Less than two weeks into 2016, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena is already having a very good year. In the midst of preparations for the May opening of the Venice Architecture Biennale, which he is directing under the theme “Reporting from the Front,” Aravena has been named this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate.
“I was happy and surprised,” Aravena tells ARCHITECT about receiving the news. Given his closeness to many on the jury from his participation with them in recent years, he says, “I look forward to discussing the process [with] them in New York.”
The award, consisting of $100,000 and a bronze medallion, will be formally conferred in a ceremony on April 4 at the United Nations in New York, a building designed by a team of architects including Wallace K. Harrison, Le Corbusier, and 1988 laureate Oscar Niemeyer.
Chicagoan Tom Pritzker, who heads the Hyatt Foundation, sponsor of the Prize, says, “[Aravena’s] built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”
Born in 1967, Aravena started his own office in 1994 before founding the Santiago, Chile–based collective practice Elemental in 2001. He has lived his entire life in Santiago, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s under the Augusto Pinochet reign, when the country was isolated and information was tightly controlled. His parents were both schoolteachers, and one early outlet was vacationing in nature in southern Chile, which clearly influences his approach to architectural design. “You reduce your practice to the irreducible and move to the essential core,” he says.
Perhaps Aravena’s most striking body of work is a series of thoughtful, monumental structures for his alma mater, Santiago’s Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. These projects rethink sustainability using practical means expressed in radically bold forms. Aravena has also tackled social housing with a deft hand that produces complexes that are both inventive and ennobling on tight budgets. Beyond his native Chile, Aravena has built projects in Texas, Mexico, Switzerland, and China.
The Medical School (2004) at Universidad Católica de Chile is conceived as a vertical cloister, with its monumental tripartite façade of varied brick piers reminiscent of classical precedents. Recognizing that glass buildings are a poor choice for Santiago’s environment, yet faced with the client’s request for just such an expression, Aravena designed the Siamese Towers (2005) for the same client as a sculpturally evocative, energy-efficient building wrapped in a glass skin.
During a time when Brutalism has seen many of its most important mid-20th century works under siege (and some lost to the wrecker’s ball), Aravena’s UC Innovation Center—Anacleto Angelini (2014) provides an inspiring antidote. “The aim was to build the right environment for knowledge creation,” he said in a 2014 TED talk. The design hollows out the core for an atrium and places mass (in the form of concrete) at the perimeter to combat solar gain. Interior daylighting comes via a central atrium, but also through multi-storied windows whose scale allow them to act as urban squares for gathering. By turning the building inside out, energy consumption is one-third that of a similarly sized glass-clad building. “This is just archaic, primitive common sense,” Aravena said. “With the right design, sustainability is nothing but the rigorous use of common sense.”
“The purpose of design...is to channel people’s own building capacity,” Aravena said in the 2014 talk. This approach is best seen starting with the Quinta Monroy Housing (2004) in Iquique, Chile, which poses a unique typology for social housing that Aravena has developed in later projects. To save initial costs, simple three-story houses were built as “half a good house" (as he describes them), while providing the opportunity for future expansion by each individual family according to their ability and priorities. Monterrey Housing (2010) in Monterrey, Mexico, and Villa Verde Housing (2013) in Constitución, Chile, extend the concept, with the Mexico project configured as a flat-roofed mega-block and the Chilean variation featuring a series of identical, attached gabled forms. In each case, Aravena uses a participatory design process to determine what amenities are most needed at the initial stage of construction, providing the occupants with direct design input within a low-cost, subsidized model of building. Aravena has created an architecture that is visionary, yet eminently practical.
While the first winner from Chile, Aravena is the fourth winner from Latin America, following Mexican Luis Barragán in 1980, and Brazilians Oscar Niemeyer in 1988 and Paulo Mendes da Rocha in 2006.
Coupled with the 2014 laureate, Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, it seems Aravena’s selection is part of a trend to elevate more socially conscious designers through the Pritzker Prize. In addition to the social housing projects, Aravena has been involved with disaster relief and the reconstruction of Constitución, Chile, since an earthquake and tsunami hit the city on Feb. 27, 2010.
This year's Pritzker Prize jury included architectural patron (and jury chair) Lord Peter Palumbo; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; Beijing-based architect and educator Yung Ho Chang, AIA; Berlin-based architecture curator, writer, and editor Kristin Feireiss; 2002 Pritzker laureate Glenn Murcutt; 2007 Pritzker laureate Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA; Barcelona architect Benedetta Tagliabue; and Mumbai-based businessman Ratan N. Tata. The executive director of the Pritzker Prize is Madrid-based architectural educator Martha Thorne.
Aravena is the third laureate to win the prize after previously serving on the jury, following Ban in 2014 and Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA, in 1993. The jury visited Aravena's work in 2006, resulting in an invitation to join the panel in 2009. According to Aravena, they never discussed his work while he was involved. He is genuinely humble and modest while discussing his time on the jury. “The level of discussion is very high,” he tells ARCHITECT. “My work isn’t even close to what I witnessed.” This year’s jury, rightfully, begs to differ.
Visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery to view more work by Alejandro Aravena.