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2016 Pritzker Prize Goes to Alejandro Aravena, Chilean Architect Behind Innovative Affordable Housing

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Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, center, has won the 2016 Pritzker Prize. His UC Innovation Center at the San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile Santiago (left) and Constitución Cultural Center (right) from 2014, also in Chile, repres
Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, center, has won the 2016 Pritzker Prize. His UC Innovation Center at the San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile Santiago (left) and Constitución Cultural Center (right) from 2014, also in Chile, repres

48-year old Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena has been awarded the 2016 Pritzker Prize. He's the first laureate from Chile, the third from South America, and the fourth from Latin America. He's also a telegenic star of the international architecture scene, best-known for a housing complex built at a cost of $7,500 per unit and a proponent of "the rigorous use of common sense" to create sustainable, affordable and resilient cities.

Tom Pritzker, president and chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the $100,000 prize, said in a press release, "His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space." Among the projects of interest in Aravena's succinct, high-quality portfolio is the 2012 Bicentennial Park in Santiago, Chile (a city with a paucity of open space): a hillside full of slides, a jungle gym like a Habitrail, a fountain made of concrete bubbles. Its inclusion signals the casualness, and the sense of play, with which Aravena sets out his equitable urban agenda.

Bicentennial
Children's Park (2012) in Santiago, Chile. Photos by Cristobal Palma.

The selection of Aravena codifies the direction in which the Prize jury first feinted with the selection of Shigeru Ban in 2014—a direction, it must be noted, in which Aravena played a part as a juror. As I said in a Critics' Roundtable for Architect magazine at that time, "I [didn't] think Ban would have won just for the refugee housing, a system to be packed up and redeployed. What he did was make cardboard architecture that looks, at least in pictures, as beautiful as permanent architecture, and because of that will probably be made permanent." I also tweeted, "Next year's winner, Southern Hemisphere. #Pritzker." (Hey, I was only a year off.)

Ban allowed the Pritzker jury to move the narrative forward, putting behind them—at least for a moment—the brouhaha surrounding the petition to retroactively award Denise Scott Brown a share of partner and husband Robert Venturi's prize. Ban is a man, who headlines his own practice, from Japan (which has seven laureates), so the shift is seen in his best-known works: the cardboard tube shelters, community centers, and even cathedrals he developed for post-disaster sites. It's hard to argue that that's not architecture worth awarding in the unsettled weather of the 21st century.

Photo by Cristobal Palma.
Architect Alejandro Aravena of ELEMENTAL. Photo by Cristobal Palma.

Ban, like Aravena, is part of a younger generation of modernist architects in a country with a strong design lineage. His interest in design for the other 99 percent is perfectly of the moment. But Ban's architecture, like Aravena's, also explicitly refers to the work of Western architectural history. For Ban I listed Alvar Aalto, Buckminster Fuller, and Frei Otto (coincidentally, the posthumous Pritzker Prize laureate in 2015). For Aravena I would list Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. The work is easy on the eyes as well as comfort for the soul. If I may be allowed a comment on the appearance of a male architect, I see a parallel in the care taken that Aravena's hair is rumpled just so, in every photo, while he typically sports the wrinkled, rolled-sleeve linen shirt of pragmatism.

Quinta Monroy housing in Chile, from 2014. A house financed and finished with public money (left) compared with a middle-class standard achieved by the residents themselves (right). Photos by Cristobal Palma.

Aravena and his Santiago-based public interest "do tank" ELEMENTAL first came to international notice in the mid-2000s, with the completion of the Quinta Monroy Housing in Iquique, Chile. (Before ELEMENTAL, which he formed with engineer Andrés Iacobelli, he had a practice under his own moniker.) In Iquique, ELEMENTAL built 93 reinforced concrete units at a cost of $7,500 each, creating a living area of 30 square meters but leaving an equally-sized lot empty between each structure to allow for future expansion. Rather than a house that would be immediately too small, the money went into building the difficult part: indoor plumbing, solid walls, a roof. The residents (all of whom had formerly been squatting on the centrally-located land) could complete as leisure, skill, and income allowed.

Photo by Ramiro Ramirez.
Monterrey Housing (2010) in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo by Ramiro Ramirez.

The idea of house as platform was (and is) irresistible, particularly from the perspective of American social housing, where families cram into one-bedrooms, and the elderly are lonely in three. Aravena's basic framework, rapidly filled in with a motley array of materials and decorative detailing, can also remind one of the way balconies on postwar projects are often enclosed to serve as strangely public closets. The concept clearly bears a debt to Le Corbusier's Dom-ino House system, concrete platforms held up by columns, and like that system, leaves room for personal expression. Aravena likes to talk about participatory architecture, and Quinta Monroy (as well as the additional 2,400 units of social housing ELEMENTAL has subsequently designed) is a most elegant illustration of the point. As he said in his 2014 TED Talk in Rio: "None of this is rocket science. It's not about technology but archaic, primitive common sense."

