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How architecture can overcome its relevance problem

In a new book, Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena shows how design projects can be oriented in the context of broader societal needs

St Edward’s University Dormitories, 2006, Austin, Texas, United States
Elemental’s St Edward’s University Dormitories, 2006, Austin, Texas.
Cristóbal Palma

Chileans have an expression for telling the ultimate hard truth about something: La Dura. When Elemental—the Santiago-based architecture firm founded by Pritzker Prize winner and social housing pioneer Alejandro Aravena—embarked on a monograph about its body of work, it kept that phrase front of mind.

Elemental, a new book from Phaidon about the Chilean architecture firm, is bound in fabric and has an embossed title.
Courtesy Phaidon

“Our idea was to reveal the internal processes of each project: its circumstances, its tipping points, the failures, the ‘aha’ moments,” Aravena writes in the introduction to Elemental, which is out now from Phaidon.

This isn’t the typical dense design book riddled with opaque archi-speak; it’s an insightful roadmap to how innovative architecture can solve some of the most pressing challenges such as housing and disaster relief. The firm dives into its archive and explains clearly, enthusiastically, and accessibly all of the the behind-the-scenes work and thinking that went into their projects. Architects everywhere, including the U.S., stand to learn from reading it.

By some measures, U.S. architecture is thriving right now. Evocative monuments, elegant museums, daring buildings, and ambitious urban-scale revitalization plans are cropping up across the country. However, these are exceptions. By and large, the U.S.’s built environment is in a sorry state. The country is experiencing an unprecedented housing crisis, infrastructure is a mess, and inequality is worsening. Meanwhile, a bland stylistic sameness is washing over urban housing. Architecture isn’t doing as much as it can.

This summer, the AIA called for a “relevance revolution” to help rally architects to address social challenges. And according to Aravena, in order to do so, architects must orient their work in the context of broader societal needs. At a press preview for the book, he discussed some challenges he sees in the field of architecture and how to overcome them.

Anacleto Angelini UC Innovation Centre, Universidad Católica, 2011, Santiago, Chile.
Cristóbal Palma

Ask better questions

Elemental—which is led today by Aravena, Victor Oddó, Juan Cerda, Diego Torres, and Gonzalo Arteaga—cemented its place in history by designing “incremental” low-cost homes, or social housing that provides part of a house, which residents expand over time to meet their own needs.

Designing projects for underserved communities is what Elemental is best known for, but concurrently the firm has designed a number of cultural and educational institutions, offices, public spaces, and master plans like the Universidad Católica Medical School and Innovation Center, the St. Edward’s University Dormitories, and the Children’s Bicentennial Park, which are all featured in the book.

To Aravena, one problem in the field is that architects, at a high level, are primarily interested in solving problems that only interest themselves and applying those “solutions” to projects. Elemental flips the script and tries to answer a bigger societal problem through each project; the project is the solution.

For example, the Ayelén School, in Rancaguya, Chile, was about balancing security with community: The public school needed to welcome the community when class wasn’t in session—local residents could use the gym, cafeteria, library, and computer lab—but students also needed to be monitored during the day. There wasn’t a budget for security guards or cameras, so Elemental designed the school in a circular shape with a central courtyard that has no blind spots. Simply moving a fence opens the courtyard to the rest of the town when it’s in “public” mode.

“Part of our work is to design the question, and sometimes the question is blurred,” Aravena says. “The commission is usually a need or a list of things to have or square meters, but it’s not clear what the question is. [In the book] we’re sharing what it took to build the questions then show how architecture came to be a synthesis of all those forces. The response to the question comes in the form of a building.”

Ayelén School, 2015, Rancagua, Chile
Courtesy Phaidon

Wield the power of synthesis

Aravena sees architects’ greatest potential as composers—people who can think about different challenges and incorporate solutions to many of them through projects.

“If there’s any power and any potential contribution from architecture, it’s in the power of synthesis,” Aravena says. “The more complex the question, the more the need for synthesis. One of the difficulties is that [architects] tend to enter the conversation of social issues as social workers and we should enter those conversations as designers. That’s our potential contribution. Of course we need to speak the language of economics, politics, of social gatherings. Then we have to be able to translate those forces into a design.”

Tree Nursery. Dining Hall and Office Building, 2015, Nuevo Horcones, Chile
Courtesy Phaidon

Upend the hierarchy of social projects

Social projects aren’t about feel-good side work from loftier pursuits; it’s a rigorous undertaking, according to Elemental.

“Not even for a second do we in the office take a stance of moral superiority and say, ‘You’re doing irrelevant star-architecture things; you should be working for the poor,’” Aravena says.

For architecture to make a serious difference, it has to prioritize working on them at an intellectual level.

“[Elemental is] in social housing because it’s a difficult question that requires professional quality, not professional charity—it’s a function with intellectual merit,” Aravena says. “If have brain surgery, I wouldn’t expect the doctor to work pro bono. Society sees value in [medicine] so society is willing to pay for the time and quality of the doctor, the pharmacist—the whole chain has to have quality. And that’s not the case in architecture.”

Create a new value system

From its outset, Elemental has been interested in designing for societal problems and urban realities—housing for people living in poverty, public space, disaster relief. Working in this field, and innovating in it, requires adopting a different mindset from mainstream thinking.

Right now, there is scarce funding for social projects. So Elemental takes on work from clients who have spatial problems for which there are no known solutions and who are willing to pay to find them. The knowledge Elemental gains from designing buildings like offices, museums, and university buildings then feeds back into their social work.

“We do these buildings as a transfer of knowledge from ‘Architecture with a capital A’ to an architecture that normally no one expects to design or make difference—and it does make a difference,” Aravena said.

Working through these projects deepens Elemental’s understanding of how to construct successful buildings—or of why something failed.

“[Architects] tend to identify working on social issues as abandoning design because normally design is seen as an extra cost and not an added value,” Aravena says. adding that if wielded smartly, design saves money. “The scare resource in social housing is not necessarily money; it’s coordination,” Aravena says.

“City design is done by sector—some do infrastructure, public space, transportation—and everything is done at the same time. If architects are able to understand that the power of design is to synthesize all those sources, then maybe we can make a real contribution instead of staying in the ‘goodwill’ part.”

Embrace constraint and challenge creativity

For architecture to make a difference, Aravena suggests reorienting how it’s taught.

“We are not trained to think with constraints; we see constraints as a threat to creativity,” Aravena says. “Our entire education is about taking away constraints so that your imagination can fly free. And [in reality] it’s exactly the opposite: here are constraints, which is why you have to be creative.”