The Architectural Revolution…
…is certainly not being brought to you courtesy of any of the international starchitects. It isn’t even a theoretical posture, an aesthetic or a shiny new technology that’s driving the long overdue Revolution in Architectural Affairs. Ironically its a product of economically driven pragmatic reductionism which promises to re-engage architecture with society anew. It’s chief proponent is unquestionably the young Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena who’s built a growing reputation for his innovative work in social housing carried out under the firm Elemental. Today their vision for the coming architectural future represents probably the most important political shift in the way architecture is conceptualised and constructed since the celebrated ‘demise’ of modernism.
Firstly, Aravena is an architect with an unashamedly social agenda. When many more celebrated architects have spent the last decade of decadence concretizing obscene fantasies, he chose instead to start his practice by considering an awkward and seemingly impossible equation. Given the rapid increase in global urbanization it is projected that in the next 20 years a further 2 billion people will need to be housed in cities. At a time of dwindling economic and natural resources this formula demands the construction of a city of 1 million inhabitants per week for the next 20 years at less than $10,000 per capita. This is the crisis of uncontrolled urban expansion citizens around the globe are facing today. It is a reality which is currently finding its main physical expression in the slum settlements that spring up all over the world, from Brasillia to Bombay, uncontrolled and seemingly uncontrollable products of immediate necessity which remain totally indifferent to bureaucratic or academic procrastination. Its an inconvenient reality that is currently ignored by the established architectural profession, and yet the benefits that could be achieved if architects took the lead in shaping design solutions to these deep political problems seems too important to pass up.
Aravena is one such architect, one who believes in the universality of the demand for a decent standard of social housing and who places his faith in the power of design to effect political change. He claims he is interested in using architecture as a shortcut to eradicate poverty and inequality, understanding the construction of the built environment as an investment that brings returns that are both financial and social. He employs the political power of architecture as process rather than product, an architecture of slow and evolving communal construction which empowers its residents to create self determined communities.
Quinta de Monroy, Iquiqe, Chile
Aravena made his name in 2001, on a project called Quinta de Monroy, the development of a squatted slum settlement commissioned by the Chilean government to house the 100 or so families living on the site in Iquique, a small city in the Atacama Desert. On this occasion the architects were tasked with finding the solution for the accommodation of 100 families on the 5000 sqm site at just $7,500 per family.
Normally when faced with such debilitating financial constraints investors seek to maximise their returns by locating their developments on land which is cheap, or even free. There they can often build more units for the same cost, or build the same number of units to a higher material value. But such unexploited and unwanted lots tend overwhelmingly to be on the outskirts of established population centres, poorly serviced and socially isolated. Breaking up existing communities which may have taken generations to develop is usually strongly opposed by the tenants themselves who are reluctant to voluntarily partake in their own exclusion. Neither the group of squatter residents at Iquique, nor Aravena, wanted to relocate the families who benefitted at their current address from being close to the centre of town, close to the beach and close to existing social infrastructure, schools, hospitals and the like. The architect was forced to spend 3 times his budget for land acquisition to buy the plot that the families were squatting freely in the centre of town.
With so little money to spend Aravena was forced to innovate. His answer – that without the funds necessary to deliver a complete design, Elemental would provide just half of a house for each family, incorporating a void in their design into which the residents could expand the properties themselves at their leisure and at their cost – initially confused the prospective tenants. But in this environment half a house was certainly a step up from a slum shack, and Aravena chose to design the half he knew the families would not be able to construct for themselves. He put his professional knowledge to use and detailed the more complicated, serviced half of the house which contained the bathroom and kitchen, dealing with the co-ordination of the plumbing, electrics, and sanitation. For each unit Aravena left an unfinished void into which the residents could build whatever they wanted, new bedrooms, living rooms, rooms to rent or store stock.
Crucially Aravena had realised from his team’s research that the average size of a middle class house in a respectable neighbourhood was 80sqm. His proposal envisaged the construction and delivery of a house of 30sqm at ground level which could be expanded by the residents to 70sqm. Above that Aravena designed a duplex apartment with an initial area of 25sqm that could then be expanded to a maximum 75sqm. The houses could thus literally double or triple in size, and in his mind, increase in value both economically and politically, empowering and rewarding the residents who put the effort into creating them.
It was a ground-breaking project which received significant media attention for its unusual approach but its radicalism as a new conception of architecture was certainly underplayed. Working within the market system to achieve material efficiency in the face of great adversity, Aravena has touched upon a politectural solution to the global housing crisis which provides convincing answers to architecture’s most pressing concerns. At its nub lies the understanding that architecture is at its most politically effective when it operates as a process that engages its inhabitants in the act of spatial self-determination instead of being provided as a fully determined inflexible product by an external body.
Beyond the pragmatism of his proposal, the project at Iquique provides a convincing framework to several architectural and urban problems which have remained entrenched in unproductive opposition for far too long;
1 – Complexity vs. Order
If the project at Quinta de Monroy is a compromise between the need for shelter and the means to provide it, it is also a compromise between the opposing concepts of Order and Complexity. The approach taken by Elemental bridges the ideological impasse between Modernism and Post-Modernism, namely – how does one create order and equal opportunity to further human emancipation without stifling people in a totalizing system of conformity, whilst all the while preserving individual liberty of expression? Aravena’s architecture straddles both sides of the divide. On one hand his work is nothing more than a raw piece of urban infrastructure firmly in the modernist vein, providing safe and regulated access to commonly needed resources such as sanitation, plumbing and electricity. Unfinished, cold and austere, in their modular aspect and monotonous regularity these carcasses evoke memories of modernist architecture at its most dogmatic and least inspirational. Conversely, Quinta de Monroy presents a rare opportunity for personal expression in the city through the potential for expansion. When the units are inhabited and their voids occupied, the sober regularity of Elemental’s façade is animated by the unplanned variety and energy of the additions constructed by its inhabitants. From the street, complexity and order merge together as the concrete carcasses interact with the newly built extensions, and the modern vision of progressive order sits alongside the post-modern expression of individuality.
