The announcement of the 2016 Pritzker Prize winner last month came as something of a shock. Rather than select a precertified star, the jury picked Alejandro Aravena, best known for building smart, extremely low-cost social housing in his native Chile. Then a minor tempest broke out over the fact that the jury knew Aravena very well— he had been one of them for seven cycles, only stepping down last year. Yet Aravena was, by his own account, as surprised as anyone—and he was quick to defend the jury’s integrity.
The Prize has been a lightning rod for criticism in the past, of course—for neglecting women architects, and for avoiding, usually, the idea of collaboration. But let’s look at the deeper significance of this year’s honor. The choice of Aravena sends a powerful message about the role of architecture in addressing some of the world’s most urgent problems—as did the 2014 prize to Shigeru Ban, famous for his temporary shelters for victims of disaster. The award is formally bestowed each year at a site of architectural significance that has no connection to the winner (Tadao Ando received his 1995 medal at Versailles, of all places), but, this year, it seems perfectly appropriate that Aravena will be celebrated in April at the United Nations headquarters in New York.