Anticipating need and fulfilling architecture's mandate

Alejandro Aravena

Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena dazzled attendees with a passionate overview of a Chilean housing project.

Aravena, Diller, Kéré, and Murphy bring community desires into sharp focus with drive, verve, and dedication

Four keynote speakers opened AIA Conference on Architecture 2017, each drawing from their shared commitment to architecture’s capacity to drive positive change under the day’s theme of "Anticipate Need: Design That Cares.”

Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA, led off with a retelling of his desire to give back to his home country of Burkina Faso. Its capital city of Ouagadougou, once a carefully planned urban environment, has been spreading wildly for the past 70 years and taking its citizens farther and farther away from the infrastructure and resources they need in order to thrive.

"The urgent problem in architecture today is urban growth," he said. "This is the challenge that we have to tackle."

One of Kéré's goals as a young architect was to build a school in his village—something it lacked during his childhood. But, garnering support proved more difficult than he imagined. Community elders and the instructors who would make his vision come to life, questioned Kéré’s proposed ideas about materials—specifically clay—which they initially deemed "poor people’s material." He convinced them that using clay, both readily available and inexpensive, was paramount to the village’s success in realizing a dearly needed cornerstone of community infrastructure.

Even then, Kéré had to prove clay’s worth, once jumping up and down on an arch comprised of clay bricks to demonstrate its durability and value. "If it had crashed," he said, "they would have said, 'We knew clay bricks were not a very good material.' But when there was no crash, everyone said, 'Oh, very good technology.'"

Ultimately, the Berlin-based Kéré reinforced the need for architects to instill faith in their communities. The founder of Kéré Architecture spoke of simple design solutions everyone can understand and embrace, such as using a replaceable pot with a hole in the bottom to dispense water to tree roots as opposed to a pipe system that would require much more maintenance.

"How do you explain to people, when life expectancy is under 50 years, to dig a big hole, fill it, and grow a tree that they'll never see?" he asked. "I do that with access to information. You have to show care for your people."

"Architecture is always social"

Kéré was followed onstage by Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group, who cautioned architects to understand the implications of their work each day.  

"As architects, we have tremendous power in the choices we make. Whether or not we intend them, the consequences of our decisions cannot be divorced from the social and political impacts they have on the public. The question is not whether we have social impact," he added, "but whether we make humane decisions that empower the communities we work for."

In addition, he wondered whether “social architecture” was a label worth using in the design world any longer, "because it suggests we have the choice to do this."

"Architecture is always social," he said. "We must reject this false choice and not ask what architecture is, but what it can do."

"What's more important than what we'll build is what we won't build." - Alejandro Aravena

His answer included a discussion of MASS Design Group's projects around the world, including hospitals in Rwanda and Haiti built to combat tuberculosis, cholera, and other diseases through research-supported design features like open spaces, better ventilation, and natural light.

"Simple, site-specific designs can make a building that heals," he said.

As he finished, Murphy returned to an example he cited at the beginning of his talk that illustrated the implications of an architect’s choice: Nazi architect Albert Speer’s decision to locate labor camps adjacent to granite quarries throughout Germany, effectively supplying him with enough stone to carry out his grand designs. Murphy’s MASS Design Group submitted a proposal for a Holocaust memorial in London that would implicitly reference the quarries by installing a pile of six million stones. Visitors would be invited to take the stones and carry them home, entering into an unspoken contract of remembrance for each death the stone represents.

"This architecture is radically vulnerable," he said," but in that vulnerability it becomes ritualized; it becomes alive. And then, it disappears. And what remains is a space of calm, a space of peace."

Traversing the High Line

Elizabeth Diller, the founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, then took the stage to relay the story of perhaps her firm's most famous project, the High Line in New York City.

The 1.5-mile-long park reclaimed an abandoned stretch of city land and turned it into a renowned green space, including a suspended grandstand that provides intimate views of Tenth Avenue traffic.

