Spotlight: Alejandro Aravena

Innovation Center UC - Anacleto Angelini. Image © Nico Saieh

Innovation Center UC – Anacleto Angelini. Image © Nico Saieh

As founder of the “Do Tank” firm ELEMENTAL, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena (born on June 22, 1967) is perhaps the most socially-engaged architect to receive the Pritzker Prize. Far from the usual aesthetically driven approach, Aravena explains that “We don’t think of ourselves as artists. Architects like to build things that are unique. But if something is unique it can’t be repeated, so in terms of it serving many people in many places, the value is close to zero.” [1] For Aravena, the architect’s primary goal is to improve people’s way of life by assessing both social needs and human desires, as well as political, economic and environmental issues.

© Andrea Avezzù

© Andrea Avezzù

Villa Verde Housing. Image ©  Suyin Chia

Villa Verde Housing. Image © Suyin Chia

Born in Santiago de Chile, Alejandro Aravena graduated from the Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992. While teaching at Harvard University between 2000 and 2005, he met engineer Andres Iacobelli, with whom he founded ELEMENTAL on the premise to develop social housing in Chile. From 2010 to 2015, he was a Pritzker Prize Jury member, after which he was selected as the Pritzker Prize Laureate in 2016.

Constitución Cultural Center. Image © Felipe Diaz Contardo

Constitución Cultural Center. Image © Felipe Diaz Contardo

At his Quinta Monroy social housing project, Aravena implemented for the first time one of his signature ideas: the concept of “incremental housing.” Given a minuscule budget, instead of designing row houses or small detached houses he proposed to build “half a good house” for the same cost. ELEMENTAL provided a basic house with the necessary sanitary equipment and two rooms for an overall floor space of 40 square meters. With this frame, families took over to build the rest of the house after saving enough money, and progressively changed their homes from low-end social housing to a more desirable unit.

Las Cruces Lookout Point. Image © Iwan Baan

Las Cruces Lookout Point. Image © Iwan Baan

Aravena further developed incremental housing when designing projects like Lo Barnechea, Monterrey and Villa Verde. The latter was built after the 2010 Earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city of Constitución. For Aravena, “there is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question,” which is why he involved all inhabitants in the design process. In doing so, he learned about the need to protect housing not only from tsunamis, but also from recurring floods. Residents highlighted the need for public spaces, and for access to the Maule river. Aravena balanced urgent social needs with individual desires by placing a forest and public walkway between the river and the housing units—an effective design solution that also turned out to be the cheapest.

Innovation Center UC - Anacleto Angelini. Image © ELEMENTAL l Nina Vidic

Innovation Center UC – Anacleto Angelini. Image © ELEMENTAL l Nina Vidic

Beyond social housing, Aravena has developed buildings for universities and municipalities, where he demonstrated his ability to interpret a context and to understand what resources are available. At the Innovation Centre UC, Aravena questioned the need for office buildings to feature glass skins on their facades. He turned this usual typology inside out, designing massive external walls to prevent from overheating, with an open atrium at the core of the building which allows natural light to penetrate into the space. Cross ventilation was possible by opening exterior windows, and the open internal structure created visual connections among employees at different floors.

Mathematical school. Image © Tadeuz Jalocha

Mathematical school. Image © Tadeuz Jalocha

In 2016, Aravena curated the Venice Biennale “Reporting the Front,” where he asked practitioners to report from projects that successfully investigate new fields of action—housing shortage, migration, urban slums, waste and natural disasters among others. The exhibition questions each of these social, economic, and environmental issues individually, but also collectively as Aravena highlights that “architecture is called to respond to more than one dimension at a time, integrating a variety of fields instead of choosing one or another.” Aravena insists that these complex issues can only be addressed by synthesizing information into one clear design strategy. “If there is any power in design, that’s the power of synthesis,” says Aravena, but “scarcity of means requires from the architect an abundance of meaning. The power of architecture is the power of synthesis, to say what you want in two words instead of three, to achieve a solution in as few moves as possible.” [2]

The "Reporting From the Front" exhibition. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

The "Reporting From the Front" exhibition. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

Overall, Aravena shows how the quality of a design does not necessarily depend on costs but on the design’s intrinsic meaning. A focus on the resouces available can ensure sustainability, as Aravena proved when designing forms that respond to the potentials of nature, common sense and self-construction.

Las Cruces Lookout Point. Image © Iwan Baan

Las Cruces Lookout Point. Image © Iwan Baan

See a selection of Aravena’s buildings featured on ArchDaily via the thumbnails below, and further coverage of him at the links below those:

Alejandro Aravena Wins 2016 Pritzker Prize

Alejandro Aravena’s Pritzker Prize Acceptance Speech

Alejandro Aravena Wins 2017 Gothenburg Prize for Sustainable Development

AD Interviews: Alejandro Aravena

TED Talk: My Architectural Philosophy? Bring the Community Into the Process / Alejandro Aravena

It’s Elementary (Not): On the Architecture of Alejandro Aravena

Critical Round-Up: Did Aravena’s 2016 Venice Biennale Achieve its Lofty Goals?

Alejandro Aravena Is Profiled by Michael Kimmelman for T Magazine

Alejandro Aravena on Design, Venice and Why He Paused His Career to Open a Bar

ELEMENTAL Releases Plans of 4 Housing Projects for Open-Source Use

Why Aravena’s Open Source Project is a Huge Step Toward Better, Cheaper Housing for Everyone

Three Years in Villa Verde, ELEMENTAL’s Incremental Housing Project in Constitución, Chile

Video: Alejandro Aravena on PRES Constitución and Rebuilding After Disaster

New York Times Names Alejandro Aravena Among 28 “Creative Geniuses” of 2016

Surface Magazine Examines Alejandro Aravena’s “Architecture of Improvement”


  1. Michael Kimmelman. “Alejandro Aravena, the Architect Rebuilding a Country” 23 May 2016. New York Times. Accessed 15 Jun 2016.
  2. Ibid.