Kind Of a Building
In contrast to the 1,000-year Western architectural tradition of firmness, solidity, and permanence outlined from Vitruvius to Ruskin; today, softness, openness, and temporality form a new, vogue terrain of architectural and urban discourse. Such projects embrace reduced and ephemeral materiality as well as possibilities for hyper-individualized readings and productions of space. While these ideas are not necessarily new, they do take on prominence in contemporary debates. Today, architects design for uncertainty more so than they do for flexibility as seen in earlier generations. Flexibility knew for which events it was designing. Uncertainty does not. If Prouvé’s Maison du Peuple represents flexibility, then the present fascination with festivals, pop-ups, food trucks, and platforms such as AirBNB demonstrates uncertainty. The Megastructure is no longer fixed, hard, or even physical per se, but rather “accidental”1 and indeterminate. Uncertainty is so deeply seated in our contemporary schema that it even changes the language we use. Today, no thing is, but only kind of—kind of a park, kind of a cantilever, kind of transparent, kind of an opening, kind of a space, and kind of a building.
One sees many examples manifested popularly, professionally, academically, and culturally that together construct the notion of an uncertain future for the built environment. To call to mind a paradigmatic shift in the popular realm, one must only think of Uber. This individualized transportation service claims to be “opening up the city for riders”2 and replaces the certainty of the ubiquitous black or yellow cab by making any car a taxi and any person a driver. Further, the certainty of cost erodes with Uber, as the price per mile adjusts depending on how many people are using the service at any given time. Spikes in riders— being catalyzed by anything from rain storms to sporting events—cannot necessarily be predicted, inhabiting the same realm as Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and causing one to wonder if the hand (should it exists) is now shackled by algorithms. Bound or free, uncertainty persists regardless.
In the professional realm, moving from the urban system to the urban object, doubt of where to go next derives from a sense of past mistakes. Architects, urban designers, and planners struggle with the scars of Pruitt Igoe, innercity motorways, and automobile-dependent suburbs. If the anchored and solid highway was the sign of progress and vitality in the 1950s, then today, progress—or progressive thinking to be more precise—is measured by the number of bike-sharing stations and coworking spaces, which may be physically anchored, but have a revolving group of users, reflecting new economic and cultural paradigms that espouse and celebrate access more so than ownership. Beyond the stress of past blunders are strains from the rapid technological advancements in computer, manufacturing, and communication technologies, represented most prominently by parametric coding, three-dimensional printing, and social media, respectively. As designers learn how to incorporate these new mediums into their practice, a feeling of self-doubt arises. Arjun Appadurai explains that the design discipline faces “changes in the spaces of technology, sociality, and media that appear to challenge the very commonsense of our previous understandings of materiality.”3 Such technologies and their corresponding objects themselves still have a hung jury, plagued by postconstruction faux-pas and dubious economic viability. Will they soon replace Mosian highways as icons of myopic design?
Lastly are the more cultural and academic components of uncertainty, driven by macro-agitas such as climate change, financial capriciousness, threats of terrorism, and logarithmic technological innovations. These examples suggest implicitly or explicitly that the world is particularly or intensely volatile, begetting a future filled with unknowns. For Zygmunt Bauman, turbulence results in large part because of the deregulation, or separation of power (“ability to do things”) and politics (“ability to decide which things are to be done”) within “liquid modernity,” wherein “conditions can be compared to a minefield: everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be.”4 Thus, the thinking goes that the response to this future landscape should be one able to adapt to multiple outcomes. Advocating for this direction and drawing on examples from systems theory and evolutionary scientists, Richard Sennett elaborates on “open systems” in the urban context. Such systems “have sought to show that instability contains in fact a structure—or rather, many structures—which responds to uncertainty and coordinate change.”5 Sennett offers adaptable systems as an alternative to the over-prescription of modernism and idiosyncrasies of high-tech building. One can refer again to the Megastructure to delineate the flexible from the uncertain. The Megastructure is singular, whereas today macrostructures are plural, one interwoven with the next. Indeed, Bratton’s “accidental megastructure” is in fact what he terms “The Stack” and is comprised of six overlaid layers.6
