Tuesday22 August 2017

Alejandro Aravena: 'Architects do not have a moral duty to do good'

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‘We are just average architects – but we don’t want to use our skills in safe places,’ says Venice Biennale director

There is no moral obligation on architects to use their talents for good – nor should there be, according to this year’s Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena.

But any decent professional would want to test their skills in difficult environments, he added.

The Chilean architect, director of the Venice Biennale, said: “Let’s test those skills in challenging issues, not in a safe place where you can control the forces – because in real life those forces can’t be controlled.

“These issues require professional quality not professional charity.”

And he stressed that his own practice, Elemental, which is known for its ground-breaking incremental housing projects, was not making any claim to be morally superior.

“We don’t think we are particularly good people,” he said. “We are just average architects – but we do think we have design skills and we would like to use them on issues that are relevant.”

He was speaking at a press conference unveiling the details of his biennale, whose theme is Reporting from the Front.

He unveiled a list of 88 architecture practices who will participate in the biennale. They include Turner Prize winners Assemble, Goldsmiths-based Forensic Architecture, Rogers Stirk Harbour and David Chipperfield in the UK; Ireland’s Grafton; Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor and Christ & Gantenbein; Japan’s Atelier Bow-Wow and Tadao Ando; Holland’s 51N4E and OMA; and Mexico’s Tatiana Bilbao. (For the full list see box.)

Aravena said he had been looking for talent and creativity more than an ethical approach – and that the youthfulness of many on the list was not a conscious choice. His aim was to find practitioners who could share diverse experience and knowledge that might have parallels for a long list of challenges facing the world today – from migration to pollution to inequality.

The biennale’s main promotional image is a photograph taken by the writer Bruce Chatwin of archaeologist Maria Reiche standing on a ladder in the Peruvian desert studying the pre-Columbian Nazca lines which only come into focus from above.

“The idea is to listen to those who have been able to acquire a new perspective so that those of us on the ground can share the lessons they have learnt while facing the challenges of working on real issues.”

Aravena said he hoped his approach would be a “means through which to improve the quality of life”. He wanted to learn how to turn “today’s slums into tomorrow’s Manhattan”.

“If architecture is about giving form to the places where we live, consequently architecture has to take care of life in all the ranges it covers, from basic physical needs to the most intangible dimensions of the human condition,” he said.

“The more complex the issue the greater the need for synthesis… and if there’s a power in architecture it’s the power of synthesis.”


1. 51N4E (Brussels, Belgium)

Freek Persyn; Johan Anrys

2. ADNBA (Bucharest, Romania)

Andrei Şerbescu; Adrian-Ioan Untaru

3. Aires Mateus (Lisbon, Portugal)

Francisco Aires Mateus; Manuel Aires Mateus

4. Al Borde (Quito, Ecuador)

David Barragán; Pascual Gangotena; Marialuisa Borja; Esteban Benavides

5. Alexander Brodsky (Moscow, Russia)

6. Alonso de Santos Estudio (Madrid, Spain)

Francisco Alonso de Santos

7. Amateur Architecture Studio (Hangzhou, China)

Wang Shu; Lu Wenyu

8. Anupama Kundoo Architects (Auroville, India)

Anupama Kundoo

9. Architecture and Vision (Bomarzo - Viterbo, Italy)

Arturo Vittori

10. Arno Brandlhuber + Christopher Roth (Berlin, Germany)

Arno Brandlhuber; Christopher Roth

11. Assemble (London, UK)

12. Atelier Bow-Wow (Tokyo, Japan)

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto; Momoyo Kaijima; Yoichi Tamai

13. Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner (Haldenstein, Switzerland)

Peter Zumthor

14. Barozzi / Veiga (Barcelona, Spain)

Alberto Veiga; Fabrizio Barozzi

15. Batlle i Roig Arquitectes (Barcelona, Spain)

Enric Batlle; Joan Roig

16. BeL Sozietät für Architektur (Cologne, Germany)

Anne-Julchen Bernhardt; Jörg Leeser

17. Bernaskoni (Moscow, Russia)

Boris Bernaskoni

18. Block Research Group, ETH Zurich (Zurich, Switzerland)

Philippe Block; Tom Van Mele


Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA)

John Ochsendorf; Matthew DeJong; Philippe Block


The Escobedo Group (Buda, Texas, USA)

