Social Housing Pioneer Wins 2016 Pritzker

Alejandro Aravena wins the architecture profession’s top prize, though some are alleging favoritism.

Santiago, Chile–based architect Alejandro Aravena is the winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize, the architecture profession’s highest honor. In a statement, the jury said he: “epitomizes the revival of a more socially engaged architect, especially in his long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all.”

Alejandro AravenaPhoto: Cristobal Palma

Aravena and his firm, Elemental, have dedicated their practice to socially driven design through affordable housing projects, emergency relief work in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Chile, and the “half of a good house” concept—like the Quinta Monroy Housing project in Iquique, Chile—which invites residents to participate in structures’ design. In a 2014 TED talk, Aravena—who, at 48, is young for the industry—spoke about his philosophy of community engagement.

The Pritzker jury lauded Aravena—who was part of the committee for seven years before stepping down last year, raising some eyebrows—for thinking beyond buildings:

What really sets Aravena apart is his commitment to social housing. Since 2000 and the founding of Elemental, he and his collaborators have consistently realized works with clear social goals. Calling the company a “Do Tank,” as opposed to a think tank, they have built more than 2,500 units using imaginative, flexible and direct architectural solutions for low cost social housing. The Elemental team participates in every phase of the complex process of providing dwellings for the underserved: engaging with politicians, lawyers, researchers, residents, local authorities, and builders, in order to obtain the best possible results for the benefit of the residents and society…This inventive approach enlarges the traditional scope of the architect and transforms the professional into a universal figure with the aim of finding a truly collective solution for the built environment.

Additionally, Elemental focuses on energy-efficient commercial and institutional projects, like the hulking concrete Innovation Center at the Universidad Católica de Chile, and the forthcoming Novartis campus in Shanghai.

In 2015, Aravena was appointed director of the next Venice Architecture Biennale. Considering the Pritzker win, could this signal the architecture establishment placing less priority on pie-in-the sky theory and more on down-to-earth design for the people who need it most? Hopefully yes.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.