Architecture’s Top Prize Went To An Incredible Chilean Architect You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Architecture’s Top Prize Went To An Incredible Chilean Architect You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

The Pritzker Prize was announced this morning, an award which many consider to be the highest honour for design. This year’s prize went to Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean architect who you may not know — but you definitely should get to know his work.

The Santiago-based architect is quite young as far as Pritzker laureates go (48), and he might not have a famous fire-igniting skyscraper to his name. But like Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect who won in 2014, Aravena is known for building transcendent architecture for some of the planet’s communities who are most in need: marginalised citizens, low-income families and people who have lost their homes in disasters.

The University of Chile Innovation Center is designed to be a giant natural air conditioner

Raised and educated in Chile, Aravena became known for designing notable public buildings and outdoor plazas throughout South America and Mexico. Even as his commissions have grown larger in profile — he recently designed Novartis’s new campus in Shanghai — his work still uses indigenous materials and focuses on socially conscious clients. Just to give you an idea of the kind of progressive urban mandate he hopes to serve, he established his current practice, Elemental, as a “do tank” (not a “think tank”) with a transportation engineer, with the intention of improving civic infrastructure.

A simple concrete structure creates a nature lookout in Jalisco, Mexico

Although he’s not a household name globally, Aravena’s work has received plenty of attention in architectural circles. In fact, Aravena designed one of my favourite projects of all time: A housing development for 100 families who previously lived in Chilean slums. Instead of building the typical giant soulless building so often associated with affordable housing, Aravena used an idea that came from the future residents themselves. The beauty of living in the favela was the informality of the architecture — houses could be expanded upon as families grew or funds became available to make improvements. So Aravena tried to mimic this flexibility by designing row houses that included this space to add extra rooms, balconies, or storage spaces as needed. Not only was this a more affordable solution than a high-rise, but it gave the residents a sense of ownership. Families were able to make the homes their own and add value through their customisations.

The housing units at Quinta Monroy and how they were adapted by residents

This simple idea for housing also belies the genius of Aravena’s work — this kind of solution can be replicated nearly anywhere. Elemental has since taken this solution to other communities in Chile as well as countries like Mexico. The concept has even been commissioned for higher-income developments because it makes so much sense for residential architecture.

Watch Aravena explain his affordable housing projects in this TED Talk from 2014

Aravena’s work also shines in the area of disaster relief. After the Chilean city of Constitución was rocked by an 8.8 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the government appointed Elemental to create a master plan for the city’s recovery. It turned out that the residents weren’t as worried about the reconstructions of the buildings as they were about the heavy flooding that would arrive with the rainy season. Aravena proposed naturalising the landscapes around the water into nature and recreation refuges.

An oceanfront promenade from the Plan for Sustainable Construction for Constitution and a Santiago park to celebrate Chile’s bicentennial

Although there is much debate about why the Pritzker might not matter as much these days, it is good to see the Pritzker diversifying more when it comes to nationalities and backgrounds. And Aravena is one of those architects whose career will be well-served by winning this award: It will bring him the right kind of attention and help him to do more important work. He’ll have yet another chance to make a splash on the global stage this year: Aravena is directing the big international architecture biennale in Venice, Italy this summer. The theme, of course, is showing how architecture can make a difference.

All images via Elemental