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Alejandro Aravena: 'We need a million-people city a week'

Interview: Werner Herzog / eg
April 4, 2016

Winner of the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize Alejandro Aravena sees the award as an opportunity to deal more quickly with urgent challenges. He told DW why the German refugee crisis is actually relatively small.

Alejandro Aravena

As the director of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 and the winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious recognition in his field, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena has no intention of resting on his laurels. With his team, he wants to tackle urgent issues like housing shortage and redesign entire cities.

DW's Werner Herzog, from the weekly show Arts.21, met him for an interview. Here are some of the highlights of their discussion.

On social housing - and why the German refugee crisis is a relatively small problem

"Even if there's currently more interest in social housing, we still need concrete improvements to resolve this challenge.

We do not have enough right designs and right ideas on offer yet to meet the huge scale of the demand. I see good intentions and good will developing: It's a start, but we clearly need better, more efficient design solutions. We are really far behind compared to what's needed.

The majority of the world has always been affected by housing shortage. It is affecting two billion people worldwide. Even though the refugee crisis in Europe is major, it is a relatively recent and small problem compared to these worldwide numbers.

To give you an idea, out of three billion people living in cities today, one billion are living under the poverty line. By 2030, we will have more than five billion people living in cities and two billion of them are going to be under the line of poverty. This means that we will have to build a one-million-people city per week.

People will keep coming to cities even if we do not find the solution to this challenge. They will live in informal settlements, in slums and favelas.

So if Germany has one million immigrants a year - and it's a tough question - the world has to deal one million immigrants to cities per week. We have to find a way to respond to that with $10,000 per family. That's the size of the challenge and that's why we need more than good intentions."

Architectural project by Alejandro Aravena in Mexico, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Hyatt Foundation
Finding efficient solutions to the housing shortage: An architectural project by Alejandro Aravena in MexicoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Hyatt Foundation

Why receiving the Pritzker Prize and being the director of the Venice biennale in 2016 is only a beginning

"Architecture is about the projects you do and not just the prizes you get. From that point of view, there are enough challenges and unsolved questions out there that we have not even started dealing with.

Such events like the prize and the Venice Biennale allow us to save energy: When you are called to do a project, you spend less time explaining why you should be there. Until about a month ago, that was always our case. When we were called to work on the reconstruction of a city, we would have to spend half of our time explaining why we were there.

The usual preconception is that architects make things more expensive and slow everything down. But with time, society is starting to understand that you may contribute to saving money and time by providing a better solution to a complex challenge.

So those events have allowed us to concentrate on the problems that are already difficult enough to solve without having to convince everyone that we may have a contribution to make."

Architect Alejandro Aravena at his office in Chile, Copyright: DW/B. H. Allende
At work in his office in Chile: "We want to tackle complex problems like an entire city reconstruction"Image: DW/B. H. Allende

Why the Pritzker Prize is worth more than its $100,000 cash prize

"First of all, architecture is a collective discipline. Whatever I do here, it's always with partners and through the hand of workers and with other disciplines. I can't do a project alone.

It's not that I wake up one morning with an incredible desire to create an office building: Somebody has to need it. By definition, you have to engage in something that is bigger than you and deliver things with the knowledge and hands of other people.

All the partners of the office and their families are coming to pick up the prize and we'll reflect collectively on the privilege that comes with the award.

We'll have to keep on working the rest of our lives - it's not an amount of money that allows you to retire. So more than the money itself, the prestige of the award is what really matters. We want to use that power to create collective public goods. It encourages us to take more risks.

We are a relatively small office, small enough that we are still the ones doing the designs. I want to keep on doing the designs, but become big enough to be able to tackle complex problems like an entire city reconstruction, or social conflicts in the mining industry or social housing.

In order to do that, our professional prestige is our main asset. We are willing to risk that prestige by going into fields where success is not guaranteed. I mean, the chances of failing in social housing are much bigger than going to do, let's say, a cultural building. And yet we are willing and open to go there because, if you eventually move one millimeter in the state of things, it matters."

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