Portrait of the architect Alejandro Aravena.
Alejandro Aravena, pictured in 2016. Awakening/Getty Images

Alejandro Aravena, who helped a city recover from an earthquake and a tsunami, says participatory design is not just inclusive but “more efficient.”

In February 2010, a 8.8-magnitude earthquake—one of the strongest quakes ever measured—struck Chile. It triggered a tsunami with waves as high as 15 feet, which pounded the small city of Constitución, about 200 miles south of the capital Santiago. Dozens of people in Constitución died, many homes were destroyed, and the city was left reeling.

To lead the rebuilding effort, an architect named Alejandro Aravena arrived in Constitución. Aravena, co-founder of the Santiago design firm Elemental, already had a reputation as a socially conscious problem-solver. He had attracted international renown for his “half-a-house” approach to designing social housing, which is exactly what it sounds like: Having been given a small budget to construct homes for low-income families, many of whom said they would like to expand their dwellings in the future, Aravena hit upon the idea of building half of a larger, nicer home, and leaving the other half for the residents to finish themselves, either with their own hands or with help from local “micro-contractors.”

Elemental was asked to devise a rebuilding plan for the city in 100 days, working alongside engineers and consultants. Half-houses were built, but later on; first came a robust (though compressed) public dialogue that changed assumptions about what “disaster recovery” means.

The most obvious—and initially preferred—strategy for making Constitución more resilient was to build a high wall against the water. But the city ended up with a radically different plan: create a strip of coastal forest that can dissipate the force of tsunamis and provide much-needed public green space for citizens.

As Constitución began to regroup (and got a new cultural center and coastal lookout points, designed by Elemental), Aravena’s stature grew. In 2016, he directed the Venice Architecture Biennale, the world’s largest architecture festival, which sets the agenda for the academic side of the field. The same year, he received the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. Pritzker winners are usually in their 70s or 80s, near the end of long and august careers. Aravena was 48: still an up-and-comer. Photographs of the suddenly famous architect, with his distinctive haystack of salt-and-pepper hair, gazed out from the pages of the New York Times and the pixels of Vanity Fair.

Three years on, the commissions, and awards, keep coming. Last week, Aravena was in Washington, D.C., to receive the Urban Land Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. He spoke to attendees at the institute’s fall forum about his work and design philosophy.

CityLab sat down with Aravena afterwards and asked him about disaster recovery, public participation in urban design, sustainable architecture, and architectural internships. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The rebuilding process in Constitución involved a really unusual degree of public participation. I was hoping you could describe how that affected the parameters of the project.

[We had] an intuition at the beginning that when you have a city destroyed by 80 percent, there’s no way to rebuild it unless you involve the people in the reconstruction. It’s impossible to rebuild the city just with public and company money. So it normally happens that people’s own resources have to be involved.

We were given 100 days to come up with a plan and with designs for the reconstruction of the city. And the first thing we did was to build an open house in the main square of the city: the physical place where people would be informed about meetings and scheduling.

Every other week or so we had a big discussion about the bigger issues; we also had what they called “hybrid forums,” talking about a particular place. Let’s say the [Maule River] shore: There, we had to [invite] the army because it was a national security [site of importance]. But you [also] have the fishermen, you have the chamber of commerce, because of tourism, and the owners of houses. So it is a mixed discussion. But every now and then we gathered at a whole-city level.

The damaged La Poza area of Constitución after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2010. A broad strip along the river, expropriated by the government following a public vote, is now being turned into a coastal forest, a public space that will dissipate the force of future tsunamis. (David Mercado/Reuters)

I’m talking about an earthquake that affected 400 kilometers [or about 250 miles of the Chilean coast], and [roughly] 300,000 units damaged. Many different cities had to come up with a plan. The first reaction of other cities that did not follow [a similar] approach was, “Asking people will slow down the process and make it more expensive. In principle, if we had the time, we would [do] participatory design; not this time, we’re in an emergency.” And our belief was that if you understand participatory design as a way to identify the question, not as a way to get the answer, then you may be more efficient in how you allocate your resources and how you spend your response time for the reconstruction.

