Alejandro Aravena will be the curator of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia (taking place from May 28 to November 27, 2016 with the title Reporting from the Front). And the last recipient of the Pritzker Prize.
Please, dear reader of our stories, take a seat in front of whatever dreaming (for you) piece of landscape and go along with us in this long (and almost literally rewritten) Skype conversation – him sitting in the sun in front of the mountains of Chile and me in a dark, sweet and warm night of September in front of a Venetian canal in one of the main places where the Biennale will take place, Giardini.
Your story in few lines, starting to rewind your childhood to see how at that time you’re dealing with hurdles, shortage and waste until decide to study Architecture (and not only..).
I do not know what of my childhood can be relevant to the kind of approach I have in architecture, maybe it’s the context.
I was born (in 1967) and raised in the countryside. Chile at that time was a rather poor, remote, simple, isolated country without so much external influence. I was raised in a middle class family, enjoying the simple pleasures in an austere context, I would call it a primitive environment – a wild nature.
My father was of the southern part of the country and when we went on holidays we used to fish with bare hands, to kill a lamb with our own hands and ending in eat it. The relevant thing here is that you were not needing too much to be happy.
As teenager, and particularly during the university time, we were under Pinochet dictatorship, so information was highly controlled. Thanks to this, two things happened: on the one hand, we were extremely eager and hungry and thirsty of what was going on in the world and on the other we were operating (and living) in a very local context; this dialogue, I would say, was very healthy for our growth. We were not trying to do here what can’t be done and yet we weren’t having the kind of provincial attitude because of the isolation: we wanted to know what was going on in terms of music, culture and scientific and technological developments. We knew what was going on in the world but (at least some of us)…we were not trying to be sad. This made us more aware of what we had here in Chile. So, by contrast, we evaluated much more what was in the local context.
The other thing I would mention on this local/global relation is that in a dictatorship you are required to take a strong position, if you are in favour or not: no grey areas are allowed!
That helped to develop a kind of clearness without any folding or not transparent corners. That’s what I would be able to tell in general terms from the times I was raised. And about the consequences it has in my actual practice.
Victories, enhancements are often made of close, careful steps and are moreover relative – you mentioned more than one time that this is happening in architecture. Can you tell how is going about your influence on decision makers (i.e. Councils, top clients) about reshaping the architecture ‘consumerism’ and calm down new, imperialist, fake needs?
Let me start by maybe digging a little bit deeper in the beginning of the question.
What I was meaning in the press conference in Venice is that in the architectural environment we are very often judged according to a kind of optimum, to a kind of idealist, utopian level.
Because of the fear to be criticized many people prefer not to go in the grey area of reality because the chances of not getting a perfect outcome are so big that they prefer to stay in the confortable zone of publications, researches, academia, temporary installations, exhibitions (it is very unfair!).
What I wanted to make as a point is that I prefer something that goes real with a 51% and 49% of good and bad outcome, of pro and con rather than a 100% perfect thing that remains on paper. That’s what I meant about the relative successes in architecture: what are you doing better if the reality sucks.
I prefer to do something that is slightly better instead of doing nothing. I think the Architecture Biennale should encourage people to take the risk to go for those grey areas, even if the outcomes are not perfect. This may be the paradise for critics, if you get exposed and decide to do something….Our company is called Elemental, it’s not a think tank, but a do tank: we take the risk to make a proposal even if the outcome is not perfect. At least we do something. It is about encouraging people to take the risk and also when judging the outcomes we first of all take the time to understand all the constraints of the situation.
The way we enter in conversation with the client – all of them: from the top ones to the communities – is not by trying to provide an answer or a solution to what they think (or we may think) is the question. Many times, they do have a starting point but it is not necessarily the question. Let’s make an example: if I ask for a house with x amount of bedrooms, that is part of the requirements but yet not the question. It has to be charged with the location of the house, the technological conditions, the budget, the laws, who is going to build it and which are the available skills and available forces… all those things are what really charges the question.
The first thing we do with clients is to try to define what informs the form of the project they are looking after.
