An architect who affirms that the favelas are not the problem but part of the solution demonstrates that he is not deterred by controversy, but also that he possesses unusual self-confidence. And it is not just about words: Alejandro Aravena (Santiago de Chile, 55 years old) has not hesitated to integrate the methodologies of informal settlements to design the social housing for which he has become best known. From the studio of which he is the executive director, Elemental, based in the Chilean capital, he has devised projects such as Quinta Monroy in Iquique, homes designed for their own users to expand to double the living area. “It was a matter of common sense that the square footage would be doubled by people anyway,” he says. If this was an unavoidable fact, why not facilitate it through the initial design? It is possible to think that this premise is not particularly liked by supporters of the figure of the architect as an untouchable author, but in 2016, when he won the Pritzker Prize at the age of 48, many already expressed their discomfort at considering him too young for an award that is generally granted to professionals with more projects built and much more career behind them than ahead. Last November he spent a few days in Madrid to participate in the public debates Cities: Affordable Housing (“Cities: Affordable Housing”) organized by the Norman Foster Foundation, where he had a conversation on the subject with Norman Foster himself. There he displayed his energetic charisma since, before beginning his talk, he defined the practice of housing architecture as a combination between the sports of surfing and rugby.
Could you explain to me what you meant by that comparison? I was brought up in a context where the architect is asked to have total control over the project he executes. But making homes is more of a process than a product. When I look out my office window and see the millions of square meters that both the real estate world and self-construction produce outside of architecture, I think it is naive to believe that one can control such great forces, and we should not try to suppress or replace them either. . They are like a wave that one, ideally, manages to channel. To navigate on it. As for rugby, it is a very rough sport, full of friction, and the same thing happens in housing architecture. It takes a lot of street and little desk. When housing is discussed from the world of experts and then contrasted with reality, it is seen that it is something else. Housing is one of those problems that, although rude, is very genuine, and you have to remove the false problem component of academic discussions. And it is good that one as an architect learns that this game does not allow euphemisms, that it moves on another scale.
It certainly does not seem like a euphemism to say that the favela is the solution to the housing problem. It is extremely important to understand the constraints of the problem before you start trading. To make housing in my context we work with 10,000 dollars per family. Thats the reality. And, either you operate within that framework, or you are like an opinionologist, on the outside. Someone will take care of doing it: either the real estate market, or the favela, the informal settlement. And indeed he does.
Quantitatively, the problem may tend to be solved in this way. But what about qualitatively? What about the quality of those self-built homes? When one looks at the square meters of the door inward, they probably do not follow the aesthetic standards of architecture. People are willing to sacrifice natural ventilation and lighting in informal or formal self-build processes. And that, in effect, looks bad. It would be necessary to find the way that the design can protect it. Materially, however, the result is never too bad.
What can architects contribute to the process, then? The scarcest resource is not money, but coordination, so the sum of individual actions is not capable of caring for the common good. What one does not know how to do is not the square meters of housing, but the spaces between them that allow life in common. So the architect’s job is that the space between these units continues to allow a healthy collective coexistence, which does not occur spontaneously. In Manhattan, for every living square meter, there is one square meter of common space. In an informal settlement that ratio is reduced to 1:10, and then that urban environment has no quality. That would truly be the architect’s job. In fact, for the cities of the future, what is important is what is not built. And for that, that work of coordination and design, of master builder, will be essential.
With the confinement due to the pandemic, new demands regarding housing arose. Do you think that they were mostly circumstantial, or that they will imply permanent changes? In a context where the other is a threat, the ideal would be to be as far away from him as possible. But that is a first world analysis, whereas in most of the planet moving to where the critical mass is is a necessity. People move to cities not to live poorly, but to access better jobs, services and recreation, to improve their lives through those opportunities that cities concentrate. In addition, cities are very efficient vehicles for delivering public policies: drinking water, sewage, electricity, transportation… are more efficient. When in confinement it was said “stay home and wash your hands”, for 2,000 million people on the planet there were no possibilities to do so. So it makes sense for people to focus on space, but the pandemic put a question mark on that because it identified crowding and density, when they are not synonymous. The job of the architect is that they are not. You can live together in space, protecting individual space.
