University of Chile’s Innovation Centre: Alejandro Aravena’s Subtle Monolith

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The standard 90 degree angle rarely occurs naturally in nature. In architecture, it seems to be the convention. It is easier to fabricate and stack things at right angles, especially when those “things” are floors and walls. Ideally, going by the rule of the plumb-bob, the right angle has earned its rightful place, thanks to gravity.  Alejandro Aravena‘s Innovation Centre for the Universiy of Chile, Santiago Metropolitan, is an impressive show of the power of the 90 degree angle.

Back to the 90 degree angle, in nature it is a difficult feat to achieve. A building with such crisp corners may appear in contrast with nature. So whats the point here? Should we avoid designing with right angles because they are not natural? Architecture itself is not natural, so why should it always mimic nature? Even the archaic rock enclaves and tree houses were a man-made alterations to form habitable space. Alterations. This is why the contrast between a rectilinear building design and the organic flow of nature is a point of interest, like in the Innovation Centre.

This institutional building responds to the client’s expectation of having an innovation center with a “contemporary look”. It takes the basic addition and subtraction principles into play to form a simple composition. Such simplicity has resulted in an opaque facade that adds to its celebrated sophistication. Of course the issue of monotony comes up. Where is the vibrance and colour that well suits campus life?

Considering the local desert climate conditions, high thermal massing helps to prevent heat gain. The necessary fenestrations visible on the facade are deliberately recessed. They are graciously sized and placed to maximize on natural lighting and cross ventilation.

In relation to the human scale, this mammoth structure starts from a smaller scale of blocks from the ground and rises to substantial sizes on higher floors. Standing 11 stories high, it demands attention and respect yet still come across as brutalist.

The voids visible on the facade are nothing close to pigeon holes but instead are fenestrations spanning several floors at a time. Inside, these floors comprise a “matrix” of formal and informal meeting areas and workspaces designed to encourage interactions between the various occupants. The building faces inwards, with an open atrium at its core. A sneak peek into its interiors makes it look alive.

In search of a contemporary look, Alejandro Aravena accomplished a design guided by strict geometry and a strong monolithic character. Perhaps it being void of culture and being introverted is what makes it such a commanding feature in the campus. Its simplicity makes it a monumental piece.

Project Information
Architects: Alejandro Aravena | ELEMENTAL
Location: Vicuña Mackenna 4860, Macul, Santiago Metropolitan Region, Chile
Project: TeamAlejandro Aravena, Juan CerdaCollaboratorsSamuel Gonçalves, Cristián Irarrázaval, Álvaro Ascoz, Natalie Ramirez, Christian Lavista, Suyin Chia, Pedro Hoffmann
Area: 8176.0 Square Meters
Project Year: 2014
Photography: ELEMENTAL | Nina Vidic, Nico Saieh