What we do, as architects, is to give form to the buildings where people live, sleep, study, eat, have fun…Those places can have different forms and what we want to make sure is that there is a common understanding. We try not to judge, even if sometimes, some requests are really nasty.
Desire is a powerful drive on the projects. If clients ask something very weird, instead of judging, we accept the starting point and do not stop there, we ask: what are you looking for when you want this style? We want to know what they really want.
We are not open for the greed of disproportional projects. If the goal of some building operation is just to make money, then we are out of there. Money cannot be the (main) goal for us.
Also with the council, it is a matter of dialogue for us. And sometimes we try to push some changes in the laws. But for sure we are not waiting until the rules change to design and build. While we wait, thousands of square meters will be built anyway with the existing ones, i.e. in the current circumstances. We try to influence the rules of the game, the policies, the perceptions, and the importance to listen to the public opinion but, simultaneously, we want to understand what of the legal, time and economic constraints we can swallow and deliver the project, proving that things can happen anyway and for the better. How, so, to think twice and better – given a set of rules – to bring the project at its end.
As founding member of Elemental you’ve been awarded by key prizes for your interest and successes in practicing and widespread sustainable architecture.
What do you expect to achieve from the nations joining the Venice Architecture Biennale you will curate on 2016? Do they show what they still are not able to do or will they embellish the few steps toward a better future? Will they be able to share in depth their practices? Which tools will you give to them to do so?
The relation between the curator and the pavilions is making the invitation attractive and appealing enough: I am not controlling and not curating what they are doing, there is a certain autonomy, independence of any country about what they want to show. If the theme is appealing enough, in other terms also broad enough and simultaneously concrete enough, then I would say that the chances a country accepts that invitation are higher. Reporting from the Front is by nature the kind of thing that a country knows better: what are the battles that matter to them; what are the problems that are more relevant, pressing, crucial and in that sharing – first of all the problem and then eventually the way they are dealing with the problem – the essence is to tend to be rather universal.
We all studied architecture – I feel that the only requirement is to be very clear, transparent in explaining what were the starting conditions, the constraints, what informed the form that they are going to show at the biennale, so we can measure the distance between the worlds we are looking at and our own context. The process of bridging the human nature never comes from what is similar but from what is different. Diversity plays a major role and the richness of events like Architecture Biennale is to be searched in the massive number of nations joining it. They have their own voices, but I hope that we will be all looking into the same directions. The invitation to report from their own fronts is a way to enrich the dialogue among cultures.
What’s your favourite part in exercising and practicing on building industry materials “second life”?
Ohh, let me think about it…
I guess that architecture is always a dialogue, to react to the everyday, to the ordinary life that by nature is changing and evolving: somehow, the built environment life has to be flexible enough to be able to respond to such a changing life, even if balanced with what tends to be stable.
Architecture provides a timeless framework otherwise mankind will be nomadic.
Architecture also freezes a social agreement, forming civil society goals: that’s why open space and public realm tend to be more stable than the building itself. It is a reflexion of social agreements, much stronger than the physical reality of materials.
That being said, I do believe that there is a good thing in the fact that buildings last for generations in the place where they should be. However, we went from a sensibility and a technology that wanted each activity of the life gathered in separate rooms to a more fluid and continuous space, which is now preferred more open.
It is where we merge different activities at a time – so the renovation of buildings tends to happen with the demolition of partition walls. If these partition walls were soft enough and no major structural operation were needed, then it is better to anticipate what parts of the building never change and leave in advance the other parts open… so the change of your life can happen thanks to design and not despite to design!
Do you prefer, so, to think to second life of the building before? Before they become obsolete?
Not really, I just think that the structure will remain in the same way but I mean to build the other parts, as the partitions, with something that is made of materials easy to change. Enough to allow us to change our mind.
By definition, if you use a material that is easy to dismantle, you’re not producing a debris. Wood for partition walls can be taken out with hammers and not with a drill…
And what you take from it is still ‘material’ and not debris.
In countries like mine, again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is the literal translation of a say. If you try to anticipate so much something that is unpredictable and want to say in which way it will end, the chance you fail are too high: you just have to be reasonable and use the common sense. Allow for easy changing of mind away from the present time.
