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Multidimensional Architecture

Reno Yang 2016-03-23 09:03

49 year-old Alejandro Aravena was chosen as Director of the 2016 (15th) Venice Architecture Biennale. On January 13th 2016, when Tom Pritzker, President of the Hyatt Foundation, announced Aravena as winner of the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize, Aravena responded with an email reading: “Looking backwards, we feel deeply thankful. No achievement is individual. Architecture is a collective discipline. So we think, with gratitude, of all the people who contributed to give form to a huge diversity of forces at play.”

The Resurgence Of Architectural Functions

Throughout his 22 years of architectural design practices, Aravena has consistently pursued architecture with great skills combined with a clear vision. He undertook the designs of several buildings for his alma mater, the Universidad, Catolica de Chile: the Mathematics School (1998), Medical School (2001), Architecture School (2004), Siamese Towers (2005) and more recently the UC Innovation Centre-Anacleto Angelini (2014). Every single design embraces an in-depth understanding of how people will use the facility and demonstrates the thoughtful and appropriate use of materials as well as his commitment to creating more public spaces that will benefit the larger community.


The maturity of Aravena’s design is apparent in the Angelini Innovation Centre. Viewing from a distance, it is a powerful structure, yet the interior is remarkably humane and inviting. Breaking away from conventional design approaches, Aravena gave the building an opaque concrete exterior while capturing all the warmth through a light- lled glass atrium inside. With the mass of the building at the perimeter, energy consumption is minimal. The interior has many places for spontaneous encounters and transparency that enables viewing activity throughout. Aravena has created a rich environment filled with lively, interesting, and welcoming spaces.


Unlike architects who create structures with exaggerated and unconventional exteriors, Aravena’s designs are more focused towards functionality and practicality, which may give the impression that he is more like an economist. In real life, however, he claims that he knows very little about “economics”. Instead Aravena believes that an architect should stay away from “architecture” in his or her initial designs if they wish to contribute to society; leaving ego behind and doing what the people need rather than what the designer wants. While many architects are inseparable from industrial jargons and standards, Aravena’s initial planning and designs are more focused on basics such as budget and the utilization of surrounding environment, etc. It might be more appropriate to interpret Aravena’s designs with just plain language. He believes an architect’s most important responsibility is to help solve real problems within our society and not designing simply for wow-factor.


Architecture—Solving Social Problems

What really sets Aravena apart is his commitment to social housing, something that is largely shunned by other top architects. Since 2000, especially after the founding of his studio ELEMENTAL, he and his collaborators have consistently realized designs with clear social goals. They regard their studio as a “do tank” as opposed to a “think tank”; with imaginable creativity, flexibility, and direct architectural solutions, they have built more than 2,500 low-cost social housing. The ELEMENTAL team participates in every phase of the complex process that provided dwellings for the underserved communities: engaging with politicians, lawyers, researchers, residents, local governments, and builders. The goal was to obtain the best possible outcomes and maximum bene ts for both the residents and wider society. Aravena’s early realization of the importance of local inhabitants’ aspirations, their active participation, and investment in a project, as well as good designs all contributed to create new opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds. This inventive approach extends the scope of a traditional architect and transforms the professional into a universal gure who thrives to nding a truly collective solution for the built environment.


Low-income housing, disaster recovery housing... these all seem to be topics for sociologists and economists, but Aravena took these challenges on and was able to solve many of these problems through architecture. It has been a continuous goal that he sets for his architect career- after years of practice and in uence he is now awarded the “Oscar” of the architecture world—the Pritzker Architecture Award. According to Aravena: “The poor still have very bad living environments, the inef cient use of urban spaces is still a problem that troubles not only Chile but also the rest of the world. We have been focusing on this challenging issue for some time and realized what creates the real challenge is architecture’s ‘irreversibility’. A successful reconstruction can benefit hundreds and thousands of people, yet if it fails, it could result in disasters for the society. Many problems can be solved by appropriate utilization of space, but with only ‘volunteering’ enthusiasm is far from enough. Solving the problems requires professionals’ investment of knowledge and skills.” Aravena’s focus on social issues naturally brought him to the reconstruction of low-income dwellings and city reform.


Alejandro Aravena serves as a great example of the resurgence of architects who care about social participation: he has long committed himself to battle against the global housing crisis and in the fight for a better urban environment for humanity as a whole. By incorporating his deep understanding of both architecture and sociology into his works, actions, and designs, Aravena gives a new dimension that is necessary to respond to architectural challenges of today and tomorrow. Not to detract from architects who dedicate their careers largely to the pursuit of aesthetics, but it would certainly bene t the world for more architects to follow in Aravena’s footsteps and accept the challenges posed by societal problems through practice and with confidence—to serve greater social and humanitarian needs.

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