Born in Santiago, Chile on June 22, 1967, Aravena graduated from the Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992. He continued his studies in History and Theory at Università Iuav di Venezia and did engraving at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. Aravena went on to establish his own practice, Alejandro Aravena Architects, in 1994.
He designed a series of buildings for his alma mater (Universidad Católica de Chile): the Mathematics School (1999), Architecture School (2004), the Siamese Tower (2005) — which conjoined classroom and office buildings into one — and the UC Innovation Center (2014). Although Aravena has primarily focused on architectural work, he has been known to design products, such as a chairless “chair” — a strap that enables wearers to sit supported anywhere — for Swiss design giant Vitra.
From 2000 until 2005, he was a professor at Harvard University, where he founded ELEMENTAL — a “do tank” focusing on projects of public interest and social impact — together with engineer Andrés Iacobelli.
Aravena met Iacobelli at a dinner party in Cambridge, which led to Iacobelli mentioning the rise of Chilean architecture and its growing international recognition. Iacobelli wondered aloud why Chilean social housing was so bad, when the country’s architecture was so good — and he proposed that they do something about it.
To Aravena, “do something” meant a book, a seminar, an exhibition or maybe even a 1:1 full-scale prototype of a unit. But Iacobelli had something else in mind. For him, it meant forming a company that should start building at least 100 units. The initiative would accept every single constraint of the existing policy — budget, size and time frame — and prove the market wrong. This decision marked the shift from “think tank” to “do tank”, and ELEMENTAL was born.
Since its inception in 2001, ELEMENTAL has been recognized as experts in the development of low-income properties and disaster-stricken communities. By identifying key needs prior to the concept and design phase, Aravena described the process as participatory design. The first of ELEMENTAL’s characteristic projects was the 2004 Quinta Monroy housing project in Iquique, Chile, which was an “incremental” housing solution. ELEMENTAL designed partial structures which left room for its residents to complete over time, given what would suit their needs and financial situations best. It was a cost-effective and sustainable solution for 100 families to permanently settle on a site that had been occupied illegally for 30 years.
Following his acceptance speech for the Pritzker Prize, Aravena announced at the United Nations headquarters that ELEMENTAL would release the design plans for four of its “incremental” housing projects for free on its website, as part of an open-source initiative.
“What we architects model is not bricks or stones or steel or wood, but life itself,” Aravena said as he closed his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech. “Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live. It is not more complicated than that but also not simpler than that … to know the subject we are trying to host, take care of and enhance, is a must.”
Written by Sheila Lam
Headline image of the UC Innovation Center in Santiago, Chile, by Felipe Diaz