On the eve of the Venice Biennale, The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman sits down with Alejandro Aravena in an intimate profile for T Magazine’s Beauty Issue. Visiting a number of projects by the architect and his office, Elemental, Kimmelman experiences socially minded architecture in an age of informal growth, income inequality, and mounting threats linked to climate change, all while learning about Aravena’s own path and growth as a practitioner. Although told by colleagues that he might be standoffish, Kimmelman finds Aravena to be “earnest, open, a little nerdy –– and deadly serious.”
Describing the work of Elemental, Aravena asserts, “We don’t think of ourselves as artists. Architects like to build things that are unique. But if something is unique it can’t be repeated, so in terms of it serving many people in many places, the value is close to zero.” Instead, the office has made a reputation on what is called “incremental housing,” building hundreds of two-story, two-bedroom homes with roofs, kitchens and bathrooms, each with an unfinished second half, left indeterminate in order to keep costs low. Once settled, residents can assess their needs and finances, and are able to build out the house’s other half “if, when and as they can.” Visiting Elemental’s Villa Verde project, Kimmelman encounters residents who are grateful for the opportunity to own a home and embracing of the incremental building philosophy.
Attending Universidad Católica de Santiago in the years of Chile’s dictatorship in the 1980s, Aravena earned an education steeped in practicality. “Our professors were practitioners, not theorists, who taught how to get buildings built,” says Aravena. Attesting to this pragmatism, Kimmelman notes, “His conversation tends not toward architecture and aesthetics but towards practical affairs –– negotiations, economics, materials, numbers –– which for him can be a source of wonderment.”