David Escobedo

19. C+S Architects (Treviso, Italy)

Carlo Cappai; Maria Alessandra Segantini

20. Cadaval & Solà-Morales (Barcelona, Spain)

Eduardo Cadaval; Clara Solà-Morales

21. Cecilia Puga (Santiago, Chile)

22. Christ & Gantenbein (Basel, Switzerland)

Emanuel Christ; Christoph Gantenbein


Stefano Graziani

23. Christian Kerez Zürich (Zurich, Switzerland)

Christian Kerez

24. David Chipperfield Architects (Berlin, Germany)

David Chipperfield

25. designworkshop: sa (Durban, South Africa)

Andrew Makin

26. El equipo Mazzanti - Giancarlo Mazzanti, Carlos Medellín, María Mazzanti (Bogotá, Colombia)

Giancarlo Mazzanti

27. Ensamble Studio (Madrid, Spain)

Antón García-Abril; Débora Mesa Molina

28. EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung (Hamburg, Germany)

Michael Braungart

29. Estudi d’Arquitectura Toni Gironès (Barcelona, Spain)

Toni Gironès

30. Estudio del Paisaje Teresa Moller & Asociados (Santiago, Chile)

Teresa Moller

31. Film First (New York, USA)

Gary Hustwit

32. Forensic Architecture (London, UK)

Eyal Weizman

33. G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s working group) (Rome, Italy)

Renzo Piano

34. Gabinete de Arquitectura (Asuncion, Paraguay)

Solano Benítez; Gloria Cabral; Solanito Benítez

35. Grafton Architects (Dublin, Ireland)

Yvonne Farrell; Shelley McNamara

36. Grupo EPM - Departamento de intervenciones urbanas sostenibles (Medellín, Colombia)

Horacio Valencia

37. GrupoTalca (Talca, Chile)

Martín del Solar; Rodrigo Sheward

38. Herzog & de Meuron (Basel, Switzerland)

Jacques Herzog; Pierre de Meuron


Agav Films (Paris, France)

Amos Gitai

39. Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects (Helsinki, Finland)

Saija Hollmén; Jenni Reuter; Helena Sandman

40. Hugon Kowalski + Marcin Szczelina (Poznań, Poland)

Hugon Kowalski; Marcin Szczelina; Klaudia Dopierała; Maria Dondajewska

41. Inês Lobo, Arquitectos (Lisbon, Portugal)

Inês Lobo

42. Jiakun Architects (Chengdu, China)

Liu Jiakun

43. João Luís Carrilho da Graça (Lisbon, Portugal)

44. José María Sánchez García (Madrid, Spain)

45. Kashef Chowdhury / Urbana (Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury

46. Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA (Tokyo, Japan)

Kazuyo Sejima; Ryue Nishizawa

47. Kengo Kuma and Associates (Tokyo, Japan)

Kengo Kuma

48. Kéré Architecture (Berlin, Germany)

Francis Kéré

49. LAN (Paris, France)

Umberto Napolitano; Benoît Jallon

50. Luyanda Mpahlwa DesignSpaceAfrica (South Africa)

Luyanda Mpahlwa

51. M. Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo (Vittoria – Ragusa, Italy)

52. Manuel Herz Architects (Basel, Switzerland)

Manuel Herz

53. Marte.Marte Architects (Weiler, Austria)

Bernhard Marte; Stefan Marte

54. Matharoo Associates (Ahmedabad, India)

Gurjit Singh Matharoo

55. menos é mais (Porto, Portugal)

Francisco Viera de Campos; Cristina Guedes

56. NLÉ (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Kunlé Adeyemi

57. Norman Foster Foundation (Madrid, Spain)

Norman Foster


Redline-EPFL (Lausanne, Switzerland)

Jonathan Ledgard


Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA)

John Ochsendorf; Matthew DeJong; Philippe Block


Block Research Group, ETH Zurich (Zurich, Switzerland)

Philippe Block; Tom Van Mele

58. OMA - Office for Metropolitan Architecture (Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

Rem Koolhaas

59. ORG Permanent Modernity (Brussels, Belgium)

Alexander D’Hooghe; Luk Peeters; Natalie Seys

60. Paulo David (Funchal, Portugal)

61. Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Concepcion, Chile)

