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TEDGlobal 2014

Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process

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When asked to build housing for 100 families in Chile ten years ago, Alejandro Aravena looked to an unusual inspiration: the wisdom of favelas and slums. Rather than building a large building with small units, he built flexible half-homes that each family could expand on. It was a complex problem, but with a simple solution — one that he arrived at by working with the families themselves. With a chalkboard and beautiful images of his designs, Aravena walks us through three projects where clever rethinking led to beautiful design with great benefit.

- Urban architect
Alejandro Aravena works inside paradoxes, seeing space and flexibility in public housing, clarity in economic scarcity, and the keys to rebuilding in the causes of natural disasters. He Full bio

If there's any power in design,
00:12
that's the power of synthesis.
00:15
The more complex the problem,
00:17
the more the need for simplicity.
00:19
So allow me to share three cases
00:22
where we tried to apply
00:24
design's power of synthesis.
00:26
Let's start with the global challenge of urbanization.
00:29
It's a fact that people are moving towards cities.
00:33
and even if counterintuitive, it's good news.
00:37
Evidence shows that people are better off in cities.
00:40
But there's a problem that I would call
00:44
the "3S" menace:
00:46
The scale, speed, and scarcity of means
00:49
with which we will have to
respond to this phenomenon
00:51
has no precedence in history.
00:55
For you to have an idea,
00:57
out of the three billion
people living in cities today,
00:58
one billion are under the line of poverty.
01:02
By 2030, out of the five billion people
01:05
that will be living in cities,
01:09
two billion are going to
be under the line of poverty.
01:11
That means that we will have to build
01:15
a one million-person city per week
01:21
with 10,000 dollars per family
01:30
during the next 15 years.
01:35
A one million-person city per week
01:37
with 10,000 dollars per family.
01:40
If we don't solve this equation,
01:42
it is not that people
will stop coming to cities.
01:44
They will come anyhow,
01:46
but they will live in slums, favelas
01:48
and informal settlements.
01:51
So what to do? Well, an answer may come
01:52
from favelas and slums themselves.
01:55
A clue could be in this
question we were asked
02:00
10 years ago.
02:03
We were asked to accommodate 100 families
02:05
that had been occupying illegally
02:08
half a hectare in the center
02:11
of the city of Iquique
in the north of Chile
02:13
using a $10,000 subsidy
02:16
with which we had to buy the land,
02:19
provide the infrastructure,
02:22
and build the houses that,
in the best of the cases,
02:24
would be of around 40 square meters.
02:27
And by the way, they said,
02:31
the cost of the land,
02:33
because it's in the center of the city,
02:34
is three times more
02:37
than what social housing can normally afford.
02:38
Due to the difficulty of the question,
02:42
we decided to include the families
02:44
in the process of understanding the constraints,
02:46
and we started a participatory design process,
02:50
and testing what was
available there in the market.
02:53
Detached houses,
02:57
30 families could be accommodated.
02:58
Row houses, 60 families.
03:01
["100 families"]
The only way to accommodate all of them
03:05
was by building in height,
03:08
and they threatened us
03:11
to go on a hunger strike
03:12
if we even dared to offer this
03:15
as a solution,
03:17
because they could not
make the tiny apartments
03:18
expand.
03:21
So the conclusion with the families —
03:23
and this is important,
not our conclusion —
03:25
with the families, was that we had a problem.
03:27
We had to innovate.
03:30
So what did we do?
03:32
Well, a middle-class family
03:35
lives reasonably well
03:39
in around 80 square meters,
03:42
but when there's no money,
03:45
what the market does
03:46
is to reduce the size of the house
03:48
to 40 square meters.
03:52
What we said was,
03:55
what if,
03:56
instead of thinking of 40 square meters
04:01
as a small house,
04:05
why don't we consider it
04:08
half of a good one?
04:10
When you rephrase the problem
04:13
as half of a good house
04:15
instead of a small one,
04:17
the key question is, which half do we do?
04:19
And we thought we had
to do with public money
04:22
the half that families won't
be able to do individually.
04:25
We identified five design conditions
04:30
that belonged to the hard half of a house,
04:33
and we went back to the
families to do two things:
04:35
join forces and split tasks.
04:38
Our design was something in between
04:42
a building and a house.
04:45
As a building, it could pay
04:48
for expensive, well-located land,
04:50
and as a house, it could expand.
04:53
If, in the process of not being expelled
04:57
to the periphery while getting a house,
04:59
families kept their
network and their jobs,
05:02
we knew that the expansion
would begin right away.
05:04
So we went from this initial social housing
05:09
to a middle-class unit achieved
by families themselves
