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Alejandro Aravena lands 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize

2016 Alejandro Aravena 1
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Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena has won the 2016 Pritzker Prize for ‘epitomising the revival of a more socially engaged architect’


One of the youngest recipients of the $100,000 architecture prize, the 48-year-old has become the first architect from Chile to pick up the award.

Aravena, who is curating the 2016 Venice Biennale and sat on the Pritzker jury between 2009 and 2015, was recognised for his work on public, private and educational projects and for understanding the ‘importance of poetry and the power of architecture to communicate on many levels’.

Tom Pritzker, founder of the prize’s sponsor the Hyatt Foundation, said: ‘The jury has selected an architect who deepens our understanding of what is truly great design. 

‘Aravena has pioneered a collaborative practice that produces powerful works of architecture and also addresses key challenges of the 21st century. His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.’ 

His practice, ELEMENTAL, which he joined as an executive director in 2001 describes itself as a ‘do-tank rather than a think-tank’ and focuses on projects with a public interest and social impact. 

The Santiago-based firm has completed more than 2,500 units of low-cost housing. It calls the social housing ‘half a good house’ due to the fact that the practice leaves space for the residents to complete their homes themselves. This innovative approach of ‘incremental housing’ allows for social housing to be built on more expensive land closer to economic opportunity. 

ELEMENTAL is currently working on an office building for healthcare company Novartis in Shanghai, China. 

Chair of the jury Peter Palumbo said that on visiting Aravena’s schemes the jury ‘felt a sense of wonder and revelation’. 

He added that they ‘understood that his is an innovative way of creating great architecture, with the best yet to come.’ 

In response to winning the award, Aravena commented: ‘Looking backwards, we feel deeply thankful. No achievement is individual. Architecture is a collective discipline. So we think, with gratitude, of all the people who contributed to give form to a huge diversity of forces at play. Looking into the future we anticipate Freedom.

We hope to use its momentum to explore new territories

’The prestige, the reach, the gravitas of the prize is such that we hope to use its momentum to explore new territories, face new challenges, and walk into new fields of action. After such a peak, the path is unwritten. So our plan is not to have a plan, face the uncertain, be open to the unexpected. Finally, looking at the present, we are just overwhelmed, ecstatic, happy. It’s time to celebrate and share our joy with as many people as possible.’ 

Aravena will receive the accolade at a ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 4 April.

Now in its 40th year, the annual award is regarded as architecture’s highest honour, and previous recipients include Frei Otto, Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer, Zaha Hadid, Shigeru Ban and Peter Zumthor. 

Projects by Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena

Projects by Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena

Quinta Monroy housing

Jury citation

Alejandro Aravena is leading a new generation of architects that has a holistic understanding of the built environment and has clearly demonstrated the ability to connect social responsibility, economic demands, design of human habitat and the city. Few have risen to the demands of practicing architecture as an artful endeavor, as well as meeting today’s social and economic challenges. Aravena, from his native Chile, has achieved both, and in doing so has meaningfully expanded the role of the architect.

Aravena has meaningfully expanded the architect’s role

Born in 1967, and practicing since 1994, Aravena has consistently pursued architecture with a clarity of vision and great skill. Undertaking several buildings for his alma mater, the Universidad Católica de Chile, including the Mathematics School (1998), Medical School (2001), the renovation of the School of Architecture (2004), Siamese Towers (2005) and more recently the UC Innovation Center – Anacleto Angelini (2014). Each building shows an understanding of how people will use the facility, the thoughtful and appropriate use of materials, and a commitment to creating public spaces to benefit the larger community. In the Angelini Innovation Center, the maturity of this architect is apparent. A powerful structure from a distance, it is remarkably humane and inviting.

Through a reversal of convention, the building is an opaque concrete structure on the exterior and has a light filled glass atrium inside. With the mass of the building at the perimeter, the energy consumption is minimal. The interior has many places for spontaneous encounters and transparency that enables viewing activity throughout. Aravena has created a rich environment of lively, interesting and welcoming spaces. 

