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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He Contained Multitudes

Review of Plagued by Fire by Paul Hendrickson

The American Scholar, Autumn 2019 

In 1957, while in New York supervising the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright agreed to be interviewed on television by journalist Mike Wallace. By this time, Wright was 90 years old, the author of several hundred buildings, and a global celebrity—one who played the role of the uncompromising artist to the hilt.

About 10 minutes in, Wallace noted that a younger Wright had proclaimed that he would be the greatest architect of the 20th century. Had he reached his goal?

Wright denied that he had ever said such a thing. Wallace pointed out he had said it on the record, multiple times. Outflanked (for once), Wright partially backed down. “You know, I may not have said it, but I may have felt it,” he told Wallace. “But it’s so unbecoming to say it that I should have been careful about it. I’m not as couth as I’m generally reported to be.”

Not as couth: was this a calculated note of false modesty, laid on to charm (as was Wright’s habit), or was it something closer to candor? In his new book, Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Hendrickson pushes back against the idea that Wright’s famous arrogance crowded out all feelings of shame, regret, humility, or sadness. Behind the superstructure of his ego, vulnerability was always “ghosting at the edges,” Hendrickson writes.

Yes, Wright peacocked around Chicago, and later Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Scottsdale, Arizona, in dandyish bespoke clothes, leaving unpaid creditors in his wake. He busted up two families (one of them his own) by running off with a married client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. He had a bitter break from his mentor, Louis Sullivan, wheedled money out of friends and patrons, and told constant fabrications. Hendrickson doesn’t deny any of this. But he avers that Wright possessed a “fundamental decency,” and that he was haunted by the gothic personal tragedies that unfolded throughout his life, yet he seemed to endure them—and push through them to new artistic heights—with an uncanny resilience.

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The Art of the Green New Deal

On Friday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave Twitter users a look at two new posters her office is issuing to promote the Green New Deal, apparently the beginning of a series of GND-themed posters.

The posters were designed by the New York firm Tandem, which was also behind the congresswoman’s election campaign. Scott Starrett, a co-founder of Tandem, created them with artist Gavin Snider. Starrett said that more posters, of local parks in cities other than New York, will follow, but the timing of their release is uncertain.

If the posters seem at first glance to have a retro vibe, you’re not wrong, as the congresswoman confirmed in a follow-up tweet. The chunky all-caps type, the emphasis on places of natural beauty, and even the color palettes are intended to evoke posters produced nearly a century ago by a singular federal program in American history: the Federal Art Project, an office of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. (The program survived the termination of the WPA for a few years within a new agency, the Federal Works Administration.)

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The Internet Loves Breezewood

What Internet Memes Get Wrong About Breezewood, Pennsylvania

A photo of a strip of fast-food outlets and gas stations is used to critique the sameness of the American landscape. But it could only be one place on Earth.

CityLab, July 24, 2019 

It’s summer, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans, that means at least one burger-and-bathroom break in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. This half-mile gauntlet of gas stations, fast-food outlets, and motels, its oversized signs towering above the surrounding countryside, is familiar to anyone who has to drive regularly from the East Coast to the Midwest or vice versa.

As the New York Times explained in 2017, Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas” sprang up because of an obsolete law. Breezewood is a deliberately awkward transition between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where they (almost) meet. Back in the 1950s, as I-70 was being built, a law prohibited spending federal funds to channel drivers directly from a free road to a toll road. The law was later overturned, but to comply with it, highway planners designed a looping interchange that lets drivers avoid the turnpike if they (hypothetically) want to. From this constant stream of slow-moving traffic, a mega-rest-stop was born.

Each year, an estimated 3.5 million passenger vehicles and 1.5 million trucks crawl along the Breezewood strip on Route 30. Yet building a bypass here is a political nonstarter. Such projects must be proposed at the township and county levels in Pennsylvania, and no politician is going to suggest the elimination of hundreds of local jobs.

So vacation stops in Breezewood have become a tradition for many families (including my own). More recently, a parallel tradition has emerged: sharing Breezewood memes online. Most of these memes feature the same, striking image of the strip, dominated by Exxon and McDonald’s signs: “Breezewood,” by photographer Edward Burtynsky.

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The Unstoppable Bradford Pear

The Detested Bradford Pear Tree Is Coming to a Forest Near You

Cities and states are trying to remove Bradford pears‚ but the “weed trees” have already intruded deep into some forests, a biologist warns.  

CityLab, July 2, 2019

In the 1960s, America fell in love with a new tree: the Bradford pear. Cultivated from Asian stock by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bradford pears display clouds of pretty blossoms in the spring and garnet leaves in the fall, and are hardy enough to grow just about anywhere. Thinking they had found the perfect ornamental tree, homeowners and public-works departments planted Bradford pears up and down the nation’s streets for decades, especially in the East, South, and Midwest.

Then the relationship soured. Bradfords are apt to split and break during storms, and they have a short life span, only 15 or 20 years. Although they are technically sterile, the trees cross-pollinate with other cultivars of the Callery pear species (Pyrus calleryana), producing fruit that splats all over sidewalks. And despite their delicate appearance, the blossoms emit a foul odor that’s been compared to rotting fish (among other things).

Once admired for its hardiness, the Bradford pear is now considered an invasive species, which grows even in poor conditions, proliferates fast—thanks to birds that dine on its fruit and spread the seeds—and crowds out native species.

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