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Exhibition offers the opportunity to get closer to the working process of Alejandro Aravena
UC Innovation Center, Santiago, Chile, 2015. Photo: Nina Videc.

HUMLEBÆK.- The exhibition So Far ... Elemental | Alejandro Aravena is the second in Louisiana’s series of monographic architecture exhibitions. These exhibitions offer the opportunity to get closer to the working process of an individual studio as well as greater understanding of how ideas become form. In accordance with the world around us, the architects of the series are interested in sustainability and political and social challenges such as climate change and overpopulation, urbanization and cultural heritage. How do intentions, expression and method play together for the individual architect? It is this question that the exhibition series intends to clarify.

It’s all about the question, not the answer – this is how Elemental Studio’s Pritzker Prize-winning founder, Alejandro Aravena, describes the core of their practice. Turning things upside-down and breaking away from common beliefs to see new but achievable possibilities has become the trademark of the studio. They are, in their own words, a ‘do-tank’ and not just a think tank.

The studio initially became known for its alternative approach to social housing in Chile’s slum areas. If the available financing is not enough, one has to think in terms of new solutions that do not compromise the quality of the project. In 2003, for example, Elemental built its ‘half house’ for the first time: one half, the structural part, of a single-family house was built together with an empty half, to which the occupants can themselves add over time. Elemental is responsible for the complicated part of the construction work; the remainder is up to the individual family to complete freely. This allows the architects to stay within the financial framework, and give the occupants ownership of their new home. With the additions of the occupants, the value of the homes increases. The concept of the ‘half house’ is based on a pragmatic reversal of the conventional order, an expanded type of user involvement that gives the future residents a voice in all stages of the process. As the beginning of a shared process, the residents are invited to build cardboard models of their future house along with the architects, who listen to their needs and absorb their knowledge. It is the residents who start the process – and who finish it with the completion of the project. Process is on the whole the key to Elemental’s work, and it is just as important as the finished building. All processes are documented down to the smallest detail – past processes are used to build up future projects.

Elemental designs many other kinds of project – everything from university buildings to private dwellings. A characteristic of the studio’s other work is the pragmatic use of common sense and simple forms. The totality of the building arises in the work with the forces that are effective in architecture, for example when three volumes are placed one against the other in an interde¬pendence of gravity, weight and balance. It is about simplifying instead of complicating the design. Elemental’s work radiates an honesty that is also evident in the untreated materials – the raw and the primitive make the buildings more timeless than typical of their time.

The studio has taken the increased user involvement along from the work with the ‘half houses’. They call the process WE – Workshop Elemental. It is a tool that follows a particular template for the involvement of the future user, and it encompasses all stages from the client to the catering firm that is to supply lunch in the future building. This ensures that the building functions at all levels – all facets of sustainability are incorporated in the studio’s thinking.

The structure of the exhibition
The exhibition, which is being shown in the Hall Gallery and the Column Gallery in the lower space of the museum, has been created in close collaboration with Elemental. It is built up around two site-specific installations, both testifying to the democratic approach to architecture that the studio represents: we do not need any special knowledge to understand Elemental’s work and their working process, we simply have to experience the architecture with our own bodies – to see and sense the weight and traction that create balance between the parts of the building. Architecture is no more complicated than that – but no simpler either, as Aravena explains.

The focal point for the first space of the exhibition, WHAT IS ELEMENTAL? is a large installation, a structure of counterweights in which the architecture of the museum forms an active element. The construction is all about sensing the weight, traction and balance of two large volumes. At the same time the construction is the bearer of one of Elemental’s most important tools, a large selection of their sketchbooks which encompasses everything from the first notes and ideas to detailed construction drawings and conceptual explanations of the design parameters of the buil¬dings. Here the visitors can use their iPads to browse and zoom through 120 books.

Under the heading THE ABC OF INCREMENTAL HOUSING, the balcony in the second space of the exhibition stages two very different fields of Elemental’s work. One is the social housing estates, the so-called ‘half houses’, and the studio’s manifesto, the ABC of incremental construction. This is unfolded in pictures, text, video and models, and describes the special expanded user involve¬ment that they practice. The second field is design objects – two lamps created in collaboration with the Italian lighting and lamp firm Artemide. One of them, the Huara, takes its cue from the encounter between the only lights human beings originally had – the natural ones in the sky – and the latest technology. The second one, the O-lamp, inspired by the relationship between the light of the city and the light of nature, is almost invisible when not in use, and only lights up as required.

The third space, SO FAR ..., shows the second large installation of the exhibition, which is also a spatial manifestation of the main principles of Elemental’s architecture: the body’s direct sensation of weight, balance and gravity. Although Chile and Denmark are far apart, and between hemisphere and hemisphere there are cultural differences and different languages, our bodies experience the same in the architecture. The installation is a wordless manifestation that involves a filmed review of Elemental’s works viewed from above – from the northern hemisphere, along with a number of the studio’s raw, beautiful wooden models. Also shown here is completely updated documentation of the genesis of the exhibition, which extends over a year and a half – right up to the opening of the exhibition at Louisiana.

Finally, a fourth theme is shown, OPEN SOURCE DESIGN, which deals with a design object, the Silla Chair. It has been created on the basis of available principles, as a kind of ‘open source’ design that can be passed on to others and improved as it goes. The chair was created when a basic design was sent off to a prison in Santiago, where the inmates could then develop the chair further. The section describes Elemental’s omnipresent working tool WE – Workshop Elemental.

Exhibition catalogue and Louisiana Magasin no. 49
For the exhibition Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is publishing a monograph on Elemental and Alejandro Aravena in English, a richly illustrated catalogue, with an introduction by Mette Marie Kallehauge, Kjeld Kjeldsen and Poul Erik Tøjner, and an interview with Alejandro Aravena by Michael Juul Holm. The next issue of Louisiana Magasin (only in Danish), which will appear at the beginning of November, features an introduction to Elemental and a number of selected projects.

The exhibition has been organized by Louisiana’s curator Kjeld Kjeldsen and co-curator Mette Marie Kallehauge.

The exhibition architect is Brian Lottenburger.

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