Architects have no moral obligation to society says Alejandro Aravena


Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: socially minded architecture is a choice not a responsibility according this year's Venice Biennale curator Alejandro Aravena, who has called for "professional quality, not professional charity" to deal with the world's issues.

As director of Chilean firm Elemental, Aravena has committed much of his career to tackling the housing crisis, by engaging local communities in a radical reinvention of social housing models.

But speaking at a Biennale press conference earlier today, the Elemental director said that architects should never feel morally obliged to work on socially responsible projects.

"We started doing social housing, not claiming for a second any kind of moral superiority or social responsibility, or that this is what architects should or shouldn't be doing," said Aravena.

The Chilean architect instead urged designers to see global problems as opportunities to challenge their capabilities.

"These difficult complex issues require professional quality, not professional charity," he said.

"If you think you are a good professional in any field then let's try to test your skills in these challenging issues," he added. "The more complex the issue, the more the need for synthesis."

Aravena will be the 15th curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale, opening in May this year.

His theme, Reporting From The Front, focusses on the biggest social and political issues that architects are negotiating with around the world – including crime, segregation, sanitation, housing shortage, traffic, waste, migration and pollution.

The architect said that "talent and creativity" are needed to service these issues, not just an ethical approach.

"Particularly when dealing with scarcity of means, you have to be really strategic," he stated.

Aravena's own projects, as part of Elemental, include a series of buildings for the Universidad Católica de Chile and a model for low-cost housing based on the principle of initially providing "half a good home".

He will this year be awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel, for his contribution to the industry.

During the conference Aravena also revealed more details about his plans for the Biennale, which he said would offer a new perspective on the challenges and threats affecting the world, and share knowledge from those on the ground.

"We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people's quality of life," he said.

"Given life ranges from very basic physical needs to the most intangible dimensions of the human condition, consequently improving the quality of the built environment is an endeavour that has to tackle many fronts: from guaranteeing very concrete down-to-earth living standards to interpreting and fulfilling human desires, from respecting the single individual to taking care of the common good, from efficiently hosting daily activities to expanding the frontiers of civilisation."

Reporting From The Front opens to the public on 28 May and runs until 27 November.

  • me, myself and I

    Well, you sold yourself as a ‘social’ architect, therefore it will stay now. You got a Pritzker for it. We know you for that prefix. You got yourself a biennale on that issue… Seriously, you think to become elite now? Hmm, I don’t think so. Basically, you will never be more than that!

  • vcs

    Ballsy statement from this guy, who many accuse of being the ‘face’ of this style. I like it. So can we stop these ridiculous streams of accusations that the Pritzker is all about charity projects now?

  • flytoget

    Smart move. He’s differentiating himself from the rest.

  • H-J

    It should be a voluntary, genuine choice for people personally and indeed not feel as a moral obligation to do something “good” or “social” for society, because that would only lead to a kind of dictatorship of the charitable.

  • Arq Margot Cueto

    He is not dismissing charity per se but he is emphasising the power of ideas and creativity over chaos and apparently unsolvable social issues. He is calling to focus on what professionals can offer in their own arena; new approaches, new ideas, new solutions.

    l see this calling humble not arrogant at all, and his own work sustains what he is preaching.

    • optinion

      I air on the side of him trying to “synthesise” the two concepts, but it ended up as doublespeak instead. Could have just as easily said: “charity is a value, but it’s not the only value”.

  • rh

    Strange, I comprehend the content of what he is saying, but it seems that the initiative or idea that he is contesting is that the work that architects do should not be charity, that some may expect charity or a situation may be deemed as benefiting from charity.

    I certainly agree with the notion that voluntary charity is a wonderful sacrifice, and kind hearted on the volunteers part, however a socio-ethical obligation or entitlement to charity is unjustified, and should not be impressed on designers.

    That the field of architecture will continue to grow with work geared towards improvement of functionally, aesthetically and economically of architecture, a function focused on its zenith unhindered by competing circumstances. But yes, they can be a great challenge as well- limited and challenging circumstances can sharpen ones sense of ingenuity, critical thinking, experience, etc.

  • John Delaney

    He’s being strategic in pouring cold water on the social activist label, as it would limit his ability to reach a more broad audience in the future, and would also drive his legacy towards “first of many of the same” rather than “individual with unique body of work.”

    He’s also distancing himself from the insular architecture community’s inevitable appropriation of morality as the new way of asserting their superiority on a less sophisticated general public. I’ve heard architects speak recently with the message “You have to have a mission!”, which is kind of a lazy, reality TV way of marketing yourself, given that missions are often vague and only represent a narrow facet of the process.

    I think his point is, if you’re just, competent, passionate, and talented, and you go into each challenge with an open mind with an eye for local environmental conditions and an ear for local people, the world will be improve naturally as the standard has been raised. Integrity is not the same thing as righteousness.

    But personally I fear the ambitious, the fearful, the incompetent, the greedy, the opportunistic, the insecure will always rule the day.

  • Fresh Haus

    I agree, for the most part the only profession that has a moral obligation to society is the politician. Since the modern politician has shirked this duty, we seek morality elsewhere. Instead of focusing our energy where it is supposed to be, which is holding politicians accountable.