everything would have stayed as it was before. But Japan proved that trying to resist the force of nature is useless, so we thought this was professionally irresponsible.

Working with the people
Our conclusion was that we had to consult with the people. So we consulted – we wanted to make sure that the tsunami rebuilding was really the question. And they said ‘you know what, we’re really thankful you’re here to help us to think about the future and building a safer, more resilient city, but the next tsunami is going to happen in what; 20 years, 30 years? There are things we need more urgently.

There was an old lady in the meetings in the city’s main square saying, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years. I can’t remember the last tsunami, but every single year we have problems from flooding due to rain. Whatever you do, make sure that this is resolved, because this city collapses every single winter because it doesn’t have the right treatment for the rain’.  

Leisure space is vital
In addition to that, the people told us that public space was of a really poor standard, so we measured it and they were right; the city had 2sq m of public space per inhabitant.

We’re talking about leisure, about enjoying life and going out and socialising; and public space is extremely important. Cities are measured by what you can do in them for free – particularly in unequal societies where you can’t have access to those kind of amenities by paying. Public space in that sense is the redistribution of wealth and opportunity, by definition.

So whatever you do, the people told us, try to improve the standard of the public space.

For you to have an idea of the order of magnitude, international standards recommend 9sq m per inhabitant of public space, wealthy parts of Chilean cities have 18sq m, London has 44sq m. For Constitución to have 2sq m was very poor.  

Lastly, there was a concern that if Constitución was rebuilt too fast, it would be a threat to its identity.  Again, this is something that is not connected to basic needs, but is an important part of life. Do you feel happy in the place you live? Can you relate to it? Do you want to raise your children there and will the next generation want to stay there as well? 

And of course, old buildings fell during the earthquake and tsunami, but they weren't World Heritage buildings and it would have cost a lot of money and taken a lot of time to rebuild them, so the decision was taken not to do this.

While asking the communities on the main square about this, they said ‘It’s a pity the old buildings fell, but the origin of the city is the river and right now it can't be publicly accessed because it’s privately owned. So whatever you do, make sure we can have democratic access to the river’.  

Working with nature
We discovered that during the tsunami, a forested island in the middle of the river had acted as a wave breaker, reducing 12 metre high waves to just six metres, so the plan we proposed was that instead of resisting the energy of nature, we would dissipate it by introducing friction: against a geographical threat, we would provide a geographical solution.

We proposed that a forest be planted between the city and the sea, not only to act as a wave breaker in the event of another tsunami, but also to increase the public space from 2sq m to 7sq m for the entire city by creating parkland and open spaces. It would also be designed to laminate the water, so that before flooding the city, it flooded the park, solving the problem of the winter floodwater and in addition, would provide democratic public access to the river shore.  

Making the numbers work
The cost of this third alternative was US$48m. So in principle it was too expensive. However we did a survey of the public investment system and identified four or five different projects that were being implemented in the same place by different ministries – each not knowing about the other. This is what I mean when I say the challenges with cities is coordination, not money.  

The sum of all those projects was US$52m. If you understand the third scheme as only answering one question – protecting the city against the tsunami – it was more expensive, but when you fully understand the expectation of the people and the range of what life means [including leisure], the challenge we faced was far more complex. It wasn’t simply about finding solutions to the tsunami challenge, it was bringing together four schemes.

So we went from US$52m, that was going to be spent anyhow – but in an uncoordinated way – to a budget of US$48m and we achieved all our social objectives relating to quality of life in the city.

That’s the power of synthesis that architecture contributes to complex problems.

Arauco funds sustainable masterplan for Constitutión, Chile

After the earthquake and tsunami hit Chile in 2010, global timber conglomerate, Arauco, which has operations in Chile producing pulp, panels, and lumber from sustainably managed forest plantations, offered to fund a sustainable masterplan to regenerate the affected areas. This included the city of Constitutión, 80 per cent of which had been destroyed.

On the team were Arup Associates, Elemental Architects, the University of Talca, Fundación Chile and Tironi. They were given 100 days to give direction to the rebuilding and find solutions to issues raised by the natural disaster via public consultation.

Improving housing in Constitutión to enhance quality of life

The consortium masterplanning the rebuilding of Constitutión designed a series of public buildings including a cultural centre, a  municipal theatre, bus and fire stations and a school.

In addition, it presented the city with a series of design templates for housing, including one based on Alejandro Aravena’s award-winning principle of shared construction.

Instead of building a poor home, Aravena’s philosophy is to build ‘half a good house’. This includes all the elements needed for life under a roof, but with a space left for a second ‘half’ to be added – as it can be afforded by the owners.

Social housing typically fails to gain in value, but Aravena’s split houses are creating wealth for owners. Typical land and construction costs are US$7,500, while properties are now being sold for US£65k.

The final piece of the jigsaw is that in Constitutión, the split houses were designed so panels used to construct temporary accommodation following the tsunami could be reused to fit-out the permanent residences.

Earlier this year, Aravena announced that he would make a number of his housing designs available for free / ©Elemental
Earlier this year, Aravena announced that he would make a number of his housing designs available for free ©Elemental
Earlier this year, Aravena announced that he would make a number of his housing designs available for free / ©Elemental
Earlier this year, Aravena announced that he would make a number of his housing designs available for free ©Elemental

About Aravena

Alejandro Aravena / Eva Vergara/AP/Press Association Images
Alejandro Aravena Eva Vergara/AP/Press Association Images

“The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly, generously and fully responded to this challenge.”

These are the words of the jury who chose to award Aravena the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Aravena and his firm Elemental were hailed for using “the poetry and the power of architecture to communicate on many levels” – whether it be a social housing project, a rebuilding project or a leisure one, such as their Bicentennial Children’s Park in Santiago, Chile.

The Chilean architect immediately vowed to use his Pritzker Prize win to “face new challenges, and walk into new fields of action.”

This is exactly what Aravena has done in his role of curator of the ongoing 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, which is exploring the wide range of challenges facing built environments around the world.

Through various pavilions, exhibitions and installations, 88 participating architects and designers from 37 nations are showing how they are tackling a wide range of problems – from natural disasters to financial constraints, pollution, crime and housing shortages.

In his opening press conference at the Venice Biennale, Aravena urged architects to go back to their offices “with less excuses not to do better” in creating spaces that suit the needs of people who live there.

The Bicentennial Children’s Park in Santiago / ©Elemental
The Bicentennial Children’s Park in Santiago ©Elemental
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