Alessandra Orlandoni - You were born in 1967 in Chile, so you grew up and studied under Augusto Pinochet’s totalitarian regime. When you graduated in 1992 it was about the end of that regime. How did the two different political situations affect your development and professional decisions, given that you chose to study and practise a socio-political subject like architecture?
Alejandro Aravena - It’s a bit unusual to take architecture as a socio-political subject: not many people see it that way. Nowadays one architect can choose to stay outside that view of things. We chose to go another way, and that’s clear from our work at Elemental. What affected me most during the Pinochet regime was not the political situation in itself but the fact that it meant almost total lack of information. Throughout my course there were no magazines, no information on music: we were cut off from anything going on outside Chile. There was no Internet, of course, so you couldn’t find loopholes onto information. This drawback actually had its good side. In 1985 Postmodernism was all the rage, probably the worst current in the history of architecture. The dictatorship spared us from being brainwashed by that last important movement. Using books, not magazines, as our sources and coming up under a regime where information was controlled, we looked to Álvaro Siza and not Michael Graves or Peter Eisenman. Curiously, that may be the only good thing about the totalitarian regime that reigned in Chile.
A.O. - So you were chiefly isolated from the contemporary scene…
A.A. - That’s right, and that drove us to think about ourselves and our culture, instead of watching what was going on in other parts. In third world countries there’s always a great risk of looking at what’s happening elsewhere and thinking it’s inevitably better than what belongs to one’s own culture. We had to analyze what lay close at hand, which proved to be an advantage: an apparent drawback turning into a point of strength. The other factor in my case that shaped my research is that rebelling against authority was a genetic rather than political factor.
A.O. - What do you mean by a “genetic factor”?
A.A. - The state of being a university student is “anti” by definition. It doesn’t much matter who is imposing the set-up on you or what is being imposed: you rebel on principle. I always wanted to go against what was being taught or recommended, so I consider my attitude as genetic and not bound up with the situation of the moment. For example, I remember exercises one did imagining the “ideal client”: we could choose any kind of client, and the general pattern was to choose a patron who gave one free rein. Well… I chose a taxi-driver.
A.O. - Hardly a conformist choice for a student dreaming of being an architect, but I’d say it was also a socio-political choice… Why a taxi-driver, exactly?
A.A. - I was keen to test whether all the theories and ideas we were studying at university could be summed up in 80 square metres by a person whose main requirement was to park his car indoors to stop it being stolen or damaged, it being his livelihood.
I wanted to compare the high philosophical university education with the daily life of a person who keeps his fridge in the living room because it’s a status symbol. That realistic approach to the context I lived in and a wish to engage with another direction from the one recommended by the academic world helped me survive in a climate that jarred on my nature, as was Chile at the time.
A.O. - So you up-ended an unfavourable circumstance and made it a productive and creative approach?
A.A. - Yes, and not because I had any particular problem with what I was studying at university or the political situation. My rebellion was something that formed part of me and found outlet in my fondness for connecting theories to real issues.
When the political system formally changed, the social reality in Chile didn’t change, since power remained in the hands of an elite, a club. The problem is social, not political. The difference of opportunity doesn’t depend on the political side you support, but whether you belong or not to the elite, the closed watertight circle that promotes the ‘in’ crowd. That’s always been the most scandalous thing about my country.
A.O. - And what social side did you belong to?
A.A. - My family was not part of the “club”, but I was never resentful or angry about that. I was never bothered about belonging to the elite, but it could be a problem, of course, if the fact of being outside prevented me from working. Instead, I used my shortcomings in order to interact with the system. The main value of a social system, in my opinion, does not lie in the difference between democracy and dictatorship, but in the difference between meritocracy and non-meritocracy. That is the real battleground.
A.O. - You’re engaged in a project in the States, enlarging the
St. Edward’s University in Texas. How did this opportunity arise?
A.A. - The United States is still a meritocracy. Fancy a Chilean architect who didn’t go to university in the US, and has no contacts, putting on a project there. I’d say that’s the proof that the place is still a meritocracy. A number of architects from all over the world were invited, a shortlist was drawn up and in the end they chose me on the basis of my work.
A.O. - And that’s not possible in Chile?
