Half a good home isn’t enough

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Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena of the firm Elemental won the Hyatt Foundation’s annual architecture prize, the Pritzker, in January — a big surprise since the prize usually goes to a long-established professional: In 2014 it went to German architect Otto Frei, aged 90. Aravena, 48, won it because his work is meant to eradicate poverty, and to serve the greatest number. The Foundation’s head Thomas Pritzker said at the award ceremony: “His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. [...] he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”


Aravena was first noticed in 2004 over his Quinta Monroy social housing project in Iquique, northern Chile. Elemental had been asked to re-house the families of a shantytown, and Aravena had the idea of delivering half of a good home that the occupants could add to themselves, whenever they could afford it. This meant 93 homes could be built on a budget for just 30. The Iquique apartments looked like shoeboxes stood on end, with gaps between the units that could be filled in during any future expansion. The basic unit provided running water and one bedroom. The potential extension area was about the size of a garage at ground level, so that people at the building’s base could increase their living space from 36 to 70 square metres; those in the duplex apartments on the upper two floors could expand from 25 to 72 square metres. The new houses were built on the site of the occupants’ existing homes, so they could stay in the centre of the city (population 220,000) rather than be moved to the suburbs.


Economical use of available means, and the residents’ inventive appropriations of the basic building, make the housing project look picturesque — self-construction, or incremental housing, is seen, rather condescendingly, as a touching but clumsy expression of popular art. The original idea wasn’t Elemental’s but had been borrowed from earlier housing designed by Chilean architects such as Fernando Castillo Velasco in the 1970s, or the Experimental Housing Project (Proyecto Experimental de Vivienda — Previ) launched in Peru in 1965 by architect-president Fernando Belaúnde Terry. The Pritzker prize did not mention these socially committed precedents.


The media enthusiasm at Aravena’s award may indicate a major shift in the world’s architectural trends. The Hyatt Foundation, having helped make global stars out of Frank Gehry (the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain) and Zaha Hadid (the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, a present from Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev to his father), wants to revamp the “starchitect” concept. China has already declared an end to showy architecture that is out of sync with climate and social concerns. Ordinary people everywhere are tired of white elephants; the trend is towards useful, committed architecture, mindful of the common good. The Foundation may want to set the architectural agenda for the future, but Aravena might not be the right hero for that.


Media attention has not focused on the relationship between Aravena and Elemental, and business magnate Roberto Angelini, which dates back to the Quinta Monroy project. The Chilean authorities had refused to finance it, so Aravena turned to AntarChile, the country’s leading conglomerate. Angelini, the chairman and CEO, quickly agreed and acquired a 40% stake in Elemental through AntarChile’s subsidiary Copec. He was enthusiastic about selling half of a good home to the poor: “Alejandro had the genius to launch a social housing project with two levels and possibilities for extending them,” he said when presenting him with the Avonni prize for innovation in 2009.


Elemental (which calls itself a “do tank”) has another shareholder, and leading client — the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (UC or PUC). This private institution was close to General Pinochet’s regime (1974-90) and home to the “Chicago Boys”, the Chicago-trained Chilean economists who promoted monetarism and free market capitalism. Elemental’s portfolio includes many elegant university buildings for UC, none of them self-constructed: the schools of mathematics (1998), medicine (1999) and architecture (2004), the Siamese Towers (2005) and the UC Innovation Centre (2014), all co-financed by AntarChile.


Aravena, learning that he was nominated for the Pritzker, wrote that “our plan is not to have a plan, to face the uncertain, be open to the unexpected.” Such social housing projects are often described as being the fruit of a dialogue with the inhabitants, but seem to produce the same results in Chile or Mexico, the United States or Switzerland. In Chile, the 2010 earthquake and reconstruction of the city of Constitución provided an opportunity to develop the Quinta Monroy concept on a larger scale. Elemental’s client there was the Arauco factory, the city’s leading employer (and a subsidiary of AntarChile). The government’s representative was Andrés Iacobelli Del Río, a founding member of Elemental, who was under-secretary of state, 2010-1, for housing and urban planning in Sebastián Piñera’s rightwing government. Pablo Allard, another founding member of Elemental, was the national coordinator for urban reconstruction; he supervised the project. According to Claudio Pulgar Pinaud of the University of Chile’s faculty of architecture and urban planning, the Constitución project was representative of the model under which the transfer of state powers to private players who are considered to be “brilliant, powerful and prominent” accompanies gentrification. Elemental’s project forced poor fishermen out of the city centre in which they had traditionally lived, and provided hardly any of the “quality public space” that Pritzker commented on. The result is an instructive example of the kind of neighbourhood that generous builders create for the poor.


The Argentinian critic Fredy Massad, among the few to dissent on Aravena’s merits, said: “One of the reasons why there was so much enthusiasm for Aravena is that society and the architectural sector want to believe in miraculous and instant remedies, but pays no attention to the actual results.” Admirers of concepts like Quinta Monroy rarely return for a later review; by 2013, the public spaces had been encroached on, and the houses looked scarcely better than the shantytown they replaced; the core buildings had no hot water, faulty masonry, minimal finishing, and very poor quality materials. Pulgar Pinaud points out that “in Chile, social housing, or rather subsidised housing, is part of what we would call a home ownership programme. It not so much a housing policy as a financial support mechanism for the private property and construction sectors. Those who need help are told to go to the [money] markets,” which often means that people get heavily into debt.


Inequality is certainly a problem in South America, but instead of redistribution, Aravena proposes re-absorption by the city. Doing more with less is one of his slogans, and that ideological foundation explains why he was on the same wavelength as the Pritzker jury. It’s one of those institutions, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Facebook, that try to deal with problems that once were the concern of the state, such as the environment, health and poverty. To transform social housing into humanitarian action, from a right to charity, is not a good vision for the future.

(Translated by Krystyna Horko)


- Olivier Namias is a journalist.


Copyright ©2016 Le Monde diplomatique -- used by permission of Agence Global


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