Half a house. It doesn’t seem enough to win a Pritzker Prize. Architecture’s most prestigious honour is usually a reward for a lifetime’s achievement — the liberal peppering of the world’s cities with cultural landmarks. So how has Alejandro Aravena, a 48-year-old Chilean known for working with the poor and the dispossessed, been awarded the profession’s leading honour?

Perhaps it’s because that half a house is half of a very good house indeed.

Its brilliance lies in the insight that poor communities could be better, more flexibly and more usefully housed through the provision of a more generous but incomplete structure which they are able to tailor to their own needs.This is in preference to the usual cheap, stigmatising and inflexible mass-produced bungalow-box.

Aravena and his practice Elemental developed this new notion for their Quinta Monroy development, a housing scheme in Iquique in Chile. With a subsidy of just $7,500 per house, they built a courtyard development of tall, elegant dwellings for about 100 families with gaps between them designed to be filled in by their residents as their needs change and their families grow. The result is a terrace of row houses formed by the ad hoc personal touch of the residents.

It was a brilliant way of laying the infrastructure of an architecture, the bare, handsome skeleton of a body which could be overlaid with the muscles developed in real life.

As with all such ideas, once you see it, it is difficult to understand why it has not become ubiquitous. But despite being completed more than a decade ago, Quinta Monroy has not gone mainstream, even though it has become a staple of urbanist and economics lectures and architecture magazines. So it’s as well Aravena’s reputation is bolstered by the kind of work you might more readily expect from a Pritzker Prize winner: impossibly cool villas, sculpturally monumental structures and urban masterplans.

“The time in our office is divided into three,” Aravena tells me over the phone from his Santiago office. “One third mass social housing, one third at a city level and one third where we are architects and our contribution is through form.”

Elemental's Innovation Centre at San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile
Elemental's Innovation Centre at San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

The most impressive of this last type is the massive Innovation Centre at Santiago’s Catholic University. It is a sculptural volume of cast concrete which modulates the internal environment using natural ventilation. But its real significance lies in its appearance, its play of solid and void and its function as a symbol, an architectural signpost.

Aravena has a charming manner and a slick delivery as perfectly tailored for TED talks as it is for international gatherings of wealthy philanthropists. He speaks of economics and inequality but he carefully skirts around the mire of politics and redistribution.

His rise has been meteoric: last year he was appointed as the curator of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, with the Pritzker the twin pole of global architectural credibility. But what is most interesting about him is his belief that architecture can be used to accelerate social change.

“If you start with an idea of architecture as art,” he says, “then buildings may be beautiful — but they risk irrelevance. The challenge is to look at the problems the whole of society is facing: poverty, segregation, violence, insecurity, education, inequality. Sometimes these issues have an industry attached to them — education or health, for instance — but where they do not, that is where architecture can come in.

“The power in architecture,” he continues, getting into what sounds like a well-practised speech, “is in synthesis.”

Isn’t the Pritzker Prize more usually associated with blockbuster cultural projects of architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel? “Sometimes,” he replies, “iconic architecture does have a role. It can give form to forces that are in the air. But the big issues require non-spectacular answers.”

When I ask why he thinks Latin American architecture is so good at the moment (in my opinion, far outstripping anything happening in the global north), he says something intriguing — something you rarely hear admitted by architects.

“Scarcity is a great filter against arbitrariness. Sometimes more resources can lead to a scarcity of meaning.”

I ask him to expand.

“The less you have,” he says, “the more you have to explain why you’re doing something. You can now build anything if you have enough money. The question then is ‘So what?’ The best architecture is somewhere between art and survival.”

Alejandro Aravena, winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize
Alejandro Aravena, winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize

Where some might see potential disaster in the current explosion of urban populations, Aravena sees hope. “There are 1bn people living below the poverty line in cities. There will be 1bn more. But the city can be a shortcut to equality.

“The challenge for society is that although income increases, so does inequality. How can you address that without redistribution?”

Architecture, he suggests, along with urbanism, is one way. “Public infrastructure, public space, housing, there are infinite opportunities and they are extremely efficient ways of spending public money. Urbanisation,” he declares, “is good news.”

An example of what he’s talking about can be seen in Elemental’s plan for Constitución, the Chilean city which was flattened by a tsunami in 2010. The residents were keen to move back to the sites of their old dwellings, despite the risk. Elemental proposed a forested zone between the sea and the city which would provide protection from the waves and absorption of waters. Combined with striking but simple architectural interventions to remake the public infrastructure of the city — schools, community halls, a theatre and so on — the plan was to make the city’s communal space a source of renewed civic identity. The generosity of the vision and its focus on expansive green public space could provide a paradigm for other damaged city centres from Christchurch to Haiti.

Aravena’s victory reflects, in arguably the best possible way, a degree of guilt about architecture’s elitism. Good-looking, globe-trotting, talented and with a social conscience, Aravena is the architectural establishment’s counter to accusations of detachment from everyday challenges of poverty and inequality, and to the charge that architects are merely fiddling with edges of the world’s greatest problems. His work and his words inspire architects to think about the problems of housing, society, the poor and, perhaps more importantly than anything, to engage with communities and not just each other.

Aravena owes his Pritzker to his offer of hope to a profession fearful of its own lack of engagement. The award is a vaccination against accusations of irrelevance. How could anyone argue with that?

pritzkerprize.com, elementalchile.cl/en

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