by Herman Manson (@marklives) As Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena, flew home from Design Indaba 2010, his home country was struck by a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by a powerful tsunami. The twin catastrophes destroyed 80% of Constitución. At Design Indaba 2018, he recounted his experiences in helping to reconstruct the city.

After finally making it across the border and back into Chile, Aravena assisted in planning for the city to be rebuilt. He drew up a plan to assist the devastated community after the initial search and rescue efforts had been concluded. To make the city habitable again, water distribution was a first point of action, including finding ways for inhabitants to move water to their dwellings so they wouldn’t have to carry it.

Temporary to final

This was followed by establishing temporary shelters around courtyards (so people could share resources like kitchens and lavatories). Interestingly, the system of building small communities meant they also shared an interest in co-operating among themselves, and helped decrease the isolation and sense of uprootment accompanying disaster — in South Africa, think of the fires that often sweep through our townships, year in and year out.

By day 10, the temporary shelters had been upgraded with more robust accommodation that would see inhabitants through several winters while proper housing was being constructed. These shelters also had to become part of the final housing solution.

Villa Verde is the largest project in the reconstruction of the city of Constitución. All photos by Cristian Martinez / ELEMENTAL
“The architects designed the social housing units as half of a good house instead of a complete, but small one: building-in the possibility for residents to double the floor area of the house to 80 square meters.” Source: LafargeHolcim Foundation: Sustainable post-tsunami reconstruction master plan. All photos by Cristian Martinez / ELEMENTAL.

Day 20 saw plans for sustainable reconstruction beginning to take shape. The first step? Building an open house for civic participation in the process. Participation is really what drove the reconstruction of the city — beyond the private-public partnership, citizens were involved in the decision-making process, including setting priorities for reconstruction.

Disconnect from the river

Some of the feedback coming from the open-house process included complaints, ignored for years, about annual flooding, a fear of a loss of the city’s identity, especially a disconnect from the river which was the origin of the city, and which conventional thinking would’ve said should see the construction of barriers to protect the city from future flooding (because we learnt nothing from New Orleans circa 2005). Instead of barriers, the river front is seeing a new forest being planted to serve as a barrier against floods and to create open space in the city, as well as a space for citizens to enjoy their river, with the obvious long-term economic benefits that a pretty urban forest with river views holds for the tourist economy. This was made financially feasible when Aravena tallied up the totals that various government departments would’ve spent in a piecemeal fashion on reconstruction. By adding them all up, it became possible to create a feasible project budget. Public space has increased from 2m2 per citizen to 7m2, everybody now has access to the river, and a natural barrier to mitigate flooding is being created.

Keeping in mind the long-term economic recovery faced by the city, a new coastal road to the city has been built, further encouraging a tourist economy.

Participatory approach

Aravena’s fame rests on his participatory approach to architecture, where he demands communities be given a say in their urban environment, and how he works to address and incorporate this feedback into his work. It really is architecture for the people, and to the benefit of the people. He doesn’t subscribe to mediocrity in an urban context, having told the Observer “a mediocre environment can be as deadly as not facing basic human needs.”

Architects and town planners need to build a culture of participation around built environments. An integrated approach that puts people and their needs first should be prioritised, whether it’s for a new town development, inner-city upliftment, a new school building or construction of an office park. Let’s not be willing to live in mediocre built environments any longer.

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Herman Manson 2017Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of

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