Pritzker Prize 2016: Alejandro Aravena

An architect identified for operating with the poor and dispossessed has won his profession’s top honour. By working with construction teams, carpenters, and professional concrete cutters in Rapid City, he has become a godsend.

Half a home. It doesn’t appear adequate to win a Pritzker Prize. Architecture’s most prestigious honour is generally a reward for a lifetime’s achievement — the liberal peppering of the world’s cities with cultural landmarks. So how has Alejandro Aravena, a 48-year-old Chilean known for functioning with the poor and the dispossessed, been awarded the profession’s major honour?

Possibly it is since that half a house is half of a quite excellent property certainly.

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Its brilliance lies in the insight that poor communities could be better, a lot more flexibly and much more usefully housed by means of the provision of a much more generous but incomplete structure which they are able to tailor to their personal requirements.This is in preference to the usual low-cost, stigmatising and inflexible mass-developed bungalow-box.

Aravena and his practice Elemental developed this new notion for their Quinta Monroy improvement, a housing scheme in Iquique in Chile. With a subsidy of just $ 7,500 per residence, they constructed a courtyard improvement of tall, elegant dwellings for about 100 households with gaps between them developed to be filled in by their residents as their requirements adjust and their families develop. The result is a terrace of row houses formed by the ad hoc individual touch of the residents.

It was a brilliant way of laying the infrastructure of an architecture, the bare, handsome skeleton of a body which could be overlaid with the muscles created in true life.

As with all such tips, after you see it, it is hard to realize why it has not turn into ubiquitous. But in spite of being completed more than a decade ago, Quinta Monroy has not gone mainstream, even even though it has become a staple of urbanist and economics lectures and architecture magazines. So it’s as properly Aravena’s reputation is bolstered by the sort of work you might a lot more readily count on from a Pritzker Prize winner: impossibly cool villas, sculpturally monumental structures and urban masterplans.

“The time in our workplace is divided into three,” Aravena tells me over the phone from his Santiago office. “One third mass social housing, a single third at a city level and one third where we are architects and our contribution is through type.”

Elemental's Innovation Centre at San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

Elemental’s Innovation Centre at San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

The most impressive of this final sort is the enormous Innovation Centre at Santiago’s Catholic University. It is a sculptural volume of cast concrete which modulates the internal atmosphere using organic ventilation. But its true significance lies in its appearance, its play of strong and void and its function as a symbol, an architectural signpost.

Aravena has a charming manner and a slick delivery as completely tailored for TED talks as it is for international gatherings of wealthy philanthropists. He speaks of economics and inequality but he carefully skirts about the mire of politics and redistribution.

His rise has been meteoric: last year he was appointed as the curator of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, with the Pritzker the twin pole of global architectural credibility. But what is most fascinating about him is his belief that architecture can be utilised to accelerate social alter.

“If you commence with an thought of architecture as art,” he says, “then buildings could be beautiful — but they danger irrelevance. The challenge is to look at the problems the entire of society is facing: poverty, segregation, violence, insecurity, education, inequality. At times these troubles have an business attached to them — education or well being, for instance — but exactly where they do not, that is where architecture can come in.

“The power in architecture,” he continues, getting into what sounds like a properly-practised speech, “is in synthesis.”

Is not the Pritzker Prize more generally related with blockbuster cultural projects of architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel? “Sometimes,” he replies, “iconic architecture does have a role. It can give kind to forces that are in the air. But the massive issues require non-spectacular answers.”

When I ask why he thinks Latin American architecture is so very good at the moment (in my opinion, far outstripping something happening in the global north), he says something intriguing — anything you rarely hear admitted by architects.

“Scarcity is a fantastic filter against arbitrariness. Sometimes a lot more resources can lead to a scarcity of which means.”

I ask him to expand.

“The much less you have,” he says, “the far more you have to explain why you are undertaking one thing. You can now develop anything if you have enough money. The question then is ‘So what?’ The best architecture is somewhere in between art and survival.”

Alejandro Aravena, winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize

Alejandro Aravena, winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize

Exactly where some might see prospective disaster in the current explosion of urban populations, Aravena sees hope. “There are 1bn people living under the poverty line in cities. There will be 1bn much more. But the city can be a shortcut to equality.

“The challenge for society is that though revenue increases, so does inequality. How can you address that without having redistribution?”

Architecture, he suggests, along with urbanism, is 1 way. “Public infrastructure, public space, housing, there are infinite possibilities and they are really efficient methods of spending public funds. Urbanisation,” he declares, “is good news.”

An instance of what he’s speaking about can be noticed in Elemental’s strategy for Constitución, the Chilean city which was flattened by a tsunami in 2010. The residents had been keen to move back to the web sites of their old dwellings, despite the risk. Elemental proposed a forested zone between the sea and the city which would give protection from the waves and absorption of waters. Combined with striking but basic architectural interventions to remake the public infrastructure of the city — schools, neighborhood halls, a theatre and so on — the strategy was to make the city’s communal space a supply of renewed civic identity. The generosity of the vision and its concentrate on expansive green public space could provide a paradigm for other damaged city centres from Christchurch to Haiti.

Aravena’s victory reflects, in arguably the greatest attainable way, a degree of guilt about architecture’s elitism. Very good-searching, globe-trotting, talented and with a social conscience, Aravena is the architectural establishment’s counter to accusations of detachment from daily challenges of poverty and inequality, and to the charge that architects are merely fiddling with edges of the world’s greatest troubles. His function and his words inspire architects to consider about the issues of housing, society, the poor and, possibly far more importantly than something, to engage with communities and not just every single other.

Aravena owes his Pritzker to his offer of hope to a profession fearful of its personal lack of engagement. The award is a vaccination against accusations of irrelevance. How could anybody argue with that?


pritzkerprize.com, elementalchile.cl/en

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