As founder of the “Do Tank” firm ELEMENTAL, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena (born on June 22, 1967) is perhaps the most socially-engaged architect to receive the Pritzker Prize. Far from the usual aesthetically driven approach, Aravena explains that “We don’t think of ourselves as artists. Architects like to build things that are unique. But if something is unique it can’t be repeated, so in terms of it serving many people in many places, the value is close to zero.”  For Aravena, the architect’s primary goal is to improve people’s way of life by assessing both social needs and human desires, as well as political, economic and environmental issues.
Born in Santiago de Chile, Alejandro Aravena graduated from the Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992. While teaching at Harvard University between 2000 and 2005, he met engineer Andres Iacobelli, with whom he founded ELEMENTAL on the premise to develop social housing in Chile. From 2010 to 2015, he was a Pritzker Prize Jury member, after which he was selected as the Pritzker Prize Laureate in 2016.
At his Quinta Monroy social housing project, Aravena implemented for the first time one of his signature ideas: the concept of “incremental housing.” Given a minuscule budget, instead of designing row houses or small detached houses he proposed to build “half a good house” for the same cost. ELEMENTAL provided a basic house with the necessary sanitary equipment and two rooms for an overall floor space of 40 square meters. With this frame, families took over to build the rest of the house after saving enough money, and progressively changed their homes from low-end social housing to a more desirable unit.
Aravena further developed incremental housing when designing projects like Lo Barnechea, Monterrey and Villa Verde. The latter was built after the 2010 Earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city of Constitución. For Aravena, “there is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question,” which is why he involved all inhabitants in the design process. In doing so, he learned about the need to protect housing not only from tsunamis, but also from recurring floods. Residents highlighted the need for public spaces, and for access to the Maule river. Aravena balanced urgent social needs with individual desires by placing a forest and public walkway between the river and the housing units—an effective design solution that also turned out to be the cheapest.
Beyond social housing, Aravena has developed buildings for universities and municipalities, where he demonstrated his ability to interpret a context and to understand what resources are available. At the Innovation Centre UC, Aravena questioned the need for office buildings to feature glass skins on their facades. He turned this usual typology inside out, designing massive external walls to prevent from overheating, with an open atrium at the core of the building which allows natural light to penetrate into the space. Cross ventilation was possible by opening exterior windows, and the open internal structure created visual connections among employees at different floors.
In 2016, Aravena curated the Venice Biennale “Reporting the Front,” where he asked practitioners to report from projects that successfully investigate new fields of action—housing shortage, migration, urban slums, waste and natural disasters among others. The exhibition questions each of these social, economic, and environmental issues individually, but also collectively as Aravena highlights that “architecture is called to respond to more than one dimension at a time, integrating a variety of fields instead of choosing one or another.” Aravena insists that these complex issues can only be addressed by synthesizing information into one clear design strategy. “If there is any power in design, that’s the power of synthesis,” says Aravena, but “scarcity of means requires from the architect an abundance of meaning. The power of architecture is the power of synthesis, to say what you want in two words instead of three, to achieve a solution in as few moves as possible.” 
Overall, Aravena shows how the quality of a design does not necessarily depend on costs but on the design’s intrinsic meaning. A focus on the resouces available can ensure sustainability, as Aravena proved when designing forms that respond to the potentials of nature, common sense and self-construction.
See a selection of Aravena’s buildings featured on ArchDaily via the thumbnails below, and further coverage of him at the links below those:
- Michael Kimmelman. “Alejandro Aravena, the Architect Rebuilding a Country” 23 May 2016. New York Times. Accessed 15 Jun 2016.