Alejandro Aravena on Moving Architecture “From the Specificity of the Problem to the Ambiguity of the Question”

© Álvaro González

© Álvaro González

This interview with the winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize, Alejandro Aravena, was published last year in Issue 31 of Revista AOA, a Spanish-language magazine published by the Association of Architecture Offices of Chile. The interview was conducted by the editorial committee of Revista AOA—represented by Yves Besançon, Francisca Pulido and Tomás Swettand is accompanied by photographs by Álvaro González. Aravena’s openness and warmth allowed them to deliver a profound questionnaire about his thoughts and architectural projections, especially in light of Aravena’s Venice Biennale which took place last year.

Without a doubt, 2016 marked a period of international consolidation among architects, which in January led to the first Chilean winner of the Pritzker Prize and also the first Latin-American director of the Venice Biennale of Architecture. From there, as the title of exhibition says, he continues “reporting from the front” and invites architects all over the world to share the battles that they face in their countries.

In total, there are 88 works from 37 countries—among them four projects from Chile—that address themes related to segregation, inequality, suburbia, sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortages, migration, traffic, trash, pollution, and community participation. Along with the declaration of principles that accompany the call that defines the Biennale, Aravena has explained that the exhibition this year is “about the knowledge and the approach to architecture that through intelligence, intuition, or both, is capable of escaping the status quo… And in place of resignation or bitterness proposes and does something.”

In reality, that is what defines the work of Aravena and of Elemental, who in a step beyond “doing something” released the use of four of their designs for social housing. Any architect or public or private institution can now utilize the plans and construction details of Quinta Monroy in Iquique, Colonia Lo Barnechea in Santiago, Villa Verde in Constitución, and the award-winning housing of Monterrey in Mexico. It is a decision that speaks of “the necessity to work together to approach the challenge of rapid urbanization around the world,” much in line with the theme of the Biennale.

In a long conversation with the editorial committee of Revista AOA—represented by Yves Besançon, Francisca Pulido and Tomás Swett—those themes were addressed, taking as a starting point what is being done—or rather failing to be done—to make architects capable of defining appropriate questions that permit architecture to give the necessary social response.

© Álvaro González

© Álvaro González

You often refer to the necessity of finding the questions before giving the answers to an architectural problem. With that in mind, what do you think about the training of new architects? What is needed to define the true problems of possibility and from there to approach architectural education?

If you clarify what architecture should be, what comes next is what or how it should be taught, so I will try to tackle the issue from various directions. First, we assume that what we teach today is basically a set of disciplinary rules by which the objects produced are then judged. In general, this alludes more to artistic form and compositional rules than a specific disciplinary tradition. While that can develop and lead to the expansion of one’s own internal set of rules, the risk is that many of the rules and the types of problems are not relevant to the rest of society and only matter to other architects. So the architectural discussion becomes a specialized critique or a formal stylistic analysis that the rest of society doesn’t care about. For this reason, the first question is how to introduce a person to this body of specific knowledge and how to start from entirely non-specific problems that are important to them, and on which any citizen can have an opinion. That is to say, to move from the specificity of the problem to the ambiguity of the question. If you are able to understand that the problems that architecture can deal with are those which are important to society, the way to contribute is from that body of specific knowledge. That is, to translate the forces into playing with form, which is what architects know how to do. The idea is not to become an economist, politician, or anthropologist, but knowing their languages allows us to understand the code of forces that must then be translated into form. In general, we do little exercise in understanding the languages of other disciplines and in doing so we abandon the core of architecture, which is making projects.

A few years ago, in a discussion I had with Hashim Sarkis, then at Harvard and now director of MIT, we said there was a moment in which architecture bifurcated, probably at the end of the 60s or the beginning of the 70s. On one side were those who claimed a kind of creative jurisdiction to be geniuses, and they developed all the possible “isms”: postmodernism, minimalism, deconstructivism, etc. But this disciplinary autonomy has a very thin line with irrelevance, that is to say, to be occupied with things that no one cares about but the architects themselves. The other side is those who opted to focus on problems of poverty, underdevelopment, and inequality, but abandoned the specific knowledge of the architect to become a consultant of organizations with acronyms and paperwork. Seen this way we can conclude that the problem is in not organizing the information in the proposed key. The value of architecture is that it does not take the information to make a diagnosis, but a proposal. The organization of the “particles” of information in the proposed key is the specific power of the architect.

Assembling the puzzle more than organizing loose pieces?

It’s like tempering a sword. When it is achieved it is because all the particles are in the same direction. They do not necessarily all agree or say the same thing, but they point in a direction. The challenge of architecture, and by extension of its teaching, is to be capable of departing from outside of architecture, in that environment of ambiguous problems that matter to society, and synthesizing the key of the specific architectural proposal, so that the proposal is then returned to society and judged. For this reason it is very difficult to produce a good work of architecture.

What, then, would you define as good work?

