Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena on Pinochet, postmodernism and building a house for $7,500

Alejandro Aravena on Wednesday won the 2016 Pritzker Prize. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne reached the Chilean architect by phone at his office in Santiago for a conversation (edited and condensed here) about his buildings, his own stint on the Pritzker jury and his plans for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which he is directing.

You’ve talked in the past about Chile’s relative isolation -- from the rest of Latin America, from the rest of the world, to a degree from the rest of architecture culture. Would you say that there are ways in which that separation, that distance, has been an advantage?

Chile does not have a tradition of great architecture. I mean, it is not like Peru. Not a great heritage from pre-Columbian times. Nor did the Spanish colonization bring Chile any kind of great architecture. The country was relatively poor and always at war. So it was isolated historically from any major trend or sophisticated development of architecture. Even during the modern movement -- well, it was not Brazil. And so in a way we had no fathers to kill as architects. There was no big shadow cast over us. I studied in the late 1980s. It was the last period of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Information was controlled. Not that many things made their way to Chile. On the other hand, being so isolated, you try to be aware, you try to consume as much information as possible. So it’s a kind of paradox. You are isolated from the world but that creates a big hunger to understand what is going on elsewhere. This can be translated in you wanting to prove that you are not that far away, kind of mimicking what is being created elsewhere. Or you can use that to understand what doesn’t make sense to be done here. I would say one of the distinctive aspects of the Chilean generation now is an effort to see what’s pertinent to understand here in Chile, rather than trying to prove that we can reproduce what’s happening elsewhere.

In terms of landscape and geography, Chile has some similarities to California: dramatic coastline, seismically unstable. And in fact some of your peers in Chile -- I’m thinking of Mathias Klotz in particular -- have looked directly in their residential designs to California modernists like Craig Ellwood. To what extent were you looking at that work?

Chile, if you put it in Europe, goes from Moscow to Mumbai. So one part of the country may be similar to California, but then we have 2,000 kilometers in the north where there is the driest desert in the world and then [in the south] you have Patagonia. And this diversity of geography, it’s really important. We are more geographical than historical, I would say. Space matters more than time, somehow. In terms of earthquakes, in a way, buildings [in Chile] are made for forces that operate horizontally, not vertically. The biggest difference to California, I would say, is the relative scarcity of means that we had to operate. Somehow we are not allowed to do whatever we want, which is a great thing. It’s a great filter against overconfidence. Maybe this has made a relatively austerity in architecture. From that point of view I see more freedom on the West Coast of the U.S. Here the buildings are carrying this Andean weight. There is a different weight in the architecture here.

You mentioned being in school, at the Catholic University in Santiago, at the tail end of the Pinochet dictatorship. To what extent have you thought of your work as explicitly political or colored by that experience?

There were no gray areas when you entered the university in that time. You were either against [the regime] or you were in favor. You were immediately asked as soon as you entered the university, "Yes or no?" Of course everybody was against, at least in the university. A certain rebellious or critical spirit, a skepticism, was developed during that era. And that required, I guess, intellectually speaking, to have very strong, clear, simple messages. That may have influenced a way of thinking about [architectural] projects in a very direct way. Another thing about the dictatorship was this information control: Very few magazines made it to Chile. That meant that we were protected from postmodernism.

[We both laugh.]

Very little postmodernism made its way to the country, which would have been a disaster. We were looking instead at books -- at either old or, politically speaking, inoffensive architecture. Whatever was trendy, it was seen as a kind of a threat to the political system, so magazines were banned. Going to a more classical body of knowledge, or a mature version of modernism, that was another side effect of the last years of the dictatorship.

By architectural-world standards you are still young, only 48. And at least compared to most American architects, you were able to start building early on, while you were still in your 20s. What did it mean for you to start building so early, and in what way would you say your work has changed or evolved since then?

That may be the one very big difference between Latin America and Europe or the U.S. When you study architecture [in Chile] you sort of take for granted that you are going to start your own practice when you graduate, at the age of 23 or 24. It’s kind of obvious. I wouldn’t even consider to go and work for somebody else. Which is a good thing and a bad thing. When you are so young, you go out and try to prove all the things that you have studied. And eventually you respond with forms that are not necessarily suitable ones. By Chilean standards, actually, I started rather late. I did my first building when I was 28 because I had no connections, no network. Nobody in my family would ever have the resources to commission a house. So my first building was an institutional building for the Catholic University mathematics faculty. Coming from a background where it was not obvious at all that I could get a commission, that first building -- it’s like when you are thrown a bone and you don’t let it go. By tooth and nail you take the opportunity and try to make the best of it.

