Alejandro Aravena Q&A

How an Architect Who Designs ‘Half-Houses’ Rebuilt a City

Alejandro Aravena, who helped a city recover from an earthquake and a tsunami, says participatory design is not just inclusive but “more efficient.”

CityLab, Sept. 26, 2019

In February 2010, a 8.8-magnitude earthquake—one of the strongest quakes ever measured—struck Chile. It triggered a tsunami with waves as high as 15 feet, which pounded the small city of Constitución, about 200 miles south of the capital Santiago. Dozens of people in Constitución died, many homes were destroyed, and the city was left reeling.

To lead the rebuilding effort, an architect named Alejandro Aravena arrived in Constitución. Aravena, co-founder of the Santiago design firm Elemental, already had a reputation as a socially conscious problem-solver. He had attracted international renown for his “half-a-house” approach to designing social housing, which is exactly what it sounds like: Having been given a small budget to construct homes for low-income families, many of whom said they would like to expand their dwellings in the future, Aravena hit upon the idea of building half of a larger, nicer home, and leaving the other half for the residents to finish themselves, either with their own hands or with help from local “micro-contractors.”

Elemental was asked to devise a rebuilding plan for the city in 100 days, working alongside engineers and consultants. Half-houses were built, but later on; first came a robust (though compressed) public dialogue that changed assumptions about what “disaster recovery” means.

The most obvious—and initially preferred—strategy for making Constitución more resilient was to build a high wall against the water. But the city ended up with a radically different plan: create a strip of coastal forest that can dissipate the force of tsunamis and provide much-needed public green space for citizens.

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