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AJ interviews Venice Biennale director Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena
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The curator of the 2016 Venice Biennale and founder of Elemental, talks to Richard Waite about ethics, housing and the problem-solving role that architecture increasingly plays

This week the curator of the 2016 Venice Biennale, Alejandro Aravena, has been in the UK talking about urban growth, the future for cities and why the language and role of architecture need rethinking.

The AJ spoke to the founder of Chilean practice Elemental about ethics, the biggest issues facing the world and what he hopes to see at next year’s international architectural showcase.

How do the ethics of architecture feed into what you do as a both a practice and what you want to do in Venice?

To tell the truth, we at Elemental have never ever claimed any kind of moral or ethical superiority in what we do.

When we began working in social housing we knew almost nothing. Unlike many organisations around us that were working along these ethically responsible lines, one of the few things we did know was that we were not going to claim any ethical approach.

When dealing with complex, difficult questions what is needed is professional quality - not professional charity.

I don’t feel comfortable with the ethical thing. I don’t believe we are particularly good people. I just think we are good designers.

‘I don’t feel comfortable with the ethical thing. I don’t believe we are particularly good people. I just think we are good designers’

The problem is the starting point. For many architectural projects that tends to be self-referential, or it starts with issues or challenges that only affect a minority - namely a small group of professionals or the architects’ tribe.

So the real scope would be to start from the most shared possible challenges and problems and questions asked by anybody - those that any kind of citizen can relate to - for example immigration, waste, pollution, segregation, violence. These things that don’t need any kind of explanation. These are common problems in the sense they are shared and ordinary. They are difficult to understand. They may be difficult to solve but not to understand their importance - nothing too sophisticated.

The more difficult the problem, the more simple the solution has to be. So if there is any power in design it is the power of synthesis.

So do architects have to reappraise what they do and who they do it for? Should architecture just go beyond the small number who can afford it?  

Yes. But this is not just a recent thing. The history of architecture has been like that - working for the 1 per cent or for the economic or political power.

Maybe the reason is that the more ‘artistic’ the entry point of a project, the more the need for supporters in a position of power who can permit him or her to give priority, let’s say, to the cultural dimension of architecture.

In that approach, the rules - the laws according to which the work of architecture is judged - belong to a closed, self-referential system. That is why architecture tends to be in the arts and culture section of the newspapers.

But more and more projects are going beyond the artistic and cultural realm into the economic, environmental, social, legal and political.

Therefore with this more complex starting point, the outcome can have an impact - negative or positive - on a larger amount of people.

The more we escape the self-referential, endogamic environment that has been the case for architecture historically, the more we can regain some relevance.

We are called to deal with tough, difficult, relevant issues. At the core of our profession there are a number of key things that mean we should not shy away from these big issues.

Architecture has the power of synthesis. The more complex the problem, the more it needs synthesis. Synthesis identifies what is more hierarchical, what are the priorities, what are the essential dimensions of a given problem.

If you take all the information of a given problem, you are frozen. You are paralysed. You are overloaded. You need to make your solution simple enough so that you can move ahead without reducing the complexity of your initial question.

When you draft a report, it runs from top to bottom, left to right. But when you translate that into a design it is simultaneous. This capacity to tackle simultaneous dimensions - even those pulling in opposite directions as often occurs in cities - produces outcomes that are not business as usual.

UC Innovation Center (2014)

UC Innovation Center (2014)

Source: Felipe Diaz Contardo

UC Innovation Center (2014) 

What would you like to see at this year’s biennale, given the theme of ‘Reporting from the Front’?

Things we may be unaware of at the moment. The biennale, with its national pavilions and its global reach makes it the most important architectural exhibition, allowing us to ask: what are the pressing issues that are in your own land?

That does not necessarily mean all the contributions will come from developing, third-world countries.

Every single society and community in the world knows what its most pressing issues are. In the case of Europe it is immigration and the social tension it creates.

Of course the most obvious challenges tend to be associated with poverty and underdevelopment and environmental crises.

I’d like not just to see the complaint - or the report of these important shared problems - but work out what do we do with that? Tell me what are the design clues that can make a difference in facing those battles?

Though most of these problems may relate to scarcity etc, in the US to name another type of example, the lack of quality of the built environment and mediocrity of the majority of what is being built is because of the fear of being sued.

So nobody moves away from the comfort zone. On that front, the fear of litigation is blocking any improvement in the quality.

So is housing, which features in the UK pavilion’s exploration of the future of the home, one of those issues?

‘Cities are very powerful and efficient vehicles to improve quality of life’

Housing is one of the biggest challenges of our times. In the 1960s the focus was on diseases and feeding the planet. In the 1980s it was global warming.

The equivalent new millennium challenge is urbanisation. How do we accommodate people who are migrating to cities? In principle this is actually good news - cities are very powerful and efficient vehicles to improve quality of life. All the indicators from cities - such as sanitation, health, access to jobs, education - are better in cities than in the countryside.

But the problem is that the scale is so big, and there is a scarcity of means. It has no precedence in human history.

And if we don’t solve that problem, people will not stop coming to cities. They will come anyhow, but will live in awful conditions.

That for sure is not the case for Europe which, comparatively, has already urbanised. The bigger numbers are going to happen in between the tropics.

The amount of people moving to cities in the next 20 years will require that we build a 1 million-capacity city every week.

You may think that London is facing a housing shortage, but compared to other places in the world, actually the challenge is really somewhere else.

Quinta Monroy housing (2004)

Quinta Monroy housing (2004)

Source: Cristobal Palma

Quinta Monroy housing (2004)

And are there any obvious solutions?

We will not solve such a scale of problem, at speed and with a scarcity of means unless we use people’s own capacity to build. There may be a clue coming from the third and second world. We offer a new approach - to create open systems that people themselves are able to complete.

If you are not able to satisfy the entire question with your conventional solutions then come up with something new.

Like the internet, you create platforms allowing others to design on top of what you have created. I call this approach the bones and the voids.

Just take care of the quality of the public space that cannot be created by individual action - somebody has to co-ordinate that. And then create the structures on to which people can keep on adding.

This will require some adjustment. But there is no other way, because there are new questions.


Born Santiago, Chile 1967

Education Architect from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (graduated 1992)

Practice Alejandro Aravena Architects (founded 1994); Elemental (founded 2000)

Awards Silver Lion at the XI Venice Biennale (2008); 20 New Heroes of the World by Monocle magazine (2009); RIBA International Fellow (2010); London Design Museum’s Designs of the Year [architecture]- UC Innovation Center (2015)

Projects Quinta Monroy housing (2004); Siamese Towers for Digital Technology at Universidad Católica, Chile (2008); St Edwards University in Austin, Texas (2008); UC Innovation Center (2014)

Teaching Harvard Graduate School of Design (2000-2005)

Published work Los Hechos de la Arquitectura (Architectural Facts, 1999), El Lugar de la Arquitectura (The Place in/of Architecture, 2002) and Material de Arquitectura (Architecture Matters, 2003)


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