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The Creative Force of architecture

Alejandro Aravena

Nicola Leonardi: Participatory design is a buzzword today. How has this process changed since Elemental adopted it, and what does participatory design mean for you today in practical terms?

Alejandro Aravena: At Elemental we adopt participatory design to involve inhabitants in the process of understanding the limits and priorities of a given place so as to then focus on what’s really important for them. I'd like to make it clear that building houses on an incremental basis is not a choice. It's a constraint. There isn't enough money to build the typical middle-class type house. At best, governments are able to build homes of 30 or 40 sq m. It's as simple as that. So, instead of cutting down on size and making smaller homes, as usually happens, we deal with lack of funds by adopting the incremental principle. There isn't enough money to complete the housing, so we do only what can't be done individually by the inhabitants themselves. We supply the structure; after that the inhabitants become the real players. A middle-class family can live reasonably well in around 80 sq m. So instead of thinking of a smaller house as 40 sq m, we consider that size “half a good one”. With participatory design we identify the requirements of the “hard half”, and on that basis build exactly what the families need and what they wouldn't be able to accomplish individually. We have seen that the families concerned are able to extend their dwelling unit from its initial social housing status to a middle-class home in the space of just a few weeks.

N.L.: In your experience, how does being an architect in South America differ from being one in the rest of the world?

A.A.: In South America we are used to having to deal with shortage of resources and hostile conditions. It's a critical state of affairs, typical of developing countries yet it can generate a wealth...

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