ELEMENTAL: Alejandro Aravena at ORDOS100 [2016 edit]

Alejandro Aravena | 2016 Pritzker Prize & Ordos100 sketch

During the first half of 2008, MovingCities attended the gathering of 100 international architects in the city of Ordos 鄂尔多斯, China. We published a few articles on the subject – one in MARK Magazine#15 called “Babel for Billionaires” – in which Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena talked about the Ordos House:

‘(designing) luxury houses in such a dense context are unusual for wealthy people. I hope this could shift the tendency of rich people to try and isolate themselves from each other.


Jump to January 2016, Alejandro Aravena wins the 2016 Pritzker Prize, with his ideas, works and persona described as being

“a social housing visionary, who engaged residents in designing their own homes, urges architects to address issues of poverty, pollution and segregationin The Guardian

leading a new generation of architects that has a holistic understanding of the built environment and has clearly demonstrated the ability to connect social responsibility, economic demands, design of human habitat and the cityin 2016 Pritzker Prize Jury Citation

and that

winning the prize does not come with pressure to produce, Mr. Aravena said; instead, it gives him the freedom to experiment. “I guess from now on, we don’t have to prove anything to anybody,” he said. “Now we feel more encouraged to enter fields with an even higher risk of failure.”in New York Times

Wang Shu [left, 2012 Pritzker Prize] & Alejandro Aravena [right, 2016 Pritzker Prize] | Ordos100 presentation, June 2008

As part of the MovingCities involvement in the Ordos100-project, we interviewed the (future) 2016 Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena twice [April 14 and June 25, 2008]

Alejandro Aravena interviewed by MovingCities [part I]

April 14, 2008 — During four days about a ‘100 international architects’ gather in Ordos. For some this is their second time, presenting now their proposals for the Ordos100-project, for others, like you, this is the first meeting with the client, to visit the site and to hear about the diverse ideas that architects are proposing. What are your impressions so far?

Alejandro Aravena: I am very excited about the novelty of this experience, to be able to design and build expensive luxury houses in a dense context, without any form of security. That is an unusual trend for wealthy people and I am curious about the results since it is very sexy in a way. As an initiative I wonder if this could change the tendency of rich people trying to isolate or to hide themselves. I am hopeful and curious about the result.

What was your initial reaction when you received the request to participate in this Ordos100-project?

Aravena: I wanted to know about the otherness of this project as it so different from my everyday experience. I am always curious and challenged, wondering how I am going to be able to balance the certainties that I have as an architect with the uncertainties of the otherness which is culture, climate and distance. Every single architectural work is that, trying to balance something you know with something you really do not have any idea about.

Alejandro Aravena | Ordos100 model

How do you position a project like this – a 1,000 square meter villa for an unknown billionaire client in China, in the middle of the Inner-Mongolian desert – within your onging career as an architect?

Aravena: Good question. I do not have an answer to that. My practice is rather extreme as on the one hand I work on very low budget housing projects and public policies and social issues connected with large scale thinking, and with infrastructural questions that normally have nothing to do with architecture. For those projects, the people on the other side of the table are not architects. So I have to find a way to engage with languages that are non-architectural but at the same time I still need to contribute with architectural and formal tools. At the other hand, I also have a more conventional architectural practice with many of my buildings published here and there. Right now I do not have one single work in Chile, all of them are outside, like in the US, Germany or now China.

What interests me is the space in between those two and how to bring experience and knowledge from one extreme to the other. Social housing and public policy issues require formal strategies and require projects because projects are very synthetic. Whenever you have a complex problem, it is good to have a synthetic tool like architecture. On the other hand, while doing these more conventional architectural projects I like to engage by starting from outside myself. I am not really interested in myself, in what I think or my own problems, because there are so many problems outside of me and to add another problem in space or form to that does not interest me,… all that crap, it is really not interesting. But trying to start from the outside, which is the case in social housing, and to translate it again in a synthetic tool, that experience from A to B and B to A, back and forward is what I try to find in my everyday context.

