Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Profile: Alejandro Aravena

“There is no point in discussing social housing in architectural terms,” says Alejandro Aravena, the activist-architect behind Chilean “do tank” Elemental, a collaborative team of architects, transport engineers, builders and social workers that has been rethinking low-income mass housing since 2000.

“It’s a social and political problem, but we can use design to address these issues,” says Aravena. Elemental’s projects work within tight policy restrictions and with few resources. The idea is to provide a set of conditions that allow the building units to be adapted and increase in value over time, redefining social housing as an investment not an expense.

“I have the luxury of operating, and being trained, in the third world,” says Aravena. “I can afford to be primitive enough.” This sense of the primitive, of boiling a design down to its most relevant and irreducible essence, runs through the work of his private practice, including several widely acclaimed buildings for Santiago’s Universidad Católica. These works attempt to “move backwards rather than forwards”, reflecting the basic values of informal education.

Aravena, who has held visiting professorships at Harvard and the AA and is widely published, is currently applying his disciplined approach to a children’s education centre for Vitra, to sit snugly between Zaha and Siza in Weil-am-Rhein. “I’m trying to be cutting edge. It’s more like what architects are expected to do.”

Originally published in Icon, April 2008