Alberto Fernández - Santiago Chile
August 2010 - Marina van den Bergen

In the 2007 edition of Archiprix International, the Agro-industrial School of Rengo designed by Alberto Fernández was nominated as participants favourite and was one of the projects that won an  Archiprix.  An interview about the position of young architects in Chile,  much needed change and an earthquake.

Your graduation project, The Agro-industrial School of Rengo, connects education, society and agriculture in one building. Why did you choose to design an agro-industrial school and why locate it in Rengo?
Aahh, this is something personal. Education has always been an important element in my life. Not only because my mother told me to go to school, but because she is a teacher herself.  The town I grew up in, Limache, is surrounded by agricultural land but there are only general secondary schools in town, schools where they teach mathematics, technology and languages. There used to be specialized agricultural schools, but they were all converted into schools providing general education.  By designing an agricultural school I want to stress the importance of the connection between the town, and its surroundings; the relation between urban development and rural development. In Chile the development of urban and rural areas does not take place equally or in parallel. With my project, I wanted to address this situation and provide a solution. Re-establishing the connection between the urban and the rural is important: economically - lots of poor people live in urban areas, and agriculture provides work - and culturally. The knowledge that the farmers have of the soil, the crops etc., information that is specific to the location, ought to be passed on to the following generations. Every small rural town has a specific agricultural production: Limache is famous for its tomatoes for instance.
I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to do objective research if I located the school in Limache. That's why I choose Rengo as the site of the agro-industrial school. The situation there is more or less the same as in Limache or any other rural town or city in Chile. There is no agricultural secondary school, whereas the town is surrounded by grapevines, where most of Chile's wines come from!

Did your graduation project have any follow-up? For instance, did you present your project to the mayor of Rengo?
Yes, I presented my project to the mayor of Rengo. He liked the idea, but unfortunately he died soon after our meeting. His successor decided to build a conventional school, i.e., a general secondary school on a part of the original site. Anyway, back then my proposal was too big, there were too many square metres for me to work with. When you start working in Chile as a young professional you are only legally allowed to work on small buildings for public works (using the concept of invitations to tender), a medium-sized office is allowed to construct 6000 sq.m. of buildings and you have to be a really big office if you want to build more than 12,000 sq.m. After my graduation in 2005 I worked for large architectural offices for the pure purpose of realizing square metres.  Right now, I have the qualifications to design and construct bigger buildings, I'm legally allowed to build my agro-industrial school. One day I hope to realize it. 
In 2008 you started your own office called Alberto Fernández Architects, along with industrial designer Susana Ortega. Is it common for young architects in Chile to start their own office?
Oh no. Of my 100 fellow students who graduated in 2005 only two or three started their own practice.  As I already stated it's difficult to start your own office because by law you need a lot of experience to work on a big or even medium-sized project. Therefore, and because of the fragile economic situation, most architects choose to work for major offices. Only 10% of the architects start their own office, 25% will do academic work, mostly teaching, and 65% work in big offices or in real estate offices. This situation is not only typical of Chile, it's a development that can be seen throughout South America.
I started my own office while working for an architectural firm. Susana is an industrial designer, and we participated in a competition together. We drew up a plan for harvesting sea fog, we won the competition, so we decided to establish our own practice. I think it's important to be involved in experimental research in addition to everyday construction and building practice. 
After five years of work I gained a fully independent practice. This independence is important to get our designs, our projects, realized the way we want them to be. We run a small office, it's a real network organization. We don't have people working for us, but people working with us. They work with us, over and above their jobs at big offices.

What kind of projects are you working on right now?
In February of this year, Chile was hit by a severe earthquake (8.8) and a tsunami. Buildings, land, even complete towns were destroyed. Right now, the country is starting to rebuild the demolished parts. A few months ago we won a tender for ten minor projects. The regional government is helping small clients with small budgets by organizing such tenders. Our projects include a landscape design, infrastructure, the building of three hostels and a small industrial zone. The first project is due to be completed in September. It's perhaps a bit harsh to say, but the earthquake opened opportunities for new types of construction and the use of new materials. To us it's important to promote good architecture in rural areas. Due to experimental research we're now in a position to develop better and more sustainable projects.
Besides the experimental research and the design work, I teach at the University of Santiago and at the University of Talca. Chile is very centre-oriented, it's all very much focused on Santiago. I don't think that's healthy for the country. That's why I also teach in Talca, a three-hour drive from Santiago. I teach technology there so that the students stay in touch with the latest technological developments that are used in cities like in Santiago. What I like about the students in Talca is their open mind. They produce excellent work; unlike students in Santiago their minds are not yet clouded by prejudgements.

If one drove through Chile in a few years time, how would one recognize a real Alberto Fernández?

You would find the project in hybrid or rural areas. It would be different from other buildings not only because of the simple solutions, the different façade, but also because it is oriented toward ten or twenty years in the future. And if a project happened to be in a city, it would probably have a lot of green, it would bring nature into the city.

Your work seems to deal with rural against urban, local against glocal?

It's not so much against, I would rather see it as rural and city, local and glocal. I have been the president of the youth department of the Chile organization of architects since the start of this year. Our main goal is to stimulate architects to start their own independent office and to improve the legal situation so it will be easier to start an own office. If nothing changes there will be no small independent offices in ten years time. I think it would be good for Chile if architecture were present everywhere in the country, not just in the big cities but also in underdeveloped parts of the country, and if not merely a handful of large offices were designing everything in the country. This situation in which the same offices are consistently designing the same kind of projects the way they always do is threatening the urban development of our cities and our towns. Not the big offices are the best, but the biggest ideas are the best. (Laughing) I believe in young power with great ideas. 

Alberto Fernández G.