What does it feel like interning at a studio led by a Pritzker prize winner and how long are the working hours of a Venice Architecture Biennale curator?
Anastasia Tikhomirova is currently interning at Elemental studio in Chile. This year its founder Alejandro Aravena had been appointed chief curator of Venice Biennale and later it was announced that the Chilean architect had won the Pritzker Prize. Anastasia shared with Strelka Magazine how she managed to secure this internship and how working in Chile can become a valuable experience for a Russian architect.
Anastasia studied at the Moscow Architectural Institute (MARCHI) first in Michael J. Eichner’s experimental studio and then under Nikolai Lyzlov. While working on her graduate project she studied in Madrid under the guidance of famous architect Alberto Campo Baeza. Since graduating Anastasia has worked at two Russian studios — for a year at Tsimailo Lyashenko & Partners and after that at Nowadays. You can check out Anastasia’s portfolio here.
At some point, despite experiencing a certain amount of pain due to having to part ways with my colleagues with whom I always have been close and still keep in touch, I realised the need to move on, to “not lose movement” like Nikolai Vsevolodovich (Lyzlov — Ed.) used to say. I always wanted to try working abroad and have kept a close eye on Alejandro Aravena’s architecture since my early student days, long before he became a star. I found out about internship opportunities at Elemental through my coursemate Anna Fesenko who interned there last year and really helped me with the application process.
Every year Elemental organises three application periods and selects on average 5 interns from around the globe, mostly students and young architects. At the moment I’m joined by a young man from Romania and three people from Italy. In my case it was a simple process: I just clicked on the website, filled in the application form, attached my portfolio, passed a test confirming my knowledge of professional programmes and methods, successfully went through two interviews and finally received my internship offer.
The internship is unpaid which is part of Elemental’s approach: interns are expected to make an effort at gaining new knowledge and partaking in real work. And when I say “real”, I don’t mean making coffee or filling in forms, I mean working on current projects without being divided into interns and “others” and accepted as a proper member of the team. Interns are provided with medical insurance and free lunches. The rest — accommodation, all additional expenses — is your personal responsibility. To me it was important to be financially independent and be able to afford my life in Chile. For a year I worked two jobs to save up money. But application period coincided with the economic crisis in Russia — I had to say goodbye to a large share of my savings. In the end, help came from my parents and for that support I’m really grateful.
My internship started on 28 December and will end on 7 May. In two months that have passed I have already taken part in two different projects. I participated in the International Architectural Design Competition for the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Centre at Tel Aviv University that was, coincidentally, organised by Strelka KB. And for more than a month I worked on a project that focussed on developing public space in suburban Salamanca — a small, under-urbanized, town located to the north of Santiago.
Despite the modest size of the team — there are five partners at Elemental, including Aravena, and five architects — the working process is organised with great efficiency. The principle of labour ecology, highly developed at Elemental, plays a crucial part. When interviewed, Aravena himself often says that work should not be a strain on your health. It’s true that the previous two weeks were rather stressful, because of the competition, but that’s an exception. At Elemental the working day normally starts at around 9-10 am — you are free to pick the more convenient time within this limit. I come in at 10 am and work till 7 pm. Lunch break is work-free time, the moment when the whole studio comes together. There are two big tables in the office and one of them is used to serve lunch. This routine never changes. The whole office — partners and other members of the staff, interns — all sit together, eating and chatting. You rarely see anyone quickly finish their lunch and rush back to the working desk. Everyone is friendly and with a great sense of humour. I actually suspect that personality aspects also come into play during the selection process. I had two interviews and both times the tone of the conversation suggested that it was my personal and not professional qualities that they were assessing. It’s also part of Elemental’s philosophy. I’m sure that if someone suggested to them “We’ll double your profits and the number of projects on condition that you sit quietly without a single smile through the whole working day” they would have rejected the offer.
Bearing in mind my prior experience of working in Russia, trying to grasp Elemental’s approach became almost like an investigation. But of course, simple socioeconomic factors also play their part. For example, realistic deadlines set well in advance and being allowed to maintain a healthy work rhythm. I think Elemental should be organising one-day studio tours for international architects to see with their own eyes how to deliver high quality work with a smile on your face and win the Pritzker Prize on top of that.
PERSONAL COMMUNICATION WITH ALEJANDRO ARAVENA
Team spirit is probably what characterises Elemental the most. Despite Aravena’s unquestionable status as the key figure and the creative genius in the company, the team always comes first. When Alejandro comes to the office, it doesn’t feel as if an idol or a big star has just stepped in. I think that even he himself often feels uncomfortable because of all this attention.
Aravena always makes a point of not separating himself from the rest of the team, even when celebrating his Pritzker Prize win. Although the prize was awarded to him personally, the whole Elemental team travelled to accept it as a shared success and a shared achievement. On the day when the Pritzker Prize results were announced, Alejandro invited everyone over to his place for dinner, and all team members came with their families to congratulate each other.
I have still hadn’t the chance to work with him on a project. Because of the Pritzker and the Biennale he is phenomenally busy — we often joke in the office: “Where’s Alejandro? Berlin, London, Tokyo — where is he now?”. But I also know that while we were preparing documents for the Tel Aviv Nanocentre Competition, senior members of the team were constantly keeping him posted.
