Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process

Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process

If there’s any power in design, that’s the power of synthesis. The more complex the problem, the more the need for simplicity. So allow me to share three cases where we tried to apply design’s power of synthesis. Let’s start with the global challenge of urbanization. It’s a fact that people are moving towards cities. and even if counterintuitive, it’s good news. Evidence shows that people are better off in cities. But there’s a problem that I would call the “3S” menace: The scale, speed, and scarcity of means with which we will have to
respond to this phenomenon has no precedence in history. For you to have an idea, out of the three billion
people living in cities today, one billion are under the line of poverty. By 2030, out of the five billion people that will be living in cities, two billion are going to
be under the line of poverty. That means that we will have to build a one million-person city per week with 10,000 dollars per family during the next 15 years. A one million-person city per week with 10,000 dollars per family. If we don’t solve this equation, it is not that people
will stop coming to cities. They will come anyhow, but they will live in slums, favelas and informal settlements. So what to do? Well, an answer may come from favelas and slums themselves. A clue could be in this
question we were asked 10 years ago. We were asked to accommodate 100 families that had been occupying illegally half a hectare in the center of the city of Iquique
in the north of Chile using a $10,000 subsidy with which we had to buy the land, provide the infrastructure, and build the houses that,
in the best of the cases, would be of around 40 square meters. And by the way, they said, the cost of the land, because it’s in the center of the city, is three times more than what social housing can normally afford. Due to the difficulty of the question, we decided to include the families in the process of understanding the constraints, and we started a participatory design process, and testing what was
available there in the market. Detached houses, 30 families could be accommodated. Row houses, 60 families. [“100 families”]
The only way to accommodate all of them was by building in height, and they threatened us to go on a hunger strike if we even dared to offer this as a solution, because they could not
make the tiny apartments expand. So the conclusion with the families — and this is important,
not our conclusion — with the families, was that we had a problem. We had to innovate. So what did we do? Well, a middle-class family lives reasonably well in around 80 square meters, but when there’s no money, what the market does is to reduce the size of the house to 40 square meters. What we said was, what if, instead of thinking of 40 square meters as a small house, why don’t we consider it half of a good one? When you rephrase the problem as half of a good house instead of a small one, the key question is, which half do we do? And we thought we had
to do with public money the half that families won’t
be able to do individually. We identified five design conditions that belonged to the hard half of a house, and we went back to the
families to do two things: join forces and split tasks. Our design was something in between a building and a house. As a building, it could pay for expensive, well-located land, and as a house, it could expand. If, in the process of not being expelled to the periphery while getting a house, families kept their
network and their jobs, we knew that the expansion
would begin right away. So we went from this initial social housing to a middle-class unit achieved
by families themselves within a couple of weeks. This was our first project in Iquique 10 years ago. This is our last project in Chile. Different designs, same principle: You provide the frame, and from then on, families take over. So the purpose of design, trying to understand and
trying to give an answer to the “3S” menace, scale, speed, and scarcity, is to channel people’s own building capacity. We won’t solve the one million
people per week equation unless we use people’s own power for building. So, with the right design, slums and favelas may not be the problem but actually the only possible solution. The second case is how design can contribute to sustainability. In 2012, we entered the competition for the Angelini Innovation Center, and the aim was to build the right environment for knowledge creation. It is accepted that for such an aim, knowledge creation, interaction among people,
face-to-face contact, it’s important, and we agreed on that. But for us, the question
of the right environment was a very literal question. We wanted to have a working space with the right light, with the right temperature, with the right air. So we asked ourselves: Does the typical office building help us in that sense? Well, how does that
building look, typically? It’s a collection of floors, one on top of each other, with a core in the center with elevators, stairs,
pipes, wires, everything, and then a glass skin on the outside that, due to direct sun radiation, creates a huge greenhouse effect inside. In addition to that, let’s say a guy working on the seventh floor goes every single day
through the third floor, but has no idea what the guy on that floor is working on. So we thought, well, maybe
we have to turn this scheme inside out. And what we did was, let’s have an open atrium, a hollowed core, the same collection of floors, but have the walls and the mass in the perimeter, so that when the sun hits, it’s not impacting directly glass, but a wall. When you have an open atrium inside, you are able to see what others are doing from within the building, and you have a better way to control light, and when you place the mass and the walls in the perimeter, then you are preventing direct sun radiation. You may also open those windows and get cross-ventilation. We just made those openings of such a scale that they could work as elevated squares, outdoor spaces throughout the entire height of the building. None of this is rocket science. You don’t require sophisticated programming. It’s not about technology. This is just archaic,
