What brands can learn from Alejandro Aravena’s ‘participative architecture’
On the 13th of January, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena became the new Pritzker prize laureate (arguably the most prestigious award for a living architect) and the decision spurred mixed reactions. By choosing a combative 48 year-old whose architectural vision is heavily imbued with social purpose, the Pritzker committee broke a consolidated tradition of awarding architects celebrated globally for eye-catching portfolios.
In the past 15 years, the work carried out with Santiago based practice Elemental (where Aravena is co-founder and partner) has pushed boundaries and paved new approaches in social housing, sustainability and urban reconstruction.
The underlying conviction of the studio’s social work is that the end user (i.e. tenants, landlords, and the urban community at large) is a stakeholder as much, if not more, than the commissioner (i.e. local government, private developer). Looking for solutions to improve people’s lives isn’t new news for architecture, but the way Aravena seeks to find these solutions has disrupted a traditionally top-down approach.
In 2004, Elemental gained international attention for a social housing project in Iquique, situated in the north of Chile. In order to keep costs within the limited budget provided by the government, the houses were only ‘half-built’ and provided with the basic infrastructure; concrete frame, roof, bathroom and kitchen.
The rest; living room, bedrooms and garage - was left for future owners to build allowing them to customise the space in accordance with their own personal taste. The advantage was threefold: it resolved budget issues, provided homes for the homeless and offered a personalised aesthetic quality to what would otherwise be an identical set of barren concrete blocks.
Later in 2011, Elemental was commissioned to devise a post-tsunami reconstruction plan for the city of Constitución. The plan sought to involve residents from the very inception of the project, with daily meetings between the architects and the community. Notwithstanding the significant organizational difficulties, this ‘participative design’ experiment enabled Aravena and his colleagues to establish a direct channel of communication with the end users, breaking free from a binary relationship between architects and institutional forces.
There is a fascinating parallel to be drawn between Aravena’s recognition as a pioneering architect, and brands that in recent years have leveraged practices of collaboration and inclusiveness to achieve innovative outcomes.
Take Airbnb, which holds community engagement at the core of its brand story. The key ingredient to the company’s success is that all stakeholders; the brand, the host and the guest – feel equally involved to share responsibilities and benefits. The brand helps customers to maximise their offering by providing assistance on how to improve user profiles - advising on service diversification and connecting professional photographers with property owners.
When it comes to organic and collaborative brand building, Red Bull’s story exemplifies the advantages of smart co-authorship. It proves that taking a step backwards to let quality content be in the spotlight pays off. Sometimes, being the support act can actually bring more visibility than being the lead.Other brands are also positioning themselves as cultural facilitators. Enterprises like UPS and IBM partnered with TED to share valuable ideas closely related to their core businesses.
Brands that are shifting to the role of facilitators (or architects) in the relationship between users, manufacturers and the marketplace show to be receptive of the broader cultural ecosystem, one that is increasingly sceptical about top down or singular solutions and recognizes the power of multiplicity.
As we look forward to Aravena’s take on the 2016 Venice architecture Biennale, of which he has been appointed director, we hope his approach will display alternative modes of thinking, as well as providing inspiration for smart brands.
- Article by Pietro Matteucci