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2016 Pritzker Prize Goes To Chilean Architect Alejandro Aravena

Jan 13, 2016
Originally published on January 15, 2016 1:26 pm

The Pritzker Architecture Prize is often called the Nobel for architects, and this year's winner is 48-year-old Chilean designer Alejandro Aravena. His prestige projects include the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company in China and a dormitory at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

But Aravena is known for socially conscious, sustainable design, often executed at staggering speed and on minuscule budgets.

He pays careful attention to residents of the places where he builds. Aravena gave a TED Talk last year about redesigning the Chilean port city of Constitución — in just three months — after a devastating 2010 earthquake. It includes video footage of fraught town hall meetings, with upset people loudly yelling about their concerns.

"Participatory design is not a hippy, romantic, 'let's all drink together about the future of the city' kind of thing," Aravena says in the talk, with a slight whiff of weariness.

Participatory design and the future of cities are two of Aravena's favorite topics. More than 2 billion new people will move into the world's cities in the next 15 years, Aravena said, and that means getting serious about sustainability.

"Sustainability is nothing but the rigorous use of common sense," he says from his office in Santiago. "If you are rigorous with common sense and a reasonable approach, almost every single architecture would be sustainable."

Aravena's common sense inspired his much-celebrated method of designing houses for 100 Chilean families living in slums. He had enough money to buy land or build houses. Aravena's solution? Buying the land and putting together frames with just a few livable rooms.

"He builds half a good house rather than building a whole, prepackaged crummy house," says Richard Sennett, approvingly. Sennett teaches urban studies and design at the London School of Economics and at New York University. He pointed out that Aravena's incremental houses gave people a chance to build out their frames according to their needs, and add extra rooms for lodgers or relatives. The two-story structures are basic and made of concrete.

"They're not beautiful," Sennett says. "It's a different kind of aesthetic than that. They're clean. There's no dramatic beauty in them. But when I look at the size of those rooms, I think — God, this is exactly right. It's not decorator beauty. It's deep beauty."

For his part, Aravena says Chile is short on beautiful, inspiring architecture. It didn't have an ancient empire like the Incas in Peru, he says, and the colonial Spanish did not leave sophisticated buildings behind. At least none that survived.

"We were always at war for more than 300 years," Aravena says. "And then, finally, nature, earthquakes have made their work, too. Almost every single old thing has disappeared."

Clearly, this is not an architect terribly sentimental about the art of building. Sennett says Aravena's selection as this year's Pritzker winner signals a generational shift.

"It's really a wonderful choice," Sennett says, adding that he hopes it will inspire other architects to address pressing new design challenges, such as climate change.

"Architects are mostly out of it, which is terrible. This is the big environmental story of our time, and we need to get young architects as leaders."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Pritzker prize is often called the Nobel for architecture, and today it went to an architect from Chile known for his socially conscious design. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us more about this year's winner.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Alejandro Aravena designs by listening.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).

ULABY: In 2010, after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Chile, Aravena was tasked with resigning a seaside town in just three months. He talked to everyone from developers to fishermen. He discussed this approach to design at TED Talk last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: Participatory design is not a hippie, romantic, let's-all-dream-together-about-the-future-of-the-city kind of thing.

ULABY: Participatory design and the future of cities are two of Aravena's favorite topics. More than 2 billion people will move into the world's cities in the next 15 years. Aravena told me that means getting serious about sustainability.

ARAVENA: I would say that sustainability's nothing but the rigorous use of common sense. If you're with rigorous common sense and a reasonable approach, almost every single architecture should be sustainable.

ULABY: Aravena got lots of attention a few years ago for the way he designed houses for a hundred families living in Chilean slums. Richard Sennett teaches urban studies and design at the London School of Economics and at New York University. He says Aravena had enough funding to buy land or build houses, so the architect bought the land and built shelves with a few livable rooms.

RICHARD SENNETT: He built half a good house, rather than building a whole, prepackaged, crummy house.

ULABY: This gave people a chance to build out their houses the way they needed, adding rooms for lodgers or relatives. You can see these incremental houses online. They're basic - just two-story concrete structures with homemade porches and balconies.

SENNETT: They're not beautiful. It's a different kind of aesthetic in that they're clean. There's no kind of dramatic beauty in them, but, you know, when I look at the size of those rooms, I think, God, this is exactly right. It's not decorated beauty. It's deep beauty.

ULABY: A beauty rooted in a culture short on inspiring architecture, says Alejandro Aravena.

ARAVENA: Chile's a society that didn't have an empire, like the Incas in Peru.

ULABY: He says the colonial Spanish did not leave much in the way of sophisticated buildings behind - at least none that survived.

ARAVENA: We were always at war for more than 300 years, so - and then finally, nature, earthquakes have made their war, too. Almost every single old thing has disappeared.

ULABY: This architect is not sentimental about the art of building. To Alejandro Aravena as the winner of architecture's most prestigious award, says Richard Sennett, signals something big.

SENNETT: It's a generational shift. It's really a wonderful choice.

ULABY: Sennett hopes the 48-year-old Aravena might inspire other architects to step up to pressing new design challenges, such as climate change.

SENNETT: Architecture's mostly out of it - you know? - which is terrible. You know, this is the big environmental story of our time, and we need to get young architects, you know, as leaders.

ULABY: Meanwhile, in his office in Santiago, Alejandro Aravena says he and his coworkers are still processing their Pritzker prize win.

ARAVENA: More than the weight of responsibility, our feeling is that is that of freedom. We don't have to prove nothing to anybody anymore.

ULABY: For years, Alejandro Aravena has supported his socially conscious works through prestige projects. One of the most recent - the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company in China. But this Pritzker win is not likely to lead to lots of museums or concert halls. Aravena is committed to designing housing for the poor. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.