Alejandro Aravena
Courtesy Holcim Foundation Alejandro Aravena

The recent announcement of the appointment of the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena as the director of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2016 is certainly good news. After the cynicism, realism, or constructive criticism (depending on your take), of Elements of Architecture—the 14th edition of the Architecture Biennale, led by Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, in 2014—Aravena promises a Biennale that will argue for architecture that improves the quality of living for all. Having been given the chance to direct a show that attracts between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors and a great deal of media attention, Aravena will now be able to exhibit work from around the world dedicated to the notion that the basic building blocks of architecture, which Koolhaas picked apart, can be assembled to make better daily conditions for all.

Aravena’s statement of attempt is an optimistic clarion call if there ever was one:

"There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life. This is what we would like people to come and see at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition: success stories worth to be told and exemplary cases worth to be shared where architecture did, is and will make a difference in those battles and frontiers.

“The 15th International Architecture Exhibition will be about focusing and learning from architectures that, through intelligence, intuition, or both of them at the same time, are able to escape the status quo. We would like to present cases that, despite the difficulties, instead of resignation or bitterness, propose and do something. We would like to show that in the permanent debate about the quality of the built environment, there is not only need but also room for action.”

The Venice Biennale, which, for well over a century in art and almost four decades in architecture, has taken the pulse of what makers think they should and could be doing around the world, seesaws in its choice of directors between those who espouse conservative positions (David Chipperfield, Hon FAIA; Deyan Sudjic) and radical ones who question the very boundaries of their media—the current Art Biennale, by Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, on view through November 22nd (about which I will write later this week), certainly does that, and I like to think that Architecture Beyond Building, the Architecture Biennale I directed in 2008 (and in which Aravena exhibited for the first time) did the same.

Elemental Iquique, a housing project for 93 families, built with a budget of $7,500 per family.
Courtesy Alejandro Aravena Elemental Iquique, a housing project for 93 families, built with a budget of $7,500 per family.

Aravena offers a potential alternative to this dichotomy in that his work is a form of constructed and constructive criticism. He has not so much concerned himself with either taking a theoretical position, or with developing a style, as he has with dedicating himself to carving out a practice in which he finds ways to help people with few means to have access to better space. His Iquique Housing Project, for which he and his company, [coincidentally named] Elemental, won one of the 2008 Biennale’s highest awards, the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Architect, provided a low-income community with a framework and one space, along with the possibility Aravena afforded the new inhabitants to then expand their initial homes on their own within and upon the structure the architect designed, but according to their own design. It was not so much “architecture without architects” as architecture expanding the notion of what architecture non-architects could make with the tools architects give.

Innovation Center at the Catholic University of Chile, Santiago.
Courtesy Alejandro Aravena Innovation Center at the Catholic University of Chile, Santiago.

You have to assume that, given both such work and the manner in which Aravena has made himself an invaluable member of the (very) loose community of tactical urbanists pursuing such experiments around the world, we will see many more ideas about not just producing buildings but how we can use the skills and knowledge of architecture to make better uses of space and resources possible, and how we can open up our designed environment, rather than just filling it with more boxes. Which is not to say Aravena is not a good designer of such structures, as the photographs of his 2013 Innovation Center at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago make me assume.

The proof will be in the exhibition, for which we will have to wait until its May 28 opening; but the first and most important step, that of finding the right director, is exactly the right one.

For a closer look at the 14th Architecture Biennale, directed by Rem Koolhaas, watch the video below:

Elements of Architecture at the 2014 Venice Biennale