Yet another way to read Sennett’s argument and others of the same vein is not simply as reactions or successions to modernism, but rather embodiments of Bauman’s liquid modernity. Liquid modern designers embrace axiomatically Bauman’s assertion that “uncertainty” is “the only certainty.”7 Moreover, they also see the city, and for that matter architecture, through Bauman’s words: “forever ‘becoming,’ avoiding completion, and staying underdefined.”8 All of this said, the future is, by definition, inherently uncertain in general. Thus, can one really say that today’s future is any more unknown or uncertain than the future of the past? David Harvey challenges notions that today’s futures are particularly foreboding, explaining that “the speed and heterogeneity of urban social change, that took Chicago from a trading post to a polyglot multicultural emporium of 1.5 million people in two generations, was something quite extraordinary at the time and probably every bit as stressful as anything that has happened since.”9 Nevertheless, for Harvey, contemporary problems do take on a unique complexity and seriousness in that the reaction to them by the elite is more lackluster than it once was.10
In many ways, it would seem reasonable to think that, given technological advancement and the expanded ability of mathematical modeling accompanying the advent of the computer, the future should be more certain. Citing Frank Knight as a seminal contributor to the study of risk, Appadurai says that “risk has been a major topic in economic theory and is perhaps the central concept of the field of economics” and that there is an increase in “marketized models of risk and uncertainty.”11 In a related stroke, globalization suggests more predictability in the form of greater standardization of urban infrastructure such as free trade zones, which work towards a “global form.”12 Paradoxically, models of physical and formal standardization go hand in hand with neoliberal deregulation and ever-expanding financialization, a prime generator of uncertainty according to Appadurai and many others. The endeavor of calculating risk itself becomes a “major source of risk for the global markets.”13 Easterling’s “zones” are likewise “driven by profound irrationalities.”14 Moreover, recent political outcomes suggest that even tried and true methods of forecasting are failing.
Whether climate change, the capriciousness of global financial markets, troubling demographic trends, or the possible unintended consequences of global urbanization, today’s imaginary seems to define itself as particularly turbulent. Whether this volatility is objectively true or not, I prefer to agree with Zeiderman et al. that “uncertainty as a lens through which to examine the urban”15 is a worthwhile task and that careful spatial analysis corroborates the claim that uncertainty is “something that is both produced and productive.”16 With these outlooks and frameworks, one can examine the work of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena and his firm Elemental to elucidate how perhaps a physical construction of the uncertain is arising in conjunction with the theoretical discourses on uncertainty that I have outlined.
Alejandro Aravena began his career designing schools and houses in the late 1990s. Examining these early projects, one might be surprised to discover that Aravena is the current day arbiter of collaboratively indeterminate design. Many of his early works focused on massing, materiality, and light, incorporating brick, stone, and metal, rendering the buildings as anchored, solid, and permanent. Over time, Aravena began to incorporate the construction of social housing into his portfolio, outlining a model of urban architecture that seeks to deal with the challenges of the uncertain urban future in a collaborative manner, involving communication and trust among the architect, client, and city. This process situates the architect as both designer and policy maker and the client as codesigner as well as end user.
No project of Aravena’s better captures this methodology than the Quinta Monroy housing development (Monroy) in Iquique, Chile. As the city grew, the privately-owned Monroy site became an informal settlement where half the families lived below the Chilean poverty line of 90 USD per month.17 The site had contested ownership, and after many years of legal battles and much national attention, the state-run program, Chile Barrio, purchased the land in order to develop the site, hiring Aravena’s firm, Elemental.18
The design of Monroy is deceptively simple. The layout consists of approximately 38 square lots with at least two homes on each, able to accommodate all of the families previously on the site. Aravena and his business partner, Andres Iacobelli, explain that Elemental decided against locating the housing outside of the city, the prevailing trend for social housing in Chile at the time, saying that “locating families close to the city with easy access to urban opportunities was key to helping them overcome poverty. A bad location breaks work and social ties and with them, household socioeconomic structures.”19
The insistence on prioritizing low-income groups as citizens of the city seemingly addresses Bauman’s feeling that a critical issue today is “the unstoppably rising volume of ‘uprooted’ people—migrants, refugees, exiles, asylum seekers: people on the move and without permanent abode.” (20) As in the case of the contested Monroy land, one could add the dwellers of informal settlements to Bauman’s list of “‘uprooted’” peoples. By engaging this population, Elemental responds to liquid modernity’s paradigm of population flux. Ideally, proximity results in continued symbiosis between the residents and the city, giving the former the ability to weather uncertain financial and employment prospects. The easy architectural answer would have been to locate the Monroy complex on cheaper land far from the city center. However, as policy-maker and architect, Aravena chose otherwise as such remoteness would cut off the residents from the economic flows of Iquique.
