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Alejandro Aravena: "I’m not even close to being a hero"

, Art & Design

Director of Venice Biennale 2016 talking about refugee camps, intuition as architect’s main tool and freedom of constraints

Photo: TED Conference / Flickr.com

On 28 May opens the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, with its main theme formulated as "Reporting from the Front". This year’s programme is curated by Alejandro Aravena — famous Chilean architect with a reconstruction project for a tsunami-stricken city under his belt, as well as many other ambitious endeavours. At the beginning of this year Aravena was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize. On the opening day of the most important architecture event of the year, we publish an exclusive interview with the man himself.

— First thing that I wanted to discuss with you is education in architecture. In one of your talks you argue that sustainability, if approached with the right mind, is nothing more than common sense. But how is it possible to teach common sense?

— That’s a very tough question, actually. And also the reason why I’m not teaching at the moment. In the case of common sense, or any other important thing in life, the moment you try following a set methodology or a theory, adhering to the rules that you’ve created becomes more important than the actual result of your work. So, I would like to start by eliminating the word "teaching". Because you simply cannot teach common sense.

How is knowledge transferred from one generation to another? It’s via observation of experienced people doing their job. Living a certain way is always a preference. Designing is a preference. And some people are just better at "preferring" than others. So the way to learn from them is by shutting up and just observing them at work. After some period of time, you will start getting it. Your intuition, intelligence, knowledge, some unspoken certainties — this mixture of forces at play will eventually become synchronized within you. It’s no wonder that the master-disciple apprenticeship has been the best way of transferring knowledge since ancient times. The definition of a ‘school’ was a conversation under the shadow of a tree between somebody who knows and somebody who doesn’t know. Or, I would add, between two people who both want to know. The most important moments during my time at the university were those moments when you are between classes and suddenly you end up having those challenging conversations with your peers. Somebody says — "Oh, what are you working on right now?" ‒ "Oh, you know, I’m studying this problem and I can’t solve it" ‒ "Have you heard about this thing? I’ve just found out about it. Look it up in this magazine, maybe it will help you". And this tends to happen face-to-face, in an actual conversation.

— You said it happens "face-to-face". And what about the Internet?

— It doesn’t really happen over the Internet. 95% of communication is nonverbal. Knowledge exchange significantly improves when you meet face-to-face with other people. If I draw a draft of what I want to do and send it via email or fax I will get content, but not the reaction. If we do it face to face, I will be able to observe you. So, for example, if you are leaning in to get a closer look at the draft this will signal to me "This person is interested, I should carry on". Or, alternatively, if the person is leaning back — it’s as if to say "I’ve already seen this somewhere". This will signal that I need immediately to start thinking about an alternative to offer. Because something in your body language told me that you’re not buying this thing.

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Reconstruction and relocation of Chaitén / source: elementalchile.cl

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Reconstruction and relocation of Chaitén / source: elementalchile.cl

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Aerial view of the town of Chaitén, Chile, in February 2009 / photo: Wikipedia.org

That’s why I think it’s an art. By definition, it is the opposite of education. In education you have to come up in advance with a certain mental framework, so that you can explain the principle, provide a case for it, and then the exception to it. It’s also a particular difficulty of architecture. You are faced with all those constraints of a given problem and then all of a sudden you have to make the jump into the void and conjure a proposal. How that happens? It’s a mystery. So I prefer to move ahead armed with only partial certainties — I do not wait until everything becomes clear. And from this point of view, intuition is a very powerful professional tool.

— Are you also implying here the ability to overcome fears? Because a lot of decisions, you can take them only so long as you have a strategy and a plan for the worst-case scenario.

