Public Interest Architect Wins Pritzker Prize

“He shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”

Alejandro Aravena (AP Photo/Eva Vergara)

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A Chilean architect whose work has focused on sustainable design and social housing was awarded the Pritzker Prize, often called the Nobel for architects.

Alejandro Aravena, a 48-year-old designer from Santiago, was recognized Tuesday for his socially conscious design and commitment to fighting for “a better urban environment for all,” jury members said in a statement.

“His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption and provides welcoming public space,” said Tom Pritzker, whose family funds the prize. “He shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”

Through his practice Elemental, which he joined as an executive director in 2001, Aravena focuses on projects with a public interest and social impact that address the challenges of 21st-century cities. Aravena and his team have produced more than 2,500 units of low-cost housing they call “half a good house,” because the design leaves space for residents to complete their home themselves. The low cost of the housing means Aravena can build the developments in more expensive areas, placing inhabitants in areas with good access to public transportation and better schools.

The left image shows how “half a good house” is given to a family, and the right shows how one family completed their house. (Credit: Elemental)

The Elemental team also participates in every phase of the complex process of creating the housing. They engage with politicians, lawyers, researchers, local authorities, builders and the future residents. Their goal extends beyond making good design, to creating new opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds.

But Aravena told Dezeen that although there’s a movement of more socially conscious designers, building regulations and politics often prevent similar solutions for problems like Europe’s mass influx of refugees.

“There’s [going to be] a billion people on the planet that will be needing housing,” Aravena said. “Unless we follow the incremental approach to tackle scarcity of means, we won’t solve this problem.”

Project by Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena (Credit: Elemental)

Other projects by Aravena range from a residence and dining hall at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, to a structure for the pharmaceutical company Novartis in Shanghai, China. Aravena is the first Chilean to win the $100,000 architecture prize, and one of the youngest. He is currently curating the 2016 Venice Biennale, which opens in May, but says the award opens up new possibilities.

“The prestige, the reach, the gravitas of the prize is such that we hope to use its momentum to explore new territories, face new challenges and walk into new fields of action,” Aravena said in a statement. “After such a peak, the path is unwritten. So our plan is not to have a plan, face the uncertain, be open to the unexpected.”

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Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.

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Tags: urban designarchitecture

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