ELEMENTAL, Concrete and Schedules: Santiago

Santiago, Chile
6/12-6/14, 6/17-6/20

We finally arrived in Santiago post-21-hour bus ride, which included an 8-1/2 hour border crossing and lots of head chants of “it’s ok, just count to ten, take a breath…”


In March, I was awarded an AIA Traveling Scholarship, specifically the Arthur A. and Florence G. Fisher Traveling Scholarship, to study disaster recovery/reconstruction and social housing in Chile, focused on the work of Alejandro Aravena of ELEMENTAL, recent Pritzker Prize winner. You can see my proposal on the WORKSHOP8 blog here. ELEMENTAL is based in Santiago, so first stop was to their office.

ELEMENTAL’s work is SO very relevant in the world of architecture today. They are a “Do Tank” working to solve the most pressing issues of our times: poverty, housing and disaster recovery/reconstruction- they have designed over 2,500 units of affordable/social housing to date! ELEMENTAL has also completed impressive educational and civic projects. The partners of the firm include: Alejandro Aravena, Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Cerda, Victor Oddó, and Diego Torres.

FullSizeRender (68)Finding ELEMENTAL’s office- a dated skyscraper (left) in Santiago with amazing views.

FullSizeRender (66)A nice stair/ramp combo in front of the building.

FullSizeRender (69)View of Santiago from ELEMENTAL’s conference room.

FullSizeRender (71)An open, modest office. The entire firm had just gotten back from the Venice Biennale, which Alejandro Aravena directed. Quite a small office for such big impact!

FullSizeRender (85)Massing models of the Centro de Innovación and Quinta Monroy housing project in Iquique.

FullSizeRender (63)The white board full of sketches that is in most magazines.

I not only wanted to simply see the office and the whole team, but I also needed to get addresses to all of the projects I wanted to visit, as well as figure out how to buy the most recent ELEMENTAL book, ELEMENTAL: Incremental Housing and Participatory Design Manual, which focuses on the projects and processes of the firm. Back in March, the US was out of stock of this book and it was listed for somewhere around $1,000! I felt a little star-struck to see Alejandro in the back of the office at a desk crit (is that lame?) His hair looked just as good in real life as it does in the magazines.

elementalFinally! A copy of ELEMENTAL’s book for $72USD.


I mainly came to Santiago to check out the social housing projects ELEMENTAL is known for- and their concept of “half a good house“- but I also wanted to see some of their other architecture projects.

The Centro de Innovación is a remarkable building. It is an educational building for the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. I was blown away with how massive and solid the outside was in comparison to how warm and open the inside felt.

FullSizeRender (75)A model of the building inside the lobby.

FullSizeRender (72)The huge concrete blocks are like stacked legos with voids. ELEMENTAL used concrete on the exterior as a thermal mass to avoid unwanted heat-gains.

FullSizeRender (74)Just a beautiful concrete wall!

FullSizeRender (73)Entrance and signage.

FullSizeRender (77)Simple modern chairs and colorful super-graphics inside the first level lobby.

FullSizeRender (81)Warm wood frames the gathering and classroom spaces. All the learning and activities can constantly be seen on each floor. The interior is always alive.

FullSizeRender (82)Industrial elevators contribute to the constant movement inside the building.

FullSizeRender (76)Main lobby space. I loved the color-designated gathering spaces.

FullSizeRender (86)The main cafe/restaurant.

IMG_8353Floor identification.

FullSizeRender (79)It always helps to have a human scale to understand a building.

FullSizeRender (78)A beautiful small detail where not many people enter at the back of the building.

On the same campus is also the Torres Siamesas, another educational building for the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. The Siamese Towers were built in 2004 and quite a bit of aging can be seen. Regardless, it is a very interesting building. The concept was to use glass on the exterior and pull the actual interior building away from the glass in order to maintain a constant air flow between the two.

FullSizeRender (92)In the lower courtyard area. Student classrooms are located on the lower levels and offices are located on the upper levels. You can see the exterior wood has taken some wear and tear from the weather.

FullSizeRender (89)The main entrance into the offices on the right and the main entrance into the classrooms on the left. The outside is a series of wooden ramps that form interesting gathering and walking spaces.

FullSizeRender (91)Inside the main entrance space, you can see the interior building pulled back from the glass skin. Large wood beams brace the interior building and diagonal sheet rock make for a dynamic graphic on the walls.

FullSizeRender (88)Another view of the interior building and exterior glass skin. Quite beautiful!

IMG_8389A fun lighting design, but some much needed replacements.

FullSizeRender (93)Perforated screening allows outside air into the gapped-void space for constant circulation.

While on campus, I also visited the Facultad de Matematica, but wasn’t able to enter the building. The previous two projects were the most note-worthy.


When traveling, you have to accept that sometimes your plans will get messed up. Getting stuck in Mendoza for an extra 5 days- and having already booked a flight from Santiago to Iquique on June 20th- I had to let go of 2 cities I had included in my proposal: Concepción, which was greatly affected by the 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and Constitución, which ELEMENTAL has worked on much post-disaster recovery reconstruction including Villa Verde, a recent housing project for 484 families/employees of the Arauco Forest Company.

VV_SUYIN_CHIA_3Villa Verde. Photo credit.

Luckily Santiago, Valparaíso and Iquique all had great housing projects for me to learn from. Off to Valpo for some more adventure and then back to Santiago!


One thought on “ELEMENTAL, Concrete and Schedules: Santiago

  1. What a dream it must have been to go to Elemental! That building looks incredible, wish I could have seen it while in Chile. Did the Centro de Innovación open recently? Maybe it didn’t exist when I visited Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in 2010. The Torres Siamesas seems much more weathered than when I visited too; surprising how much the wood has aged so fast. Looks like you’re having an amazing time!

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