Archives For Alejandro Aravena

Robin Hood Gardens, East London

“In other places you see doors painted and pot plants outside houses, the minor arts of occupation, which keep the place alive. In Robin Hood you don’t see this because if someone were to put anything out, people will break it.”

– Peter Smithson

In 2008, starchitects Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers rallied to save London’s public housing complex Robin Hood Gardens (by Alison & Peter Smithson, 1972) from destruction. The tenement was designed in the brutalist tradition, inspired by Le Corbusier’s “streets in the sky.” While architectural enthusiasts thought it was a historic accomplishment, residents weren’t as enthused with Corbu’s influence, because, as Smithson said, “The week it opened, people would shit in the lifts.”

The attempt to save Robin Hood Gardens from extinction was merely a delay of the inevitable. The demolition is planned for the coming weeks, and this isn’t the first time architect-designed public housing was destroyed due to public backlash. Famously, Pruitt Igoe, designed by Minoru Yamasaki of World Trade Center and IBM Building fame, was demolished in 1972. More recently, 5468796 Architecture in Vancouver had their public housing called “crime in the community.” For decades architects have been attempting to heal the wounds of poverty, but this usually results in it blowing up in their face.

Another starchitect whose largely made his name due to his devotion to affordable housing is the Chilean Pritzker prize winner Alejandro Aravena. His most famous urban housing project, Elemental, consists of two-story half-houses (the other half is empty space—which is a provocative image) that residents help build with simple materials. Like with the previous designer social housing projects though, residents are complaining. They don’t want to build their own house, and they don’t like working with the contractors, etc. Some of them even threatened to go on a hunger strike.

All of this makes me wonder if architecture can solve the housing crisis. All of these well-intentioned, intellectual architects design these structures with artfulness in mind, but what if the people who inhabit them do not have the context to “appreciate” the art, the role that it plays in the city, and the architectural context to understand that this building is brutalist, minimalist, or neo-formalist (could you imagine saying to someone in a housing project, after they shit in the elevator, that they shouldn’t do that because the building is deconstructivist?)? Does that mean, then, since the inhabitants hate it, that the architecture doesn’t work? And is there a way to reconcile the desires of the architects and the people?

Recently, this article was published on how architects planned to solve the housing crisis in London. Here are a few ideas.

Live on Water

With global climate change seeming to have an imminent impact on our lives, perhaps a better idea would be to just get used to living on water. This article has several floating homes I’d gladly live in.

Build on Top of Trains

In New York City there is a series of high-rise residential towers called Bridge Towers that are built on top of highway bridges on I-95 near the George Washington Bridge. Approximately 4,000 residents sleep as thousands of cars pass right beneath them, and they breathe in toxic fumes from the motors. It’s quite a hideous site to see, a massive building on top of a highway.

This idea, though, seems far more practical. Benjamin Marks suggests that London builds on top of their underground system which would allow for 53,000 homes.

Hostel Lifestyle

Didn’t we all love when we backpacked through Europe in our early 20’s, living out of our backpack and meeting all kinds of interesting people? Well, how about doing that for the rest of your life? For those who are excited by that idea, there is Y:Cube by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. These are modular unit 26m² one-bed studios for single occupancy. The units can be plugged and unplugged to conserve energy. Units can be added and taken away as needed.

In 1990 in New York City there were approximately 20,000 homeless people, and this number has risen to around 62,000 today. In San Francisco there are tent camps all throughout the city underneath bridges, in parking lots, next to railroad tracks. The tents have been sweeping across the city so badly that Oakland has sanctioned a space specifically for a homeless tent encampment.

Nobody wants tents to be the answer. But how can architecture solve the housing crisis? How can creative solutions come together in a way that will be accepted by the general public?

By: David Plick

St EdsFor the first time in the history of Chilé, and for the third time in South America’s history, the Pritzker Prize has honored the efforts of a Latin American architect. Chiléan Alejandro Aravena, who is well-known for the strength of his designs, widely respected for his creativity, and revered for his dedication to social housing, has earned the 2016 prize—the highest honor in architecture.

Now, you Austinites may know Aravena from his work at St. Edward’s University—his striking modern dorms which many undergraduates call home and meet to study, or eat in the cafeteria downstairs. This powerful work of architecture now ranks amongst the most important historically in Austin. Along with Gordon Bunshaft‘s Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, it is only the second structure in Austin designed by a Pritzker Prize winner.

Aravena’s career, while exhibiting remarkable range as he’s created schools, government buildings, museums, and schools, has been founded upon his devotion to solving the housing crisis. His firm ELEMENTAL has built around 2,500 units of social housing, taking on seemingly impossible budgets and governmental public housing policies. He strives through his architecture to empower the lives of the disenfranchised by giving them housing they can be proud to live in.

He is the type of artist the world needs—one that truly applies his skills to make all of this more beautiful, livable, and fair.

Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Alejandro Aravena

  • He was on the Pritzker Prize Jury from 2009 to 2015, which means he won the award the first year he wasn’t a judge.
  • He calls his company ELEMENTAL a “do tank.”
  • In the 1990’s he was so fed up with architecture, he quit and opened up a bar.
  • He met his business partner, Andrés Iacobelli, a transport engineer, when he was teaching at Harvard.
  • The CEO of COPEC, the Chilean oil company, is on his board at ELEMENTAL.

By: David Plick

St EdsWhen people in Austin say “the campus” that automatically means UT, but there’s another campus in this city, and it’s got an impressive building to show for itself (oh, and it’s on SoCo too—prime locale). That’s right, St. Edward’s University—a small liberal arts/Catholic college and their nickname is the Hilltoppers. Not only does this school boast some phenomenal views of this city (hence the Hilltopper nickname), but there’s also the work of Pritzker Prize judge and award-winning Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena. He was a visiting professor at Harvard GSD, and he built the elegant Residence Hall for St. Edward’s, which opened in 2009, and won the Silver Lion Award for promising young architects, and favorable reviews from The Architectural Review in London, The Plan in Italy and Texas Architect.

The complex is 119,000 square feet and houses 300 students. A four-story building made with Mexican brick and a reinforced concrete block structure, it has a cafeteria/dining hall on the bottom floor, a coffee house, health center. and public space that weaves through the buildings, allowing an area for students to congregate. Because it is a Catholic university, the design is influenced by monasteries. There are stunning red glass panels projecting color into the common areas in the center. It’s an elegant minimal design while offering brightness and comfort to hard-working college students.

How do you get there?

Take South Congress down to Woodward Street (it’s Lightsey on the other side, which is really confusing). Make a left, and you’ll see that you’re at a college campus. Make the second left onto campus—you’ll see the baseball field to your right. The building is actually straight ahead, but make the first right and park at the parking garage right there. There’s plenty of spaces for visitors. Enjoy!

By: David Plick