Yet the battle between Complexity and Order takes on political dimensions far removed from simple aesthetic concerns. We live in a world where the vast majority of urbanization is occurring at an informal level, by people who have no other option than to gamble their futures on urban life in order to carve out a better existence. These people are driving the trend in urbanization in ever greater numbers as they arrive from rural hinterlands to settle in growing cities, often clandestinely, and without recourse to the services, expertise or protection that more established, and wealthier citizens take for granted.
In this context, Aravena’s solution at Iquique seems to provide a blueprint for the difficult joint between co-ordinated development and informal architecture which could guarantee common standards of urban sanitation and shelter for those being assimilated into our cities whilst still allowing the space to foster cultural expression through self-determination. This is truly an emancipatory goal.
2 – Agency
The English have a fondness for an old saying that ‘a man’s home is his castle’, sovereign, inviolable – a place of refuge where he can exert his power, or agency, at will. This Nietzschean ‘will to power’ finds its most enduring architectural expression in the protective form of the dwelling, the site that guards its resident from unwelcome intrusion. In an address to the British Parliament of 1760, William Pitt the Elder famously elaborated the political subtext to the humble dwelling;
“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it. The rain may enter. The storms may enter. But the king of England may not enter. All his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”
This persistent idea of the home as indomitable fortress, the asylum in a turbulent environment, survives today in the form of Castle Law, where homeowners are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ to defend their property from attack. The concept of spatial agency refers to man’s capacity to shape his environment, altering it to suit his needs. Its a motive which chimes with the libertarian streak that bridges the political divide, but causes problems of accountability for planned central governance. Agency resists external interference, regulation, and surveyance in favour of independently negotiated limits.
Both at the individual and urban scale, every effort is made by those in power to limit the capacity for spatial agency in the hope of imposing ordering and categorizing the traditionally troublesome urban environment. For the homeowner, the plethora of planning regulations provides the major impediment to self-determination, whilst at the urban scale, ‘The Right to the City’ of Harvey and Lefebvre is constantly being undermined by the erosion of public space in favour of private development. Orderly shopping malls and gated communities are much easier to administrate than anarchic neighbourhoods and marketplaces since fewer people are directly accountable, and valuations of capital assets are easier to quantify, and then to exchange.
But the pursuit of relentless commodification of our urban environment under neo-liberal capitalism has come at the price of regional variation, differences between places and communities which once distinguished the urban environment, have buckled under the pressure of homogeneity and conformity. As spatial agency has become increasingly restricted to citizens over the past 30 years, urban environments have lost out on communal spirit to pay for regulated efficiency.
In this vein, Aravena’s proposal provides a compelling alternative for future urban development, one where spatial agency is encouraged both at the individual and communal level. By designing the space for agency to manifest itself within his architecture Aravena facilitates the expression of this fundamental civil right. Describing his approach at Iquique, Aravena says; “I design the rules of the game, but I don’t tell you which moves to make”. Its none other than political parametrics, using architecture as its method of employment.
3 – Scale
The real power of Aravena’s concept lies in its potential for universalization of production and implementation. For his part, Aravena sees his work at Iquique as prototypical of an architectural model which could be rolled out across the globe. He believes that the need for shelter and basic sanitary provision transcends cultural differences, religious/political/geographical variations are replaced by a humanist emancipatory programme.
However, the idea of a grand narrative of progress, or the universalization of human values, has always existed uncomfortably in the minds of those who understood that singularity of vision, when unchecked – destroys opportunities for the proliferation of difference; that when the collective will is driven unchallenged to its political extreme; it has historically ended up on the road to serfdom.
On the other hand some are awakening to the idea that when the collective will is fractured beyond recognition into an atomised set of individual pursuits, people are most easily exploited by these differences, since they lack unity or common purpose. Avarice and injustice then follow each other as night follows day whilst continual imperialistic conflict, driven by a war economy of the governing elites, creeps with every existential crisis further beyond the military industrial complex into predatory economic behaviour, the increasing militarization of urban space, blanket surveillance of daily life and the criminalisation of dissent.
These two opposing poles ultimately converge on the same ruinous road. What unites them both and becomes the source of their evocative power is the totalizing scale of each vision. The progressive course of the future seems to be marked on either side, left or right, by avoidable catastrophes. Aravena’s project strikes the delicate balance between liberty and order which might just have a chance of providing a global minimum standard of urban housing in this new millennium. Coupled with the simplicity of his design, the ease at which it could be mass produced, its capacity – as a type – for evolution and iteration, there is every reason why this model of housing should be exported globally.
Despite the stark warnings from history, progressive thought continues to need to dream in global terms. Rem Koolhaas claims that “every architect has the utopian gene”, perhaps it is because we see the tremendous and hard earned power at humanity’s disposal afforded to us by our current mastery over technology, or perhaps it is out of a lingering romantic belief in equality, that we still insist this power be employed to ameliorate the conditions for those who want it, wherever they may be.
With his architectural vision, Aravena has taken us a step closer to bridging the ideological divide, and might just have provided a blueprint towards achieving that emancipatory goal.