Interview: Alejandra Celedon Forster discusses the intersection of architecture, education, and history

Based in Santiago, Alejandra Celedón Förster is a Chilean architect, researcher and curator currently positioned at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where she directs the Magister in Architecture and investigates educational infrastructure, from the scale of furniture to that of classrooms and buildings. Her work is simultaneously local and global, and draws together places and their histories through unexpected lines of connection. Here, she speaks with Red Envelope editor Rima Alsammarae about her work – from Chile’s pavilions at the Venice and Chicago biennials to her independent multidisciplinary practice.

Tell us about your recent efforts in academia, as well as the MARQ programme.

For a number of years, we have been trying to merge local concerns with the international agenda, which has attracted professionals of excellence from all around the world to teach, as well as a multicultural group of students. This has to be continued and enlarged, while incorporating a stronger agenda that contests specialisation. MARQ is the programme within the school that does not aim to provide a specific set of tools or knowledge (whether environmental, technological, landscape architecture or heritage), but rather enlarges and deepens the limits of the discipline. I see the programme as a bastion of resistance against the partialisation and atomisation of knowledge.

How do you view architecture education – its strengths and weaknesses – and how do you feel it is changing?

Architecture is a lens through which to see, understand and intervene reality. Buildings have shaped our environment across civilisations and time, and thus, education on the built environment should start as early as possible – ideally, as part of the curricula of secondary school. If we aim to imagine other, better futures, it is not only important to teach about our current environmental circumstances, but to understand them as part of the history and culture of the discipline.

Image courtesy of Alejandra Celedón Förster & Omar Faundez

The role of architecture education will be to rethink how we live together as societies in relation to our environments. In a future world that is both politically and environmentally challenging, architects play a key role in articulating (and composing) different fields, while giving them meaning and material form. Architecture academies should keep up with the times, considering building as a sound board and thermometer for society as a whole, and as an active agent of change. Universities and academia should continue being places where knowledge is produced and exchanged; places where we can, collectively, imagine and reinvent the future.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

I divide my days among a couple of research projects and teams, which is what I enjoy most. I am part of Ciudades de Octubre, an associative group of Chilean students, architects and academics that intersects problems of the city with those of architecture through a critical approach where representation and the media are at the centre of its concerns. Those interested can find us on Instagram at @ciudadesdeoctubre. I also lead a research project on education infrastructure, called Las Escuelas. And lastly, I teach the first design studio at the master’s programme that I am running.

You’ve published your research quite frequently – could you tell us more about these various publications, and what your aim is in addressing and exploring the topics that you do?

Writing is yet another format and mode of register in which ideas can be tested and developed, just as drawing, designing and exhibiting. Some of the essays I have published aim to tell untold stories from the past that can illuminate current debates and problems.

Tell us about the Chilean pavilion that you worked on for the Venice Biennale.

Stadium was the exhibition that represented Chile at the 16th Venice Biennale in 2018. A year later it was adapted to be exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago de Chile. The main operation was to compress a large building, the National Stadium of Chile, into a small exhibition space: first the Salla del’Isolloto del Arsenale, and the central hall of the museum later. The pavilion not only installs a scale stadium ‘in’ an exhibition space, but – and this draws from Cezanne who “painted only for museums” – the show conceives and builds a stadium ‘for’ a museum. Part of a more extensive research project on housing policies and rhetoric used during the dictatorship in Chile, and as a result of conversations with female residents about the origin of their houses and places, is that a drawing appears from the hands of one of them. Also exhibited is a non-scale plan of the National Stadium of Chile on roneo paper, which, instead of bleachers and seats, encloses in more than 60 polygons and boxes the names of different towns and villages of the 17 communes that then made up the outskirts of Greater Santiago. On 29 September, 1973, the drawing was recorded about 30cm high and 55cm wide, with a fold in the middle and marks of brackets, as if it had been part of a larger issue.

Image courtesy of Alejandra Celedón Förster & Omar Faundez

Chile’s National Stadium was both a building and a city for a day. On 29 September, 1979, 40,000 families filled its seats – these 250,000 people were from all over the city of Santiago. The occasion was not a sports game or a cultural or religious event, but the collective act of signing the documents that would transform them from pobladores (dwellers) into proprietors. On the days prior to the event, a booklet circulated in the official press bearing the list of summoned people together with a plan of the stadium – both a diagram and a proxy for the whole city. The appointed were mostly beneficiaries from Operación Sitio (Site Operation), a national self-help housing policy that responded to the severe housing crisis by providing people with access to urban land, but above all, to a private plot within the city. Its critics referred to it as Operación Tiza (Chalk Operation), since the outline of a plot with chalk in the peripheries of the city was what most people received. The naturalisation of private property logics, land liberalisation, deregulation and housing atomisation were massively celebrated that day at the stadium’s full capacity.

