Alejandro Aravena´s design philosophy: Here´s what you need to know

Maybe you have heard about the architect Alejandro Aravena for his social housing projects and would like to get a full picture of him. You´ve come to the right place. In this article, I am going to tell you why his architecture is changing social housing all around the world and what you need to know about him.

In 2016, Alejandro Aravena received the Pritzker price as the first Chilean architect to ever do so. He founded his firm ELEMENTAL in 2001 which is known for its social housing projects, most notably the approach called incremental housing. His work is characterized through pragmatism and participatory design processes. In his approach to social housing, he has changed many lives due to the easy applicability of the concept.

What works did Alejandro Aravena build?

To make it easier for you to understand his work, I have created a timeline with pictograms to give an overview over what projects he has done over the years.

Timeline of works of Alejandro Aravena which can be found online

Quinta Monroy

Sketch of a part of Quinta Monroy

This is ELEMENTALS first social housing project. This project required the construction of 100 units of low-budget housing in Iquique, Chile. For each unit, there was a budget of 7.500 USD. High-rises were out of the question, as the community threatened to go on a hunger-strike if the architects even considered it as a possibility. The House is made up of two units. One on the ground floor and another on the first and second floor which can be accessed by stairs. The project uses the principles of incremental housing, which I will outline in the next chapter.

Siamese Towers

Sketch of the Siamese Towers

There were several leading ideas in designing this building. Firstly, the architects figured that, with the more frequent use of computers, dimly lit interiors would be better suited to reduce annoying reflections of screens. The building features spaces not only for formal, but also for informal education. Because of monetary and energetic reasons, a curtain wall was out of the question. Instead, they decided to split up the façade into a glass structure, protecting against the weather and a layer of fiber-cement, helping against overheating. To reduce the greenhouse effect of the glass wall, they opened it up on the top and bottom to create a chimney effect which should let hot air ventilate out of the structure.

Anacleto Angelini Innovation Center

Schematic Sketch of section of the Innovation Center

The idea for this project was to turn a conventional skyscraper with a glass façade and a concrete core inside out. They opened up the inside of the building, allowing daylight to enter into the building by means of a big atrium which is surrounded by a glass façade. This also allows for more connection between different floors to enhance participation and innovation. The outer shell of the building is made from concrete and appears monolithic and timeless. The high thermal mass of the concrete absorbs the heat of the direct sunlight, thus preventing the building from overheating. In this way, the architects were able to cut the operating energy usage down from 120 kw/qm*a to only 45 kw/qm*a.

Casa Ocho Quebradas

Sketch of Casa Ocho Quebradas

This is a retreat for a fictional client which is built as a series of houses called “Ocho Quebradas” 250 kilometers north of Santiago de Chile. The site appears brutal, characterized by the white gush of the Pacific ocean and the strong wind of the sea. The architects sought to create a reinterpretation of the archaic. The fireplace is executed in a primal, rough and exaggerated manner, taking up a large portion of the living space. The accommodation for the guests is built into another vertical structure thereby reducing the footprint of the building. Above the fireplace, they put a huge chimney-like structure which casually leans against the guesthouse structure. As it should be used as a weekend retreat, the architects tried to achieve a synthesis of comfort and the roughness of the elements.

Incremental housing

In 2001, Alejandro Aravena, together with Andres Lacobelli founded ELEMENTAL with the intention to develop social housing in Chile. The problem with housing projects for the poor in south America is that they move to the city even if there is a lack of social housing available. If there is no house they can afford, they build their own informal settlements, which are difficult to improve once established.

The idea was simple and apparently revolutionary: Create the half of the home that the homeowners can´t build for themselves. This includes bathrooms, sinks and electricity. When the family grows and more people need to be accommodated, the family is free to expand by removing a wall of the structure and building the necessary rooms by themselves.

This makes it possible for the families to buy the house, even on a budget and then expand once their financial situation allows for it. In total, the cost of building the extension will be cheaper for the families than building a big house up front, because they can do most of the work themselves.

ELEMENTAL realised these incremental housing projects: Quinta Monroy, Lo Barnechea, Monterrey and Villa Verde

Critisism of Alejandro Aravena´s incremental housing

While the idea of building half houses give many people a better accomodation than they would have otherwise, the incremental housing projects receive critisism non the less. It is often argued that the idea of Aravena doesn´t help resolve the issue of social inequality, in fact, with 40 percent of ELEMENTAL being owned by the chilean oil company "Antar-Chile" some say that Alejandro Aravena plays into those structural problems instead of solving them.

Another major reason for criticism is the fact that there have been similar ideas around for decades that Aravena doesn´t mention. This includes a similar project of John Turner in the 1960s in Peru and Ernst May in 1925 in Germany.

Some belief it comes down to the fact that there is no simple solution that can solve all of chile´s social problems. In that sense, Aravena´s housing projects are a good idea, but they merely cure the symptoms of a larger issue that is persisting social inequality in Chile.

The design philosophy of Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena believes that it is the architect´s job to intensify what is already there, rather than complaining about what is missing. His mindset is to use scarcity as a motivator for design, that might limit its possibilities, but ultimately helps improve and speed up the process of finding solutions that work.

As can be seen in most of his projects, ELEMENTAL doesn´t look at one particular client and try to solve his or her problem perfectly. This wouldn´t help the majority of people, Aravena argues. He therefore suggests creating solutions that work for many, like the social housing projects he has built and is sharing on his website for worldwide adoption.

A unique and important part of his projects is the participatory design process. He says that this is absolutely needed because only then can you identify the right question to ask. As Alejandro Aravena said in his Ted Talk, “there is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question”. It also helps identify other areas of problems that need to be fixed which can then be adressed all at once.

This leads us to Alejandro Aravena´s next big design principle: Synthesis.

In his mind, it is a unique power of architecture to solve three problems with two words, thereby reducing cost and time. He thinks that architects need to respond multidimensionally to social and environmental problems and shouldn´t adress problems one by one. Aravena advocates for a more rigorous use of common sense, especially in dealing with sustainability.


As we have seen in this article, Alejandro Aravena adresses social and environmental problems in his design. His work is rigoros, pragmatic and effective in dealing with issues that regard a vast majority of humanity. However, they shouldn´t be seen as an ultimate cure to all problems. To conclude, I belief his biggest achievement is probably that he placed these critical issues on the stage for global debate, increasing the chances of the emergence of solid solutions.

If you have found this article helpful and would like to learn more about architecture in Chile, check out this article about Pezo von Ellrichshausen on my website, I promise - you won´t be disappointed.

Thanks for reading

~ Julian

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