It is something capable of synthesizing a spectrum or layers of variables that set out from absolutely practical and concrete issues. The “star architect” is criticized for a preoccupation with the iconic dimension of architecture, responding to a strict discipline when they also need to worry about the problems of the people. But if you consider only the problems and abandon the artistic dimension of the project, it is equally incomplete.

Returning to the theme of education, we should understand that if architecture has a power, it is synthesis, and in this sense we do not have to be afraid to start by designing the question and identifying the variables of the equation. When you speak of “equation” what you spell out are the terms to which you will need to respond later. The difficulty—or also the grace—of architecture is that for any particular equation there is not a single answer. But the ability to make explicit what is informing the shape of the project is the type of issue one would expect to address when teaching architecture. Normally what we do as architects, and what we are taught to do, is that given the possibility that contradictory forces influencing the final work or object will not all be neatly judged by the architectural set of rules, you can ask the question.

© Álvaro González

© Álvaro González

How to make the sketch after finishing the project…

Exactly, and this has many difficulties. On one side, as an architect one should be capable of synthesizing the key to the project and in a single proposal include contradictory forces. On the other side it requires a paradigm shift: if we keep asking you for a social housing project that only responds in the sculptural dimension, we are misjudging. It is the question that should be distinct, not the answer. For this reason I am quite critical of the teaching of architecture today, because in general what I see in academia is a circuit of people who depend on publications, symposiums, and conferences, and who usually focus only on themes that sound very powerful. The problems that are actually important do not seem to have merit from the academic point of view, they are very common and current and that has no glamor. It is necessary to understand and give more stress to the questions and then, when judged, understand as well the real complexity of the problem, and ultimately we should reevaluate the way in which we decide if a project is or is not successful.

Forces at Play

The capacity to question that a student or young professional has today is usually low, looking for immediate and direct results. The initial stage of questioning is quite limited, the logic of the process of design does not seem to be developed in the formation of architects.

Prior to questioning is the openness to approach the problem with everything that comes to the case, a prejudice that allows one to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. It is not questioning in the critical sense or negative judgment. But it is complex, because when a client comes with a project it will not necessarily have a clear question. Constructing the question is part of the creative process, one should discriminate between what is important and what is not: what will inform the form, the structure, the budget, the climate, the regulations, the user, etc., starting from very concrete and measurable questions. However, there are intangible dimensions, governed by what we call “ineffable certainties,” where it is difficult to know if they are good or bad but which also form part of the project, like the character of a building. That’s where the difficulty lies in architectural production. As much as you have identified and created a hierarchy for all of the variables, there is no recipe for constructing the question, it is a creative act. And then the jump from identifying the variables of the problem to the answer that synthesizes all of the forces at play… It is an art, in the sense that it moves with partial certainties, it is intuitive, it is not a guarantee, nor is it a linear process ensuing from the circumstances, variables appear that are more than the circumstances and yet they are relevant… To teach all of that is very complex.

© Álvaro González

© Álvaro González

Does any subject generate a possible line of questioning to ask “the” question? Which themes should always be addressed within the equation?

In principle, I would say that it is enough if there is agreement on something that matters. One of the ways of seeing if you approached a problem well is that you don’t need to have a seminar to explain it. That is to say, “pollution,” which we all understand to be a problem, we all experience it and we all can have an opinion. The same with congestion, segregation, insecurity, sustainability, immigration… The issue is how to enter a discussion that does not pertain to architecture but with the specific knowledge of architecture, that is to translate a form and then organize in a proposal what you managed to elevate for that problem. It has physical components, process components, governance components which break down into their social components, political, economic, environmental, etc. The point is that it is something that everyone understands, that is desirable to engage with, and then that the input to the problem is creative. What makes the difference is not just hard work, because if you are not able to bring something that illuminates and elevates the problem to a different state, that effort counts for nothing. Nor does it matter to just have an idea and then not be capable of implementing or achieving significant change.

Does this discourse somehow represent a return to the public dimension of the role of architecture and of the architect in our country? The social dimension that Elemental has imprinted on its architecture is in a way repositioning a role the existed 50 years ago. The very fact that the MOP [Chile’s Ministry of Public Works] has invited you to collaborate is an achievement for all architects. Do you feel that you’re making a change in this sense?

Yes and no. You feel that you’ve done something different, as something is put in the center of attention. But there is still nothing of what needs to be done to change what we see looking at out of the window at billions of people. More than a turn towards the social, of which we have debated much, I would say that there is a confidence that when going into complex issues that matter we are going to make a contribution.

But that necessarily involves risks.

In general, if architects do not have a 100% guarantee we prefer not to get involved. The project is chosen and fits well. But if the problem is important—and that is a change of judgment, even if there is a long way to go there—in which we have won 51-49, it was already worth having gotten into. But we must know how to live with the 49 that do not meet the expectation of success. The change is in understanding that you should first identify a problem that matters and then see how to make a difference. And for that, we must comprehend that restrictions are the best thing that can happen. In times of removing there must be adding, because the greater the complexity, the greater the need for synthesis. A paper is linear, from up to down, from left to right. Instead, a proposal is all simultaneous, and that capacity to synthesize forces so opposed is tremendously powerful.

