2016, the Year of Aravena

[Photo: Cristobal Palma]

Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena has been named the 41st recipient – and fourth from Latin America – of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Here is the announcement video from the Hyatt Foundation:

In addition to the prestigious prize, Aravena is directing this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, which goes under the theme, "Reporting from the Front." Needless to say, he's having a good year.

First things first, though: Aravena was far from the top choice in the poll that was on this blog for the last three weeks. The results of the poll (which, as a test, allowed voters to choose more than one architect) are as follows:
1: Steven Holl, with 819 votes
2: David Chipperfield, with 781 votes
3: Bjarke Ingels, with 744 votes
T4: Kengo Kuma, with 736 votes
T4: Tod Williams Billie Tsien, with 736 votes
T13: "Other," with 718 votes
T19 (with Bijoy Jain): Alejandro Aravena, with 711 votes
With the ability to choose multiple architects, the difference between places was small, but the top five were pretty much the same as in 2014, the last time I held a poll on this blog (last year, remember, Frei Otto's announcement came early due to his death, so there was no time for a poll). So will Holl, Chipperfield and the rest of these perennial favorites ever receive recognition with a Pritzker? That remains to be seen, of course, but the prestige of the prize will fall a bit in my mind if Tod and Billie do not garner it. Not only do I find their buildings to be some of the best and most thoughtful being produced today, but their victory would address the issue of gender that Denise Scott Brown's comments about a retroactive Pritzker inclusion ceremony generated.

Moving on, what do I have to say about the Pritzker Prize going to Aravena, head of ELEMENTAL and a former prize juror (2009-2015)? My initial response is that he functions much like Shigeru Ban, the 2014 Pritzker laureate, in that he swings on a pendulum between high-budget institutional buildings on one end, and low-cost social housing and disaster relief projects on the other. I find the former highly appealing, since they convey Aravena's formal and technical skills in executing buildings; the UC Innovation Center is a favorite.

[UC Innovation Center – Anacleto Angelini, 2014, San Joaquín Campus, Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile. Photo by Nina Vidic]

On the other hand, I'm a bit suspect by Quinta Monroy and other low-cost housing projects that ask residents to fill in the blanks created by building half-houses that cost less than $10,000 a piece (the magic number determined by Aravena based on housing demand and public money available in Chile some years ago). After all, if the families living there have very little money, how are they expected to pay to "complete" their houses? And if they can afford to do so, doesn't that put them in a middle-class position where they would be able to afford (and want to find) a better house elsewhere?

[Quinta Monroy Housing, 2004, Iquique, Chile. Photos by Cristobal Palma — Left: “Half of a good house” financed with public money. Right: Middle-class standard achieved by the residents themselves.]

What these projects representing the two ends of the Aravena/ELEMENTAL spectrum illustrate is the importance of architectural photography in disseminating them and widening their appeal, especially the Quinta Monroy project, whose "before" photos helped to make the project spread around the Internet and through publications like wildfire. (Further, I'd wager that project has been visited less frequently by archi-tourists than the UC Innovation Center, such is the role of photography to convey its quality and meaning – more about financial than architectural innovation – without necessitating a first-hand visit.) This role for architectural photography is persuasive and certainly not limited to Aravena, but it's integral in his case when the 2016 jury is comprised of four people from Europe, two from Asia, two from the United States, and one from Australia – none from South America. Sure, it's easy to jet about these days and visit this or that building in this or that city, but with sites like ArchDaily (from Chile, it should be noted) making it easy to visually absorb architecture from anywhere, photography continues to be the way to make architecture persuasive. And in the case of Aravena, it unites the two ends of his practice better than words or any other means could do.

Lastly, I want to commend the jury for selecting an architect who is in a relatively early stage of his career. This is what I wrote in a comment on the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize Poll post:
Does [the Pritzker] recognize the promising work of a relatively young architect (10-20 years in practice) and enable them further in their career? Or does it acknowledge an architect's lifetime achievements? Frei Otto certainly fell into the latter, but it's been a while since the former predominated. Instead it rewards architects who are somewhere in between – pretty far along and well established, and therefore not in need of the prize for benefiting their career outside of legacy. Needless to say, I prefer the prize going to younger architects and involving some prognostication on their future contributions.
By giving the Pritzker Prize to Aravena, the jury is trusting he will continue the mix of private commissions, public spaces and social engagement that garnered him the award. And with the benefit of the Pritzker's stature and attention, he will be able to explore things he has been unable to so far in his career.