Why people should participate, what one needs to consider when rebuilding a city after a tsunami - and what the Pritzker Price means to him: architect Alejandro Aravena on participation, housing shortage and approval.
Alejandro Aravena on
… his motivation to go into social housing
When we started the social housing initiative we never claimed any kind of moral superiority, not at all. We thought, without any false modesty, that we were good designers. And if you think you are good at something, you like to test your skills on an issue that is difficult and that matters. So we went into social housing because we thought it was a very difficult issue.
… basic needs and desires
What we architects do is to give form to the places where people live - houses, buildings, schools, streets, parks. Social housing is not only about satisfying basic needs and providing people with water, sanitation and security. These are necessary conditions, but they are not enough. Architects should also be able to capture people's desires. In the end, life is about a balance between needs and desires.
The problem is that beauty is very hard to talk about, it's an unspeakable certainty. I guess that the challenge nowadays is not to replace beauty with basic needs, but to cover the whole range. That is what I mean by the need for synthesis: the more complex the problem, the more need for synthesis. Human inhabitation is a complex question because it goes from the very concrete physical conditions of life to the intangible aspects which are harder to grasp - from the individual to the collective, from the private to the public.
People know best about their own priorities. We can learn from them about what is more desirable and what is more urgent. This is a constant process of learning. To give an example: Water heater or bathtub? There was no money to do both, so we asked people: What do you prefer? 99 percent of the families voted for the bathtub. The reason is that they wouldn't have the money to buy the gas to make the water heater work. The bathtub, however, could be used from day one because there's a subsidy for water. This is something that from the comfortable position of a middle class person, you may never have imagined. You take for granted that you can pay the bill for the heating.
… rebuilding a whole city like Constitución, Chile, after the tsunami
There was a sense of emergency: We were given a hundred days to come out with a master plan and designs for almost everything: public buildings, public space, the energy matrix for the city. 80 percent of the city had been destroyed by the earthquake and mainly by the tsunami. If we rebuilt it exactly the same way, we would have been making the same mistakes again. So this was the moment where we needed to ask: What could be the second generation of design for this city? We thought it was important to open the process and to ask people again. We didn't expect them to give us the solution, but we wanted to identify the right question.
And people said: "Thank you very much for thinking about the future tsunamis. But the next tsunami is going to happen, what, in 20 years? 30 years? So whatever you do, fine, but make sure that you handle the problem of flooding due to rain. Every single year, this city collapses because the drainage system has not been solved. In addition, our public space is of a really bad standard. We are now richer than before, but we can't enjoy quality of life, because there is no public space." They were right.
… housing shortage
The housing shortage is affecting two billion people. So the migrant crisis in Europe is a relatively small problem compared to those numbers. In Latin America, this problem has always been there. You have too many people coming to the cities, not enough money to provide a decent solution, and not enough land. The answer to scarcity is to get the fundamentals right and open systems that incrementally allow people to be part of the solution - and not part of the problem.
… the Biennale's slogan "Reporting from the front"
The idea of "Reporting from the front" can have a literal and also a metaphorical meaning. First of all, what are the challenges? Immigration, pollution, waste, insecurity, natural disasters - there are a whole range of problems. The idea of the "front" is to collect people that used architecture to tackle economical, political, social or environmental issues. They can tell us about the problems they had, about the tipping points, about the strategies that made the difference. Let's share the knowledge! So that if you go to an exhibition, you can go out with more ideas, with more strategies, with more tools to tackle the issues that you may be facing at home.
… the Pritzker Prize and recognition
Well, if you believe or think that architecture is all about the prizes, then of course you cannot do better than the Pritzker Prize. But we think architecture is about the projects that you do. And from that point of view, with the amount of challenges and unsolved questions that are out there, we have not even started.