Alejandro Aravena has delivered works of architectural excellence in private, public and educational commissions both in his home country and abroad, including the United States — a residence and dining hall at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas — and as far away as Shanghai, China for the pharmaceutical company Novartis. He has undertaken projects of different scales from single-family houses to large institutional buildings. In all his works, he approaches the task with a freshness and ability to start without any predetermined idea or form. He understands materials and construction, but also the importance of poetry and the power of architecture to communicate on many levels. 

Aravena is set apart by his commitment to social housing

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. An understanding of the importance of the aspirations of the inhabitants and their active participation and investment in a project, as well as good design, have contributed to the creation of new opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds. 

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. The younger generation of architects and designers who are looking for opportunities to affect change, can learn from the way Alejandro Aravena takes on multiple roles instead of the singular position of a designer to facilitate a housing project, and by doing so, discovers that such opportunities may be created by architects themselves. Through this approach, he gives the profession of architect a new dimension, which is necessary to respond to present demands and meet future challenges of the field. 

He gives the profession a new dimension

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. He has a deep understanding of both architecture and civil society, as is reflected in his writing, his activism and his designs. The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly, generously and fully responded to this challenge. For the inspiration he provides through his example and his contributions to architecture and humanity past and future, Alejandro Aravena is the recipient of the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Projects by Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena

Projects by Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena

UC Innovation Center – Anacleto Angelini by ELEMENTAL

Jury members 

  • Peter Palumbo, architectural patron (chair) 
  • Stephen Breyer, US Supreme Court of Justice 
  • Yung Ho Chang, architect and educator 
  • Kristin Feireiss, architecture curator, writer and editor 
  • Glenn Murcutt, architect and Pritzker Laureate (2002) 
  • Richard Rogers, architects and Pritzker Laureate (2007) 
  • Benedetta Tagliabue, architect and educator 
  • Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons 
  • Martha Thorne, dean IE School of Architecture and Design

Previous Pritzker Prize winners

Pritzker winners collage

Pritzker winners collage

2016 Alejandro Aravena (48), Chile

2015 Frei Otto (89), Germany

2014 Shigeru Ban (56), Japan

2013 Toyo Ito (71), Japan

2012 Wang Shu (48), China

2011 Eduardo Souto de Moura (58), Portugal

2010 Kazuyo Sejima (54) and Ryue Nishizawa (44), Japan

2009 Peter Zumthor (65), Switzerland

2008 Jean Nouvel (62), France

2007 Richard Rogers (73), UK

2006 Paulo Mendes da Rocha (77), Brazil

2005 Thom Mayne (61), USA

2004 Zaha Hadid (53), UK

2003 Jorn Utzon (84), Denmark

2002 Glenn Murcutt (66), Australia

2001 Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (51), Switzerland

2000 Rem Koolhaas (56), Netherlands

1999 Norman Foster (63), UK

1998 Renzo Piano (60), Italy

1997 Sverre Fehn (72), Norway

1996 Rafael Moneo (58), Spain

1995 Tadao Ando (53), Japan

1994 Christian de Portzamparc (50), France

1993 Fumihiko Maki (65), Japan

1992 Alvaro Siza (57), Portugal

1991 Robert Venturi (65), USA

1990 Aldo Rossi, (59), Italy

1989 Frank Gehry (60), USA

=1988 Oscar Niemeyer (81), Brazil

=1988 Gordon Bunshaft (79), USA

1987 Kenzo Tange (73), Japan

1986 Gottfried Bohm (66), Germany

1985 Hans Hollein (51), Austria

1984 Richard Meier (49), USA

1983 I. M. Pei (66), China

1982 Kevin Roche (60), USA

1981 James Stirling (55), UK

1980 Luis Barragan (78), Mexico

1979 Philip Johnson (73), USA

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