© Álvaro González

© Álvaro González

Is that what your Pritzker Prize recognizes?

If something has happened with the Pritzker it is not so much having won it, but rather with what type of projects. Naturally, architecture can get into important matters, putting itself back on the radar as the type of profession that you go to when you have a complex problem. The change is to make society feel that you can contribute on your own terms. To the extent that we can demonstrate that we are not an extra cost but an added value, we will be called back for complex and intersecting problems.

The most emblematic case that we have touched in Elemental is Constitución. There was an initial question—how to protect the city against a tsunami—but with the process of participation in the community, we understood that this was less than a quarter of the question. There were other dimensions that should be answered: protection against floods and not only against tsunamis; a deficit of public space, of places where you can spend your free time; and construction of an identity associated with access to the river, because it was the nature and not the fallen buildings that constructed the identity. If you didn’t understand that the question had four parts, you would have answered the wrong question correctly. When you analyze that the project resulted in a forest of mitigation between the city and the sea with a cost of US$48 million versus the US$30 million that it would have cost simply to annex and make a ground zero, or US$42 million that a wall would have cost, true, from that point of view it’s an extra cost. But when you understand the four variables to which to respond and that the existing projects in the public investment system for the same place sum to US$52 million, what made the design was to save US$4 million because you understood that the problem was more complex. If one is able to demonstrate that proposed value, instead of being called only when there is money and time, you will be who they call when there is no money or time.

The Battle of Venice

Is this the seal you were looking to put on the Venice Biennale with “reporting from the front”? Does it mean that to give an adequate response even to the questions that may be wrong?

To identify questions that matter and give good answers costs money, is complex, difficult, and even thankless. It implies a true fight, the battle. And suppose that those who front these battles can share how they’ve achieved success in a value proposal, like in the case of Constitución. We look to share cases, tools, strategies, experiences, so that when returning to your place of origin you do so with more weapons, with dimensions that perhaps you never imagined would be pertinent to your place of origin. To be able to anticipate seeing a problem that today does not exist in your reality, is latent… If you share these conflicts you have anticipatory capacity, and eventually you share knowledge that’s replicable in other contexts. More than sharing research, experiences are needed. That is reporting from the front.

How was the call received? Did people respond according to what you had visualized?

The title functioned well, something like “if the shoe fits.” One hand orders: we speak about difficult things, of disputes and of what you did to take charge. But also the call is sufficiently ample for all the problems to have room: issues of immigration, the environment, the economy… Immigration in Europe is not an issue of architects, it affects people in all those countries who have immigrants and who are going to want to go see in the Biennale what ideas exist to tackle it. And it also alludes to place of origin: what could you do to change the conditions of inequality that drive the displacement of the population. In general, it worked because it has triggered issues that are the discussion of societies, not just of architects.

In any case, I want to focus the call on the quality of the built environment, not even architecture, because it includes public spaces, infrastructure, and even the surrounding territory as well. And it is the quality of the built environment that, through our efforts, can contribute to the quality of life, just like there are others who design economic policies or social networks or scientific inventions. Not only emergencies, catastrophes, or humanitarian crises destroy the quality of life, also the mediocrity of city peripheries in Europe or the banality of the construction in the United States, there are thousands of examples, each place can report which are the conditions that do not allow quality to be delivered to the built environment and consequently impair the quality of life…

© Álvaro González

© Álvaro González

Of today’s architects, who do you consider relevant for the quality of their responses to challenges like these?

Again, in different dimensions, architects who tried to synthesize or encompass components that weren’t evident. Shigeru Ban enters fields apparently alien to the architect, like that of the refugees in Africa. In itself, taking care of an African child is not a guarantee of quality, but you have to make, through the medium of architecture, some contribution. And the capacity of Ban is to make a difference by means of design. Not necessarily everything is humanitarian. Following with the Pritzker, in Peter Zumthor, the intensity and quality of his architecture gives a lasting answer to sustainability, that although it is not cheap implies a kind of moral reserve in terms of resisting the passage of time. It is concerned with various dimensions, you could say it is a spectrum of art. The same with Kazuyo Sejima, who cleans a project until there is nothing left. Her architecture is not minimalism, because what she synthesizes is the answer, not the question. Souto de Moura is another capable of integrating a manner of making that has consequences on the manpower it requires, or on resources that are the same as always but used in a surprising way. Of Wang Shu, the Ningbo museum in China is one of those moments in which someone manages synthesis through the manner of construction, using tiles and bricks from the demolition around the building, redefining the typology of a museum. If you only have formal quality, fantastic, it is a way of contributing, but it is not sufficient. The desire is to enter into themes that are very important and whose benefit reaches the largest quantity of people possible.

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