Executive director of Chilean company Elemental, Alejandro spearheads a revolutionary approach to low-cost social housing. He was awarded the Pritzer Prize in 2016, architecture’s highest accolade.
What do you mean by participatory design?
It is not about giving the pencil to citizens and expecting them to draw or propose a solution. Participation aims to identify with precision what the right question is. There is nothing worse than answering the wrong question well.
You mention that ‘the power in design is the power of synthesis’;please tell us more:
The more complex the problem, the more the need for synthesis. If you consider all of the information about a given problem you will be paralysed, if you consider too little you will miss the point. Design is a form of dealing with information that balances intuition and intelligence, where the most crucial and relevant data are organised in a proposal key.
Do you see architecture as emotional as much as it is mathematical?
Yes, it’s something in between a reasonable skepticism that is needed to resist the banality of reality and a rigorous desire, which is needed to put the strong forces of life into motion through the built environment.
What propelled your focus into low-income public housing concerns?
It was when I realised that the problem (the need and the demand) is in the scale of the billions and the answers that we can find in the world are in the scale of the hundreds. This gap creates a huge social and political ticking time bomb. What is needed for such a difficult question is not professional charity but professional quality. Eventually, after having invested brains (not bricks) in the problem, such a contribution may affect a lot of people. So it was a choice of how to spend the heartbeats that one is given.
Please describe your signature style and how has it adapted over the years?
It’s like my handwriting: I can’t avoid it. So I don’t really pay attention to it. Our focus is on the question (forces at play) not in the answer (style). It has adapted I hope, naturally. The more secure you are, the less you need to put yourself in the front.
Elemental released the design plans for housing projects as part of an open-source initiative.The sharing of important information with the power to change the world – is that worthy of being called a good trend?
This is more modest I think. It’s just our own history. When we started we said that we could do better than following the same rules everybody else were responding to. We believed that with a $7,500 dollar subsidy – with which we had to buy the land, provide the infrastructure and build the house – we could develop a project that could gain value over time. Everybody laughed. When we built it, people said that because it was in the desert and it didn’t rain we had a much simpler challenge. So we went ahead and built in the rainy region of Chile. Then the excuse of the market was that these were small towns. So we went and built in Santiago and in the most expensive neighbourhood of the metropolis. Then the market’s excuse was that it is too expensive to develop new designs. So we addressed their excuse by developing the projects for free. Our aim is really to give those who have endless excuses for preferring private benefits over common good, a bit of a hard time.
With your understanding of public housing shortage of space and finance, what does it take for a project to be successful?
The key is to acknowledge the fact that end users are part of the solution, not of the problem. Design should be a way to channel, not replace, people’s own resources, ideas and capacity. This requires us to re-educate ourselves and consider the notion of artistic control over our buildings. This will be a starting point rather than the end of a creative process. What the people ignite will be more important than what they conclude. A powerful work will be more valuable than a perfect one.
How do you see the future of design evolving for construction of urban areas?
Evidence shows that when the ratio between public space and private land is close to 1:1,everybody gains: the public good and the individual initiative. In slums such ratio drops to less than 1:10. In conventional real estate developments, such ratio is still very low; around 1:5 due to the greedy forces that govern markets. So the most important and crucial asset in the cities of the future is what we don’t build. Reserving public spaces in the form of streets, squares and parks will then not only be the place for meeting other people (which is the reason why people come to cities in the first place: looking for opportunities) but the way to achieve a greater value.
The future of architecture is to balance pertinence and originality
What do you believe are the trends in architectural design and building, and what is the future material for construction?
A simultaneous development in the uber-tech and the proto-tech, the cutting-edge knowledge and the local archaic wisdom. Materials will come from plastics and at the same time from local primitive materials. The latter just don’t have an industry lobbying for them to adjust the building codes. In any case, we will need a lot of 21st century state-of-the-art software, but we have to remember that we are using it with prehistoric hardware; our bodies and emotions that haven’t changed in millennia.
The New York Times called you ‘the Architect Rebuilding aCountry’. An honour and/or a burden?
They also called me a nerd. But as I said in the Pritzker Prize acceptance speech:‘We see a lot of freedom ahead, not burdens.’
Experience the journey of Elemental in chronological order; from its start-up inception to its successful city scale operations. Learn about the firm’s beautiful business practice, the values that underpin its foundation and their strategies for community participation and social housing. Published by Hatje Cantz, this is a momentous story and an example of how architecture can offer groundbreaking solutions to problems.
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