"This is a place where you can't really do anything," she said. "This is about celebrating doing nothing, which is very exotic for New Yorkers."

In discussing the High Line, she referenced today's renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and her work in urban planning. Though the High Line overachieved on many of its expectations, including raising billions in real estate and taxes for the city and receiving more than seven million visitors last year, it also had unforeseen impacts that Jacobs would have criticized as detrimental.

"Architecture is always social. We must reject this false choice and not ask what architecture is, but what it can do." - Michael Murphy

"High rents have made it difficult for the neighborhood to maintain demographic diversity, which Jacobs saw as necessary to building a vibrant city," she said.

"Once a place of tranquility," she added, "the High Lane became a place to look at each other. It's now a cosmopolitan mélange of tourists, executive socialites, retirees, sunbathers, fitness buffs, fashionistas, and locals, sauntering among the closing sea of open parking lots."

Nevertheless, the "High Line effect" has gone viral. Cities around the globe are pursuing similar projects to add green space to their cities and hopefully achieve the same level of development. For these cities, Diller implores they ask themselves how to handle and properly disperse the benefits of urban renewal and growth.

"Was there something we could have done differently?" she asked. "Could the tax revenue generated by the project be directed to rental and small business subsidies? Could the city have created a land trust to defend lots that could be developed into cultural centers?"

"Looking back, it was, and remains, difficult to rebalance the interest of the future against the present," she added. "And as architects, we step into the lifecycle of the city, and we accelerate or slow down that cycle. But what is the responsibility of architects in shaping the aftermath of urban change they have prompted, and how do we make allies and not enemies of time and shape?"

Fulfilling needs and desires

Finally, Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena dazzled attendees with a frenetic and passionate overview of a project that highlighted the architectural responsibility to not just meet needs, but desires, as well.

Noting that criticism toward architects had vacillated from "architects should move away from spectacle and starchitects" to "architects are too socially responsible," he stated that the real answers come from a place in the middle.

"This presentation aims to dismantle, or reshape, that argument on both ends," he said. "What we ultimately do is contribute the specific knowledge of form making, forms that are informed by very different forces like economics, politics, social, even aesthetics. How can design channel those forces in a way that can contribute to people's quality of life?"

"What is the responsibility of architects in shaping the aftermath of urban change they have prompted, and how do we make allies and not enemies of time and shape?" - Elizabeth Diller

On a white board, the founder of Elemental S.A. outlined an example: one of the firm’s projects in Chile that sought to provide housing for 100 families with very specific space and financial restrictions. If his firm went with houses, they'd have the capacity for 30 families. If they built a high-rise building, they could fit 100 families but acknowledged evidence that those projects are cheaper in the short term but ultimately being demolished at a higher rate.

What they went with was an alternative in between: duplex apartments on top of houses. This would allow lower-class families to expand from the smaller apartments to middle-class homes if their means improved. Doing so was not an example of Aravena and his firm performing their civic duty; it was taking proper advantage of housing subsidies and expensive land that otherwise would not have been fully utilized. And, at its most basic level, giving residents a clear and real opportunity for upward mobility.

"These discussions are not specific to architecture; they belong to society," he said. "That's what we try to do: apply what we know, whether it's geometry or structure."

Because, as Aravena noted, while this was a "modest case in the corner of the world," we will need to build for a million people per week with very little money in the very near future.

"If we can't solve this issue, it's not that families will stop coming to cities," he said. "They will come anyhow, and they will live in awful conditions. Can we come up with very different design strategies that channel people's own building capacity?"

We'll have to forget what we were told in schools, he said, about artistic control over form. "We will have to start this conversation ourselves, and then the achievement of the middle-class standard will be thanks to the design, not in spite of the design."

"What's more important than what we'll build," he added, "is what we won't build."

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at AIA.

Image credits

Alejandro Aravena

Todd Winters

Alejandro Aravena, aia.org hero

Todd Winters

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