A.A. - In Chile I have done a few projects for the Catholic University. There are some opportunities based on merit, I won’t say they’re lacking altogether, but they chiefly belong to the institutional system, not the social system.
A.O. - How can architecture interact with this situation and change it, assuming you think that’s possible?
A.A. - First of all, don’t expect to get any appointment from the top. The turning point in my career came when I met my partner, Andres Iacobelli. The important thing to him is to begin by identifying an unsolved problem that needs getting to know in greater depth, and finding out who can pay our professional fees and invest in the solution to this problem. Once those two data are known, the thing can be done and gets done.
A.O. - It’s a professional marketing strategy…
A.A. - Not so much marketing, I’d say, as professional entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur identifies a need, a demand and its corresponding supply. He or she then finds the means and the contacts needed to achieve it. That’s the way we work. Meritocracy must work by the achieving of opportunities. Once they are, it’s a question of finding the right strategies. It’s important to be clear about what needs doing and how to do it.
A.O. - How does meritocracy come into it?
A.A. - If I have a good idea, I need to have access to those with the means, and they have to be prepared to listen to me not because I’m a friend or relative, but because they know a good idea when they see one. There are companies capable of assessing the quality of ideas, who then put them into practice. Andrea is very good at working out the right moves. In our case, too, Harvard University has been a great guarantee of quality. It could have been used on a personal level or as a way of getting on in society. As a Harvard professor you get given credit, and that can be used to unblock situations. We used the potential for experimentation that Harvard workshops provided, where there are the world’s best teachers and the world’s best students. We were able to test the scope for ‘social housing’ and thus avoid mistakes when we worked in the real world.
A.O. - So how does the comparison work out, the change-over to the real world?
A.A. - Not by looking for a formula for ideal social housing, but by increasing one’s awareness that families get this once-in-a-lifetime grant; so we have to supply the optimal answer to their requirements and can’t afford to experiment. Harvard was the intellectual base in which Elemental is grounded.
A.O. - How did Elemental come into being?
A.A. - It all sprang from an academic scheme in the year 2000/2001 between two universities, Harvard and the Chilean Catholic University which wanted to contribute to ‘social housing’. In 2003 we realized we had to find a point of contact between the market rules and public policy. The funds were there, though small, but the only thing they didn’t cover was the professionals’ fees, the time spent thinking out the solution to a sizable problem. Heroes we are not: we had to live by our profession and come up with a solution. We obtained a grant from the Chilean government’s Program for Scientific and Technical Development worth about $ 500,000 with which we launched Elemental as a public venture. In 2005, after constructing a project within the rules of the game, we realized Elemental as a company needed to involve both the University and COPEC, Chile’s petroleum industry. As a result, Elemental is now a profit-making company but with a social orientation. We take care of social housing projects, infrastructure and public areas. The city is an engine creating wealth, development and quality living, attracting people who create know-how, but at the same time affording a short-cut to equity. On this basis we seek out strategic projects for social housing: we rethink the question within the rules of the game and provide a quality solution turning ‘social housing’ into an investment appreciating in time instead of a non-capitalizable expense. In this way the families using popular housing find they have capital which grows steadily as the value of the property appreciates. This is the opposite of what generally happens in social housing, and provides a surety for the banks to obtain loans and float other ventures.
A.O. - How does Elemental work? Is it underpinned by any theory?
A.A. - Our starting point is always to get to the nitty-gritty of the problem. How much money is available? What are the social, political, economic and building conditions? What is the market? The data are weighed for what they are. The project entails no personal creative theories bound up with a vision of space or self-expression. Theory pops up the moment we don’t know the problems deeply enough, and then we need greater insight. But it’s theory tied to the real conditions, serving to optimize our response to them, not to bolster ideal solutions. The world’s got real problems. If we’ve got enough knowledge, we tackle them; if not, we use theory as a means of solving the problem, making sure that quality is always the objective.
We don’t just apply this approach to social housing. It’s not that we’re specialists in that area, we also do high-profile projects, such as the Workshops building we are designing for Vitra. What is important to understand is that an Elemental project always sets out to express the maximum potential the job before us can carry. We avoid superfluity both in low-cost ventures and with the higher profile projects where the budgets are more substantial.
Bologna, 30th January 2009