Architect Alejandro Aravena is sitting at the VIP lounge of the India Design ID 2019, scrutinising his presentation for the closing of the annual design event. Around him is a flurry of activity, but nothing makes him take his eyes off the screen; his focus as sharp and pointed as his projects.
The 2016 Pritzker Prize winner addressed a packed hall at the NSIC Grounds in Delhi, defining architecture as a verb where participatory design triumphed over other forces, whether social, economical or political. To tackle the urban challenges of migration in his own country, Chile, Aravena has done the math. “By 2030, of the five billion who will be living in cities, two billion will be below poverty line. This means that cities will have to provide houses for one million people per week with $ 10,000 for each family. While this seems completely unattainable, by channelising people’s resources and building capacities, they can become part of the solution and not the problem,” says the 51 year old.
His confidence in people’s ability to build for themselves is seen best in Inquique, in northern Chile, where his firm Elemental did their first incremental housing project. In 2003, with a $ 7,500 subsidy (per house) from the government, they had to house 100 families in a site that was illegally occupied for nearly 30 years. With that, they had to pay for land, infrastructure and architecture. A universal study had shown that a comfortable house is about 80 sqm, but what happens when you don’t have the resources? Could you do with half the comfort at 40sqm? The “Half Good House” project gave residents a two-storey, two-bedroom house with a roof, a kitchen and a bathroom. The remaining half was left free with the basic frame that people could build up, over the years.
Aravena’s idea was a nod to the “sites and services” plan of the 1970s, when governments were building homes with basic plumbing and electrical connections, allowing people to build for themselves. In India, examples include BV Doshi’s work — Aranya Housing Scheme, Indore, and Life Insurance Corporation Housing, Ahmedabad. In Aravena’s project, he gave residents public spaces and outlined neighbourhoods, giving the community a strong sense of identity of form. The economics were worked out so that over the years, residents could also lease or sell out portions of the house. This also helped a change in definition, moving from social housing to a middle-class dwelling.
About seven years later, a major earthquake and tsunami collectively devastated the Chilean port city of Constitucion. Elemental was called in to build everything, from public buildings to residences. They also had to find ways to protect structures from future tsunamis. Sea walls could mean millions of dollars in contracts. Elemental chose to go to the people yet again. Aravena shows a video of fisherfolk declaring their needs and arguing over their right to land. “In such cases, it’s not about finding the right answer, it’s about finding the right question. There can be nothing worse than answering the wrong question. We figured for people, tsunami was not a priority. The annual flooding was a concern,” he says. He, therefore, proposed a forest separating the sea from the city, which would also take care of the public space debt they had. “So you don’t work against nature but dissipate its effect through friction,” he says.
Thinking about homes and social equity didn’t come all at once to Aravena, who was teaching at Harvard after his training in architecture. It was a chance meeting with transport engineer Andres Iacobelli that got him into housing for the masses. During a conversation about Chilean architecture, Iacobelli commented: “If Chilean architecture is so good, why is social housing so bad?” Aravena, who thought doing something meant a book or an exhibition, wasn’t prepared for a company “that would start building at least 100 units, accepting every single constraint of budget, size, time frame, and prove the market wrong within its own set of rules,” as he shared in his Pritzker acceptance speech. “That is how Elemental started, as a ‘do tank’, not as a think tank,” he says.
With school teachers as parents, Aravena grew up in post-dictatorial Chile, where the strains of postmodernism or other ideologies hadn’t reached. He had learnt to live with little, and his perspective therefore defies the economics of the market and makes room for new ways to build. Plans for his social housing projects are available for download on his website, allowing for years of research by his firm to be accessible to anyone who wishes to build better, cheaper housing.
As director of the Architecture Biennale in Venice, 2016, Aravena chose to represent the theme of the year, “Reporting from the Front”, with a photograph by English travel writer Bruce Chatwin. The image of a lady in a scarf wearing a nightshirt and slippers on a ladder in a desert is not what one would associate with the world’s most awaited design event. Chatwin had met this German archaeologist, in southern Peru. She was there to study the Nazca lines, which look like stones when viewed standing on the ground, but are revealed as geoglyphs when seen from a perch. For Aravena, this was a fascinating way to present the shift in perspective that alters the shape of the world. “To move from the pragmatic to the intangible, from the necessary to the desirable, only then can you engage with the built environment,” he says.
His next project is with the Mapuche Indians, a group of indigenous inhabitants of Chile who have been fighting for greater autonomy and recovery of land since the country transitioned to democracy in the ’80s. “They have been at war with the Western world for over 500 years, now the conflict has become a police issue. But we’re going in there, and, eventually, there will be buildings. But we don’t know how we will enter, will it be through religion, through food or sports. But we can only go in with clear minds, emptying ourselves out and assume we know nothing. That’s the only way to design.”
Chairless (2010): Designed for the Swiss furniture company, Vitra, Alejandro Aravena developed a simple tool for sitting — a strap (85cmx5cm) that wraps around the back and knees to balance the body while seated. Its compactness allows it to be a mobile seating device and an alternative to a chair in crowded areas or where chairs are unavailable. Inspired by the sitting strap used by the Ayoreo Indians, along the border between Paraguay and Bolivia, Aravena says it takes pressure off the back and thigh muscles.
Angelini Innovation Centre (2014): Moving away from the idea of an office building with a glass curtain wall, Aravena gave the Jenga-cubed office a concrete mass on the perimeter. At the core though, its open atrium allows the building to breathe. Large windows, which almost act as terraces, interject the building façade, allowing light to stream into the interiors as well. This saves more energy than a regular glass and steel building would because of its climate-sensitive approach.
Inter-American Development Bank headquarters (2018): What happens when a bank becomes a bridge? Separating two diametrically opposite economic settlements was a railway line and a planning policy. Elemental bridged the gap through design. The solution gave residents of Barrio 31 access to jobs and opportunities connecting them to the rest of the city. The bank’s rooftop turned into a bridge and therefore a public space. It showed that the institution, with its headquarters straddling two ends of the economic spectrum, meant business as a development bank.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Breaking House Rules’