Sebastian Contreras Rodriguez was an architect in Chile, but after moving to New Zealand he started working as a housekeeper. Federico Magrin speaks to him about architecture being a service for the poor, and the differences between Chile and New Zealand. 

Sebastian joins me after a tiresome and proving day at work. He tells me with a pronounced Chilean accent he just left the hotel right across the street. He works full-time as a housekeeper for a four-star hotel in Te Aro, though he is a recognised architect.

Sebastian Contreras Rodriguez grew up in a town on the edge of Santiago de Chile. Since he was a child, he has harboured a long-lasting love for the calm and wild countryside and despises the orderly chaotic city. After studying sustainability and architecture in Chile and Italy, he found a role as an assistant for a private office of architects. But modelling and drawing plans for restaurants and offices wasn’t his passion.

“Architecture is a service for the poor.”

Sebastian then founded Estacion Espacial, an international group focused on providing sustainable housing to socially disadvantaged people. Estacion Espacial carried out several projects in the Amazon, as well as in Thailand. The type of dwelling is simple: everything is in timber and the only common feature is a pointy roof. Techo is the name Sebastian picked for most of his housing projects, which is also the Spanish word for ‘roof’. A roof, according to Sebastian, is “a spatial surface that protects from the inclemency of the weather”.

He possesses an anthropology-inspired conception of architecture. In his opinion, architecture is about a form of life – the raw materials and the elements used – and the life of a culture. The results of an architectonical effort should reflect the culture it houses and respect the environment. Through sustainable projects, the work of Sebastian prioritises the community and realises shelters for people who can’t afford one. “Architecture is a service for the poor”, he tells me.

Architecture is all about the society and an architect has a social role: to develop affordable houses.

Rural social housing in Colombia. Photo: Supplied

When Sebastian first came to New Zealand, he fled South America. He left because he considers Chile to be scourged by mercantilism and neo-liberalism – two economical systems that are leaving nothing for the poor – and a country where propaganda-fuelled xenophobia pushes people to discriminate against the Mapuche, an indigenous people of Chile. As he sees it, Chile has the wrong attitude towards the indigenous: they are left behind and their land is offered to the highest bidder. He feels Chile is still dealing with the legacy of European colonialism, whereas New Zealand is on the right path to overcome its troubled past as a colony.

The Government might be taking point on developing residences for the socially disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean private architects should focus solely on building second homes for the wealthy.

When he arrived in New Zealand, Sebastian found an open, welcoming and inclusive society. What he didn’t expect to find was a soaring housing crisis. Aotearoa is plagued by homelessness and the sky-rocketing ascent of prices in the housing market isn’t slowing down. Sebastian dreams of solving this massive problem with his affordable projects. The Government might be taking point on developing residences for the socially disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean private architects should focus solely on building second homes for the wealthy. He approves of the recent law passed by the New Zealand Government to limit the unrestrained power of builders and investors.

A person afflicted by social issues will always be interested in a home. The architect must serve the community by answering its social needs. Sebastian speaks of renowned architects like Alejandro Aravena and Renzo Piano, whose intentions are to develop affordable houses through fundamental architecture – an architecture centred on the groundwork and the foundation of society.

Sebastian building a cultural centre in Colombia. Photo: Supplied

Working as a housekeeper represents the means to pay his bills and to send some money to his daughter, who lives in Colombia. Nonetheless, Sebastian is working alongside a New Zealand architect to develop houses for homeless people and Māori women living in extreme territories. His latest project involves building a house made of timber and glass, adorned with a greenhouse-kind-of-roof that can control the internal temperature. Inside, a sustainable garden shares the triangular-shaped techo (roof) with a hundred square metres of living space. This “anthropic intervention” is energy-balanced and perfectly suited for this climate.

Sebastian is devoted to affordability and sustainability. His projects include renewable-energy-powered systems (such as solar panels and small windmills) and he aims at providing a home that can function autonomously, made with low-cost materials.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Chilean Embassy in Wellington. Sebastian is collaborating with the consul to present an exhibition in 2022, highlighting the similarities between Chile and New Zealand. On the other side of the shore – Al otro lado de la orilla will be an excuse for speaking about society. Chile and New Zealand are coastal countries bookending the Pacific Ocean. We have similar weather conditions and landscapes, but our lands are interspersed by different architectural structures. The exhibition will showcase the works of Chilean architects and New Zealand architects who specialise in timber projects.

Rendering of a sustainable and renewable energy-based project designed for New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

The intellectual objective of the exhibition is to question the social housing in both countries. Is community housing being developed sustainably for society? Are the Mapuche in Chile and the Māori in New Zealand taken into consideration? How are architects advancing rural homes? Sebastian tells me architecture, in this exhibition, will be an excuse for speaking about and understanding society.

Before he came to New Zealand, Sebastian worked on several meaningful projects, including building an orphanage in Thailand and working for the United Nations to develop housing for FARC, an ex-guerrilla alliance that is now institutionalised and recognised as a political actor in Colombia.

“The future is indigenous.”

Sebastian thinks there are firm connections between architecture and housekeeping. While working in the hotel, he tries to understand how and why people choose a certain order for their clothes. He doesn’t want to seem like a paparazzi, but he remains strongly interested in people’s private lives. When you build a house, you establish a relationship with a person. During his time as a housekeeper, he is studying the fundamental and primitive elements of social relations – the shape of life emerging in private spaces.

He never imagined he would end up with this job. He worked as an assistant professor and a lecturer in Chile. “Housekeeping is an unexpected present”, he reveals to me. After more than a year as a housekeeper, when people ask him why he keeps his job, he boldly replies: “Why not?”. Throughout his time in the hotel, he has had the opportunity to learn about hardness and real life; to understand what is not superficial and reach a depth in life that would have otherwise remained hidden. In his opinion, a socially-built layer separates the poor from the others.

Rural social housing in Colombia. Photo: Supplied

Asked about society in Chile and whether he would return there, Sebastian draws a comparison between New Zealand and the South American country. Compared with Chile’s, New Zealand’s public education equips citizens for the job market adequately and the minimum wage supplies individuals enough money to live with.

In New Zealand, the difference between the poor and the rich is not appalling.

Sebastian wants to spend the rest of his life in Aotearoa, open an office and address the social housing problem. He is looking forward to applying for a resident visa in the next year.

“The future is primitive and essential”, he says. Less technology and more basics; fewer city-dwellers and more indigenous.

“The future is indigenous”, he repeats calmly. His dream continues to be rebuilding the groundwork for the community. The first layer of society, as he calls it. As we part, I wonder: is New Zealand’s team of five million willing to accept this immigrant for who he really is?

Federico Magrin is an Italian-born journalist, essayist and philosopher based in New Plymouth, where he works as a reporter for Stuff.

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