You’ve designed and built many spaces devoted to learning – i.e. campuses and universities, mostly in the places where you’ve studied – and also a “room for writers”. Can you tell us more about the sparkles and the ideas beneath this latter?
It’s not that we’re particularly interested in education building, it is just the client calling us for that.
We are not a big office and whenever somebody wants to build something we just take the opportunity. It is not just that we’re planning strategically where we would like to move next, except for some specific fields normally it happens that clients approach us rather than us approaching them.
This was the case of the cabin for writers.
Somebody called our office telling about the project for a sort of suspended retreats. The brief said that writers have to be sometimes suspended (and isolated) from the world in order to go into introverted creative moments – with the possibility to go out and meet people as they wish, but then to return to their creative intimacy. That’s why the cabins we designed were not touching the ground.
The way we approached the project was that if you’re kind of isolated and do not want to be disturbed while creating, you do not need more information – you just need to transform the information you’ve swallowed into knowledge or into creation.
There also could be some signs that people who are assisting to a creative moment or visiting a creative personality want to know about creators, in this case about writers.
We questioned ourselves about how we can communicate this creative process to audiences without having the writers disturbed by the people coming to ask them what they were doing.
We thought that in the cabin scheme the façade could be made of shelf in which each writer can put all the things used while creating (imagine the authors who will be there for six months, they will carry with them very different stuff!).
For instance, if the writer is a drinker, he/she will have it exposed on the shelf. We indeed tend to hide this in our houses. And we never see what is behind the shelves. In these cabins, without looking at the writer, you can see a kind of layer of his personality…For instance, the person has a lots of clothes, or coffee or wine on there, of toilet paper or of photographs…any belongings are representing them (as the garbage we leave after us is telling a lot!).
After months, the consumptions of these goods or the use of the relational objects also tell to the audience a lot!
How is hard to start and keep on an entrepreneur activity today in your city, or in general?
It is hard to say that because I cannot compare with other places, but I think it is as hard as to start any other job. Extremely difficult! Architecture has an additional difficulty because it is not that you wake up and you decide what you want to do – as if I am a writer I need some money to pay a rent, to buy food, but the product (in this case the book) depends only on me. With architecture, even if I wake up with an incredible desire to build, I do not build a building! I need somebody to need the building first, and that somebody can be a company, an institution, a government or a group of people…so again: it is already difficult to have good ideas but in this field, you need somebody else struggling to give form to all of that. In addition it requires a lot of money, quite a lot of time: from the moment you’re contacted by a client to the completion in the best of the cases it is three or four years…It requires a lot of passion, so no, it was not an easy start. But, going back to the first question of childhood, given that I was not needing a lot, I can be more patient while waiting for that process to begin to work.
A remarkable encounter happened in your daily work routine?
Definitively when I met the guy with whom I founded Elemental, he is a transport engineer (Andres Iacobelli). I was invited to teach at Harvard and he was studying his master in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, that encounter was a life changing moment. Until then, I never thought I would have worked in social housing: it was mainly thanks to him.
Which is the most important achievement after so many years as not only architect, but also as teacher of young generations of researchers?
I do not teach a lot. I stopped teaching in 2004, more than ten years ago. I am still connected to the university but I am not teaching in the conventional sense of the word.
It is very hard, neither myself nor us really know what we are doing. How can I tell to others what they should do? Architecture is guided by unspeakable certainties, we have to know the language of other professionals, to know the legal constraints but ultimately what guides design decisions are these unspeakable certainties: you know something but you cannot explain it with words. As soon as you begin to work on that, you know that it’s a theory, a methodology, a recipe and it’s not strong, not true enough. Academia is not challenging enough: the professional world even with all the problems, the frictions and with all the grey areas I was mentioning before (where the outcome is maybe not the purest) is much more powerful. There is more life, there is much more fairy tale out there in reality than in academia.
How do you combine the reflexive pregnancy and the schizophrenia of your peculiar activity?
I do not know if it is schizophrenic because schizophrenia is a disease and in the normal, healthy life you do combine reflection with action without necessarily being in a mental illness. So I would say that is natural.
