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A Primer on Alejandro Aravena, Director of the 2016 Venice Biennale

Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean architect respected for the social theories and philosophies underlying his work (and occasionally compared to Wolverine), was just named the director of the forthcoming 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale. Meant to underline architecture's role and place in civil society, his selection has been viewed a shift from the more esoteric and academic approach Rem Koolhaas took in 2014. Aravena's body of work, including projects with Elemental, the firm he founded in 1994, focus on institutional and housing designs with lofty goals and real-world achievments, such as the award-winning Quinta Monroy, a residential development for former squatters in a Chilean desert town that showcased "the city as an unlimited resource to build social equity," and a college Innovation Centre in Santiago that won a Design of the Year Award from the Design Museum, in part by challenging the priorities informing other, similar structures. While a string of awards and a visiting lecturer position at Harvard have made Aravena a respected name in architectural circles, its the impetus behind some of his most important projects that may provide a better insight into what kind of programming he'll bring to Venice next May.

Quinta Monroy
When faced with a limited budget of just $7,500 per unit for a 93-home residential development, Elemental discovered that the solution for low-cost housing was passing the buck. In the case of this project in Iquique, Chile, that meant building row houses outfitted with only the most basic accommodations (plumbing, but no fixtures or fittings), set next to empty lot as large as the house. What appeared half-finished at the time allowed for immediate occupation, sweat equity and a level of customization that gave residents a proud feeling of ownership, instead of the dread that comes with being slotted into another mass-produced box. Aravena's theory of increimental housing paid off; research showed that families sank an average of $750 into their homes, raising the value by $20,000 while doubling the square footage.

Innovation Center UC – Anacleto Angelini
Aravena upset traditional wisdom when he designed this 14-story concrete monolith for Santiago's Universidad Católica de Chile, a gray tower built with environmentalism in mind. In Santiago's desert climate, it turns out that graceful, glass-clad structures turn into heat sinks. This bulky, Brutalist structure, a throwback of sorts to the '60s and '70s fascination with concrete on campus, offers natural, temperature modulating walls and large recesses for airflow. Elemental delivered a new building that not only bucked trends, but does it with an energy bill half as large as those for similar contemporary designs.

Mirador Las Cruces (The Crosses Lookpoint)
Part of a group architectural project that reimagined how rest stops could function along a Mexican pilgrimage route, Mirador Las Cruces gives travellers two vantage points, the landscape in front of them and the path behind. That simple but meaningful contrast fits well with this straightforward structure, built with minimal upkeep in mind that functions as much like a piece of sculpture as a way station.

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