Searching for answers in the field

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Searching for answers in the field

It was refreshingly shocking. What an innovative way to build houses! It was the egg of Columbus. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Architecture Prize this year, the most prestigious award in the field.

Aravena built “half a house” for 100 families in the slums of Iquique in Chile in 2003. Each house cost 7,500 dollars, paid for by government subsidies. The houses were initially equipped with basic functions like kitchens and bedrooms, and others were left to the tenants to fill in little by little. It was not a one-time experiment. A total 2,500 more houses were built in 13 cities in Chile and Mexico. His method is considered a solution to the refugee housing problem in Europe.

His groundbreaking idea reminds me of the situation in Korea, where young people feel it will never be possible to afford buying an apartment. I watched the TED talk given by Aravena in 2014. He got a clue from conversations with people. To build 100 houses in limited space, he had to design a small, tall building. But the tenants refused it because the units could not be expanded.

Aravena asked the tenants what they wanted and thought that the answer could be found in the slums. Instead of building small houses, he proposed building half of a big house. They had a series of discussions, and tenants participated in the entire process, from design to construction. The incremental houses were created, giving people chances to add on. More than a decade later, the areas have transformed into middle-class housing.

Before Aravena won the Pritzker, he had an interview with Dezeen, an online design magazine. He emphasized listening to the needs of others.

“We listen to what we want to listen to,” Aravena said. “The jargon, the way we talk about our issues, nobody except an architect understands. ... What we’re trying to do by asking people to participate is envision what is the question, not what is the answer.”

We’ve heard this rhetoric before. In politics, economics and culture, we often say what we want. In preparation for the 21st general election, personal attacks are rampant. In the presidential election campaign, the candidate who wanted to win votes promised “half-price apartments.” Many young couples give up having children because they cannot afford a place to live. Can half-price apartments be a solution? It is not a very plausible policy.

But an undeniable fact is that answers can be found in the field, such as in Gijang County, Busan, which has the highest birthrate in the country thanks to its housing policies. Let’s listen to the concerns of the young people.

The author is a cultural news reporter and editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 28, Page 31

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