I remember I was always living on site during the construction of that building. I was so nervous about whether what I was drawing was going to be translated into something that made sense. Also, the relative scarcity of means didn’t allow me to do whatever. That building, despite being my first work, was a rather contained building. Still, the [newest] building we’ve done on the campus, the Angelini Innovation Center, I remember when starting to design that building looking backward and not wanting to do again things that I did in the mathematics faculty. I thought it had too much form. We’ve been trying to move backwards, to a more irreducible core. So if there is any evolution it’s in the direction of having less moves, less lines, more archaic, more primitive. Not even designing -- we’re trying to go away from design, if anything. We are trying to go away from form.

Your work in social housing has really put an emphasis on bringing residents themselves into the design process. You have designed housing that is essentially half a house for each family, allowing the residents to fill in the rest over time.

It started as a purely pragmatic thing, an analysis of what were the constraints, what were the available resources. Not that I knew anything about social housing -- you just could tell as a normal citizen that it was an issue, that it was a problem, that pressure was accumulating on the peripheries [of Chilean cities] because the solutions were not good. We said, well, we believe that we are good designers -- without any false modesty -- so why don’t we apply our knowledge to a question that is difficult and that matters?

We knew we had to operate within the set of rules that everybody else in the market was playing with. And that meant a subsidy of $7,500 with which you had to buy the land, provide the infrastructure and build the houses. $7,500! That was almost nothing. Evidence showed that a middle-class family could live reasonably well in around 80 square meters -- 800 square feet, more or less. And the available money in the best of the cases could pay for around 400 square feet. What the market did to deal with that scarcity of money was two things: reduce the size of the house, so they were delivering tiny units, not up to middle-class standards, and building them far away [from the city center], where land cost nothing. So reducing and displacing, in order to mask that very little amount of money.

What we did was to reframe the problem and say if there’s no money, instead of reducing why don’t we look at 40 square meters not as a small and not very good house but as half of a good one? A house that already had in the design a middle-class DNA, let’s say. The historical criticism of social housing has been that in order to match cost and achieve economies of scale it tends to deliver repetitive, monotonous solutions that are not able to [serve] the diversity that a community has: people that have a small business at home, people that have many children, people that have animals. The diversity of a given neighborhood is so big that it would never be -- could never be -- incorporated into a design. A house that was yet to be completed was a way to customize the solution, rather than making excuses for what we couldn’t afford to deliver. We focused on building what would be most difficult for the families to build for themselves. And allow the families to take over from there.

You were a member of the Pritzker jury from 2009 through 2015. How did that affect how you see contemporary architecture or perhaps even your own practice?

The most important thing was that the jury had to visit the buildings in order to give an award to somebody. Photographs were not enough. And that was a very important exercise, in the sense that sometimes buildings that look very good in photographs are very disappointing in reality. That’s why you are traveling. And it’s not just visiting candidates -- you look at many other things. You also visit buildings from 50 years ago, from 100 years ago, from 200 years ago. And that reminds you of the level and the height that architecture has been able to achieve. And you feel kind of embarrassed how far away you are from that architecture. You visit buildings from 50 years ago, from 200 years ago, and they look so vital, so contemporary, so [well] used. That influenced the shift I was mentioning from our own early work. I felt that we’d been producing before 2009 buildings that would not stand the test of time. That’s what I would say was the biggest impact -- and to a certain extent one of the reasons I left the jury. It was a privilege, but it was also a curse. It makes your life so difficult when you are all the time looking at this great, great architecture. You tend to want to blow up your own projects. I was calling back to the office and saying, “Look, start from scratch. We are making a mistake here. It’s not good enough.”

One more question, about Venice. You’re directing this year’s Architecture Biennale, opening in May, and you’re calling the show “Reporting From the Front.” What do you mean by that phrase and what are you planning for the exhibition?

The idea of this “Reporting From the Front,” it’s twofold. To do good work in architecture is hard, it’s difficult, it’s a kind of struggle. If you want to do business as usual, fine, you can do that. As soon as you want to improve the quality and go beyond the status quo, it’s very hard. I am gathering examples of people that had the intention or the need to go beyond that business as usual. It’s meant to be encouraging: Eventually, when you look at people who are working under very tough circumstances, then maybe you will think, “Well, I have problems, but compared to this guy I shouldn’t be complaining.” That was one thing: that you go out of the exhibition with more tools than what you had when you entered. The second thing is that there are problems and challenges and issues outside the architecture world that we should be aware of and that we should be discussing. I think that we architects too much tend to create exhibitions where the problems we are dealing with only interest other architects. The jargon that we use and the words that we use, nobody understands except other architects. So I wanted the starting point to be far away from architecture, in problems and challenges that every single citizen would like to see improved.

Twitter: @hawthornelat

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This article was updated at 2:10 p.m. for minor tightening.