Get to Know Alejandro Aravena, the Pritzker Prize Winner Who Builds Half-Finished Homes
In 2014, Alejandro Aravena, the architect who just won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, delivered a TED talk on his work. He punctuated the talk by turning his back to the audience and scrawling drawings and equations on a blackboard with a stick of chalk. The old-school presentation method invited his audience to watch his ideas take shape in real time, emphasizing process over finished product.
Metaphorically speaking, it was a fitting presentation technique for Aravena, who practices what he calls “incremental design.” With this approach, he and the designers at Elemental, his studio, build housing structures that are deliberately unfinished. Consider the Quinta Monroy Housing project, which Aravena worked on in Iquique, Chile, in 2004. Aravena’s team built out the units’ foundations and concrete frames, and left it at that. The approach, he argues, gave future residents a chance to complete their respective units as they saw fit, resulting in culturally appropriate homes that actually look and feel like homes, as opposed to government-issued housing. The before and after pictures are compelling: Before tenants move in, Aravena’s structures look like row houses built from gray slabs. Afterwards, they look colorful and unique, but unified. It looks like a real neighborhood.
Aravena is 48 years old and from Santiago, Chile. He studied architecture in Chile, and later taught at Harvard before becoming the director of Elemental. For much of the past fifteen years, Aravena, through his studio, has worked on projects like the one at Quinta Monroy—projects that have taken community ideas and needs into special consideration, and turned the standard idea of emergency housing on its head. Aravena has gone on record saying that temporary shelters in times of disaster are a waste of money. He advocates instead for quickly building longer-term, “incremental” structures and letting families flesh out the details. That’s how he rebuilt a residential complex in Constitución, Chile, in the wake of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in February 2010. Each unit in the complex was literally one-half of a house—the left side, to be exact—that was later completed through the new resident’s own investments. They aren’t homes to be thrown away, like emergency shelters. They’re for keeps.
The Pritzker Prize is hardly Aravena’s first important accolade. Just last year, he served as the director-curator for the Venice Biennale, and the London Design Museum named his Anacleto Angelini UC Innovation Center in Santiago a “design of the year.”
The UC Innovation Center is an intense-looking concrete structure that sits on the Universidad Católica de Chile’s campus, and it’s the building you’re likely to see first if you Google Aravena. In his TED talk, Aravena says the design competition for the building asked for “the right environment for knowledge creation” and “interaction among people.” Most office buildings have a core and then flower out into floors with glass windows. As Aravena explains—with a quick sketch on the chalkboard—that approach lets in a ton of sunlight and creates a greenhouse effect. His design for the Innovation Center flips that other model inside out: a hollowed-out atrium inside the building promotes interactivity, while the mass of the building is built into the concrete exterior structures. This prevents sunlight from overheating the building, which Aravena says helped to reduce energy consumption from 120 kilowatts per square meter, per year, to 40 kilowatts. “It’s not about technology,” Aravena says in his TED talk, both about the Innovation Center and his other work. “This is just archaic, primitive, common sense.”
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