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Architect Aravena: “We need professional quality to solve the problems of society”


“The great challenge for architecture is reconciling creativity and belonging,” says the curator of the Biennale of Architecture that just closed in Venice. 

Knauf was official sponsor of “Unfinished,” Spain’s pavilion that was awarded the Golden Lion.

VENICE (Verb) 28 November 2016.—“This was not the Biennale of the poor or social justice,” said architect Alejandro Aravena, curator of the 15 Biennale of Architecture in Venice. “We need professional quality to solve the problems of society. The 2016 edition – “Reporting from the front” was its motto – tackled major housing challenges in today’s world, including the sustainability of traditional architecture and exploring solutions with light construction techniques.

Aravena, a Chilean architect and co-founder of the Santiago-based Elemental architecture firm, also believes that functionality should not lead to utilitarian reductionism. In other words, the canons of aesthetics should not give in to pragmatism.

“I think the great challenge for architecture is reconciling creativity and belonging,” Aravena said in his closing remarks. “We must first understand what the question is before we provide an answer, and our duty is belonging: it’s knowing when the tools we use are able to improve the conditions that originate them.”

This sums a fundamental principal for Aravena: “The source of architecture is not architecture in itself; it shouldn’t be.”

Founded in 2001, Elemental focuses in public interest and socially relevant projects, including housing, public space, infrastructure and transportation. The company’s particularity is it is collaborative design process, in which architects work with the public and the final users. That was put into practice in Chile following the 2010 earthquake, when the architecture firm was called on to help rebuild the city of Constitución.

The Architecture Biennale at Venice unfolded under the sign of that collaborative architecture. An example of the challenges and proposed solutions was “Unfinished,” Spain’s national pavilion, which portrayed the construction boom in the country and how the ensuing slump gave way to innovative solutions. In recognition of it, the Biennale awarded the Golden Lion—its top prize—to Spain’s pavilion, whose sponsors included Knauf.

“It’s not that I wake up one morning with an incredible desire to build an office tower or work on a social project: someone has to need it,” Aravena said. “So we have to pay attention to the very conditions that give rise to architecture as a phenomenon.”

Every project must respond to a series of requirements and conditions, he said. “But an architecture project is not merely an answer to circumstances,” he adds. “It’s a necessary condition but it’s not enough.” For a project to attain its maximum potential, another factor is needed: “That’s the role of creativity”. That’s why, he added, “aesthetics, one of the forces at play, probably allows the other, political, economic, social, environmental circumstances, to address those issues appropriately, but at the same time bringing it up to the next level.” In other words, not only a useful architecture, but also beautiful.

Light construction techniques

In response to modern architecture challenges, light construction techniques have a key role. Generally, light construction techniques are linked to housing solutions in emergency situations, says architect Victor Oddó, a partner at Elemental.

“Responses linked to light material solutions can be a necessary social investment to address an emergency,” he said. “What we have proposed, we indeed propose today, and have proposed in the past in view of natural disasters in Chile, is that emergency solutions may be pre-coordinated with final housing solutions, and thus enable us to propose a solution linked to light materials, but modulated and built in such a way that the final house can be reused.”

Oddó explained the model Elemental developed for the reconstruction after the earthquake six years ago. “This is how we made our coordination in 2010, after the earthquake in Chile, in which we designed an emergency house built with light materials, with structural panels, with the idea of the incremental house, in which you can complete the future unit when you turn it over to the residents”



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