Affordable Housing Innovator Alejandro Aravena Wins Top Architecture Award

Architect Alejandro Aravena. (Cristobal Palma / courtesy ELEMENTAL)

The winner of this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize—one of the architecture profession's top honors—is known not just for formal inventiveness but for a profound and sustained commitment to addressing social, environmental, and economic issues. "Alejandro Aravena 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," the jury citation notes.

The 2016 jury, whose members include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and 2007 Pritzker laureate Richard Rogers, selected the Chilean architect in part based on his work with ELEMENTAL, the collaborative design practice he founded in 2000. With ELEMENTAL—which calls itself a "do tank"—Aravena developed a new social housing typology revolving around participatory design and building. First embodied in Quinta Monroy Housing (2004, Iquique, Chile), ELEMENTAL's "half of a good house" concept was further refined for Monterrey Housing (2010, Monterrey, Mexico) and Villa Verde Housing (2013, Constitución, Chile). In each case, the architects designed a small living unit based on residents' current needs, leaving each family to expand their quarters over time.

Quinta Monroy Housing, 2004, Iquique, Chile. "Half a good hous" as designed, left, and as finished by residents, right. (Cristobal Palma / courtesy ELEMENTAL)

"What we did was to reframe the problem [of social housing]," Aravena told Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. "We think of 400 square feet not as a small house but as half of a good house. Our priorities are, No. 1, location. We'd rather spend more money on a better location of land. No. 2: We were looking for quality housing. For us, quality didn't mean a bigger house. The families can make their house grow by filling in the unfinished half."

Villa Verde Housing, 2013, Constitución Chile. As designed, left, and as finished by residents, right. (ELEMENTAL)

Aravena's other work includes projects related to disaster relief, including the reconstruction of Constitución following a 2010 earthquake and tsunami there. As he continues to engage audiences both in Latin America and beyond, he remains committed to collaboration as a fundamental architecture principle. "The purpose of design . . . ," he explained in a 2014 TED Talk, "is to channel people's own building capacity."

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