As part of the Ordos100-project, three Chilean architects were selected. Having never been to Chile, I wonder how would you describe the current architectural climate, what are the tendencies emerging?

Aravena: Chile has managed to find in scarcity and in difficulties a way to make meaningful work. Chile is in a very particular condition of being poor enough, so you can’t do whatever you want. You are always asked to provide reason and be thoughtful about what you are doing. But Chile is also not that poor that you can’t work on the potential of things. So on the one hand there is a certain rigor required from the architect and on the other hand you are expected to throw light on something that is about to come, that is not there yet. From that point of view Chilean architecture is in a very good shape and living a very good moment.

I feel a certain natural connection with the Chinese environment in that way, being full of uncertainties. A lot of the discussion today amongst architects here dealt with the fact that we might have too much uncertainties in the Ordos100-project, I find that these discussions are a first world problem. It is a natural condition for Latin American architects. The fact that you will find out while doing it, is fine, be prepared to react.

Alejandro Aravena interviewed by MovingCities [part II]

June 25, 2008 — As part of the second group of architects involved in the Ordos100-project, you presented this morning your proposal for a 1,00 square meter villa and that in front of the client, curator, critics and fellow colleagues partaking in this ambitious architectural project. From all the architects presenting, I noticed you had the shortest presentation in time and amount of slides explaining the project. Your first slide showed a series of broken bricks. Why was it important for you to focus on the smallest construction element, to focus on the materiality in your project, rather than showing off immediately the final form, as so many other architects prefer to do?

Alejandro Aravena: I would say that I am not generally or particularly interested in materiality as an approach. But for this project a key issue is going to be how to manage distance, so the success of the work depends on the strategy how to manage that distance. In this case, material was one of the bridges, a common language we can relate to and thus shorten the distance and guarantee a certain quality of the design. That is what I wanted to make clear. It was a presentation mainly for FAKE Design, a kind of instruction.

Last time I noticed a brick on the site. It was fantastic because you can break it easily and it is black on the inside. One does not need to break the brick carefully; it can be done roughly and placed on the outside. We want to communicate that this is the strategy to overcome mistakes. Thinking rough towards the outside will allow us to react if misunderstandings happen, that is why I started the presentation with the brick. The other important thing was the structure, 4 meters height for the shallow volume, 2 meters for walls to sit on top of the beams, so hopefully there will be no columns. If that is clear in their mind, the material, the scheme and the structure, than the rest is just drawing. I wanted to use my time to explain the basics and most important.

Alejandro Aravena presentation | Ordos100, June 2008

Does that idea to explain the basic, to go for a form of simplicity stems from a personal experience as an architect working in similar conditions?

Aravena: I would say that coming from Chile, you are always far away from everywhere, so dealing with distance, even within in Chile, means you have to be able to come up with strategies that make you focus on what is really important in your project. This means that the hierarchy of the decisions needs to be very clear. In this case the shallow volumes, the tower having this curved shape that makes it continuous and than the big void, very close to the tower, are all architectural facts. These volumes are not only the idea, but facts within a hierarchical operation.

Two months ago you came for a few days to Ordos, partly to see the presentations of other architects, partly to be informed about the brief and to visit the site. Once you got back to Chile, how did you start working?

Aravena: I had the idea before coming here in April. I basically came here to verify if it was okay to do it that way. When I got the email, or was it a phone call? I can’t remember – to be part of this project, I was already drawing while reading or listening, so I already knew I wanted to do this. I came here to verify if this was appropriate. Our entire strategy was to fit the program, to keep it low, to organize the house as a one-story house, even when we were given the opportunity of two stories.

Alejandro Aravena | Ordos100 sketch

During our previous conversation in April you talked about a certain life style for billionaires that could be reflected in the design of the villa or through this amount of villa’s. You talked about being curious about the results. These days, we see architects presenting their projects. You have been looking around as well. What do you look at when seeing other architects’ presentations?

