Chilean architect wins Pritzker

Alejandro Aravena has been building low-cost housing for the less privileged and reconstructing cities after natural disasters

NEW YORK • A Chilean architect who has focused his career on building low-cost social housing and reconstructing cities after natural disasters has been named the winner of architecture's highest prize, the Pritzker.

Alejandro Aravena, the first winner from Chile, received the honour at a time when his fellow architects have been recognised for designing buildings with regional materials. They include Hugo Palmarola and Pedro Alonso, who won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, and Smiljan Radic, who designed the annual pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in London that year.

Aravena's work "gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption and provides welcoming public space", Mr Tom Pritzker, chairman and president of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the prize, said in a statement.

Aravena, 48, described his architecture as being fuelled more by public service than by aesthetic design.

While many architects aim to create iconic buildings, he said he was mostly concerned with a project's underlying purpose. "Sometimes the solution to forces at play is an economic building. Sometimes you need to focus people's imagination with architecture", adding that the challenge is "to analyse in a cold-blooded way what equation is required".

Aravena is this year's director of the Venice Architecture Biennale and a former member of the Pritzker jury. He said: "The success, in conventional terms, is less guaranteed - you have less control over the project. But that's thinking in artistic terms, if you consider your building a piece of art."

Elemental, his Santiago-based firm, has spearheaded a participatory design-build process it calls "half of a good house", which allows residents to complete the work themselves later and play an active role in raising their own standard of living.

The firm developed this approach in northern Chile in 2003, building housing for 100 families with just US$7,500 (S$10,794) a family in government subsidies to cover the land and construction. He drew on slums, building small housing units that can be easily expanded.

He applied this same strategy in 2010 when, after Chile's earthquake and tsunami, Elemental was given 100 days to come up with a master plan for the city of Con- stitucion by working with the population on solutions.

"We asked the community to identify not the answer, but what was the question," he said. This, it turned out, was how to manage rainfall, so the firm designed a forest that could help prevent flooding.

Elemental has also completed its share of public buildings, including several for Aravena's alma mater, the Universidad Catolica de Chile.

His office building for healthcare company Novartis in Shanghai is under construction.

"He understands materials and construction," the Pritzker jury said in its citation, "but also the importance of poetry and the power of architecture to communicate on many levels."

His unorthodox approach started with his unconventional introduction to the profession in the 1980s, the final years of Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship, when information was limited.

He said he began by "looking at pictures of buildings that were supposed to be important" and went to Italy with a sketchbook and measuring tape "to learn from the buildings themselves".

"By drawing, you build the buildings again. Measuring - you're in front of a blank page again," he said.

He graduated in 1992 and set up his own practice two years later. In 2000, as a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he examined how to redefine quality in social architecture.

A year later, Aravena and Andres Iacobelli - a transport engineer who has since gone his own way - started Elemental, a so-called do- tank (rather than a think-tank), with the mandate "Let's make a company that is able to prove that things can be better".

While such socially conscious work is often done in the margins of a firm, he said he considered it the primary focus, worthy of top talent's attention.

He said: "We need the best people in the entire chain of production, from the politicians to the social worker to the designer.

"What we've been trying to do is communicate that architecture, instead of an extra cost, is an added value."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Chilean architect wins Pritzker'. Print Edition | Subscribe