The Chilean pavilion exhibits a double-sided story: that of a building (with its dissimilar and even contradictory past uses) and that of a city (with its atomised housing underpinning an unequal development), both overlaid in a single event. In it, the floorplan of the stadium no longer delineates bleachers, but visualises a ‘other’ city, marginalised from its centre, arresting different scales in a spatial and temporal panorama. The exhibition recreates, revisits and actualises this floorplan. Every section of the coliseum has a población (slum) extruding as a block, engraved with the urban fabric of the fragment of the city from which it comes, miles away, reconstructing the perimeter of the stadium-city.

Your work seems to balance between the study of micro and macro designs (from building to urban design) – what interests you about each and how do you find resolution between the two?

Architecture is all those scales at once; it cannot be separated from the city and its cultural context. Architecture is the city.

Can you discuss The Plot: Miracle and Mirage?

The Plot: Miracle and Mirage was an exhibition commissioned and funded by the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, “… and other such stories …”. The call of the event’s curators was to trace narratives – micro-stories originating in Chicago, revealing connections between varied practices and common questions. The contribution of The Plot focused on the relationship between Chicago and Santiago, two cities that are distant but connected through their housing and land market policies. The Plot presented Santiago as an experiment, not only an economic one, but also social, in which urban land was subjected to market forces. Without possible resistance, the house was displaced towards the outskirts of the city under pressure from speculators and private real estate developers. The investigation prior to the exhibition consisted of, on one hand, a look into the past, through archival work on statements about the city made by the ‘Chicago Boys’ and their followers. And on the other hand, it consisted of an inquiry about the city present in the search for symptoms of an implicit urban model, barely pronounced. The city and its evidence, recorded audiovisually, became traces of a retroactive manifesto on the city of Santiago.

The exhibition uses the most typical closure of an empty lot under construction, as a resonance box where these forces become visible: the pressures and frictions on the urban land. The confined void serves as support to present a multimedia audiovisual project. Inside this box, surrounded by mirrors, the images of the present city are replicated and amplified, until the city becomes totally unlimited, and the model, no longer apparent but unmistakable.

The Plot is both a manifestation and a manifesto of the not-so-miraculous consequences of the urban model that was founded on the premises of the Chicago School of Economics on Santiago. While it has been said many times that the global free market revolution began in Chile in 1975, this was just an essay – the first draft. Ideas developed and spread in a different order, with Chicago being the centre of a world game. Decades have passed since this experiment began in Chile. The miracle of Friedman’s Chilean disciples has turned out to be a mirage in many ways. The vision and dream of a free-market economy produced a blurry picture, one in which the real object always drifts toward a myriad of unfulfilled possibilities. The Chicago Boys managed to establish an unrestricted framework of action, harboured by an absolute lack of civic rights and political freedom, securing power (economic and political) for a select and dominant group.

The 9×18-metre-lot, which the exhibition cites, not only stands as the common housing solution to accommodate the most vulnerable on the outskirts of Santiago, but also as the key to understanding the conditions of possibility of a future Santiago. The urban block ceased to be the development unit of the city, due to the independent private lot. The images of the film projected in The Plot: Miracle and Mirage come from Santiago today, tracing a city that vanishes in its borders in an endless land market. Policies implemented in Santiago during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in a city in which access to urban land and its distribution is based on the purchasing power of private lots. The city is a game board where, in some places and at some times, the rules can be changed, or even suspended, like the mirage of a miracle.

Can you tell me more about your architecture practice?

I would define my practice as multifaceted, dispersed and promiscuous in the sense that it allows dissimilar ambits and disciplinary fields to cross in each project, from history to art, film to archeology, narrative to cartography. It is not something that I seek deliberately, rather it occurs naturally. They interest me and I see connections between rather distant things that, over time, become tied and decant into unlikely formats: from exhibitions to essays, audiovisual to design projects, editorials to curations.

Image courtesy of Alejandra Celedón Förster & Omar Faundez

Moving or dislocating formal research projects outside the academy classrooms not only implies a registration and exposure of aspects of the research to a mass public, but also builds a new epistemological site that coexists in the production and reproduction of the research project. I try to open up alternative places for architecture: the possibility of a new space of knowledge with its own logics.

The theme of this journal is women in architecture – how does the topic make you feel?

I understand why some people might be bothered by the topic of women and architecture. Myself, I prefer to believe that you are interested in my work and not in me simply because I am a woman. On one hand, the binary view of the world between women and men can no longer hold; yet, on the other, conditions differ greatly between different points on the planet, and a woman’s visibility still needs to be reinforced and valued. In many countries, the distance between the genders is still enormous. I believe that, perhaps for a while longer, we have to continue to insist on inviting, promoting and giving visibility to more women, but hopefully in the near future, we will only have to care about good work, regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity and so on. For a while more, it will be necessary to continue promoting the figuration and development not only of women in architecture, but also of many other silenced voices.

Read more interviews here.

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the third journal themed ‘Women’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

Volume I, Journal III is available to read in digital format here.