Aravena: I personally believe that the corrosive part of this project is the budget per square meter. We have about 300 dollar per square meter to build. Which is nothing. I do not know what it means in China, but in Chile it is a rough house, mainly the structure, without finishing. There could be statement there, houses for wealthy people on a very low budget. If you do not want to disappoint your client, I guess you have to take that into account, and again, that is why I thought this house to be a primitive thing, not even an object, but a thing that uses the low-budget to its advantage. If you see the glass half full, I would say that low-budget houses for wealthy people – without security and being primitive – could be a very powerful signal to show how we spend money. I guess that such a project in Dubai would be impossible.

Alejandro Aravena | Ordos House, China. 2008

I still want to come back to the question on how you see and experience other architects’ projects and presentations. I noticed that a lot of architects are drawing the villa’s other architects are presenting. Is that a way to appropriate architecture, a way to understand other architects’ design approaches?

Aravena: It is a way to translate. Once you draw you have to measure again, at least that is what I do while drawing. You have to walk through the same steps of these guys, in a way you are learning from that, by following the same path. It is like when you walk on the sand and you find some footprints, because of the distance you can know if it was a tall or short person, fat or thin, who is running or … somehow you get information from the process.

I consider this type of event as a way to gain information about something you do not know about, so here is a condensation of procedures and ways and I am just trying to get updates. The more you draw, the more you understand processes and of course there are some projects you do not even pay attention to, there are others that you know that have something that is outside of your own DNA and I want to expand my DNA because if you only answer with what is inside of you, you are limited. I always like to expand the gamut of possible answers to questions because as a professional you tend to get questions that are new, you are not an expert in something or everything. I systematically receive questions that require and demand a lot of innovation, so I better be prepared. This is a good way to enrich your own ways of answering.

This gathering of a 100 architects in Ordos should thus be understood as a kind of open school?

Aravena: I come here very focused. You know the word symposium what it means in Greek? Banquet, meal,… a symposium is when you go to a meal. Actually in Spanish the word for flavour is sabor, which is the same thing is as to know. The taste of things is how you know things, so in symposium in the end you go to a banquet – Plato’s symposium is Plato’s banquet – so here there is a big meal served out there and I try to eat as much as I can (laughs), of course you choose very well, you just take a look at the plates, you do not eat everything, but there are some plates that look very tasty and I am trying those.


Interview with Alejandro Aravena by MovingCities.
Ordos, China. April 14 & June 25, 2008.

ORDOS100 images by MovingCities 
Ordos House project 2008 – images by ELEMENTAL

ORDOS 100 Project Statement
The scope of the project is to Develop 100 hundred villas in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, for the Client, Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Ltd. FAKE Design, Ai Wei Wei studio in Beijing, has developed the masterplan for the 100 parcels of land and will curate the project, while Herzog and de Meuron have selected the 100 architects to participate. The collection of 100 Architects hail from 27 countries around the globe. The project has been divided into 2 phases. The first phase is the development of 28 parcels while the second phase will develop the remaining 72. Each architect is responsible for a 1000 square meter Villa. [Ordos100]

About Alejandro Aravena
Alejandro Aravena was born on June 22, 1967, in Santiago, Chile. He graduated as an architect from the Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992. In 1994, he established his own practice, Alejandro Aravena Architects. Since 2001 he has been leading ELEMENTAL, a “Do Tank” focusing on projects of public interest and social impact, including housing, public space, infrastructure, and transportation.
ELEMENTAL has built work in Chile, The United States, Mexico, China and Switzerland. After the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile, ELEMENTAL was called to work on the reconstruction of the city of Constitucion, Chile. Aravena’s partners in ELEMENTAL are Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Cerda, Victor Oddó and Diego Torres.
Alejandro Aravena is the Director of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. He was a speaker at TEDGlobal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2014. He was a member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury from 2009 to 2015. [2016 Pritzker Prize]

Further Reading

Plus more to be see on Archdaily [announcement and works in 15 images], to read about Alejandro Aravena and the Future of the Pritzker Prize, or an interview in the Los Angeles Times or Dezeen; or have some crucial insights via Archinect’s critical round-up.

(back to movingcities interviews page)

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