The radical Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for his pioneering social housing projects in Latin America, has been named as the winner of the 2016 Pritzker prize, the highest accolade in architecture.
The 48-year-old, who is also the curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, has made a name for himself over the past decade with projects that reinvent low-cost housing and engage residents in the design of their own homes. It is a refreshing choice for the Pritzker, usually awarded to later-career architects whose portfolios brim with grand cultural monuments.
Announcing the news, Tom Pritzker, whose father founded the prize in 1979, said Aravena’s work “gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space … He shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”
Aravena and his architecture practice, Elemental, first came to international attention in 2004 with a project that redefined the economics of social housing. The challenge was to rehouse 100 families who had been squatting illegally on half a hectare of land in the centre of Iquique in northern Chile. The government’s housing subsidy of US$7,500 (£5,200) per family was nowhere near enough to buy the land and build new homes, particularity on such a valuable site. The usual solution would have been to relocate the residents to the outer suburbs, cutting them off from their families, friends and jobs.
“If there wasn’t the money to build everyone a good house,” said Aravena, on the telephone from his studio in Santiago, “we thought: why not build everyone half a good house – and let them finish the rest themselves.”