primitive common sense, and by using common sense, we went from 120 kilowatts per square meter per year, which is the typical energy consumption for cooling a glass tower, to 40 kilowatts per square meter per year. So with the right design, sustainability is nothing but the rigorous use of common sense. Last case I would like
to share is how design can provide more comprehensive answers against natural disasters. You may know that Chile, in 2010, was hit by an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake and tsunami, and we were called to work in the reconstruction of the Constitución, in the southern part of the country. We were given 100 days, three months, to design almost everything, from public buildings to public space, street grid, transportation, housing, and mainly how to protect the city against future tsunamis. This was new in Chilean urban design, and there were in the
air a couple of alternatives. First one: Forbid installation on ground zero. Thirty million dollars spent mainly in land expropriation. This is exactly what’s being
discussed in Japan nowadays, and if you have a disciplined population like the Japanese, this may work, but we know that in Chile, this land is going to be
occupied illegally anyhow, so this alternative was
unrealistic and undesirable. Second alternative: build a big wall, heavy infrastructure to resist the energy of the waves. This alternative was conveniently lobbied by big building companies, because it meant 42 million
dollars in contracts, and was also politically preferred, because it required no land expropriation. But Japan proved that trying to resist the force of nature is useless. So this alternative was irresponsible. As in the housing process, we had to include the community in the way of finding a solution for this, and we started a participatory design process. (Video) [In Spanish] Loudspeaker:
What kind of city do you want? Vote for Constitución. Go to the Open House and express your options. Participate! Fisherman: I am a fisherman. Twenty-five fishermen work for me. Where should I take them? To the forest? Man: So why can’t we have a concrete defense? Done well, of course. Man 2: I am the history of Constitución. And you come here to tell me
that I cannot keep on living here? My whole family has lived here, I raised my children here, and my children will also
raise their children here. and my grandchildren
and everyone else will. But why are you imposing this on me? You! You are imposing this on me! In danger zone I am not authorized to build. He himself is saying that. Man 3: No, no, no, Nieves… Alejandro Aravena: I don’t know if you were able to read the subtitles, but you can tell from the body language that participatory design is not a hippie, romantic, let’s-all-dream-together-about-
the-future-of-the-city kind of thing. It is actually — (Applause) It is actually not even with the families trying to find the right answer. It is mainly trying to identify with precision what is the right question. There is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question. So it was pretty obvious after this process that, well, we chicken out here and go away because it’s too tense, or we go even further in asking, what else is bothering you? What other problems do you have and you want us to take
care of now that the city will have to be rethought from scratch? And what they said was, look, fine to protect the city
against future tsunamis, we really appreciate, but the next one
is going to come in, what, 20 years? But every single year, we have problems of flooding due to rain. In addition, we are in the middle of the forest region of the country, and our public space sucks. It’s poor and it’s scarce. And the origin of the city, our identity, is not really connected to the buildings that fell, it is connected to the river, but the river cannot be accessed publicly, because its shores are privately owned. So we thought that we had
to produce a third alternative, and our approach was
against geographical threats, have geographical answers. What if, in between the city and the sea we have a forest, a forest that doesn’t try to resist the energy of nature, but dissipates it by introducing friction? A forest that may be able to laminate the water and prevent the flooding? That may pay the historical debt of public space, and that may provide, finally, democratic access to the river. So as a conclusion of the participatory design, the alternative was validated politically and socially, but there was still the problem of the cost: 48 million dollars. So what we did was a survey in the public investment system, and found out that there
were three ministries with three projects in
the exact same place, not knowing of the existence
of the other projects. The sum of them: 52 million dollars. So design’s power of synthesis is trying to make a more efficient use of the scarcest resource in cities, which is not money but coordination. By doing so, we were able to save four million dollars, and
that is why the forest is today under construction. (Applause) So be it the force of self construction, the force of common sense, or the force of nature, all these forces need to be translated into form, and what that form is modeling and shaping is not cement, bricks, or wood. It is life itself. Design’s power of synthesis is just an attempt to put at the innermost core of architecture the force of life. Thank you so much. (Applause)

99 thoughts on “Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process

  1. nonsense. when the only way to fit 100 families in 0,5ha is to build high then how come there is all of a sudden enough room for 80m^2 houses. "we don't have enough space for 40m^2 row/terraced houses so lets build 80m^2 free standing houses instead." good solution genius.

