In his article announcing Alejandrao Aravena as the Pritzker winner Ed Heathcote suggests that handing the prize to the young Chilean architect offers hope to the architecture profession racked with self-doubt over its lack of purpose. “The award is a vaccination against accusations of irrelevance. How could anyone argue with that?” he concludes. It is an interesting question and one I wish to address briefly. How could anyone argue against it? By stating very clearly that Aravena’s work which shows promise, although it must be said, not a spectacular amount of originality when it comes to the creation of form, is at times, a theatre of social engagement.
How can someone argue against it? By pointing out that Aravena’s victory is a victory of image over substance. He won, according to the Pritzker citation, because he “epitomises the revival of a more socially engaged architect”. There is in that statement a strange remove from actually being “a socially engaged architect”, and more about an idea. We have to ask ourselves when this golden bygone time of social engagement exists? Do these predate the days of the Pritzker Award itself? Or is there some point in the doling out of awards when it engaged only in fripperies? Do we have to go through every architects’ portfolio and scour them for social housing?
And not just any social housing but social housing like Aravena’s in Quinta Monroy in Iquique, Chlie, which is effectively a platform, half a house and space for another part of the house to be built in. The rhetorical nature of the project is that the first part of the project is vertically adjacent rather than horizontally so. Because – let’s be clear – the idea of providing new homes to poor people with space into which they can grow is nothing new. What is new is the rhetorical way it is being done. Now I think the project produces an interesting effect, I like the collage, but as to it being the acme of social engagement… really?
Surely alterations and adaptations are the stuff of housing. Take these comments by Ellis Woodman on the work of Alvaro Siza – perhaps one of the socially engaged architects to which Avarena is supposed to direct us back to. Here Woodman is writing about Malagueira in Evora, Portugal – a low-rise social housing scheme built in the 1970s: “Alterations were originally permitted only if they accorded with the dictates of a rule book but when the Communist local authority which had initiated Malagueira’s construction was replaced by a Socialist administration in the early 1990s, that monitoring process fell by the wayside. In consequence, changes occasionally prove more ad hoc than might be wished but most go unnoticed − a tribute to the pliancy of Siza’s original vision”
Like Aravena’s work in post-quake Constitución, the Malagueira scheme was delivered as part of an extensive consultancy with local people. Siza’s sketchbooks are with portraits of the people he was consulting with and attest to the endless meetings he attended to. But unlike Siza, who was also judged on the quality of the architecture, Aravena is judged on the fact that he did consultancy on what should be a priority a fire station or a bus station. This is not only to prioritise something that should be happening in the background but also to suggest that a noisy consultancy process is better somehow than a thoughtful plan created by professionals. The Pritzker citation puts a process before the end result. This to me is a wrong step.
The suggestion is also that previous planners did not listen and did not create an architecture of potential. In fact, building in a potential for the future is an untold story in the history of Modernist planning. In the 1950s the port of Casablanca became vitally important. As a result, the slums or bidonvilles in the city grew quickly as immigrants from all over Morocco and North Africa were drawn to the city to work predominantly in factories processing the country’s food production. In response the colonial authorities provided the CIAM member and planner Michel Ecochard with the opportunity to create a grid as the main planning instrument for new urban neighbourhoods. Ecochard was an adventurer and loved exploring Morrocco. Certainly he was an adjunct of the colonial state but the plan he produced was humane and although based on the modernist ideals of ameliorating the human condition, it was also based on the courtyards he had surveyed in the area.
Although he provided opportunities within the plan for other architects to produce six or seven storey blocks most of the habitations he planned were single storey with the dimensions of courtyard dwelling typology, measuring 8m by 8m. They consisted of two rooms and a large outdoor space, effectively a patio. The individual habitation was organised in a neighbourhood unit: not in an overly repetitive way but in an intricate ground-level structure of patio-dwellings, alleys, and public squares. Since that time, Ecochard’s courtyard houses have had had their patios covered and, with each successive generation in a family has been built on top of.
The areas originally planned by Ecochard still work as thriving parts of the city. Whilst mosques or shops have come into some of the other public spaces, the generosity of the plan not to mention its variety has afforded these additions space. And whilst Ecochard’s grid was applied in the colonial period it was still being used in the city until much later. It has also been adopted and implemented in other cities in North Africa and the Middle East by choice rather than compulsion. Of course this comes from a time when society was intent on providing housing on a huge scale and it is what we do now that is significant. Architecture has the joy of working within society but it is eternally constrained by the dominant political and social power. The down side of its eternal act of engagement is the amount of capital required to produce buildings. This constrains it in a manner that is not accepted by those on the Pritzker panel.
Averana does not deserve to be unduly denigrated but there is something very strange about the way in which he is being described as “socially-engaged”. All architecture is socially-engaged, it may do so deceitfully, simply, badly or in a sophisticated manner. It may also do so DOWN A MEGAPHONE. To me Avarena’s work at Quinto Monroy while it shows some ingenuity as a formal exercise, is largely a rhetorical act and that fact is being ignored. And whilst it is interesting project, to afford it the status we have also granted to the work of a Siza or a Koolhaas or even a Murcutt belittles the whole award which now addresses the moral intention of the work rather than the quality of its design. Or even its beauty.