Unspeakable Certainties

Alejandro Aravena is an architect. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016.

In January 2019, my architecture firm, Elemental, was invited by a logging company and an association of Mapuche communities to work on a project that emerged out of a rapprochement they had begun a decade ago. Before Chile’s “social explosion” in October 2019, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest against inequality, and the pandemic in March 2020, the conflict between Chileans and Mapuche, the native population of the southern part of the country, was by far the biggest and most complex facing the nation. We would often see escalating violence in the news as Mapuche communities blocked industrial projects in their ancestral lands and rallied for political autonomy and cultural recognition. 

By this year, these various conflicts began to overlap and come together: The appearance of the Mapuche flag in protests was one sign of the interwoven complexity of the general unrest. Chile is now in the process of constructing a new constitution; after a referendum held last year resulted in an overwhelming vote in favor of rewriting the one that dates back to the reign of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, a constitutional assembly was formed and tasked with submitting a draft within a year. The next constitution will allow us, hopefully, to live together again.

When Elemental was invited to work on the project with the Mapuche communities, it was not clear what kind of project it would be. The hope was to produce a concrete expression of their will to explore a peaceful path into a more equitable relationship. It was a highly charged atmosphere. All explanations of the conflict were biased — expressions of the agendas of whoever was doing the talking. So, our first decision was to avoid intermediaries and instead undergo a process of immersion into the territorial space of the conflict. We decided to unlearn whatever we thought we knew about the issue — to produce a kind of conscious oblivion that would allow us to start from scratch. 

We traveled south, but our real journey was through a long history of mistrust and skepticism. At school, Chileans were taught that “araucanos” (the Western name for Mapuche), used to be a native population in the country. Such language is already very telling: They were referred to in the past tense. So, even before going into the technical, legal and jurisdictional dimensions of the conflict, there was a history of cultural, symbolic and even emotional assumptions that had to be dismantled.

Alejandro Aravena

In the beginning, we went to meet the communities and simply listened and observed. It was actually not that simple: We were listening to what they had to say but we also paid attention to what they were not saying, to the between-the-lines, the body language, the moods, the moments where the mood changed, for better or for worse. Given the long history and multilayered nature of the conflict, we also talked to people that had studied the past; we needed a shortcut to swallow huge amounts of information in a short period of time in order to reeducate ourselves. 

A new kind of world opened in front of us: In Mapudungun (the Mapuche language) “mapu” means Earth (with a capital E) and “che” means people: The people of the Earth. By contrast, in Spanish, earth is associated with a parcel of land that can be owned. For Mapuche, one cannot own the air, the sun or the rain — and without them, the land is worth nothing. How can someone possibly own the land? The Earth cannot belong to you; you belong to the Earth. In Spanish, we have one word for land and earth: tierra. So when we say that land is at the core of the conflict, Mapuche understand that to mean the planet, and Chileans understand that to mean property. One of the difficulties for an understanding emerged from the fact that we tended to treat the two as identical, conflating historical property rights with a deeper notion of Earth as the planet. 

This is just one small example of the complexity of the situation we entered, even before the long history of treaties and agreements that both parties claim to be the legal proof of who owns what. To add one more layer of complexity to the issue: Mapuche have an oral culture, Westerners a written one. When something goes down on paper, we can somehow forget about it; it is preserved. In an oral culture, things need to be kept alive through spoken stories. For Mapuche, something that happened 200 years ago, like a government not respecting a treaty, it’s like it happened yesterday. 

“We traveled south, but our real journey was through a long history of mistrust and skepticism.”

So, what were we to do? One of the things that garnered a new meaning for us was the old Mapuche tradition of parleys. All Chileans learn at school that parleys were how the natives of southern Chile came to coexist with foreign powers: first with the Incan Empire, then with the Spanish and eventually with Chile proper, once the country became independent in 1810. So, we thought: If there’s a tradition to deal with controversies, with tensions, why not reinstall that old tradition?

There were chronicles that described the parleys as well as some old engravings, but the problem was that there was no architecture for such events. We came to see our challenge as creating a place for these parleys, with an architecture that felt familiar, as if it had always existed, even though we knew that such architecture had in fact never existed. In the process of unlearning and relearning, an academic named Veronica Figueroa Huencho, said, “But you know, in that old tradition of parleys, what was important was a minimum symmetry of knowledge between the parties. Before going into the ritual of the parley, the parties have to know each other.” What we used to think was a one-step process — creating a place to parley — required a previous step: the “künü,” a place built for religious ceremonies and rituals, which we thought could work as a space to get to know each other, a space to level the field between parties.