However, many people left the city to move to less densely populated environments, if they were able to do so. For too large a part of the planet that is not an alternative. Conditions must be created for cohabitation to be good. The pandemic was above all a matter of the interior. Therefore the challenge for architecture is how to transform interiors into exteriors. In work spaces, something as simple as opening windows is not possible, because air conditioning systems are not designed for it. But on a residential scale there is the idea of the balcony, that intermediate space between outside and inside. In Santiago there are many buildings with terraces, and for a long time people closed them and created interior square meters and perceived that as a profit. But now everyone is starting to dismantle those enclosures again. If people were locked up, what saved them was that space between outside and inside. And that is what architecture should probably incorporate into its toolbox: the negotiable spaces between interior and exterior, such as the terrace or the balcony. These are simple things, not aerospace engineering.
During the lockdown, and with the exception of health personnel, few professional groups suddenly received as much attention as architects. Do you think they knew how to take advantage of it? Chile is a special case, because here the pandemic came together with the social outbreak of October 18. Every time one was required to consult as an architect, the question was charged by the paradigm shift with respect to the neoliberal capitalist model, and it had three or four more layers. There was a tremendously active citizen discussion. Certainly, never before in history, architects were so required on these issues. We have never been so compelled to participate in discussions that mattered to others who are not architects, to use knowledge of architecture to answer questions that are outside of architecture, political, social, health or economic questions.
In the debate he also spoke of designing and building the houses in a collaborative process with the users. But how is this collaboration articulated? When we started working in social housing without knowing practically anything about the subject, we did so looking unprejudicedly at what were the breaking points and the complex variables in the equation. And it was a fact that with public funds, in the best case, half of the square meters that are actually built could be built. Between 30 and 40 square meters. When people received these social housing projects, they all doubled the initial size themselves, and the problem is that they did it despite the design, not because of it. Wherever one looked at it, this enlargement process was done poorly. So, didn’t it make sense that the author of those square meters was sitting at the table from day one to distribute responsibilities and tasks to us? Because you can’t afford to be redundant. What do I do and what do you do? Also, you need to set priorities. And those people who had lived in conditions of scarcity have that knowledge that is very useful, and that we must use.
At this point, I remember those television images of Sáenz de Oiza visiting the social housing of El Ruedo, in Madrid, that he had drawn. The neighbors themselves confronted him because the design was far removed from his needs. And his answer was: the best thing is that you leave home and become an architect. I have not seen those images, but I can understand where the matter is going. In the budget structure that we decided to work with, the cost of each house was 7,500 dollars, of which 7,200 were a state subsidy and 300 family savings, which took them two years to raise. When we sat at the table to hand out tasks, we asked people things like that the money did not arrive to deliver the tub [bañera] and also the water heater. But when they entered the house they couldn’t pay for gas, so the heater was useless. In exchange there was a water subsidy, and in the tub you can wash clothes, bathe a child, while in the shower you can’t. And in the tub the water does not filter down like in the shower, which is a reason for neighborhood conflict. So, according to what they told us, in previous experiences, if there was a heater, people would take the heater and sell it. Well, give me the tub, and in time I’ll have the heater. These are the trade-offs that allow establishing priorities in the face of scarcity.
When you won the Pritzker Prize in 2016, you were 48 years old and critical voices arose that considered you too young. How did he feel before them? First of all, I didn’t find out much about it because I am surrounded by many engineers, and for them, if you haven’t done something at 48, you’re already too old. We architects give ourselves that consolation that the career starts at 50 years of age. But maturity is not a biological process, it can be accelerated by intellectual and professional challenges. I would say that youth is another of those problems that only concern architects.
It has been said that then he cried when he found out he was the winner. Are you a particularly emotional person, perhaps against the expectations of a certain archetype of the architect with an aura of seriousness? My daughters say yes, I cry very little. So I guess it’s true. There are certain professions that proudly say that by accumulating experience one must learn to have thick skin. Politicians, for example. But the architect requires a thin skin, to capture the symbolic and emotional issues. If I didn’t have it, I would miss out on those dimensions that, however intangible or slight they may be, in the end are the ones that matter the most, because they can make a project fail. The rational is a necessary but insufficient condition. You have to work very hard so that what is measurable is impeccable, but that is not enough. So I can’t deny it: it’s like that and it’s great that it stays that way.