— On the one hand, I agree. On the other, I wouldn’t recommend going to a meeting already knowing what you want to do. We’ve learnt from some of our more complex projects that such issues as riots or strikes that are threatening the mining industry and the future of a whole region, for example (reference to a project that Elemental did in Calama, a Chilean miners town located in the Atacama desert — Ed.) — they have no simple solutions. Do not decide on anything until you’ve studied the question. Clear your eyes, empty your mind, and then you will be able to understand what’s before you. But do not dwell on it either. Take a week, but not more. We were given 100 days to come up with all possible solutions for rebuilding a city destroyed by a huge tsunami (Elemental’s project in Constitución, Chile — Ed.). We spent 7 days studying the situation, different nuances. And then we had to take action and quickly, because people’s lives depended on it.

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PERIURBAN PARK, Calama / source: elementalchile.cl

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PERIURBAN PARK, Calama / source: elementalchile.cl

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PERIURBAN PARK, Calama / source: elementalchile.cl

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PERIURBAN PARK, Calama / source: elementalchile.cl

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PERIURBAN PARK, Calama / source: elementalchile.cl

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PERIURBAN PARK, Calama / source: elementalchile.cl

— You’ve mentioned two of Elemental’s projects that dealt with emergency situations. What was the question you were asking yourself in order to solve those problems?

— In both cases water was the issue. A very basic war for water. In the case of Constitución — too much water from the tsunami, in the case of Calama — not enough water, due to the desert conditions. As soon as the main issue is established, one should immediately start working on the proposal. We spent the next 93 days devising and re-designing solutions over and over again. For example, you go to a meeting in the morning, and if everything gets rejected — schedule another one in the afternoon. You work on improvements in those couple of hours and present them. The client is not convinced again? Then arrange another meeting for tomorrow, think about it overnight, come up with a different solution. Eventually they will say "Ah, now we’re talking!" But you need to take the risk of making a proposal and you should be open to changes. We, architects, need to be very flexible.

— To be able to iterate?

— Yes, or just to throw the proposal away if it’s not good enough. Often as an architect you want to take your time and think about it, investigate your internal world to find out a memory that will allow you to produce something extraordinary. Then you throw it on the table and people say ‘We don’t like it’. As a result — three months lost in the process.

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VILLA VERDE, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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VILLA VERDE, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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VILLA VERDE, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

— So this war of proposals, it should stop…

— I didn’t say "war" — I’m deliberately trying not to use this word. Producing a quality environment — it may be a battle, or a struggle, but it’s not war. War is a different thing. I don’t consider architecture powerful enough to deal with that. It belongs to other realms.

— Have you received any offers to apply your experience in relation to the refugee crisis and are you planning to touch upon this theme at the Biennale? Because it’s a very pressing issue right now with thousands of people staying in refugee camps. Have you thought about any solutions to this problem?

— A lot, actually. But we’re not presenting our approach at the Biennale, because with me being the curator, I thought it wouldn’t be elegant. It’s a pity because I would’ve loved to. Elemental has learned a lot from other projects — we have solutions that could be applicable to the refugee crisis. When a natural disaster occurs, you also get thousands of displaced people and that demands an immediate reaction. But how should the problem be addressed? Obviously, the camps should provide comfort, because otherwise it would be unfair to the people, but if they are too comfortable — then you’re turning a temporary situation into a permanent one.

I don’t think that we should be focusing on shelters here. It’s not about delivering those square meters ‒ we know how to do that. It’s about transforming those shelters into a built environment that has quality and that has value. And, unfortunately, we don’t have that many examples of this kind of projects — maybe 2 or 3.

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CULTURAL CENTER OF CONSTITUCIÓN, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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CULTURAL CENTER OF CONSTITUCIÓN, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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CULTURAL CENTER OF CONSTITUCIÓN, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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CULTURAL CENTER OF CONSTITUCIÓN, Constitución, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

When we were dealing with consequences of the earthquake and tsunami in Chile, we devised two separate directions of work. One was providing the emergency shelter, and the other was finding a definitive solution for housing. Both are part of one operation. We offered to treat temporary shelter as a kind of advance payment, first part of your future house which you are currently unable to afford and build. The solution to the problem is incremental housing that allows you to spend money more efficiently. We combined funding for both projects, creating a shelter with higher physical quality that at a later stage can be completed and transformed into a proper home. This way we managed to save both money and time.

