When Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena speaks about designing buildings, he invokes the language of governments and institutes: “investing in brains over bricks”; turning “forces into forms.” But unlike the abstract ideas that may emerge from a policy institute, Aravena, with his Santiago-based firm ELEMENTAL, is keen on designing solutions that not solely aid, but empower society’s neediest.

For this visionary approach, Aravena has been named the winner of the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s most prestigious honor.

“Few have risen to the demands of practicing architecture as an artful endeavor, as well as meeting today's social and economic challenges,” the Prize’s nine-member jury—which included Pritzker laureates Glenn Murcutt and Richard Rogers, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer—wrote in its citation. “[Aravena] has achieved both, and in doing so has meaningfully expanded the role of the architect.”

Aravena’s projects range from a sustainable reconstruction plan for Constitución, the Chilean city devastated by an earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2010, to delivering some 2,500 units of housing in urban slums. He has also designed scores of institutional, civic, and cultural works, spanning the globe, from Chile to China.

The architect will receive the $100,000 prize and the iconic Louis Sullivan-inspired bronze medallion in a ceremony at the United Nation Headquarters April 4th.

When reached by phone in his Santiago office, Aravena—the first Chilean architect and the fourth South American to receive the Pritzker—told RECORD he was still in a state of disbelief. After he got the news, “for a couple of minutes I misunderstood what I was being called for,” he says. “Then when I realized, the emotion was so overwhelming I couldn’t speak. I was too touched.”

Aravena studied architecture at the Universidad Católica de Chile. In 1994, two years after graduating, he established his eponymous firm, Alejandro Aravena Architects. His first major project was the Mathematics School (1999) at his alma mater.

Over the course of his career, Aravena—a 2004 RECORD Design Vanguard winner—went on to design several other buildings for the university, most notably, the Siamese Towers (2005) a forked, glass tower with an innovative skin adapted to Santiago’s desert climate, and the UC Innovation Center-Anacleto Angelini (2014), a muscular concrete edifice, with a glazed atrium at its center.

ELEMENTAL began as an academic enterprise, too. In 2000, Aravena was invited to teach at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “I was so nervous,” Aravena recalls. “I wanted to identify what I could say in a context that was full of Pritzker prizes-winning faculty and the most brilliant students in the world. The only thing I felt that I could say that the others were not, was working for the dispossessed.” In Cambridge, he met a young engineer and fellow Chilean Andrés Iacobelli, studying public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Their discussions led back to Chile, where subsidized social housing was delivered aggressively, but was of poor quality. What if, they reasoned, social housing, instead of depreciating in value over time, could increase in value? Together, with architect Pablo Allard, they founded ELEMENTAL in 2001. 

“Quantity is easy to achieve. We needed to guarantee quality in the next generation of solutions. Social housing requires professional quality, not professional charity,” says Aravena.

They put this idea to the test in Quinta Monroy, ELEMENTAL’s first social housing project in the city of Inquique. The architects needed to design housing for nearly 100 families living in a decades-old slum on the shoestring government subsidy of $7,500 per unit.

“The consequences of architecture are not easy to erase, so you need to be as careful as possible, moving from paper to reality,” he says.

Rather than seek cheaper property on the city’s perimeter to stretch the subsidy, the architects opted to provide exactly one-half of a well-designed house that residents could expand and improve over time as their individual circumstances permitted.

“We were encouraged by the positive results, but we had to prove our point in different environments—from the Chilean desert to Patagonia; from big cities to small cities; from the mountains to the sea,” Aravena says. “We needed to prove to the market that things could be done better.”

ELEMENTAL was able to secure seed funding by finding business partners—COPEC, a major Chilean oil company, and Universidad Católica de Chile—and has since created similar housing projects in Monterey, Mexico and in many more cities throughout Chile, including Santiago and Constitución. The architecture office is run by five partners—Aravena with Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Ignacio Cerda, Victor Oddó, and Diego Torres—to whom Aravena credits his Pritzker win.

Aravena hopes to leverage both the Prizker prize and being chief curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Bienniale as global platforms. With the Biennale theme Reporting from the Front, Aravena wants to get architects thinking about concrete design solutions to problems as varied as pollution, security, climate change, and migration. “The starting point for architecture should be as far from architecture as possible. By that I mean problems that every single citizen in society understands, is affected by, and can have a say in,” he says.

The architect sees this global line of thinking as an emerging theme in Pritzker laureates, beginning with Shigeru Ban in 2014, who is well-known for his temporary disaster relief shelters. But Aravena is uncomfortable with being defined as a humanitarian. “It’s a word that we consciously try to avoid,” he says. “We never ever claim any kind of moral superiority because we are doing social work, not at all. If anything we considered ourselves good designers and we just wanted to contribute to a difficult question.”

Aravena himself just left the Prizker jury last year after seven rounds as judge. “The level of the debate was the highest I’d ever witnessed,” he says. “I think it was fair to allow new voices to enter.”

But some may find it controversial that his colleagues on the jury selected him so soon after his departure. “If there is anything in such a jury, it’s a level of integrity,” he says, slightly bristling.

Aravena prefers to dwell on the impact of his work. On opening day of the Quinta Monroy housing complex in 2004, a young mother, part of the Aymara indigenous group, pulled Aravena aside to thank him for her new home. “This housing is not just for me, but for my children, and the children of my children,” she told him as she poured wine into the ground to honor Pachamama—mother earth. “It was a very emotional moment to know you have created a benefit for a couple generations to come,” he says.  


2016 Announcement Video


Alejandro Aravena's 2014 TED Talk