Architecture’s Role In Renewal


The fortress-like facade of the 17,000-ton Angelini Innovation Center in Santiago, Chile, which Alejandro Aravena designed for the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in 2011. CreditPhotograph by Anthony Cotsifas

There is an excellent story in today’s New York Times about an architect, likely to become a celebrity due to the prize he won this year. I am not a huge fan of concrete (notwithstanding this), but so what? None of my business, plenty of Chilenos would say, and rightly so. However, as noted in my post yesterday, I can sometimes turn on a dime of an image is moving enough. And this image is enough to draw me in to Mr. Aravena’s world. So is this story that the photo illustrates:

Alejandro Aravena, the Architect Rebuilding a Country

Good-looking, charming and a celebrity in his native Chile, the surprise winner of this year’s Pritzker cares more about solving social problems than exercising his artistic chops.


THE EARTHQUAKE, one of the biggest ever recorded, hit in the middle of a late February night in 2010. The real damage came 18 minutes later, with the tsunami, crashing from the Pacific up the estuary of the River Maule, where the small, hardscrabble city of Constitución nestles.

More than 500 people died. Residents were left without homes, electricity and clean water.

The architect Alejandro Aravena was on a helicopter days later, surveying the damage. His firm, Elemental, and a team of consultants had been enlisted to put together a reconstruction plan. Arauco, the forestry company that employs thousands of workers in Constitución, had agreed to pay for it.

Aravena was picking at a plate of pernil in a truck stop, recalling what happened next, a story he has probably told a thousand times by this point. “Residents in Constitución naturally suspected, because we were working for the forestry company, that all the benefits of reconstruction would go to the company, not them,” he said. “That’s why we knew from the start that the people had to participate in the reconstruction process. In effect, we needed to create the right client. So we devised a consortium: Arauco, the government, the public and us. We were taking an intuitive approach because we actually knew nothing about planning. In the end, ignorance helped.”

Aravena polished off his beer when a stranger sidled up to the table. It happens all the time now. Drivers in passing cars stop him in the street. Shop clerks, politicians, long-lost acquaintances and schoolteachers ask for selfies with him. They all say the same thing. “Thank you,” the stranger said to Aravena, who smiled and posed arm in arm with the man for a picture. Thank you — as if the Pritzker prize, architecture’s Nobel, which Aravena had just won, had been awarded on behalf of everybody in Chile. “Even New Zealand has more heroes, they have the All Blacks,” Aravena half-jokes, about the famous rugby team. “We’re a small country. We hardly ever win anything.”


That said, Chile happens to be producing some of the world’s most gifted architects right now, a generation that includes Cecilia Puga, Sebastian Irarrazaval, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Mathias Klotz, Teresa Moller, Smiljan Radic (“the best architect in the country,” Aravena tells me) and Aravena. On top of the prize, Aravena is directing the current Venice Architecture Biennale, whose socially minded show he has titled “Reporting From the Front.” Naturally, this has brought skeptics out of the woodwork. Young for an architect, at 48, they note, relative to other Pritzker winners he hasn’t built a lot; and some of his signature projects, including Constitución, are still in medias res, so it’s not entirely clear how they will actually turn out. Moreover, he and his partners at Elemental — Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Ignacio Cerda, Víctor Oddó and Diego Torres — concentrate on social housing. “The more monotonous, dry, tough, the better,” as Aravena himself puts it. “Given that people will construct homes for themselves anyhow,” he elaborates, “this architecture gives order to their interventions.”…

Read the whole article here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s