— In one of your interviews you mentioned that new technology has led to an unprecedented level of redistribution across all spheres. A ride on a bus with WiFi can actually be more comfortable and productive than a ride on a bus without WiFi. Technology redistributes commuters’ personal time. And what role does technology play in architecture?

I have no prejudices about it. The kind of issues that we are trying to tackle are so complex that every single tool is welcome. I mean, I don’t have any kind of philosophical or ideological preference here, you know like ‘we must carry on drawing on a board using a pencil, because computers are evil’, nor do I have this kind of hyperoptimism that computers will solve everything. You must understand that we are using 21st-century software on prehistoric hardware. Our bodies haven’t changed so much in those thousands of years. Only today they have to coexist with all this progressive technology.

We must be able to cover the whole range of the spectrum. No important meeting can ever happen on the social media or via Skype. You need to be with the person face-to-face. But at the same time, it’s clear that Skype can help us save a huge amount of time. If the cost of not meeting personally is not having the conversation at all, then at least we will have the chance to perform some sort of exchange. So, from that point of view, bring me all the tools that are available and I’ll find a way of making them useful.

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BICENTENNIAL CHILDREN’S PARK, Santiago, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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BICENTENNIAL CHILDREN’S PARK, Santiago, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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BICENTENNIAL CHILDREN’S PARK, Santiago, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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BICENTENNIAL CHILDREN’S PARK, Santiago, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

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BICENTENNIAL CHILDREN’S PARK, Santiago, Chile / photo: elementalchile.cl

— Once in the past you decided to drop everything and turn away from architecture. You said, "I will work for free, but let me do what I want". Do you have any advice for young architects feeling frustrated with their work?

— This statement was one of my biggest mistakes ever. Working for free doesn’t mean that you are allowed freedom.The more constraints you have, the more degrees of freedom you find. And I’m not a particularly good person, I’m not even close to being a hero. I do want to get paid for what I do, I have a family to support. Even if I end up working for free, it just means that previously I managed to earn more than was strictly necessary.

In principle when doing something, you should pay a fair amount to the whole chain of production: from professionals and workers to institutions. If you follow this principle, there shouldn’t be any money left. Philanthropy simply means that previously you’ve taken more than you should have.

Complex issues require professional quality, not professional charity. If society doesn’t see any value in what you do, they just don’t pay you. If someone is paying you for your professional time to think about something — it’s a sign that what you’re doing creates some value. If there’s no willingness to pay, it’s not just because society is greedy and stupid. It might be because what you’re doing is not important.

So if we are talking about young architects, my advice is — try to understand what is the value of your proposition. When a client comes to your office, the first question you should be asking: "Why are you hiring us? What do you expect our contribution to be?" Often they have no idea. You deliver a proposal, and suddenly they say "Hmm, this might be too expensive". "But you wanted me to solve a problem that you have been solving for 10 years, capture not just the cost and the economical evaluation, but also the main forces at play that prevented you from moving ahead. What did you expect?" There are all sorts of arguments for this conversation — this way you can justify the value of your proposal. Be honest and demand the same level of honesty from your client. Is it my prestige that you want in order to get a permission of some sort? Or is it because you’ve tried everything and nothing works, so now you want something new and original? Don’t hesitate to ask those questions.

Architecture takes time. The period between your first conversation with the client and getting your project finally built can be 4 or 5 years, at best. So, if you don’t get the initial conversation right, the next 4 years could turn into hell. Yes, this approach means saying ‘no’ quite often. But if you decide to accept the offer, it’s because there’s a mutual understanding: I get from the client an opportunity and the client gets from me a vision that will allow him to finally move forward.

Strelka Magazine would like to thank Liya Safina and Anna Shirokova for helping to organise this interview.

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