Alejandro Aravena

1_Empathy / 6D – Spaces, Systems, Objects, Products, Graphics, and Experiences

Alejandro Aravena of ELEMENTAL addresses the social needs and human desires of communities while considering aspects of political, economic, and environmental spheres. While the other architects and artists I’ve explored have a direct correlation with empathy by creating civic structures such as museums and memorials (or artwork that has been recognized in these types of institutions), Aravena works mainly with social housing (although has worked across architecture typologies). His work in what he calls “incremental housing” is empathetic by nature. For example, the Quinta Monroy Housing displays the ideas of incremental housing, where Aravena has designed “half a good house.” This housing project in Iquique, Chile is a form of multifamily, affordable housing done on an extremely tight budget. The housing, as designed by the architect, includes two bedrooms, bathroom, and a small kitchen; which is enough to cover all the basic needs of a family. The real soul of the design is within the void. Aravena designed half of the house and left space for the individual families to build the other half of the house as they see fit, fitting their individual needs, style and desires. While this design technique came from the budgetary limitation, its empathy is rooted in bringing the family into the design process. While most social and affordable housing is built with cheap materials and depreciates in value over time, Elemental’s design designs half of a quality, middle-class level house. Iquique is a small Chilean city engulfed in poverty. For most of these families, they had been living in generational poverty, never dreaming of being able to afford middle class housing, even if it’s only half a house. And, by producing half of the house, allowing the families to design the other half, the families have a greater connection to their homes. Aravena has stepped into the shoes of these impoverished peoples and elegantly designed a solution that addresses people. Where many social/affordable housing projects are looking at the statistics and empirical data in order to design very cheap boxes for people to live, Elemental considers the actual lives of the ones inhabiting the space. Quinta Monroy Housing, as well as Elemental’s other incremental housing projects like Lo Barnecha, Monterrey, and Villa Verde Housing (which utilize the same typology but different form adjusted for the climate of each) are a testament and reminder that empathy is a key characteristic to the architect that wants to solve problems while maintaining the humanity of space.


The site of Quinta Monroy Housing project was an illegal slum that existed for thirty years. The brief was to settle 100 families in same 5000 sqm site using a $7500 subsidy. The initial decision to maintain the same site was an empathic one. The families of who lived in the Quinta Monroy slum had established networks in the heart of the Iquique city. Aravena wanted to maintain families social and economic networks, keeping them close to the heart of the city. An eviction to the periphery of the city would ruin these established networks, producing more problems of how people would have access to resources of the city, commute/transporation, etc. Furthermore, the spatial form of the close row-like half houses created density, the possibility of expanding without overcrowding the space. The illegal slums that occupied the site had a sense of a close, tight-knit community, which was important to maintain. The closeness of the design allows families to connect, making a spectrum of public and private space that a community needs to maintain individuality and connectedness. By choosing quality middle-class materials, the housing project could have materials that suited the environment of the Chilean city while also giving the impoverished community higher quality housing. By allowing the individual families to build their other half, the community could display their own values, their own culture, etc. Furthermore, this aspect actually tripled the property value within the first year the project was built. While most social housing depreciates, the community actually gained value, creating more economic stimulation to their community. The subsidy actually allowed the community to gain value over time, like an investment, helping sustain the economy. Aravena really upholds the elements of sustaining a community environmentally, economically, politically, and socially. His design moves work to solve large overarching questions like how to mediate the issues of poverty, but maintaining the empathetic lens of working to build communities and addressing social needs and human desires.


Alejandro Aravena’s design philosophy is to “bring the community into the design process.” The work of Elemental often tackles complex social issues on a holistic approach, considering the environment, economy, political and social atmospheres of a place. While the issue of poverty feels so immense and unsolvable, Aravena worked with the actual members of the community, poor individuals that lived in slums, to create an elegant solution that fulfilled the social needs and human needs of the community. It’s amazing how much cultural change can come from just listening and responding with empathic solutions. Aravena’s design is a very simple yet effective solution to a complex and overbearing problem. The architect points out that many other architects in the field want to create “unique work” and yet the problem with uniqueness is its hard, if not impossible to replicate. Since the replicability is low with uniqueness, Aravena argues it can’t affect as many people thus can’t address as many social issues. And, he underscores, thus the primary role of the architect is to address the social needs and human desires of communities with the backdrop of the elements of sustainability (environment, economy, equity). The beauty of Aravena’s incremental housing typology is that it can work in many contexts. The architect can use this typology to begin solving the issue of poverty, especially within the global south. The holistic approach to dense complex issues ensures a sense of empathy which many projects lose. At the end of the day, Aravena’s incremental housing puts people first. In the end, architects need to remember that it’s not about us, it’s about addressing the perspectives of the individuals that inhabit space, to put forth design solutions that are actually valuable to the very people they serve.

4_ Why is empathy important in architecture?

Architects design for people. While many architects get caught up in their own creativity, pushing forth designs that they believe to be right, it’s important to remember the value of the voices of the community. A great architect isn’t the all-knowing starchitect that designs unique, ostentatious designs that attempt to shatter the world and win awards. A great architect is a member of society that can articulate and help bring to light a shared-vision that solves problems. As Chuck Palahniuk said “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I've ever known.” A great architect utilizes empathy in design, feeling-into the life blood of individuals in a community to produce a shared vision, a shared solution. Kamara, MASS, Adjaye, Howler + Yoon, Bearden, Whiteread, and Aravena are an ensemble of artists and architects that worked tirelessly with their communities to produce a shared vision to provoke social change. These individuals’ work always puts people at the forefront of their operations. While Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van der Rohe, and all the others on the historical list of great architects contributed to our field, they still operated in a God-like fashion, accepting their own view as the best view. Their ideas ruled supreme. But the world is changing, and so is our profession. I’m not saying these individuals weren’t great architects, but they failed to represent the entire community, failed to sustain the societies, failed to sustain environments. So why is empathy so important to architecture? Because empathic design generates spaces of real value that provoke audiences to adjust their modes of thinking to generate social change. Architects need empathy because we have the skill and education to produce built works, but we don’t have all the answers. Empathy, feeling into, allows us to have a critical perspective, to be able to see that “shared vision” clearer to produce spaces that people actually want, that people actually need.