INTERVIEW WITH KRISTIN FEIREISS
Dr. h.c. Kristin Feireiss is a member of the jury for the renowned Pritzker Architecture Prize, which was awarded to Alejandro Aravena on April 4, 2016, at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City. Publisher Dr. Cristina Steingräber spoke with Dr. Feireiss about the jury’s unanimous decision to honor the forty-eight-year-old Chilean, who is also this year’s director of the Venice Architecture Biennial.
Dr. Feireiss, what sort of historical and current significance does the Hyatt Foundation have in the architectural discourse?
In a certain way, the Hyatt Foundation has contributed considerably to the fact that people outside of the profession perceive and celebrate architecture as a cultural task. By initiating the Pritzker Prize, it invented the “architecture prize,” so to speak, and contributed to the global discussion about architecture as a social phenomenon. In short: this award makes it clear to a broader public how much responsibility architects in general have for shaping our environment.
How do you perceive your role on the Pritzker Prize jury?
When I was asked to become a member of the jury in 2012, I felt more than simply honored to be a part of a group of international, interdisciplinary experts and outstanding personalities. It was also challenging for me to introduce my conviction that architecture is an essential component of our cultural, societal, and social lives. The architectural profession in particular unites different layers of knowledge, experience, responsibility, and collaborative models in order to react to people’s needs and the challenges of a constantly changing world with solutions that are both meaningful and creative.
Does the Pritzker Prize concentrate on honoring a life’s work, or is it also a signpost for contemporary architecture?
Of course, the Pritzker Prize fulfills both tasks, which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, either. Each award is also an expression of its time and must also react to every new development and its various priorities and challenges. And I think that the Pritzker Prize has accomplished that over the course of its thirty-year history. Nevertheless, throughout the decades the jury has based its decisions on incontrovertible fundamentals, such as outstanding people whose architecture has influenced its era, people who are conscious of their profession’s responsibility toward society and who express that in an inimitable, conceptual, and creative architectural vocabulary that is appropriate for each individual context. This year’s Pritzker’s laureate, Alejandro Aravena, is a powerful role model for this.
Aravena’s project, Elemental, concentrates—in sum—on participatory strategies for public housing, with the goal of directly alleviating social hardship. What made the jury award the prize this year to an architect who works on socially relevant tasks?
Previous Pritzker prizewinners have also fulfilled socially relevant tasks; the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, for instance, has been continually developing emergency shelters, starting with the earthquake in Japan in the 1990s, and going up to the natural catastrophe that occurred in Nepal a few years ago. His structures are not only sustainable, but also offer their residents humane and decent habitation.
This is also one of Aravena’s specialties; in compelling ways, he’s come up with new, groundbreaking models for public housing. However, it would be too limiting to say that our decision is only based on this one aspect of his architectural oeuvre. He’s recently been given the renowned London Design of the Year Award for his UC Innovation Center on the campus of the Universidad Católica in Santiago de Chile.
What were the crucial reasons for the jury’s unanimous vote for Aravena?
Naturally, our decision takes into consideration the many aspects that characterize this unusual architect’s overall image. Aravena embodies the socially committed architect. He’s an outstanding example of a new generation of leading architects who have a holistic understanding of the interconnection between society and its environment. He’s proved that it’s possible to combine social responsibility and economic demands when shaping urban residential space to improve the quality of life for residents. Since 2001 the Elemental team has continued to build thousands of housing units in his homeland of Chile, using inventive, flexible, and affordable solutions. And in every phase of this complicated construction process he’s been both an initiator and moderator of dialogues with residents, politicians, attorneys, cities, and clients. Among Aravena’s achievements is his long-term commitment to using unconventional strategies for public housing, as he tackles the global real estate crisis and fights for better living conditions for everyone in urban environments.
For someone who’s received an award for his life’s work, Aravena is young. Why was this the right point in time to honor him?
At no time in the decision process did age play a role. Rather, it has to do with the message that is sent when a prizewinner is selected. As the 2016 Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena symbolizes more individual initiative for the architectural profession, more commitment and innovativeness in managing great challenges in a world afflicted by natural disasters and wars. In particular, Aravena’s innovative approach to his public housing projects demonstrates that there are new, viable, affordable models that expand the usual parameters by focusing on collective solutions.
In your opinion, what distinguishes Elemental’s projects from other public housing projects?
I’ve just tried to describe this phenomenon. But it’s primarily about Aravena’s attitude and approach. At first, he didn’t have builders for many of his “social housing” projects. He saw dire need, examined the frequently very diverse causes for it, and developed strategies and plans, which he discussed with the residents, and then tried to persuade the responsible authorities to realize them. Above all, Aravena is a listener and a mediator. I visited his public housing project in a suburb in Chile and talked to the residents. He made it possible for them to have a different future, because each house, despite being small, has enough space to operate a “mom-and-pop” business, which helps people to earn income—from hair salons to snack bars to small bakeries. Aravena is also always trying to help people help themselves.
What’s the relationship between the Pritzker Prize and the Aga Khan Award?
Both the Aga Khan Award and the Pritzker Prize reinforce in the global public’s mind the role and significance of architecture and the constructed environment. They complement each other in an outstanding way, too, precisely because they concentrate on different things. The Pritzker Prize is awarded to an architect for his or her entire oeuvre up to that point. The Aga Khan Award, on the other hand, recognizes architectural and urban planning concepts and projects that deal with the needs and ambitions of Islamic societies in the areas of design, public housing, community development, infrastructure, and landscape design.
From your perspective, what would be the next important step in Aravena’s career?
Alejandro is a smart man. He knows what he wants and he doesn’t do anything without thinking about it first. The next step is, naturally, the Venice Biennial at the end of May, which demands all of his creativity and commitment. Above all, though, I hope that his reputation and well-earned honors will help him to realize his social projects. But because he also has a wonderful family and a great temperament, I’m sure that his zest for life will not be short-changed.
Thank you very much for this brief glimpse into the theme, and for our conversation.
Dr. Kristin Feireiss is an architectural curator, author, and publisher. After studying art history in Frankfurt, Feireiss worked as a journalist and editor for newspapers and radio stations in Frankfurt and Berlin. In 1980 she and Helga Retzer († 1984) founded and directed (along with Hans-Jürgen Commerell) Aedes, an independent architecture forum, in Berlin. From 1996 – 2001 Feireiss was the director of the Dutch Architecture Museum in Rotterdam, and in 1996 and 2000 she served as the commissioner for the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennial. In 2007 she received an honorary doctorate from the Carolo-Wilhelmina Technical University in Braunschweig. In 2012 she was a member of the Golden Lion jury at the Venice Architecture Biennial. Kristin Feireiss has been a member of the Pritzker Prize jury since 2013, and in 2016 she was made an honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.