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Chilean architect scoops prestigious Pritzker Prize

Published January 18, 2016 by Nick Dall

The Chilean architect famous for re-imagining low cost housing in Latin American cities and for rebuilding the city of Constitución in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, has been awarded architecture's highest prize.
Alejandro Aravena's work is not 'beautiful' in the strictest sense of the word, but his buildings and ideas have dramatically transformed several Chilean (and Mexican) cities dramatically, and many see his philosophy of 'participatory design' (involving communities in the design of the cities and buildings they will live in) as the future of urban architecture.

Half a good house

This was a technique he first tried in Iquique, where he asked residents of a proposed low cost housing scheme for their input. Facing revolt and hunger strikes if he persisted with high-rise blocks (the only financially feasible plan), Aravena hit upon the idea of building "half of a good house" instead of a bad house. In other words, Aravena provided families with 860 square foot buildings in which only half of the space had been finished - families could then complete the remaining space as and when they could afford it, in a manner of their choosing. Watch this short TV advert which explains the concept:

As part of the team tasked with coming up with a plan (in only 100 days) to rebuild Constitución, Aravena again asked the people and again their response was angry. Instead of brushing off their concerns and ideals as impractical and extortionate, Aravena realized that he had been asking the wrong questions ("There is nothing worse than a perfect solution to the wrong question.") which is how his team hit upon the idea of creating a man-made forest which would not only protect the city from tsunamis (as well as more frequent - and, arguably, more debilitating - flooding caused by heavy rains) but would also provide public access to the riverfront. This had long since been taken away from the average resident, and was a major source of unhappiness. This 20 minute film neatly summarizes the response to the Tsunami.

Aravena calls his practice Elemental a 'do tank' (the opposite of a think tank) and it has been a major player in Latin American architecture since its founding in 2001. Aravena has numerous won other awards and he is the director of this year's Venice Biennale (read what he plans to focus on here). He has also given a TED talk which is well worth watching: