Portrait of Alejandro Aravena
28. June 2016 | Words: Bettina Schürkamp
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 10 seconds
2016 is truly the year of Alejandro Aravena – as curator of the main exhibition at the 15th Architecture Biennial in Venice and Pritzker Prize Winner, he and his concepts are central to the global discussion on future prospects for architecture. There follows a portrait of the Chilean architect with a rundown of his key buildings.
His omnipresence does not actually come as that much of a surprise: born at Santiago de Chile in 1967, Aravena has for many years been a player on the international architectural stage, though he had yet to be counted amongst the architects leading the international rankings in Germany. In its summing up, the Pritzker jury cited the extraordinary breadth of the architect’s social commitment and awarded him its prestigious Architecture Prize for the work of the architecture company he set up in 1994 as well as for the social housing projects run together with the Elemental architecture group.
Aravena is internationally networked due to long years of lecturing and his input for organisations in Europe and America. He was visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 2000-2005 and since 2006 has held the Elemental Copec chair at the Universidad Católica de Chile. He has additionally lectured at universities in Venice and London. On the international stage he is on committees such as the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies or Switzerland ‘s Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction and was a founding member of the Chilean Public Policies Society. He sat on the Pritzker jury himself between 2010-2015, moreover.
The Pritzker jury adjudged Aravena ‘s architecture as being special for the way it combines public commitment with a strong artistic identity. Projects such as the Mathematics School at the Universidad Católica de Chile (1999) highlight his holistic approach to the built world and his ability to marshal aspects such as social responsibility, economic constraints and exceptional design for humane living spaces. In 2014 he produced the UC Innovation Center – Anacleto Angelini for the same university, a structure whose monolithic, sculptural appearance conjures up archaic associations. An opaque cube seemingly closed to the outside world conveys a sense of safety and protectedness, whilst the openness inside provides space for encounters and exchanges.
The Novartis office block currently being built in Shanghai plays with the contrast between a bulky, earthy looking cube and open glass areas in the interior in similar vein. The building’s weather faces were finished, partly with energy optimisation in mind, as voluminous brick facades with monumental viewing slots. The building opens itself up to the light on the north wall with a glass facade that points up the open structuring inside. The officing embraces a broad spectrum of work environments ranging from individual, collective and informal areas to formal prestige zones.
The Siamese Towers built in 2005 for the Universidad Católica de Chile’s San Joaquín campus in Santiago reveal just how innovatively the Chilean architect goes about collectively meeting functional, energy-related and aesthetic requirements in each new building assignment. Despite the ordering client originally specifying a glass facade, Aravena decided that glass was an unsuitable building material for the climate in Santiago – the structure would have heated up too greatly. He resolved the conundrum by inventing a glass envelope slipped round a solid interior building as a means of protection against rain and pollution. Air circulates between the glass facade and the inner structure, thus attenuating climatic effects such as maximum coldness and heat levels. The glass envelope is not as exactly cube-shaped as the inner structure, eschewing the geometric for a more organic feel in places. The two complexly layered towers resemble Siamese twins at first glance, though they do actually differ as regards the play of light and shadow. They stand huddled up together on a single base encased in sawn planks. The weathered timber finishes have a haptic quality that contrasts excitingly with the technicised nature of the glass towers themselves.
A fresh approach to building assignments forms the basis of a collaboration between Alejandro Aravena and his partners Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Cerda, Victor Oddó and Diego Torres in the Elemental “do tank”, set up as a counter-concept to the ubiquitous “think tank”. One of the five architects’ best-known projects is the Quinta Monroy housing estate at Iquique dating to 2004. The drafting process was driven by a desire to create attractive accommodation for as many people as possible on a tight budget, with residents being able to contribute services of their own and hence raise the value of social housing. The architects came up with a plan under which elemental functions such as site development or sanitary and service installations housed in a three-story starter module were financed with public funds. Once the publicly funded starter phase had been concluded, the housing estate resembled a chain of monolithic, three-storey towers enclosing open public spaces.
Shortly thereafter began the phase of appropriation by residents who, drawing on the structural properties of the starter modules, filled in the gaps between towers with self-built residential spaces. The services contributed by residents caused a minimum-income housing estate to be upgraded to a middle-class standard of living. The system of basic supply planned by the architects, involving cubic structures as it does, enters into a close symbiosis with the housing dreams put to effect by the residents. Division of labour and duplicate funding gave rise to a “win-win situation” that is still globally exemplary for housing estates ten years on and was cited as one reason along with Alejandro Aravena’s other architecture projects for his winning the 2016 Pritzker Prize.
Alejandro Aravena’s projects are imbued with the special gift of being able to mediate between contrasting factors in such a way that the inherent material quality of each component is brought out by being juxtaposed with its opposite. It is this characteristic property that likewise informs his exhibition approach as curator of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennial. “Reporting from the Front” encouraged architects from around the globe to link up intellectually with his “do tank” in their exhibition entries, giving rise to a remarkably intense and multifaceted discourse on urgent social issues in architecture.