While Thomas Heatherwick tells bedtime stories about magical underground parks, Aravena gives chalkboard talks about stretching $10,000 budgets to give slum-dwellers running water, four masonry walls, and a roof. "All that toughness, all the rigor required in the Quinta Monroy approach, is the healthiest thing in a project. If you're trained under those conditions then wherever you go it's fine," Aravena told Justin McGuirk in the 2014 book Radical Cities (a primer, if you'd like one, on many additional socially-minded, politically-savvy practices operating in Latin America today).

Since Quinta Monroy, Aravena has become part of the international architectural establishment. He was a member of the Pritzker jury from 2009 to 2015 (he, Ban, and Fumihiko Maki are the three jurors to have won the prize after their service), he's director of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, he's given a TED Talk, and he's been exhibited at MoMA. Which is not to take away from the work, but to say: He's only a surprise if you really thought more white male neo-modernists from the East Coast were going to be Pritzkered right now.

You can see Aravena's work stateside, too: His dorms for St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, were completed in 2008. Photos by Cristobal Palma.

Constitución Cultural Center in Chile (2014). Photo by Felipe Diaz.

Photo by Roland Halbe.
Medical School at the Universidad Católica de Chile (2004) in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Roland Halbe.

If Le Corbusier's Dom-ino shadows Aravena's social housing, it is the institutional work by Corbu and Kahn that inform Aravena's blunter buildings, often rendered in beton brut. (Wood and copper, abundant natural Chilean resources, give warmth to gray structures.) These are buildings as pre-ruins, with deep, shade-creating facades, generating the kind of monumental, sheltering spaces found at La Tourette or the Indian Institute of Management.

There's a long history of concrete courtyard building in Chile. Included in last year's epic MoMA survey of Latin American modern architecture was Emilio Duhart's CEPAL of 1966, a United Nations building in which an elevated ring of offices surrounds three sculptural community spaces, including an assembly hall that spirals like a mini-mountain. It's not surprising, therefore, that Aravena's UC Innovation Center at the Universidad Católica de Chile updates and compresses this model. In his TED Talk, Aravena presents his solution as a flipped building: glassy core and concrete perimeter, with shaded "elevated squares" (AKA balconies) and the ability to see up, down, and across the interior of the building, which reads as a covered, vertiginous courtyard. From afar, the Innovation Center looks harsh, like a child's awkward tower, but inside (by all accounts) it is warm and welcoming.

Aravena created a similar thick facade for the medical school at the same university in 2004, angling brick piers to shade a glass wall and elevating a glazed "courtyard" above the ground plane. The Shanghai headquarters of Novartis, now under construction, follows a similar pattern, with reclaimed-brick outer walls and a central lightwell.

Photos by Felipe Diaz and James Florio.
Detail of the concrete facade (left) and interior atrium (right) of Araveno's UC Innovation Center (2014) at the San Joaquín campus of the Universidad Católica de Chile. Photos by Felipe Diaz and James Florio.

Much discussion of design today seems to ignore the physical—Uber says it is a technology company, while delivery reality for virtual-farmers-market Good Eggs is doomed by LA traffic. Founders forget there are heavy objects and individual people who must be moved and protected.

Aravena's work takes the opposite approach, grounding itself in participatory process, local materials, and the simplicity that comes from an understanding of what will actually work. When he talks about saving Chilean coastal cities, it is with forests—to provide friction—not sensors or high walls. He understands that it isn't just a cheap house, but a cheap house in a good location that constitutes quality of living.

This is refreshing, and if that's the Pritzker jury's message about what constitutes quality practice to future generations of architects, I'm all for it. Looking ahead, we should be seeing Pritzkers awarded for new housing in Southeast Asia, new institutions for African nations, or better solutions for refugee housing in Europe (where innovation is currently coming from the for-profit hospitality sector). More common sense, combined with the poetry of concrete, bricks, and mud.

Constitución Seaside Promenade (2014) in Chile. Developed as part of Chile's Post-Tsunami Sustainable Reconstruction Plan (PRES) in the town of Constitución, the project "consists of a series of coastal lookout points along the way from Maule River's mouth (downtown) to Maguellines Port, in order to reinforce and highlight the natural heritage embodied by the huge rocks of this landscape." The platforms are connected by a bike lane. Photo by Felipe Diaz.

· Pritzker Prize 2016 Predictions: Who Could (And Should) Win? [Curbed]
· ELEMENTAL [Official site]
· Children's playground designed by Elemental Studio in Santiago, Chile [Wallpaper]
· Critics Roundtable: Shigeru Wins the 2014 Pritzker Prize [Architect]
· A Primer on Alejandro Aravena, Director of the 2016 Venice Biennale [Curbed]
· Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 [Museum of Modern Art]
· Uncommon Ground [Design Observer]
· Meet the Two Brothers Making Millions Off the Refugee Crisis in Scandinavia [Bloomberg]