05:13
within a couple of weeks.
05:18
This was our first project
05:20
in Iquique 10 years ago.
05:22
This is our last project in Chile.
05:24
Different designs, same principle:
05:28
You provide the frame,
05:31
and from then on, families take over.
05:32
So the purpose of design,
05:36
trying to understand and
trying to give an answer
05:40
to the "3S" menace,
05:43
scale, speed, and scarcity,
05:45
is to channel people's own building capacity.
05:47
We won't solve the one million
people per week equation
05:50
unless we use people's own power for building.
05:54
So, with the right design,
05:59
slums and favelas may not be the problem
06:01
but actually the only possible solution.
06:05
The second case is how design can contribute
06:08
to sustainability.
06:12
In 2012, we entered the competition
06:14
for the Angelini Innovation Center,
06:16
and the aim was to build
06:19
the right environment for knowledge creation.
06:21
It is accepted that for such an aim,
06:25
knowledge creation,
06:27
interaction among people,
face-to-face contact,
06:29
it's important, and we agreed on that.
06:31
But for us, the question
of the right environment
06:34
was a very literal question.
06:37
We wanted to have a working space
06:39
with the right light, with the right temperature,
06:42
with the right air.
06:44
So we asked ourselves:
06:46
Does the typical office building
06:48
help us in that sense?
06:51
Well, how does that
building look, typically?
06:53
It's a collection of floors,
06:57
one on top of each other,
06:59
with a core in the center
07:01
with elevators, stairs,
pipes, wires, everything,
07:04
and then a glass skin on the outside
07:09
that, due to direct sun radiation,
07:12
creates a huge greenhouse effect inside.
07:16
In addition to that, let's say a guy
07:21
working on the seventh floor
07:23
goes every single day
through the third floor,
07:25
but has no idea what the guy on that floor
07:28
is working on.
07:31
So we thought, well, maybe
we have to turn this scheme
07:33
inside out.
07:36
And what we did was,
07:38
let's have an open atrium,
07:40
a hollowed core,
07:44
the same collection of floors,
07:46
but have the walls and the mass in the perimeter,
07:47
so that when the sun hits,
07:52
it's not impacting directly glass, but a wall.
07:56
When you have an open atrium inside,
08:02
you are able to see what others are doing
08:05
from within the building, and you have
08:07
a better way to control light,
08:09
and when you place the mass and the walls
08:11
in the perimeter,
08:14
then you are preventing direct sun radiation.
08:16
You may also open those windows
08:20
and get cross-ventilation.
08:21
We just made those openings
08:24
of such a scale that they could work
08:27
as elevated squares,
08:29
outdoor spaces throughout
08:31
the entire height of the building.
08:33
None of this is rocket science.
08:37
You don't require sophisticated programming.
08:39
It's not about technology.
08:41
This is just archaic,
primitive common sense,
08:43
and by using common sense,
08:49
we went from 120 kilowatts
08:51
per square meter per year,
08:53
which is the typical energy consumption
08:56
for cooling a glass tower,
08:58
to 40 kilowatts per square meter per year.
09:00
So with the right design,
09:04
sustainability is nothing but the rigorous use
09:07
of common sense.
09:09
Last case I would like
to share is how design
09:13
can provide more comprehensive answers
09:16
against natural disasters.
09:18
You may know that Chile, in 2010,
09:21
was hit by an 8.8 Richter scale
09:24
earthquake and tsunami,
09:27
and we were called to work
09:30
in the reconstruction of the Constitución,
09:31
in the southern part of the country.
09:34
We were given 100 days, three months,
09:36
to design almost everything,
09:39
from public buildings to public space,
09:41
street grid, transportation, housing,
09:43
and mainly how to protect the city
09:45
against future tsunamis.
09:48
This was new in Chilean urban design,
09:50
and there were in the
air a couple of alternatives.
09:54
First one:
09:57
Forbid installation on ground zero.
09:58
Thirty million dollars spent mainly
10:01
in land expropriation.
10:03
This is exactly what's being
discussed in Japan nowadays,
10:05
and if you have a disciplined population
10:08
like the Japanese, this may work,
10:11
but we know that in Chile,
10:13
this land is going to be
occupied illegally anyhow,
10:14
so this alternative was
unrealistic and undesirable.
10:18
Second alternative: build a big wall,
10:22
heavy infrastructure to resist
10:26
the energy of the waves.
10:28
This alternative was conveniently lobbied
10:30
by big building companies,
10:32
because it meant 42 million
dollars in contracts,
10:33
and was also politically preferred,
10:38
because it required no land expropriation.
10:40
But Japan proved that trying to resist
10:44
the force of nature is useless.
10:47
So this alternative was irresponsible.
10:50
As in the housing process,
10:53
we had to include the community
10:55
in the way of finding a solution for this,
10:57
and we started a participatory design process.
11:01
(Video) [In Spanish] Loudspeaker:
What kind of city do you want?
11:04
Vote for Constitución.
