In the First Person
Alejandro Aravena: ‘Cities play an important role in correcting inequalities.’
Ana Vaz Milheiro

‘When I went to Harvard, people thought that social housing was not architecture’, recalls architect Alejandro Aravena in this interview given to architect and researcher Ana Vaz Milheiros, for Electra. Distinguished with the Pritzker Prize in 2016, Alejandro Aravena is known worldwide for the originality of his work, in which the relationship between architecture, housing, society and nature is of paramount importance. In this conversation, punctuated by themes that are present in the plural activity that he has been developing, Aravena also talks about the experience of designing and building in Lisbon.


© João Carmo Simões

Alejandro Aravena was born in Santiago de Chile in 1967, and can’t pinpoint the exact moment when he first realised he was an architect, but it definitely had to do with his introduction to residential programme design. In fact, if one had to use an expression to describe him, it would be ‘affordable housing’. This link makes perfect sense for someone who is convinced that housing can be used as a tool against poverty. International recognition would come with the Quinta Monroy social housing complex in Iquique, Chile, which he designed through his architectural office Elemental in 2003, and which allowed families who were informally residing in the area to settle. Having graduated in his home country in 1992, he studied in Venice the following year. He taught architecture at Harvard University until 2005 and in 2016 would be awarded the Pritzker Prize. That same year, Aravena was curator of the Architecture section of the Venice Biennale launching the theme ‘Reporting from the front’, stating his belief that ‘the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life’, a conviction he reasserts in this interview.

The Chilean architect, who was passing through Lisbon during one of his follow-up visits to the EDP headquarters construction site, in Rua D. Luís I, explained that being an architect is also ‘being grateful about people giving you opportunities’ and that urban communities have helped set priorities: ‘We can’t afford the luxury of missing that knowledge.’

ANA VAZ MILHEIRO  When you arrived in Lisbon, what was your knowledge of the city? How do you think your project for the EDP building makes that dialogue with the city?

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA  One thing is that the relationship with Lisbon started way before the project, as an architecture student, in 1991. I came from a country that doesn’t have much architecture. Portugal, in general, is a reference for an architecture student. There’s a critical mass and an intensity of architects that it’s hard to find anywhere else, except maybe Japan and Switzerland. The built environment is your ‘professor’. In Portugal, that comes from two different worlds: from history and heritage, extremely high-quality architecture; and from contemporary architecture. Coming to Lisbon is like coming to visit your ‘professors’. I didn’t arrive here with empty baggage. Actually, you arrive here feeling pressured. This is an environment where the average level of architecture is very high. Normally, we work in the office in places that are architecture-free. You go there to put something there of architectural interest. I don’t mean just art. I mean putting structures and infrastructures where there’s none. Working here is exactly the opposite. We’re in a particular part of Lisbon, where everything matters: not just the buildings around but the geography as well, like the river or the hill. We don’t arrive here knowing what we would like to do. We postpone wanting until we have listened, understood and studied what the question is, what the client’s needs and expectations are, what the environment is. We only design once we have understood the question and then actually designed the question. We don’t go into the answer before having made some creative work about the questions. The question is not something that is given, you have to build the question. That is already a creative act. These three layers accumulated even before starting the first approach to the project.


"I came from a country that doesn’t have much architecture. Portugal, in general, is a reference for an architecture student. There’s a critical mass and an intensity of architects that it’s hard to find anywhere else, except maybe Japan and Switzerland."

AVM  I’m very interested in what you said about ‘architecture-free’: the idea of a landscape without architecture. You come from Chile, a country that was colonised by the Spanish. A postcolonial attitude leads us to think that even in a very precarious environment, there is something which is already architecture.

AA  I’ll start by saying this is a very philosophical question. That is to say that it’s a fact that there’s more nature than history. And before talking about architecture, because architecture becomes something very debatable, I’ll talk about constructions. Chile is one of the most seismic countries in the world. In 1960, we had the biggest earthquake ever registered, 9.6 on the Richter scale. In 2010, it was 8.8. Nature already took care of things. It shook everything and made sure that all the things that were not listening to the environment were gone. Here, time is more important than geography. You have to read or speak a different language: the language of nature. This is something that we have been debating lately, in the context of an environmental crisis. I’m particularly referring to Mapuche communities (which are the native Indians of the southern part of Chile, now at war with Chile); now it’s a red zone. Before going into the political or legal even military issues of this battle, culturally speaking, I’d say that the biggest change is that the western world thinks in terms of belongings. For Mapuche, the key word is belonging as a verb. You belong to nature and it’s not nature that belongs to you. The biggest debate between native cultures and the western world, is that for native cultures, nature is a being. And that being has to be understood. That was why they can talk about nature being ill or suffering. For the western world, nature is a thing. As a thing, you can operate over nature. One of the interesting things coming from Chile is that we’re at the crossroads of many layers that overlap. First world and third world, Chile is both. Nature as being, nature as thing, we’re both. That’s what I mean by a land that is ‘architecture-free’.

"The more we can postpone machines having to condition the environment that we’re living in, then the better we’re contributing positively to the crisis that we’re living. Sustainability in the end is nothing but the rigorous use of common sense. "


AVM  You said that here in Lisbon, time is more important than geography, but we’re in a city where geography is everything. We have the river, then the climate changes and the sea levels are going to change, and our city is built on top of the water. Was this idea that time is more important than geography part of your question?

AA  Absolutely and it came in the form of a Master Plan we have to follow. Let me talk about an aspect that may seem too poetic or inoffensive, (that is, who cares?) which is light, and its changing is about time passing by. At the same time, light comes as a natural fact. Before going into the more artistic dimension of light, it’s a question of orientation, of energy gains and losses. Too hot to work in the summer, too cold in the winter. The more we can postpone machines having to condition the environment that we’re living in, then the better we’re contributing positively to the crisis that we’re living. Sustainability in the end is nothing but the rigorous use of common sense. If you’re commonsensical, you’ve solved almost 90% of the issue of sustainability. That explains the fact that the thermal mass in this building plays in the right orientations or that we have places that are open to light so we don’t have to put on the electric lights. Then, we need some shade, otherwise the exposure to direct sunlight makes it impossible for you to work. Fine-tuning this aspect is already a crossroad between time and geography.


"The word freedom is very important. I chose that word very carefully during the speech at the United Nations, where the prize was awarded. Freedom is about making choices."

AVM  Can we talk about the materiality of the buildings and how that relates to the wider social context?

AA  I’d say that the challenge for architecture is to understand that the way that they operate in the world has to enter in a much bigger conversation that is beyond only architects’ interest. Otherwise, the price we pay is irrelevance. One of the things that matter the most today is the environmental crisis. From that point of view our choice was thermal mass. The old architects responded to that by putting the thermal mass in the perimeter. The moment you have a curtained wall with glass, then you have a greenhouse effect. Then your energy consumption is 120 kW/m2 per year. The moment you put a wall on the façade with windows, which is the way things have been done for centuries, your energy consumption drops down to 40 kW/m2 per year. That’s a 300% saving. Then of course you can treat the material in a way that it becomes something that has some emotional and sensitive quality to capture the light of Lisbon that’s particularly relevant. People may say that concrete has a carbon footprint that is less desirable. But, if you’re going to spend energy, make sure that you spend it only once. We won’t have to touch the façade again for centuries. This is one of the lessons of old architecture. Cities are measured for what you can do with them for free. It’s an operation that levels the field of inequalities, one of the biggest challenges in our societies. Cities play a big role in correcting inequalities, because they can work as shortcuts towards improving quality of life without having to pay for them, without having to depend on income. Public space is a very powerful architectural opportunity.