The mandate, the brief, [was to] make sure cities will be able to resist tsunamis. We went to the open house that we built in the square, and asked families, “Okay, there are different alternatives for rebuilding, for protecting the city against tsunamis. What do you think?” Then they voted among [options] A, B, and C. But the most important thing they said, over and over, was: “You know what? The last tsunami we had in the city was 70 years ago, 60 years ago. So, thank you very much for making a tsunami-resilient city. But our real problem is not tsunamis.”

There was an issue with flooding, and with the public space. The feeling was that the public space is really bad. We measured it: There were 2.2 square meters [27 square feet] per inhabitant. International standards recommend around 9 square meters. A wealthy neighborhood in Chile may have 18. London has 44.

So their feeling was right. They said, “Whatever you do, make sure that you improve the quality of public spaces, because that’s where the community comes together.” And that’s something that you cannot correct under normal circumstances.

And finally, there was a kind of assumption that because of the earthquake, all the buildings were destroyed, so the cultural heritage—the memory of the city—was lost. But the community, the city, said, “You know what, it’s a pity that the old buildings fell, but our identity is not connected to the old buildings and to architecture. Our identity is connected to the geography—to the river.”

But the river was privately owned by 15 families, so there was no public access. When we understood that, we went to the river shore and said, “Against a geographical threat, a geographical answer.” You can’t resist the force of the sea in a tsunami. So instead of resisting the energy of nature, let’s dissipate it, with a forest in between the city and the ocean that introduces chaos in the mass of water, so that the particles of water move randomly. A forest, in addition, was an increase of public space. It was a democratic, publicly accessed shore. That was not the case before.

By doing participation, instead of wasting our time or having answered the wrong question, we were more efficient in understanding where to go and what to do.

As part of this larger process, people relocated. In the United States, and many parts of the world now, people who live on coasts and rivers are having to deal with this. What was it that made them decide? Because I think a lot of people are very resistant to moving.

Under normal circumstances, this would have never been changed. Because you own your property, and eventually the government may say, “I want to expropriate you because you’re in a risk zone.” “Okay, let’s go to court and fight.” Here, there was a disaster and there was public money being invested in this area. And by law, it is forbidden to invest public money in a risky area. It wasn’t even a choice—it was a very legal, clear, binary decision.

But in addition to that was the public pressure, because there was a common good that was being pursued, and you were given an alternative that is better than what you have: “You’re going to be living in front of a park; that was not the case before.” So it’s a question of negotiating with reasonable things. And the moment you have a system that is prepared to have the conversations that otherwise become a kind of abstract thing, and manage expectations—this is very important as well.

You were hired to create an expansive master plan for Calama, a copper-mining city in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, to improve the quality of life there. That also represents environmental planning on a large scale. Is that still ongoing?

No. No, that failed.

Oh—can you talk about that?

Because the way of including people in the deliberation of the new city kind of worked [in Constitución], we were called by the Chilean copper corporation [Codelco]. Chile’s main source of income is copper; the wealth of the country depends on copper, and in Calama, which has one-quarter of the copper production of the country, they [had] thousands of people on the streets, threatening to block the access to the mines if their quality of life was not improved. The quality of the built environment is very poor. Families do not want to go and live in Calama. We’re talking about the Atacama Desert—the driest desert in the world.

Workers walk to the main gates of the Chuquicamata mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, near Calama. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

So, why don’t we try that scheme that worked in the south [of Chile] and apply it here, where we have this social tsunami? We started by building a house in the main square of the city and, again, tried to identify what is the right question. The level of skepticism against the government—which for 80 years had promised to improve the city, and nothing ever happened—was so high.

We wanted to show a slide of all the projects that had been done for the city, and show in black what was built, and in red, what was never built. And we didn’t get permission for that, because it was kind of recognizing the fact of all the broken promises. So we took the risk and said, “We’re showing the slide. And we may get fired, but we believe we have to show this information.”

Because of that, [the residents] said, “Okay, we are going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Let’s see what you have to say about the dust, the [lack of] water.”

