On April 4, 2016, architect Alejandro Aravena (48) from Chile will receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the Nobel Prize for architecture, for his “truly great design” addressing the “key challenges of the 21st century.”
“His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives,” according to Thomas J. Pritzker, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Pritzker Organization.
Aravena, the first winner from Chile, will be in the company of famous heads such as Jean Nouvel (2008), Rem Koolhaas (2000), Frank Gehry (1998), Oscar Niemeyer (1988) and I.M. Pei (1983). But since anyone interested in architecture can toss these luminous names about at a cocktail party, and even pair them up with their best-known works (Gehry equals Guggenheim Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A.; I.M. Pei did the landmark glass Louvre Pyramid in Paris), it is the less prominent picks, such as Aravena, whose names and work are elevated into the highest echelons and thus into the cultural dialogue at large.
The winner receives a bronze medallion, a certificate and a $100,000 grant. But aside from these tangible rewards, the effect of the prize on the architect is to cement their stature, akin to getting a star on the Walk of Fame or entry in the Hall of Fame. It’s these names that make it into history books and university courses that shape the landscape and future of architecture as a whole. While the prize has become under criticism for its lack of diversity and sexism (It took 26 years for a woman to be chosen, Dame Zaha Hadid in 2004.), this year’s choice is not a member of the old guard but belongs to a growing group of socially minded architects whose mission is to solve the global housing crisis. Alejandro Aravena’s firm focuses very much on social aspects, something he says is not taught at architecture school.
So the Pritzker this year is a choice one can applaud, a selection that validates the award’s relevancy, as it puts into high relief, though Aravena’s work, a pressing global issue; and reminds us that architecture is not reserved for a lofty elite but meant for all of us, down to the most disenfranchised. Alejandro Aravena Architects was founded in 1994, but he also heads Chilean architecture “do tank” Elemental, with its focus on social housing. As the jury wrote: “The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly, generously and fully responded to this challenge.