Biography of Alejandro Aravena

2016 Pritzker Laureate from Chile, b. 1967

Architect Alejandro Aravena, a white man with spikey hair
Architect Alejandro Aravena. Photo by Awakening / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Alejandro Aravena (born June 22, 1967, in Santiago, Chile) is the first Pritzker Laureate from Chile, South America. He won the Pritzker, considered America's most distinguished architecture prize and honor, in 2016. It seems only natural for a Chilean architect to be moved to design for what the Pritzker announcement called "projects of public interest and social impact, including housing, public space, infrastructure, and transportation." Chile is a land of frequent and historic earthquakes and tsunamis, a country where natural disasters are commonplace and devastating.

Aravena has learned from his surroundings and is now giving back with a creative process for designing public spaces.

Aravena earned his architecture degree in 1992 from Universidad Católica de Chileann (Catholic University of Chile) and then moved to Venice, Italy to continue his studies at Università Iuav di Venezia. He established his own firm, Alejandro Aravena Architects, in 1994. Perhaps more importantly is his other company, ELEMENTAL, which had its start in 2001 when Aravena and Andrés Iacobelli were at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ELEMENTAL is an advocacy design group and not just another high-profile team of architects. More than just a "think tank," ELEMENTAL is described as a "do tank." After his Harvard teaching stint (2000 to 2005), Aravena took ELEMENTAL with him to the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Together with several Partner Architects and a revolving door full of interns, Aravena and ELEMENTAL have finished thousands of low-cost public housing projects with an approach he calls “incremental housing.”

About Incremental Housing and Participatory Design:

"Half of a good house" is how Aravena explains the ELEMENTAL "participatory design" approach to public housing. Using mostly public money, the architects and builders begin a project that the resident then completes. The building team does the land-buying, infrastructure, and basic framing—all tasks beyond the skills and time constraints of a common laborer like a Chilean fisherman.

In a 2014 TED talk, Aravena explained that "participatory design is not a hippie, romantic, let's-all-dream-together-about-the-future-of-the-city kind of thing." It is a pragmatic solution to overpopulation and urban housing problems.

"When you rephrase the problem as half of a good house instead of a small one, the key question is, which half do we do? And we thought we had to do with public money the half that families won't be able to do individually. We identified five design conditions that belonged to the hard half of a house, and we went back to the families to do two things: join forces and split tasks. Our design was something in between a building and a house."—2014, TED Talk
"So the purpose of design...is to channel people's own building capacity....So, with the right design, slums and favelas may not be the problem but actually the only possible solution."—2014, TED Talk

This process has been successful in places like Chile and Mexico, where people become invested in the property they help design and build for their own needs. More importantly, public money can be put to better use than for finish work on houses. The public's money is used to create landscaped neighborhoods in more desirable locations, near places of employment and public transportation.

"None of this is rocket science," says Aravena. "You don't require sophisticated programming. It's not about technology. This is just archaic, primitive common sense."

Architects Can Create Opportunities:

So why did Alejandro Aravena get the Pritzker Prize in 2016? The Pritzker Jury was making a statement.

"The ELEMENTAL team participates in every phase of the complex process of providing dwellings for the underserved," cited the Pritzker Jury: "engaging with politicians, lawyers, researchers, residents, local authorities, and builders, in order to obtain the best possible results for the benefit of the residents and society."

The Pritzker Jury liked this approach to architecture. "The younger generation of architects and designers who are looking for opportunities to affect change, can learn from the way Alejandro Aravena takes on multiple roles," the Jury wrote, "instead of the singular position of a designer."  The point is that "opportunities may be created by architects themselves."

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has called Aravena's work "modest, practical, and exceptionally elegant." He compares Aravena with the 2014 Pritzker Laureate Shigeru Ban. "There are plenty of other architects around who do modest and practical work," writes Goldberger, "and there are many architects who can make elegant and beautiful buildings, but it is surprising how few can do these two things at the same time, or who want to." Aravena and Ban are two who can do it.

By the end of 2016, The New York Times had named Alejandro Aravena one of "28 Creative Geniuses Who Defined Culture in 2016."

Significant Works by Aravena:

  • 1999 (ongoing): Mathematics School, Medical School, School of Architecture, UC Innovation Center,  and Siamese Towers for the Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile
  • 2008: St. Edward’s University Dorms, Austin, Texas
  • 2016: Novartis, Shanghai, China

Sampling of ELEMENTAL Projects:

  • 1997 (ongoing): Metropolitan Promenade, Santiago, Chile
  • 2001: Montessori School, Santiago, Chile
  • 2010: Emergency relief, master plan, Constitución, Chile
  • 2010: “Chairless” furniture, Vitra, Weil am Rhein, Germany
  • 2010: Monterrey Housing (incremental housing), Monterrey, Mexico
  • 2012: Bicentennial Children’s Park, Santiago, Chile
  • 2012 (ongoing): Calama PLUS master plan, Calama, Chile
  • 2013: Villa Verde (incremental housing), Constitución, Chile
  • 2014: Constitución Cultural Center, Constitución, Chile
  • 2015: Writer’s Cabin for the Jan Michalski Foundation, Montricher, Switzerland
  • 2015: Ayelén School, Rancagua, Chile

Learn More:

  • The Forces in Architecture by Alejandro Aravena, 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • Elemental: Incremental Housing and Participatory Design Manual by Alejandro Aravena and Andrés Iacobelli, 2016
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Biograph, Jury Citation, and Announcement on pritzkerprize.com; Alejandro Aravena: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process, TEDGlobal 2014, October 2014 [accessed January 13, 2016]; Architecture’s Biggest Prize Was Just Awarded to Someone You’ve Probably Never Heard Of by Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair, January 13, 2016 [accessed January 22, 2017]