We began the project by meeting with the association of communities of Loncoche, a city in the southern part of the Mapuche region. This association had been both protesting and in dialog with the logging company for almost a decade. The Chilean government had been unable to resolve the controversies between the two parties, so they decided to approach each other directly. To make a long story short, the association had a site, donated by the logging company, and wanted to build a big building with a cultural center, auditorium, multipurpose rooms, a hotel, a place for traditional sports and ceremonies and numerous other uses and functions. It also had to be designed to honor and respect Mapuche cultural identity.  

As we listened to their plan and expectations, we had mixed feelings. On the one hand, this looked like an opportunity; such a diversity of programs could work as a portal to the Mapuche world, a step toward a new symmetry of knowledge. On the other hand, it was too grand for Loncoche and risked being unrealistic. But if we said no, even for good reasons, it might come across as proof of Westerners’ unwillingness to embrace the Mapuche needs and desires. In short, it was a very delicate balance between being responsible and being receptive. How could we be open to their expectations and at the same time manage them responsibly? 

And thus we embarked on the most challenging project we have ever faced in our professional lives. It was completely unknown territory. As never before, intuition played a big role: We gathered information without knowing what to expect. Equally important was unlearning. We avoided answering before we understood the question. 

At the first meetings, the Mapuche leader Mario Mila would draw in the air with his hand on the basis of a form he had in his head. The circle is an important translation into space. In oral cultures, you gather in a circle around somebody speaking: It has a maximum width, you can’t be that far. The circular form may be pertinent as a foundational act of an oral culture, but it was the opposite of the square of the archetypal Spanish colonial town. 

“The design followed some unspeakable certainties: things we knew but could not express with words.”

At first, the künü was oriented east, where the sun rises, which for Mapuche culture is crucial. We also felt that some vertical elements were needed to make the space stand out, and that the building elements had to be big: not just wood, but whole trees. These two aspects of the form did not come from the tradition, but from a gut feeling.

I still remember that very first meeting — we came with this model, a kind three-dimensional sketch made of sticks. We were extremely nervous. I still remember that day because we were conscious that what we were presenting and proposing was not what they had asked for. But we intuitively knew it was designed to serve the bigger purpose of leveling the field, creating mutual knowledge and symmetry between parties who would, we hoped, eventually go into a parley.

When we presented the model, they said, “That’s it! That’s not what we asked for, but for some reason, that’s it.” The design had followed some unspeakable certainties: things we knew but could not express with words.

But, after a moment, there was a second reaction. It’s wrong, they said. Why? Because this is oriented east. We were surprised: Wasn’t the eastward orientation important for Mapuche culture? Yes, they explained, but this space is going to be used for the New Year’s ceremony, the We Tripantu, which takes place on the June solstice. And on that date, the sun does not rise in the east, it’s slightly off.

Alejandro Aravena

“Okay,” we said, “We’ll move it!” We had purposefully not glued the model. So the Mapuche moved it and reoriented the circle to fit the sunrise. And now it formed a kind of circle, with the perimeter wide enough to accommodate 80 fires for the 80 communities that would gather for the New Year’s celebration. And this then became the “more or less” design principle for this project: more or less a circle, more or less oriented east. That “moreorlessness” allowed the design to become a dialogue. 

We may know some things, they know others. The challenge here was to make these knowledges converge. 

The design of the künü embodies that convergence or fusion of knowledges. Whenever there is a complex question, the scarcest resource is synthesis. If there is any power in architecture, it’s the power of synthesis. Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live; it is not more complicated than this, but also not easier than this. This apparently inoffensive, harmless sentence carries the whole difficulty (and potential richness) of design. 

“If there is any power in architecture, it’s the power of synthesis.”

What informs the form of a project? Well, the forces at play range from very pragmatic issues (deadlines, budget, building codes, gravity, etc.) to the intangible dimensions of the human conditions (the character of a place, symbolic value, people’s expectations, fears, needs, desires, etc.). 

The key is to organize such information as a proposal. Every creative act is always a jump into the void, but in this case the space between what we knew and what might work seemed vast. The artistic side of architecture, in this sense, refers not so much to the aesthetics of the design, but to its capacity to move ahead with very little information, with partial certainties, or — as we call it at Elemental — with unspeakable certainties: what you know, but can’t explain with words.