  2. Fantastic work Alejandro, come to Brazil and we can show you how right you are… The situation of the so called "Comunidades", not to say "Favelas" is getting worse and worse. Adding to it the sewerage and solid waste problem! A huge health issue in South America.

  3. The definition of poverty we have today is 'the poorest something percentage of people in the world'. No-matter how much people's incomes increase by, there will always be people under the poverty line unless it is a fixed income threshhold.

  4. Cheap housing is great as long as we remove all the subsidizing going on. If people who don't work can get homes and other government benefits, they will have children they cannot afford to raise properly, and lots of them (especially if there is a government child allowance). Being disadvantaged in many ways and owing their existence to entitlement, these children are likely to perpetuate the socially destructive legacy of their parents. The problem just keeps growing and reinforcing itself… We will never catch up to it if we keep making it easy for the least prepared parents to have the most children. Wake up, world. 

  5. No my dear author ate not better in cities, people are way better in county side then in overcrowded, polluted and poorly urbanize city

  6. Wow! He knows how to catch the attention of the crowd; sketching on a blackboard and an entertaining clip… unconventional of a TED Talk. Great presentation!

  7. Very interesting ideas.

    That said, glass buildings like green houses can regulate their temperature very easily by ventilating. It doesn't take fans. Along a green house you have ports that automatically open when the temperature hits a certain level. The hot air vents until the temperature in the green house falls back to the desired temperature and then they close.

    You could do the same thing in a glass tower.

    Aesthetically, I just prefer the glass towers to that concrete monstrosity.

    Another idea which might be tried that links into your slum idea, is building the core of a skyscrapper but not filling out the floors. Rather, let the tenants fill out the floors the same way they might bare land. I'm not sure how practical that is but it seems an interesting hybridization of your different concepts.

    In regards to natural disasters, actually sea walls do work. You just have to understand Murphy's law. "Anything which can happen, will happen." And that means not building the walls to resist AVERAGE disasters but rather to withstand a worst case scenario. There were sea walls in Japan that held just fine because they were over engineered. They were much higher then the walls that failed. Is that much more expensive? Sure. But it works if you're willing to do it. As to the whole idea of having a natural area to absorb the brunt of the wave. Nicely done.

  8. Modern architecture doesn't solve any problems. The path design has taken has strayed from usefulness to vanity.

    I think architecture needs to recede back into its roots and they have to be able to design sustainable and ecologically as well as economically viable housing for everyone – not just for the impoverished people. Houses can even be built from reutilized "scrap" materials, such as tires and bottles as shown in Haiti's case (and in Andaman Islands) as shown here:

    Bureaucracy also creates its own set of problems into the equation. Something needs to be rethinked.

  9. I really like the idea, but I come from South Africa where we face many different problems but can incorporate this kind of design into our solutions. What happens to the social and psychological impacts, however, of working inside a concrete building with no view of outside? Do the people want to work there? Is it a success?

  10. Realmente se merece el Premio Pritzker 2016! Que increible ver esto, más paises deberian empezar buscar soluciones como estas para las viviendas sociales y los desastres naturales

  11. Felicidades por el Premio Pritzker!!! Una excelente oportunidad para que todas estas increibles ideas se multipliquen

  12. Me encanto como explica el tipo, es muy interesante ,me gustaría que en Chile tmb invirtieran en las instituciones educacionales y crear buenos espacios de estudios y no todos mediocres.
    Bien merecido el premio 🙂

    pd:Me gustaría saber q ciudad fue la que va a tener ese bosque

  13. Alejandro seems like a great guy but he does not appear to have a mechanical engineer's understanding of internal heat gain dominated building types or a fire engineer's understanding of building safety.

  14. I haven't even started the video yet and I'm already challenged: I've never thought about bringing the community into the process of architectural design and I'm an Arch student.

