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Pritzker Winner Alejandro Aravena On Architecture, Drawing, and Desires

Inside the well-coiffed head of this year's Venice Biennale director

In anticipation of the Venice Architecture Biennale opening this Saturday, May 28, the T: The New York Times Style Magazine published a revealing profile with its director and this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, Alejandro Aravena. The 48-year-old Chilean architect (and his firm Elemental) is something of a star in his country, committed to creating affordable and socially-minded housing and public spaces for his people, like Villa Verde and Quinta Monroy, as well as impressive structures for universities, including the Angelini Innovation Center at the Universidad Católica de Chile.

Aravena is perhaps best known for the concept of "incremental housing," which provides "half a good house" for its residents, who then have access to a corresponding space next to it that they can build out when they have the means, giving them equity in the neighborhood.

Read on for a few illuminating quotes from the architect below, and head on over to T magazine for the full profile.

On establishing a reconstruction plan after the devastation of a 2010 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Constitución, a seaside resort town:

Residents in Constitución naturally suspected, because we were working for the forestry company, that all the benefits of reconstruction would go to the company, not them. That’s why we knew from the start that the people had to participate in the reconstruction process. In effect, we needed to create the right client. So we devised a consortium: Arauco, the government, the public and us. We were taking an intuitive approach because we actually knew nothing about planning. In the end, ignorance helped.

On his firm's, called Elemental, focus on social housing:

The more monotonous, dry, tough, the better. Given that people will construct homes for themselves anyhow, this architecture gives order to their interventions.

We don’t think of ourselves as artists. Architects like to build things that are unique. But if something is unique it can’t be repeated, so in terms of it serving many people in many places, the value is close to zero. We go into fields where the chance of failing is higher than average. We make mistakes. If we need to replace a window or make some other fix, it’s easier for us because we’ve built up an account of good will.

On the need for architects to address social problems:

In the name of artistic freedom, architects made themselves irrelevant. I think we may look back and see this as a tipping point.

Aravena draws constantly. And it wasn't until he moved to Venice in 1992 that he felt like he was studying real architecture:

I was on a completely different planet there. I could go to a building for a week just to draw it. I spent a month drawing Doric temples in Sicily. I was measuring everything, absorbing all this history we didn’t learn in Chile. I saw Romanesque buildings and Palladio’s buildings and Alberti’s and Brunelleschi’s buildings, all of which finally made me realize what architecture could aspire to be.

When he returned to Chile, Aravena was so discouraged by the projects he was getting, that he briefly quit architecture and opened a bar.

Then, when I came back to Chile, the jobs I got were for restaurants and shops, one lousy client after another. I was doing a discothèque in northern Chile for a guy who proved to be dishonest in the end, and finally couldn’t take it. It wasn’t what I had devoted my life to learning. So I quit architecture and opened a bar. I was still a nerd but I was living at night and sleeping in the day.

A woman, who is a resident at Renca, one of Aravena's incremental housing developments in Santiago, described the joy of having bedrooms that fit queen size beds "like in the movies."

What she meant was that now she can have a life of the imagination. Needs are not desires. You can answer needs but people still have desires.

On why designing private houses doesn't inspire him very much:

I’m not sure that a private house is especially interesting as architecture, in that it’s either the client’s vision or the architect’s. A school or public housing project operates in a more complex space where everything becomes negotiable, which I think is more creative, more difficult, more challenging for an architect and more rewarding.