ELEMENTAL’S WORK METHODS
When it comes to work methods at Elemental, a lot of attention is paid to the local context and the project site. Architecture must belong to the place where it emerges. While we were working on the public space project for Salamanca, our first step was a trip to the local area. Of course every architect visits the building site, but only a few devote as much time to engaging with the local communities. Some architects think that they know better. It is true in terms of education and experience, but what Elemental does is that they try to balance out clear practical information received from the local population with their professional expertise as architects. A big part of what Aravena does and one of his main strengths — he talks not only about architecture and not only to architects. He is always in contact not just with communities, but also with the local authorities — they don’t teach you this at an architecture school. I was only taught how to deal with clients. Aravena’s example makes architects want to widen the scope of their profession and see themselves not only as creators, but also as people capable of bringing about social change.
Solutions, offered by the bureau, are always well-integrated, because even for renders and other graphic materials only real photographs of the local area are used and not stock photos of random people, dogs, trees and skies. It’s only a detail, but one that allows to manage the outcome of the project seeing it in its actual context, and not in a visually enhanced environment.
PREPARING FOR THE 2016 VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE
Work has started long before my arrival. In one way or another the whole bureau takes part in this process, although for the documentation preparation there was a special competition in Chile for students and young architects. Two young guys were selected for the task, they assist the work and are going to Venice soon to manage the process.
The fame factor doesn’t really affect the working process of the studio. We had cameras flashing outside the office for a couple of days after the announcement, but soon it was all quiet again. This might sound cheesy, but I get the feeling that fame is not what drives Elemental. And I realised it the moment they had won every possible prize. I expected them to jump over their heads, but instead it was a normal working day spent designing a tiny square in Salamanca. Hadn’t I known about their stunning success, I wouldn’t have even noticed.
IDEOLOGY AT THE CORE OF THE APPROACH
The idea of socially responsible architecture always appealed to me, but I wouldn’t want to paint everything black and white while talking about it — “this is the best approach to architecture, let’s forget about everything else”. No, different niches exist and they all need to be filled. A balance must be maintained. I don’t feel that everyone should be creating socially responsible architecture at the expense of harmony and beauty.
Pritzker and the Biennale that both came to Aravena this year are more of a social indicator of the architectural world’s willingness to participate in this dialogue. This could provide many benefits. It shows the acceptance of the fact that there’s still plenty of problems in the world and architecture could play an active role in solving them.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN CHILE AND RUSSIA
I feel that the experience of working in Chile is particularly valuable for a Russian architect, much more so than, say, for a Danish or a Swiss architect. The situation with architecture here is very similar. One of the problems is the lack of infrastructure and well-designed public spaces in smaller cities.
Considering the currently high level of economic growth in Chile, budgeting is the cornerstone issue. And the ability to design working, high quality and aesthetically attractive solutions in these conditions is a certain skill that can be developed here and then re-applied in Russia.
Another similarity: the rate return on construction work is not very high here. So at Elemental a lot of attention is paid to developing solutions that are not just attractive on paper, but actually cost efficient. Another important factor — the quality of construction work. Just like in Russia, the level of professionalism among construction workers is not very high here and this ‘noise’ is always accounted for at the concept development stage. But even this Aravena sees as a perfect opportunity to devise original solutions.
SANTIAGO IN TWO WORDS
I was pleasantly surprised by Santiago: it turned out to be a vibrant city where a lot is happening. After my arrival, I realised that because of the large distance between Russia and Chile we know very little about this region and often rely on stereotypes. Recently, on my way home from work I noticed a crowd of people on the embankment and approached them. It turned out that there’s a Jazz festival in Santiago that has been organised every year for about two decades: a proper stage, high sound quality, people sitting on chairs or right on the grass and listening to the musicians. You know, not Aruba, salsa and tequila 24/7. Chile is often called the “Latin American Switzerland” and I agree with that.
Many people here follow a healthy lifestyle. On weekends central streets are closed down for traffic only to be filled with crowds of joggers and cyclists. But of course every part of the city is different, and just like in Moscow there are districts with higher levels of welfare and lower levels of welfare.
ON THE FUTURE AND CAREER PLANS
As far as I know, most of the interns at Elemental don’t come to Chile looking for employment, often they are still students. Of all interns currently working at the studio, I’m the only graduate. Others need to return in order to continue their studies. I also know that there hasn’t been a single case of an intern receiving a job offer from Elemental upon completing the internship. I think that maybe Elemental simply doesn’t need any new employees: the team is just the right size, the projects turn out successfully and everyone is satisfied with the results.
Talking about me personally, I would like to return to Russia and apply the fruits of my experience. I don’t have a fixed time frame yet. Four months of the internship that I have left is a long period of time, but I might stay for a little longer in order to explore the local approach some more, knowing how useful it could prove in Russia. But it’s hard to say how it will turn out in the end — I’m still devising my strategy of action.
I cannot say that I have a starchitect in mind that I would like to work with. If faced with the choice I would focus more on the kind of experience this opportunity could provide in order for me to broaden my horizons, and not the status of the architect.
Cover photo: www.elementalchile.cl