  15. This was truly inspiring! Congratulations on your "Nobel Prize" of architecture (Pritzker) as well as your recent appointments to this year's Venice Architecture Biennale.

  16. Thats what the portuguese arquitect José Cisa Vieira has done for many decades, like with the buildings for the arab comunity in Berlin

  17. Finally the main question in the field of the architecture is not just about “how to design the best designed buildings“ which is referred for upper class of group of people / neighborhood resolved with advance technologies but it has concerned what to to do or how to find more pragmatical solutions for neglected spaces in the world where people are really under the poverty and these numbers are continually rising up.

  18. Is heard simple but it is not, however Aravena could include this concept in its architecture, there is its achievement!

  19. Hola soy estudiante de ultimo año de arquitectura y nos corresponde organizar un congreso de arquitectura y quisiéramos tomar este tema y que mejor ponente que Alejandro Aravena si alguien me pudieran ayudar a contactarlo lo agradeceria mucho soy de Leon, Gto. Mex. Gracias!!

  20. Alejandro Aravena, I'm so happy for your success! You absolutely deserve the Pritzker Prize! Its been a long time since I saw this kind of thinking. And I'm glad that architects who are giving not only attractive architecture, but also solutions to very hard and unattractive real life problems finally came to public attention. We can learn so much from you!

  21. Aravena opened my eyes of whats more important than just a beautiful form. the concept and the aftereffect of the project 20 years from now is much more countable. truly an inspiration!

  22. "studies show living in cities is better"
    "1 /3 of all residents of cities live under the poverty line"
    looks like someones confused…. poverty in a large city is far worse than poverty in a middle sized city or small town, especially in america. one can afford rent, food and can live in neighborhoods with low crime rates. for example: compare cost of living in madison wi to the cost of living in baltimore or chicago and see which neighborhoods your income will force you into, compare the incidence rates of violent crime in these areas, then make a decision.
    this guy just wants to sustain a career by selling a utopian ideal that will never be achieved

  23. ¡Buenas! El trabajo de unos compañeros y mío para un concurso de arquitectura, DOCE X DOCE, ha sido seleccionado para optar a ganar el premio especial del público, nos ayudaríais mucho pulsando en la publicación que os compartimos y dándole me gusta 👍 ¡MUCHAS GRACIAS, COMPARTID SI PODÉIS! ⚡

  24. Aravena did not even come up with this idea and it is annoying that he says ' we had to innovate and come up with a solution etc' He only derived the idea for his designs from PREVI by Peter Land, which was built over fourty years before. I am not questioning the fact that the kind of architecture he does is very necessary and could be a good solution for many problems, it is just annoying he takes credit for inventing something he for sure didn't.

  25. I like his philosophy, but hate his design. That horrible, looming grey block monstrosity: Why must it be so anti-beauty? Why no adornment? No color? Why does the exterior feel so cruel and hostile to human energy? I look at that building on the outside and want to run away, not enter. Nothing invites me in… repels and terrifies me. How is that people-centered?

  26. I realised that to appreciate a product of architecture, we need to know the (right) problem that the form of architecture try to solve. To be honest, not all of his building is extremely beautiful, but when we learn what are those buildings try to solve, we find out how brilliant his ideas are. Bravo!

  27. Ohh wow….. I want to become an architect and guess what when he told the case of tsunami….. After listening to him couple of minutes…. I made my own idea of add forest in between…. But there was only one change between our ideas… And that was….. I thought of adding forest btw with some depth…. In that area….. Think so my idea was better…. And also i an become an architect now………… Btw i am just 16 years old and in 11th grade……. From India……. Cause its Indian mind….. Proud of my self….

  28. Any thoughts about bringing the community into the process of Architectural design regarding private residences? Does the process still applicable on a smaller scale?

  29. That block of concret may save energy but not nature and men resources to built it like precious sand, water, etc

  30. This man is not an architect but a visionary. The answer is inclusion of the right and force of the community, nature and of a visionary creative technical, social and moral leader.

  31. Dropped out of arch school with hopes to try again. Now I’m working on a masters in economics. This guy is literally thinking on both fields and more. It is genius. I am highly interested in this niche and I think it is essential to explore it some more.

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