I normally do not like to quote famous people – apparently the more you quote somebody who is very intellectual the more you seem intelligent – but this time I would like to quote a famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a rather simple way: there are two kinds of things in the world, the ones that you can talk about and the ones you cannot.
About the ones you can talk about you have to be the more straightforward and simple possible because you need to talk to so many different people – from the land dweller who is not able maybe to read to the president of the republic. The simpler are your speeches the more you’re able to engage other people and their knowledge into your thing. On the other hand, for the things you are not able to talk about (the unspeakable certainties), you remain silent and you act, you simply do.
Describe a fantastic happening you, as person from this world, have had in recent time?
Lots are the fantastic things on the professional hand. The fact I will be directing 2016 Architecture Biennale is an incredible thing. It is a huge privilege, it’s a powerful vehicle to say things and to listen to things and, professionally speaking, being engaged in very challenging projects – as a city reconstruction after disaster to relationship with communities for project associated to the mining industry and to political issues.
As a human being, everything happening in my family life is quite remarkable – having lunch with the children, to look at them discovering life every single day. You know, even the simplest things at the personal level are very powerful. It is already extraordinary being able to live in these two different worlds, an extremely challenging professional level and at the same time such a powerful, normal, surprising, emotionally rich private life.
Can you share your favourite cooking passion?
The less cooked is the better, for me. Like sea urchins.
Which is your favourite wine or drink?
I do not know. It depends on occasions.
Which is your music or the book(s) with you now (and on which kind of side table or desk the book(s) lies down now)?
A huge range that goes from Violeta Parra (Violeta del Carmel Parra Sandoval, 1917-1967, Chilean singer, composer songwriter and folklorist) to Radiohead…oh I should look at my phone…
The closer books? I tend to read only biographies. I use to read more books with my daughters when they go to bed, so let’s say children books before sleep.
Oh! You can find lots of biographies on Slow Words…of normal people and also of living architects…
Oh, architects, why read their stories?
Because they are still alive, because they are from several parts of the world…
Why to read about them, is better to meet them! And speak to them, having a face-to-face contact. What I don’t like is the kind of intellectual books, too intelligent that they tend to be boring. I prefer the power of life to the perfection of criticism.
In which way do you try to live “slow”, if you like to do so, in a city as yours?
I think is the way in which I live now.
I walk to/from home, I have lunch at home, every day we stay together in the family. Chile is far away and I am protected by the distance. I do not have to be anywhere, I am not worried by networking, the cocktail parties…I already assumed that living in Chile I was going to miss all that. It’s fantastic because I can work and I can have a life.
Again, this is not an ideological issue. When I work the pace is very high, there is lot of adrenaline, you have to solve lots of things…Eventually creation requires that kind of tension (you do not create in an extremely relaxed environment, the more friction and the more pressure, the better for creation, as well as the more constraints!). That rhythm and speed and energetic dimension has to be counterbalanced with doing as little as possible.
I am looking out of the window of the office at the moment: what I see are the mountains – you know, I can’t go anywhere, so I am rather slow!
Which is a talent you have and the one you miss?
So many the ones I miss: singing, dancing, music, sports…Maybe the one (or the ones) I have is not a particular talent, maybe I should be more nice…
What have you learnt from life until now?
Mhh, (silence)… Maybe to be balanced.
Throughout the interview I was keeping on saying ‘ a little bit of this ‘ and ‘ a little bit of that ‘…
In the end, I would say it is crucial to live in the present, right here, right now, not going anywhere. Otherwise you miss life and whatever you are doing at the moment. But if you only have that dimension, then your life seems to not have a purpose. You are not going anywhere, you can get lost.
Life is an action at a certain distance and in time: with one eye, you’re throwing your glance and your existence as far away as possible – forwards and backwards. There is a lot to learn from the past, from the history, from the most primitive being to the most sophisticated cultural achievement. And all the background has to be thrown in the future as far away as possible, to have a purpose with a certain meaning.
With the other eye, I repeat, I do not want to be anywhere but here. Just to be in the present.
If I were not able to balance, I would not have achieved that.
I would say that this ultimately means that looking back is something I do not regret.