It’s the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s habit to look at architecture as a way to help people, and not to simply dazzle them with form. The ethos and practice of Aravena’s Santiago-based firm, Elemental, is essentially the blueprint for each national pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale (through Nov. 27), which he is directing. His brief, “Reporting from the Front,” asks a simple question, one that’s increasingly difficult to address: How can the advancement of architecture, given physical needs and local contexts, actually improve the quality of people’s lives?
The question is central to how Aravena approaches his own work. Before he puts pen to paper, the economic, environmental, political, and social dimensions of the built environment are fully taken into account.
This is not Aravena’s first involvement in the Venice Architecture Biennale. In 2008, Elemental won the event’s Silver Lion award for promising young architects. Shortly after, in 2010, Aravena and his firm were tasked with rebuilding the Chilean city of Constitución following an earthquake and tsunami that leveled huge swathes of its urban landscape. For Aravena, this was a pivotal moment for understanding how to solve political and social conflicts with architecture, a skill set that he and his colleagues had been honing for years while building a portfolio of innovative design solutions for public spaces, infrastructure, and public buildings. This social awareness earned Aravena the Pritzker Prize earlier this year, making him the first Chilean architect to receive the most prestigious award in architecture. He is only the second architect ever to win a Pritzker and be director of the Venice Architecture Biennale in the same year (following Kazuyo Sejima, who achieved the feat in 2010).
None of the plaudits or attention seem to have inflated Aravena’s ego. He is not accepting billion dollar commissions in Dubai to build phallic, showy skyscrapers. He is not working on any hotels or casinos for Donald Trump. Instead, he continues to create projects that address problems, especially in the context of growing needs that are developing in our global political climate. The point for Aravena is to improve people’s lives. Surface recently spoke with him about natural disasters, reconstruction, and the scarcity of meaning in architecture today.
Having just finished your stint as director of architecture at the Venice Biennale and recently won a Pritzker, you must be bored to death with interviews.
More than bored. I don’t have that many things to say.
Let’s check. You’re the first Pritzker recipient from Chile. Is that a source of nationalistic pride for you? And if we’re talking about great contemporary Chilean architects, who would you mention?
Well, we are really surprised by the general positive feeling about this award. It’s a kind of collective feeling of achievement—that it happened to all of us, the country. Even in remote places. And here’s the thing: Architecture by definition is a kind of embassy that talks about many different disciplines and institutions. There is a kind of critical mass required to produce quality architecture, and that may explain this feeling. From that point of view, I would say there are many architects in Chile who create that critical mass. Smilion Raditch, Eduardo Castiglio, Jose Cruz, Teresa Molar—the fact that I could easily name 10 is very unusual. I think it’s a very good sign. It’s a good moment in Chile.
Let’s talk about your practice, Elemental. When you’re commissioned by a company, a private resident, a university or a country to design projects, what is the first question that you ask them?
What informs the form of this project? In the end, architecture is about giving form to the places where people live. It’s not more complicated than that. Everything in the end has to have a form. And someone has to give the form to those elements or institutions. With that form, you qualify the lives of people for better or worse for a long time.
And that informs your approach?
Our buildings have to function. They have to be within budget, they have to fulfill a purpose. We begin by trying to understand all the threats; laws, environment, time frame, materials, expectation. We start by designing the question before going into the answer. This is mainly about trying to understand the forces at play.
Is it fair to say that architecture has to exist and find reconciliation in this tug of war between formal considerations and practical ones?
If architecture is about giving form to the places where we live, and life ranges from basic needs to artistic desires, the task of architecture and the difficulty of producing architecture is that it’s not about choosing one or the other, but integrating the two of them. If there is any power in architecture, it’s the power of synthesis. At least that is how we like to perceive it. Not in one single project that we have done, not even social housing, did we forget that life can not just be about mere satisfaction of physical needs. And the other way around; if you just concentrate on the artistic cultural aspect, but you haven’t satisfied basic needs, you don’t even have the possibility to have a life beyond mere survival. So the task of architecture should be that of integrating, and that again is in the text that I provided as part of the Venice Biennale.