In breaking disciplinary solidity by acting as policy-maker, Aravena must then quickly reassume the role of the architect, deploying formal moves to resolve financial problems resultant from locating the project in the city center. To afford this central land, Elemental chose to build “half a house,” or as Aravena prefers to say, “half of a good house.”21 The solid, initially-built zones of the houses are roughly thirty-six square meters, about half the size of what is typically considered a comfortable single-family home.22 The void spaces are on the upper and ground floors, allowing expansion horizontally and vertically, notably with little predefined structural logic. Residents finish the home by filling in the unbuilt, open cavities as they see fit, bringing the total square footage closer to the ideal. The resulting building is a combination of both the resident’s and the architect’s efforts, a process more akin to editing a Wikipedia page than to publishing a pristine book.
In a strictly formal sense, one can read Elemental’s design as a hollowing out of Aravena’s earlier works under his previous firm, Alejandro Aravena Architects. The glass and steel juxtaposition in his earlier Catholic University of Chile School of Architecture building suddenly takes on a resemblance to the solid/void figures of Monroy if one imagines the glass areas of the façade excavated from the mass, leaving an L-shaped solid. Aravena and Elemental are striving for something altogether different than modern ideals which were “after perfection—and the state of perfection it [Modernity] hoped to reach meant in the last account an end to strain and hard work.”23 On the contrary, reading Monroy’s voids as carvings from earlier Aravena works suggests an attitude of change for change’s sake, as it were, an embrace of more work. This attitude is a core component of liquid modernity “as Richard Sennett observed, perfectly viable organizations are now gutted just to prove their ongoing viability.”24 In this light, Aravena’s perfectly viable and beautiful building forms are gutted in subsequent iterations to show their adaptability to a new client, context, and economic situation.
Similarly, before and after image pairs of both the interior and exterior recount a narrative of increased vitality, liveliness, and customizability over time. In essence, this equality in the representation and presentation of the work of the architect and the work of the inhabitant is a hallmark of the uncertain aesthetic wherein final architectural construction drawings are not the final shape, only kind of the shape. A multitudinous combination of objects populates and completes the building. In that holistic formal and geometric documentation of the project can only be captured over time, Monroy echoes Mehrotra’s “Kinetic City,” which is “[i]ncomprehensible as a two-dimensional entity” and “a three-dimensional construct of incremental development.”25 Aravena and Iacobelli confirm as much explaining that the building’s core structure works with the multiple needs of each family and is often described by as enabling an “incremental” approach, one that takes the temporal into account.26 This incrementalism creates a visual language of uncertainty and absence that reveals itself in before and after diagrams of Monroy. In these drawings, the initial concrete form is rendered with whites and greys; the additions made by each family are shown in color. Whereas Elemental’s framework structure aligns from one unit to the next in a choreographing of symmetry—the infill components meet the façade with varying setbacks, aperture, and tectonic personality. Unlike Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus, the personal inserts in Monroy exert a greater amount of visibility, freedom, and autonomy from the core structure. Unlike the Megastructural projects of the 1960s, Monroy’s additions are a far call from the tidy capsules and pods of Archigram or the Metabolists, who strove for predictable, kinetic variation in contrast to Aravena’s uncertain accumulation. On the one hand, the power given to the inhabitants of Monroy expresses their agency and intelligence in constructing their own uncertain urban future. On the other, it raises potential warning signs. Elemental asked families what was more important to them, a bathtub or hot water heater. Arevena answers that while “decision makers or politicians or professionals, they normally tend to answer the water heater…in 100% of the cases…the families, they preferred the bathtub over the water heater.”27 The reason for this? The residents feel they can make immediate use of the bathtub, whereas with the water heater they know they cannot afford the bill that will result.28 Such balance sheet approaches lead some to describe Aravena’s ventures as “design-nomics,” as Aravena presents it “20 [percent] design, 80 [percent] economics.”29 Here, concerns arise over Aravena’s repeated mention of “accepting all the policies” of the market, following “every single rule that the market was following”30 to build social housing. Does such an embrace keep society from seeing the potential problems or contradictions in providing a bathtub but not hot water? Should we provide and advocate for more?
