• Aravena Lecture-1_EDIT
    Alejandro Aravena in Austin at St. Edward’s University this May. Photo by Whitney Devin, courtesy St. Edward's University.

This spring, I had the opportunity to interview three of contemporary architecture’s bright lights — Mark Foster Gage and Patrik Schumacher, before their debate at Texas A&M in April, and Alejandro Aravena, during his appearance at St. Edward’s University in May. All three architects are dedicated to progressive architecture, but they have come to diverging conclusions about the pathways along which architecture, and society, should progress. While you can get a good introduction to the ideas that underpin the work of Gage and Schumacher by reading the transcript of our discussion, on page 21, here is a summary of my encounter with Aravena:

Addressing the audience at St. Edward’s, Aravena said that architects do forms, and then asked, “What informs these forms?” His answer: “Many forces. We try not to leave any out, but to translate the forces at play into a building.” The forces that shaped the dormitory his firm, Elemental, designed at St. Edward’s included the basics of the program, the client’s aesthetic expectations, and international as well as local precedent. Finding no local dormitory building to use as a model, Aravena instead drew on the natural limestone bowl that is Hamilton Pool, making the building into a “Cartesian canyon” that shelters its glazed inner courtyard from the sun.

When questioned about his experience working on social housing projects, as well as the fact that some architects feel cynical about architecture’s ability to address inequality, even feel that it is a wasteful diversion with negative impacts on architectural production, Aravena was explicit. He said that humanitarian issues are the most pressing problems of our time. While he added that architects have little influence over the wider social and economic factors that create inequity — these being the domain of governments and others who shape policy — he felt that the profession does play a role in synthesizing the complex forces at play in designing buildings that seek to do some good in this arena.

As an example of the sort of contribution that architects can make to low-income housing (in the context of Chile’s social housing policies), Aravena pointed to Elemental’s first project, Quinta Monroy in Iquique (2004). Before designing anything, the architects decided that location was key to the success of the project. They selected a site in the center of the city, where the inhabitants — roughly 100 families — had already been squatting and would be able to easily access a wide variety of employment prospects. Paying for the central location, however, ate up an outsized portion of the budget, which was $7,500 for each house ($7,200 in government subsidy and $300 in family contribution), a figure that had to cover the real estate, infrastructure, and building. Here is where Elemental came up with the innovation that made it famous and won Aravena the Pritzker Prize: The architects took an incremental approach, designing row houses that provided half a house under the initial construction package, and a framework for the family to build out the other half in the future, as they were able. Elemental has since rolled this concept out on a number of other projects.

Aravena believes that social housing should be an investment, like any commodity, and Chile’s social housing policies back this up. After five years, total ownership of the housing units transfers to the families who live there, meaning that they become like any other piece of real estate on the market. While most families who initially moved into Quinta Monroy have stayed, Aravena did say that he heard recently that one family has sold their property — for $75,000, a nice little return on investment, considering that their initial contribution was a mere $300.

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