Mauricio Pezo; Sofía von Ellrichshausen

62. Rahul Mehrotra and Felipe Vera (Cambridge, Washington, USA)

Rahul Mehrotra; Felipe Vera

63. Raphael Zuber (Chur, Switzerland)

64. Recetas Urbanas (Sevilla, Spain)

Santiago Cirugeda

65. Renato Rizzi (Venice, Italy)

66. Robust Architecture Workshop (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Milinda Pathiraja

67. Rock Garden (Chandigarh, India)

Anuj Saini

68. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (London, UK)

Richard Rogers; Graham Stirk; Ivan Harbour

69. Rural Studio, Auburn University (Newbern, Alabama, USA)

Andrew Freear; Rusty Smith

70. Rural Urban Framework, The University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

Joshua Bolchover; John Lin

71. SAAS (Porto, Portugal)

Samuel Gonçalves

72. School of Architecture, University of Waterloo (Cambridge, Ontario, Canada)

Robert Jan van Pelt; Anne Bordeleau; Sascha Hastings; Donald McKay

73. Simon Velez (Bogota, Colombia)

74. Souto Moura - Arquitectos, S.A. (Porto, Portugal)

Eduardo Souto de Moura

75. SPBR Arquitetos (São Paulo, Brasil)

Angelo Bucci

76. Studio Anna Heringer (Laufen, Germany)

Anna Heringer


Lehm Ton Erde Baukunst (Schlins, Austria)

Martin Rauch


Architekturmuseum der TUM (Munich, Germany)

Andres Lepik

77. Studio Jaeeun-Choi (Tokyo, Japan)

Shigeru Ban Architects (Tokyo, Japan)

Jaeeun-Choi; Shigeru Ban

78. Studio Mumbai Architects (Mumbai, India )

Bijoy Jain

79. Studio Snozzi (Locarno, Svizzera)

Luigi Snozzi

80. Studio TAMassociati (Venice, Italy)

Massimo Lepore; Raul Pantaleo; Simone Sfriso

81. Tadao Ando Architect & Associates (Osaka, Japan)

Tadao Ando

82. Tatiana Bilbao Estudio (Mexico City, Mexico)

Tatiana Bilbao


Rozana Montiel Estudio de Arquitectura (Mexico City, Mexico)

Rozana Montiel


Dellekamp Arquitectos (Mexico City, Mexico)

Derek Dellekamp


Alejandro Hernández (Mexico City, Mexico)

83. Transsolar (Stuttgart, Germany)

Matthias Schuler


Anja Thierfelder Freie Architektin (Stuttgart, Germany)

Anja Thierfelder

84. TYIN tegnestue (Trondheim, Norway)

Yashar Hanstad; Andreas Grønvedt Gjertsen

85. VAVStudio (Iran)

Arash Aliabadi; Afshin Farzin; Saman Shamsbeki; Sakhi Shirmohammadi; Amin Tadjsoleiman

86. Vo Trong Nghia Architects (Ha Noi, Vietnam)

Vo Trong Nghia

87. Werner Sobek (Stuttgart, Germany)

88. ZAO / Standardarchitecture (Beijing, China)

Zhang Ke



Readers' comments (6)

  • “Architects do not have a moral duty to do good”

    News flash for Aravena – everyone has a responsibility to behave ethically.

    We all have a responsibility to treat other people, species and the environment with respect, neither architects nor any other group should seek to try and make themselves out to be deserving of special dispensation on that fundamental point.

    A particularly graphic and horrendous illustration of what happens when society generally, and architects specifically, think that looking the other way when it comes to ethical obligation can be found here:


    Promoting willful ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, as some sort of virtue, should not be anyone’s place – least of all Aravena who comes across as the very definition of delusion and self-centeredness.

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  • Stewie

    Ah the man's been reading my column and taking note of what I say, good move :)

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    The list of 88 architecture practices includes many that are not even remotely interested in what he calls "issues that are relevant" and would be delighted to participate in the destruction of communities or as he calls it " turning today’s slums into tomorrow’s Manhattan” - here in London we know what that means.

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  • What about as a human being?

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  • Too many bloody cooks.....? Overwhelming flavour of sour egos!!

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  • Replicating the American dream of Manhattan is a disastrous thought as the Chines have learnt. The town of ODOS, a split repetition of Manhattan is known as the Ghost City. This is only one amongst seven others.

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