This article was originally written for the Hilltop Views.
Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect who designed St. Edward’s new residence halls, was in Austin this past Friday to see his completed project before the residential village grand opening.
Earning his degree in architecture from the Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile, and having his postgraduate studies in theory and history, Aravena was chosen by St. Edward’s so that he would bring a global perspective to the campus. “[St. Edward’s] took a year to choose the architect, it took a year to design, and it took a little over a year to build,” Aravena explained. “It says a lot about the campus when it takes over a year to choose an architect.”
The new residential community is Aravena’s first major project outside of Chile, as well as his first dormitory. “It was a challenge,” Aravena explained, “to consider what the institution needed, but still consider what the [residents] wanted.” It was important to him that “it is not social housing with just good will,” and that the halls cater to the needs of the campus.
Aravena said that “open space is a novelty in dormitories. This is not the typical ‘corridor with rows of rooms’ designs.” The layout is very much focused on freedom and visual stimulation, with the intermediate spaces between halls acting as a mutual gathering place for students and the red, grey, and white glass windows being used as “visual noise,” as Aravena called it. “All the rooms have light and openness, without sacrificing privacy. [St. Edward’s] has private spaces. Dorm rooms, offices, and classrooms are given. The openness [the new residential village] has is distinctive,” Aravena explained.
However, the architect insisted that his designs are not “inspired.” In fact, the idea that architecture is a visionary, idealist process irks Aravena. “Architecture is not about being inspired. It is simply answering a client’s problem with a form.”
“I am not an artist. I am an architect.”
Aravena did admit, however, that elements of nature give him ideas about to solve problems that he often faces in designing. For instance, Aravena wanted the common area in the residential village to be cool in the brutally hot Texas weather. He turned to canyons to see how those physical forms filter wind and bend sunlight so that the
area is a few degrees cooler than its surroundings.
“It is fine if people interpret parts of the building as a canyon or a geode, but I was not inspired by those. It is not wrong to interpret it that way, but I simply used those elements for problem solving.”
In fact, Aravena is gaining notoriety in the world of architecture for his “problem solving” techniques and ideas. Being able to work with low costs and scarce resources has caused prestigious architectural magazines, associations, and the like to take notice of Aravena’s skills and capabilities. However, Aravena says that being able to work with a small budget and limited supplies “ought to be the rule, not the exception.”
When asked whether or not he considered his finished products may be considered art, the logic-ruled, humble Chilean took a long pause. “You know, there are things that can be spoken about, and things that cannot—that are unspoken. Art is unspoken, much like the concept of time. I cannot tell you what time is, but I know what it is. Art is
something you reflect silently about. I think if someone looks at what I built—which was an answer to a problem—and sees something else in it, they can reflect on that internally. That is fine. But I am not an artist. I am an architect.”
The residential village grand opening is set to take place at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 17. The St. Edward’s community is welcome to take a tour of the new residence halls, enjoy free food, enjoy live entertainment, and participate in online university housing sign-up.