Chilean activist-architect Alejandro Aravena is making a big name for himself. In 2009 he won the Marcus Prize for Architecture, was one of ten recipients of RIBA's 2010 International Fellowships and sits on the jury for the internationally acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. The 42-year-old is also the man behind Elemental, a Chilean collaboration of architects, engineers and social workers that is redefining architecture's role as a proactive force for social good.
"The challenge for us as architects is to engage broader issues, difficult issues, tough issues like poverty and segregation, and development or underdevelopment, migration into cities – all these issues are non-specific but interest any citizen," says Aravena. He is very earnest, with big hair and a wolf-like intensity, yet open, friendly and very persuasive. He has presence, too, and is the handsome face of an unglamorous but essential movement in urban design. "Architects tend to be uncomfortable in contaminated, polluted types of problems, which are mainly the kind of problems we have to deal with. We should keep on being architects but use architectural tools – the most important one is design, which is a very synthetic tool – to deal with these issues."
Elemental has been reinterpreting low-income mass housing since 2000. The collective's name says it all – social housing is produced when there are not enough resources and those available are elementary. Coming from a country with very few resources, Aravena has reduced design to its foundations to produce architecture for the masses that is sustainable, pragmatic and efficient. Elemental's success is down to it following market rules and applying them to costs, scale and time frames.
Elemental's work has never been more necessary. As global urbanisation continues at a great pace – Aravena cites UN-Habitat's findings that 1.2 million people move to cities every week – the need to provide infrastructure and housing using scarce resources is paramount. By 2050, three-quarters of the world's population will live in cities but the vast majority will be living in the poorest countries.
Urban planning is now governed by numbers and Aravena thinks in mathematical terms. It's no surprise, then, that one of his inspirations is Rakesh Mohan, the deputy governor of the central bank of India. "A brilliant man," says Aravena. "One of the best things I have heard about cities was in his talk at the Rockefeller Foundation Global Urban Summit. He said urban disciplines are not sexy so the most brilliant minds are not here. They are somewhere else in biotechnology, in business or elsewhere, so we are lacking a chain of quality."
Aravena set up Elemental after being invited to teach at Harvard in 2000. It was here he met his business partner, Andrés Iacobelli, a transport engineer studying public policy, and began to engage with the idea of tackling the tricky, sensitive problem of social housing for Chile's poor. Originally just a research and a testing project involving Harvard and the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile universities, it became an investment and building company run by the latter along with the Chilean Oil Company COPEC, the CEO of which sits on the board of Aravena's architecture practice.
It is now a socially oriented "for profit" association, providing low-cost structures that are finished off by the occupiers according to their economic situation. Elemental's projects have few resources; they provide conditions that enable the building units to be adapted and increase in value over time.
"To do a museum you just need talent, to go into social housing you need so much more than talent," says Aravena. "When we started working at Elemental we said we are going into this because it is a question that has intellectual merit and is not just something that will produce a lot of good," says Aravena. "If we are professionals we should tackle the most difficult questions."
Their first project came in 2003 when Aravena was asked to create housing for 100 families in Iquique, a city in northern Chile. The problem was, however, that each family had just $7,500 in government subsidies for both the cost of the land and to build the houses. Examining every typology they could, Elemental decided against building a high rise as that would prevent the families expanding, and instead built half a house for each family because that is all the money would provide. Elemental provided the roof, kitchen and bathroom, and a simple concrete structure with gaps that allowed the owners to insert new rooms and create their own individual home when able.
This social housing became an investment for the owner, while also housing 700 people per hectare. So successful was the Iquique project that it has been replicated in 13 other locations in Chile and Mexico.
It is a design template that could be used across the developing world.
Aravena, who has held visiting professorships at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the Architectural Association, has applied the same highly disciplined approach used in his social projects to his private practice, which began with several highly acclaimed buildings for his old university, the Universidad Católica in Santiago. Recent projects have seen Aravena working across the globe, from designing a villa for the Ordos 100 project in Mongolia to a children's education centre for Vitra in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. Last year in Austin, Texas, Aravena completed his first major commission outside Chile, a small Catholic university campus, at St Edward's University. Aravena's design for the 119,000ft², $26 million dormitory took an abstract yet functional approach to a brief that called for a design that would be in line with the mock-gothic 1910 campus – a four-storey brick building that curves around a shaded courtyard.
Aravena says the only advantage of growing up under the General Pinochet regime in a closed society was that he was insulated from postmodernism. "In Spanish there is an expression meaning that only architects understand what they are talking about between themselves. "The price that path had to pay was irrelevance to people".
The lack of exposure to postmodernism liberated Aravena to approach architecture from the point of view of history and not trends, and resist the mainstream to create subversive but approachable solutions to big problems.
"I don't think we are particularly good people who have a higher conscience," Aravena says. He is being modest, because there are few other architects able to so uniquely recalibrate and realise architecture's potential as both a cultural and social power for good.