Every single project that we go into has a very high risk of failing, and the only thing that we have is our professional reputation. And yet, we’re willing to risk that reputation in a project if the potential outcome is relevant. And this is what we’ve been trying to do with the Biennale as well. It may not be perfect, but at least we take the risk of trying to address a relevant problem.
Perhaps that’s why your work seems to be a little more down to earth than some of your Pritzker Prize–winning predecessors. You’ve always been in the spotlight for your involvement on different academic and cultural boards, and you participation in various biennales. But now that you’re won a Pritzker, is there any sense of added “starchitect” pressure, and will we start seeing you building weird cookie-cutter museums in places like Abu Dhabi or Azerbaijan?
Not really. Having chosen to live in Chile is already a filter against that. We’re not in the right places. We’re not going to the cocktail parties where you’re “supposed” to go, or playing golf with the right people. We’re a small enough office to still be able to work on the project we want. What I want to do is make a contribution by having a pen in my hand and drawing things. I don’t want to spend my day as an administrator. The kind of office that we have is small enough that I can still be involved in each project that we take care of. Yet we have to be big enough to address complex projects, like the reconstruction of our entire city, Santiago, after an earthquake. You can’t solve that working on your own in a garage. You need a certain number of offices. We are very conscious that time is by far the most limited resource we have, and in that sense, we try to balance one third of our time with social housing, one other third with buildings, and another third with city design.
Rebuilding Santiago certainly must have tested the knowledge of your firm. And I suppose living in a seismic country such as Chile has informed quite a bit of your design.
Absolutely. And if anything is clear, we don’t have all the resources to do things on our own. There isn’t enough money to provide and deliver a middle-class house. We can only provide one portion of that house. It’s a fact, not a choice. When working in scarce environments, like after an earthquake, you have to be able to channel everybody’s capacities; the state, the private market, the families themselves, NGOs, because nothing on its own will solve the problem. And that was pretty much the case with Santiago’s last big earthquake and reconstruction. That’s why we started a participatory process. We had to channel different sources of funding in order to rebuild, and in that case, there was not only scarcity of money, but of time.
Speaking of scarcity of resources, how would you begin to approach the looming issue that is the U.S.’s infrastructure—roads, rail lines, bridges, and so on, which are all basically on the brink of of decay and collapse?
Now that you mention it, yes, I would agree that you’re beginning to have obsolete infrastructure. Not only in physical terms, but also in terms of mobility and expectations. I mean, the car in the ’50s was the notion of modernity and progress and success. Nowadays, it’s a threat to our quality of life. It’s a cultural shift also in the way that infrastructure was designed and how do we define quality of life. At the time, speed was a sign of advancement; now the best trip is the one that you never make. I would also say that there are not enough resources to resolve everything. In cities like ours in Latin America, there is not enough money or space. You have to establish priorities. This is something that I think is very healthy in the urban structure. You have to be very clear about what produces the most public good and what will only benefit a certain constituency on a private level.
What, would you say, in terms of comparative architecture, are some of the stark differences between Western nations and the global south?
The assumption is that in the north there are more resources. In the south there are fewer. I don’t know if that’s the case with Australia, but in general. Africa, South America, compared to Europe and the U.S., let’s say. More resources versus fewer resources is the biggest difference. A scarcity of means forces you to have an abundance of meaning. You have to give a lot of reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing. You can’t do whatever you want just because you want to. You have to justify it and that somehow tempers projects in the global south. Eventually—and this is what we witnessed not that long ago—an abundance of resources may lead you to a scarcity of meaning. More than a difference in facts, it’s a difference in attitude.
What challenges you in more rural or private projects, like a residential home in the wilderness?
It’s not that different than urban housing in that you allow the bigger forces at play to take control, such as nature. There is matter and we organize it into a form, and will our intelligence or sensitivity or constraints so that those materials have one form instead of another.
I’m curious about the way you use space: What’s your favorite room in a house?
The space around the house. I may be talking from the perspective of living in Santiago, which has incredible weather, so the best part of the house is everything that was left in between the house and the limit of the lot; the garden, the courtyard. The “non-room.”
This article originally appeared in Surface. Click here to order Surface's 2016 Power 100 Issue.