Aravena’s embrace of the market, often the very system causing such uncertainty, is what makes him a liquid modern designer. Whether this embrace will be able to chart a new path or simply reinforce existing, problematic tendencies of neoliberalism is unclear. Embracing the macro-level producers of uncertainty implicates Aravena and his buildings in broader trends. Describing the resiliency narrative of late, Ash Amin explains the dialog as a “neoliberal turn towards active subjects” whereby “neoliberal calculus” is tempted “to fold the urban ‘unconscious’ into its variegated toolkit, in the meantime leaving people and places without means exposed and vulnerable.”31 Perhaps Aravena is aware of the problematics Amin raises. He explains that the built areas of his projects are the “technically difficult parts of the houses—kitchen, bathrooms, partition wall, stairs” that create “the DNA of [the] middle income standard” and the components that “families won’t be able to do on their own.”32
More time must pass before we can assess whether Elemental’s DNA is strong enough to prevent people from becoming unprotected, with a house which is too small, or worse yet over-crowded, unsafe, and unfinished. However, if this DNA does prove strong enough, with most families expanding the structure, keeping their property, and gaining assets and social-mobility, then perhaps Monroy and other developments like them will prove to be instruments which subvert the “neoliberal calculus” by deploying and designing its rules in new ways.
1 Benjamin H Bratton, The Stack – On Software and Sovereignty, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015), xviii.
2 “The Company”, Uber Technologies Inc., accessed January 11, 2016, https://www.uber.com/about.
3 Arjun Appadurai, The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays On The Global Condition, 1st ed. (London: Verso, 2013), 257.
4 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), xiv.
5 Richard Sennett, “The Public Realm” (Self-published online article, 2008), accessed January 9 2016.
6 Benjamin H Bratton, The Stack – On Software and Sovereignty, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015).
7 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), viii.
9 David Harvey, “Possible Urban Worlds,” in Justice, Nature, & the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 405.
10 Ibid., 408.
11 Arjun Appadurai, The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays On The Global Condition, 1st ed. (London: Verso, 2013), 4.
12 Keller Easterling, “Zone: The Spatial Softwares Of Extrastatecraft”, Places Journal (June 2014), accessed January 9, 2016, https://placesjournal.org/article/zone-thespatial-softwares-ofextrastatecraft/.
13 Arjun Appadurai, The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays On The Global Condition, 1st ed. (London: Verso, 2013), 5.
14 Keller Easterling, “Zone: The Spatial Softwares Of Extrastatecraft”, Places Journal (June 2014).
15 Zeiderman, Austin, Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Jonathan Silver and Astrid Wood, “Uncertainty and Urban Life.” Public Culture 27, no. 2 (2015): 284, accessed January 9, 2016, doi: 10.1215/08992363-2841868.
16 Ibid., 285.
17 Alejandro Aravena ELEMENTAL Part 1,” YouTube video, 3:20, from a panel discussion at the Index: Awards 2011 Winners Talk, posted by NOJ Produktion, February 12, 2013.
18 Ibid., 86.
19 Ibid., 98-99.
20 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), xv.
21 “Alejandro Aravena ELEMENTAL Part 1,” YouTube video, 3:20, from a panel discussion at the Index: Awards 2011 Winners Talk, posted by NOJ Produktion, February 12, 2013.
23 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), x.
24 Ibid., xi.
25 Rahul Mehrotra, “The Static and the Kinetic,” LSE Cities, accessed April 4, 2017, https://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/the-static-and-the-kinetic/en-gb/.
26 Alejandro Aravena and and Andrés Iacobelli, Elemental: Manual De Vivienda Incremental Y Diseno Participativo = Incremental Housing and Participatory Design Manual (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2012).
27 “Interview with Alejandro Aravena on site in Chile,” Urbanized, 11:20, directed by Gary Hustwit (2011; USA: Plexifilm), accessed January 9, 2016, http://www.hustwit.com/category/urbanized/.
29 “Alejandro Aravena ELEMENTAL Part 1,” YouTube video, 2:28, from a panel discussion at the Index: Awards 2011 Winners Talk, posted by NOJ Produktion, February 12, 2013.
30 Alejandro Aravena, Alejandro Aravena: The Forces in Architecture (Tokyo: Toto, 2011), 170.
31 Ash Amin, “Surviving the Turbulent Future,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume 31, no. 1 (2013): 142. Accessed December 2015, doi:10.1068/d23011.
32 “Alejandro Aravena ELEMENTAL Part 1,” YouTube video, 5:11, from a panel discussion at the Index: Awards 2011 Winners Talk, posted by NOJ Produktion, February 12, 2013.