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

The Santiago-based architect is 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: marginalized 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 in Chile, Aravena became known for designing notable public buildings and outdoor plazas throughout South America and Mexico. Even as his commissions have become more high-profile—he recently designed Novartis’s new campus in Shanghai—his work still uses indigenous materials and focuses on socially conscious clients. He established his current practice, Elemental, as a “do tank” (not a “think tank”) with a transportation engineer, with the intention of working to improve civic infrastructure.

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

He’s not a global household name, but Aravena’s work has received plenty of attention in architectural circles. In fact, he designed one of my favorite projects of all time: a housing development for 100 families who previously lived in Chilean slums. Instead of building the typical soulless building 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 as families grew or funds became available to renovate. Aravena mimicked this flexibility by designing row houses that included space to add extra rooms, balconies, or storage as needed. Not only was this a more affordable solution than a high-rise, but it gave the residents a sense of ownership.

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 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 naturalizing 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


There’s much debate about why the Pritzker might not matter as much these days, but it’s good to see the prize diversifying when it comes to nationalities and backgrounds. Aravena will have yet another chance to make a splash on the global stage this year: he’s 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

Follow the author at @awalkerinLA

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