11:06
Go to the Open House and express your options.
11:08
Participate!
11:10
Fisherman: I am a fisherman.
11:12
Twenty-five fishermen work for me.
11:14
Where should I take them? To the forest?
11:16
Man: So why can't we have a concrete defense?
11:19
Done well, of course.
11:22
Man 2: I am the history of Constitución.
11:24
And you come here to tell me
that I cannot keep on living here?
11:26
My whole family has lived here,
11:30
I raised my children here,
11:32
and my children will also
raise their children here.
11:33
and my grandchildren
and everyone else will.
11:36
But why are you imposing this on me?
11:38
You! You are imposing this on me!
11:41
In danger zone I am not authorized to build.
11:42
He himself is saying that.
11:44
Man 3: No, no, no, Nieves...
11:46
Alejandro Aravena: I don't know if you were able
11:51
to read the subtitles, but you can tell
11:53
from the body language
11:55
that participatory design
11:57
is not a hippie, romantic,
11:58
let's-all-dream-together-about-
the-future-of-the-city
12:00
kind of thing.
12:04
It is actually — (Applause)
12:06
It is actually not even with the families
12:09
trying to find the right answer.
12:12
It is mainly trying to identify with precision
12:15
what is the right question.
12:18
There is nothing worse than answering well
12:20
the wrong question.
12:22
So it was pretty obvious after this process
12:24
that, well, we chicken out here
12:27
and go away because it's too tense,
12:31
or we go even further in asking,
12:33
what else is bothering you?
12:35
What other problems do you have
12:37
and you want us to take
care of now that the city
12:38
will have to be rethought from scratch?
12:41
And what they said was,
12:45
look, fine to protect the city
against future tsunamis,
12:47
we really appreciate, but the next one
is going to come in, what, 20 years?
12:50
But every single year, we have problems
12:55
of flooding due to rain.
12:57
In addition, we are in the middle
13:00
of the forest region of the country,
13:02
and our public space sucks.
13:04
It's poor and it's scarce.
13:07
And the origin of the city, our identity,
13:11
is not really connected to the buildings that fell,
13:13
it is connected to the river,
13:16
but the river cannot be accessed publicly,
13:18
because its shores are privately owned.
13:20
So we thought that we had
to produce a third alternative,
13:24
and our approach was
against geographical threats,
13:29
have geographical answers.
13:34
What if, in between the city
13:37
and the sea
13:43
we have a forest,
13:48
a forest that doesn't try to resist
13:51
the energy of nature,
13:54
but dissipates it by introducing friction?
13:56
A forest that may be able to laminate the water
14:00
and prevent the flooding?
14:04
That may pay the historical debt of public space,
14:06
and that may provide, finally,
14:11
democratic access to the river.
14:14
So as a conclusion of the participatory design,
14:16
the alternative was validated politically and socially,
14:19
but there was still the problem of the cost:
14:22
48 million dollars.
14:25
So what we did was a survey
14:29
in the public investment system,
14:31
and found out that there
were three ministries
14:34
with three projects in
the exact same place,
14:36
not knowing of the existence
of the other projects.
14:39
The sum of them: 52 million dollars.
14:42
So design's power of synthesis
14:46
is trying to make a more efficient use
14:49
of the scarcest resource in cities,
14:51
which is not money but coordination.
14:54
By doing so, we were able to save
14:57
four million dollars, and
that is why the forest
15:00
is today under construction.
15:03
(Applause)
15:07
So be it the force of self construction,
15:09
the force of common sense,
15:13
or the force of nature, all these forces
15:16
need to be translated into form,
15:19
and what that form is modeling and shaping
15:22
is not cement, bricks, or wood.
15:26
It is life itself.
15:29
Design's power of synthesis
15:32
is just an attempt to put
15:34
at the innermost core of architecture
15:36
the force of life.
15:40
Thank you so much.
15:42
(Applause)
15:45

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About the Speaker:

Alejandro Aravena - Urban architect
Alejandro Aravena works inside paradoxes, seeing space and flexibility in public housing, clarity in economic scarcity, and the keys to rebuilding in the causes of natural disasters. He

Why you should listen

Throughout his career, Alejandro Aravena has grappled with what he calls the “double condition of cities.” Attracting people, knowledge, development and opportunities on one hand, the Chilean architect says cities also concentrate and magnify social pressures.

Through Elemental, the firm he founded in 1994, Aravena has devoted as much time to the design of iconic structures like the San Joaquin Universidad Catolica's “Siamese Towers” and Santiago’s Metropolitan Park as he has to the design of flexible and beautiful low-cost housing for low-income families. The firm's work is not just about buildings, but about shaping lives.

Aravena is the winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize.

More profile about the speaker
Alejandro Aravena | Speaker | TED.com