So we came up with this plan and [it was opened to] voting. Twenty-two thousand people voted; almost 50 percent of the [electorate] came to the polls. We asked them to establish priorities: which project first, which second. Because of that, [protests] dissolved, access to the mines [was] agreed. The problem was that the central government said, “Okay, so now why [should we] do what we discussed?” And they never implemented the plan. We were able to build part of a park.

You’re doing a project in Doha—a big industrial building that you’re reusing. I hoped you could say a little bit about the role of material recycling in architecture and sustainability.

I guess as a general attitude we try to be as cold-blooded as possible in analyzing the factors to achieve an efficient use of resources. Sometimes, again, solutions are counterintuitive. In the case of the Novartis building [in Shanghai], for example, it was not only material sustainability but also labor sustainability. If Chinese workers knew something, it was about how to build with brick. In those bricks there was already embedded energy—energy was already spent in [firing] them—so why throw them away?

When you have a greenhouse effect, with the sun directly hitting the glass [walls of an office tower], you need 120 kilowatt [hours] per square meter per year of energy consumption for air conditioning. If you just prevent the sun directly hitting the glass, your energy consumption drops to 45 kilowatt [hours] per square meter per year. This is not rocket science. I mean, this is common sense. Thermal mass in the perimeter, not in the core.

Two buildings designed by Elemental—one for Novartis in Shanghai, the other (pictured) for the Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago—have heavy, opaque materials on the outside and bright atriums inside. The principle is to avoid the heat gain that occurs with glass-walled towers to reduce the energy needed for cooling the building. (Claudio Reyes/AFP/Getty Images)

For the Doha project, the port is being transformed from industrial infrastructure into cultural infrastructure. So we are making a very careful analysis of how many of those structures can remain. Instead of demolishing them, we’re adding new towers. We’re working with these brilliant German environmental engineers, Transsolar, and they are thinking of evaporative cooling. We can make air go through channels, so the temperature exchange will lower the outdoor temperature. Those columns are going to be used to create wind convection, so that we can condition the public areas under this shaded, big platform.

Several months ago, there was a controversy online about Elemental and its internship program, which the firm has suspended. Critics of unpaid internships say that these pose a financial barrier for people who want to engage in them, which makes them exclusive. I was wondering if you agreed with that and if the practice has plans to bring back the internship program at any time.

No. And I think it was a very bad-faith controversy.

The story of Elemental is this. When we started, we started with our our salaries as professors and invested that to create knowledge that wasn’t there. I wasn’t trained in social housing. So then we applied for public funding, and we said, “Wouldn’t it be good to have young students involved in this matter?” So we set aside some money that could pay for them to become part of the workshop that was developing. [We said] very clearly, we cannot afford to pay you, but if you ask for scholarships in your countries of origin—why on Earth should Chile subsidize the rich countries?

In recent years, we were offering whoever comes here all the meals in the office, and software licenses, and whoever [could] apply for a scholarship in their country of origin [could] come here, in this kind of good-faith exchange. You’re not here as free labor. I mean, we’re training you. The things that we’re working on are not a subject of your study, but eventually, in that exchange of knowledge, you may learn something. And you may be part of this team and contributing with your ideas.

But there is a larger issue across the architectural profession. There is a problem of interns not getting paid, or working extremely long hours. And architecture is a profession that requires a lot of education. Do you have any larger thoughts about what to do about that?

The assumption is if you open an internship program [it’s] because you want to benefit from cheap, if not free, labor. That’s unfair. But [what] if you’re opening an internship program because there is a knowledge that is not being taught in schools, and the way for it to be shared is by you sitting on my side and taking a look at the way we talk to people, the way we swallow constraints, how to understand the policy. The outcome [of ending the internship program] after all these months is that, by not having “free labor,” our productivity should have fallen. But actually, it increased.

So we will maybe share that [knowledge] in a different way. Even though we still believe that, because of the nature of the profession, where intuition plays a very big role, most of the solutions are these kind of unspeakable certainties.

We have enough risk in the kind of projects that we do, that can fail. Every turn around the corner, there’s a possibility of failure. Everything is fragile: the budgets, the institutions, the political environment, the social environment. We don’t need another risk.

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