Alejandro Aravena: How architecture can improve lives

  • 25/03/2015

With his social-minded, intuitive approach to architecture, Alejandro Aravena is fast making a name for himself in a world once synonymous solely with grandiose mega-structures and 'starchitects'.

The Chilean architect is predominantly known for his participatory design projects working with social housing and urban spaces. He is currently in New Zealand as part of the Futuna Lecture Series, where he is talking to audiences about his work.

Speaking with Aravena it's obvious he is passionate about what he does and that his practice is informed by a deep set of ideals. Yet when asked about the philosophy behind his work, he is quick to point out there is none; for him architecture is about responding in a practical way to specific issues, not about tackling abstract problems.

"I wouldn't use the word philosophy," he says. "The word is just too big for what we do. I think we have a more modest approach - we are not aspiring to have a theory or a set of principles according to which we operate."

In many ways Aravena could be considered an anti-architect of sorts, referring to himself as a "designer" rather than an architect. Yet despite his often critical view of the profession, his belief in its potential is never in doubt.

"We have been trained to deal with problems that only interest other architects, we're experts at having languages that nobody else except architects understand and as a consequence nobody cares about the things that we are dealing with," he explains.

Given an excess of creative freedom, many architects and designers have moved away from social projects that are for the general good of the population.

"The price we pay by doing so is irrelevance."

For Aravena and his Santiago-based company Elemental, one of the issues most pressing of our era – which he calls the "urban age"– is clear: at a time when more and more people are moving to metropolitan centres, we need to design cities that will "dismantle social time bombs", not hasten their explosion.

If we do it right, we could create a "shortcut towards equality", but there are immense challenges due to the speed and scale of the move to greater urban living. Making it even harder is the fact that many involved in facilitating this shift don't have the ultimate goal of improving quality of life but of maximising profits, he says.

It's up to architects, therefore, to use their unique skillset to address these issues, Aravena insists; by focusing their attention on projects such as social housing or maximising public space, they can work to improve living standards for everyone.

"Ultimately, what we architects do is give form to things, to use the strategic use of forms to address problems that might affect the society at large," he says. "We have to speak the language of politics and economics, or the legal constraints, the environment, but as an informed citizen the difference comes because we are able to translate these abstract issues into concrete proposals and forms – and we're not afraid of the unknown."

Despite playing down any philosophical themes in his work, one concept that pops up time and time again when Aravena talks about the process of giving physical form to ideas is synthesis.

"If there is any power in design, that's the power of synthesis - the more complex the question, the more need for synthesis".

In part, that means factoring in the physical and practical factors inherent in the industry, what Aravena refers to as "forces at play" – infrastructure, social, political and environmental concerns – while also maintaining a willingness to keep pushing the creative process, to mix the old with the new and to forge ahead by means of constant experimentation and action.

"That's why we call Elemental a 'do-tank', not a 'think-tank', and that's why we don't have a philosophy – we're not thinking, we're doing. It doesn't mean we reject or we don't appreciate understanding things – understanding is necessary, but it's not a sufficient solution."

Aravena is speaking in Christchurch tonight and in Wellington on Sunday. Check out the Futuna website for more details.

3 News

source: newshub archive