At Habitat III, architect Aravena lobbies for ‘bamboo and mud’

The Pritzker Prize winner also elaborated on his ‘half a good house’ concept, outlining the five elements — and no more — the state should provide through affordable-housing programmes.

“When you can do only half of the house, which half do you do?” Aravena asked Monday. “By definition, public policy should do the half that the family cannot do individually.” (Habitat III Secretariat)

QUITO, Ecuador — Recapturing the spirit of innovations in social housing that inspired the U. N.’s first housing conference four decades ago, architect Alejandro Aravena of Chile delivered a keynote address at this week’s Habitat III summit in which he elaborated on his “half a good house” concept.

The idea, on which Aravena has risen to prominence, suggests that the state should provide the basics of a residential structure for low-income residents, who then build out the rest over time.

“The problem of not having enough money was the solution,” Aravena said Monday evening, speaking to an audience comprised mostly of Latin American architecture students eager to hear from last year’s winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honour.

[See: Lessons for Habitat III from the Venice Architecture Biennale]

Aravena’s vision stands as an alternative to the entirely self-built housing that characterizes many informal settlements around the world. In his talk, he outlined what he sees as the five elements that the state should provide to poor families: location, urban layout, design informed by “middle-class DNA”, full house structure, and wet rooms and staircases. The embellishments, meanwhile, should be left to the house’s owners.

“When you can do only half of the house, which half do you do?” he asked. “By definition, public policy should do the half that the family cannot do individually.”

In a presentation as rich in numbers as it was in drawings, Aravena explained how to maximize materials to produce social housing within a tight budget.

His talk would not have been out of place 40 years ago in Vancouver, the first time the world’s architects and urbanists gathered to discuss how humans live. At that event, now known as Habitat I, British architect John Turner, whose theories on self-built housing were informed by several years‘ working in the squatter settlements of Peru, delivered the keynote address at the alternative Habitat Forum.

[See: What can Habitat III learn from Habitat I?]

Many of these ideas infused Aravena’s role as curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. For example, he recounted his advocacy on behalf of humble materials readily available to the world’s urban poor. “Nobody is lobbying for bamboo or mud,” he said. “I tried to bring as much of it as I could to the Biennial.”

While the Biennale, which closes next month, includes bamboo structures by Colombian architect Simon Veléz and U. S. duo Doug and Mike Starn, Aravena pointed out the irony that such structures can only serve as art exhibits in Venice — because they wouldn’t pass muster under European Union building codes.

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